Sustainable Tips for Life on the Road from Two Eco Vanlifers
When Dustin and I moved into our ‘85 Westy in the spring of 2016, we had never heard the term ‘vanlife.’ Since then we’ve seen this under-the-radar-lifestyle grow from a millennial trend to a truly viable way of life for anyone. And the ranks of vanlifers on the road continues to grow, in spite of (or perhaps thanks to) the COVID-19 pandemic.
For us, moving into the van was about more than just traveling and breaking free of the corporate grind. It was about living a life of intentionality. And we quickly learned that life in 80 square feet can be challenging, especially when it comes to implementing eco friendly habits and practices.
We often joke that we’re “accidental minimalists” – downsizing and adopting a life of minimalism out of necessity. But when it comes to living an eco friendly vanlife, our journey has been anything but accidental. These tips come from more than 5 years of trial and error on the road.
Of course, Dustin and I are far from perfect, especially when it comes to our environmental footprint. We continue to learn and adapt in this ever-evolving lifestyle. If you have any eco friendly vanlife tips that you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.
Here are our tips to help you live an eco friendly vanlife
1. Make a Plan to Minimize Waste
This is a good general rule for any lifestyle and it should especially be a priority in vanlife. Minimizing waste helps maximize space and reduces what we send to the landfill.
It’s impossible to be truly “zero waste.” And to be honest, I don’t really like the term. The zero-waste movement leaves out the voices and values of BIPOC while failing to address the causes of environmental racism. Instead Dustin and I adopted a low-waste mindset which has helped us to implement sustainable, eco friendly habits into our daily lives.
For example, we make a weekly meal plan. We purchase ingredients like grains and beans because they’re versatile and easy to store (we store them in mason jars). When combined with seasonal fruits and veggies from local farmers’ markets, we have all the ingredients for a variety of fresh, van-made meals for the week. Buying fresh and in-bulk eliminates most of the packaging we would otherwise bring into the van. This also saves valuable pantry space.
Speaking of buying in bulk, shop in the bulk section at the grocery store if you have that option. And buy only what you need. Food waste is a topic we don’t talk about enough. In the US, food waste is estimated at 30–40 percent of the food supply. That comes out to about 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food. This waste has an environmental toll. According to the US EPA, food is the single largest category of material placed in landfills. And municipal landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the US.
Which leads me to our next eco vanlife tip…
Food scraps in the landfill produce gnarly methane gas. So Dustin and I try to compost our food scraps whenever possible. This isn’t easy to do in vanlife, but if you’re intentional, it can be done. We put our food scraps in a mesh bag and hang it out to dry. Once the food scraps are dry, we transfer them to a burlap sack that we store in our TrashARoo on the back of the van.
Sometimes we ride around with our food scraps for weeks until we find a drop off facility. When we pass through cities we check to see if they offer municipal composting and drop it off there. Even if the city does not have an option, it’s likely someone within the city will take it – try calling around to local schools, nurseries, community gardens, co-ops, even local farms. Some farmers’ markets offer drop off services for food scraps and compost which they then use to fertilize the soil. You can even give away your compost on Craigslist – yeah, really.
Quick note: When it comes to composting food scraps; every part of fruits, veggies, berries, pretty much anything that grows in the ground or from a tree is good to compost. No meat, dairy, fish, poultry eggs or anything that comes from animals.
It’s fairly easy to find recycling centers on the road, especially compared to compost facilities. But, unfortunately, much of what we send to the recycling facility still ends up in the landfill. This is why recycling should be a last resort after reducing and reusing.
But don’t let that last piece discourage you. Recycling is still better than sending trash to the landfill. And since we all inevitably end up with some items we need to discard, recycling is an essential component of a low waste vanlife.
Here’s how Dustin and I recycle in our vanlife:
- We dedicate a container for recyclables and sort them at the recycling facility (we use our generic TrashARoo).
- To save on space, we buy cans instead of bottles and crush them down. (Recycling centers typically don’t like crushed cans, but in vanlife, space is a premium).
- We buy in bulk as much as possible, and when we do buy packaged products, we opt for items packaged in recyclable and/or compostable materials.
- Then we unpackage it as soon as we get to the van and recycle the packaging immediately.
- To find recycling facilities nearby, we Google “recycling facilities in [insert town]” or search via this website.
4. Wash Dishes in a Wash Basin To Save Water
Those of us living and traveling in our adventure mobiles don’t have an unlimited supply of water flowing through our tiny taps – so conservation is key. For us, water is the single determining factor for how long we can stay off grid. If we’re intentional about conserving water, we can go up to a week between fill-ups.
A great way to conserve water in your van (or in your home for that matter) is by connecting a foot pump to your tap for hands-free operation. An electric foot pump saves water that would normally be wasted every time you reach up to turn off the tap. A manual foot pump is even better because it dispenses water at a slower rate allowing you to use only what you need.
Another tip for conserving water in the van is to use a wash basin for washing dishes. This collapsible wash basin does the trick. It’s much bigger than the sink in our van, and it collapses down for easy storage. After washing we strain the water through a fine mesh strainer to remove any food particles. Even the tiniest food particles on the ground can attract wildlife and affect their natural diet, so we always strain it out. The greywater goes through the strainer into our collapsible bucket and the food scraps go in the trash or in the compost bag.
To dispose of the greywater in the bucket we typically dump it on the ground in a dispersed pattern (spread it around). Though in some campgrounds or in sensitive areas, greywater dumping is not allowed. If that’s the case you’ll usually find a sign saying “no dumping.” In situations like this it’s good to have some type of sealable container. We use a collapsible water container like this one. (If you notice a trend here, it’s because collapsible things are good for vanlife).
Greywater is not just dish water. It also includes the water from washing your hands, your body or brushing your teeth. There are a couple things to keep in mind when it comes to greywater.
- Use biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronners.
- Always wash yourself, your dishes and dump your greywater at least 200 feet away from any water source. Even the smallest amount of soap or detergent can alter the pH of the water and harm wildlife. By washing 200 feet away, the earth act as a natural filter and keeps anything harmful from entering the water.
5. Shop Secondhand
Shopping secondhand is one of the best ways to deal with waste because we’re utilizing what’s already in the economy. And secondhand items don’t have packaging!
Dustin and I don’t spend a lot of time in cold climates, so rather than having bulky winter gear taking up valuable space in the van, we shop at thrift stores for cold weather gear and donate it back at the end of the season, or more likely, when we head south to someplace warm. Cycling seasonal gear through this system not only frees up valuable space in our van, it also helps create a circular economy.
Shopping second hand is a great option if you’re building out your rig. We’ve known people to furnish their entire van build with second hand items. You can even get second hand building materials at places like Habitat for Humanity ReStore. You can find a store in most cities and they sell used and sometimes new home improvement items at a fraction of the cost.
6. Opt For Natural Toiletries
The type of toiletries we use in the outdoors is often overlooked, but many common products produce waste that can be detrimental to the environment. They contain microplastics and harsh chemicals that harm wildlife and pollute waterways. And since many vanlifers spend a lot of time outdoors, knowing what’s in our products can make a big difference in our efforts to live an eco friendly vanlife.
Dustin and I make our own skincare products when we can. And when we can’t, we opt for natural, eco friendly products.
As I mentioned earlier, even the smallest amount of soap or detergent can alter the pH of the water and harm wildlife. The general rule of thumb is 200 feet away from water sources when we wash ourselves, our dishes or brush our teeth. This gives a nice buffer to prevent our soaps and detergents from washing down into the water source.
Here are a few common toiletries and options Dustin and I choose:
- Sunscreen – Oxybenzone, a UV filtering chemical found in many brands of sunscreen, is harmful to our bodies and our waterways. A few years ago Hawaii passed a bill banning sunscreen containing oxybenzone as it’s destroying coral reefs. After reading that, we switched to reef-friendly sunscreen – currently using Badger Balm. And before we plunge ourselves into the deep end, we do a customary wipe down to get any products off of our skin that may pollute the water.
- Toothpaste – we make our own tooth powder using baking soda, bentonite clay, activated charcoal, and peppermint essential oils. When we don’t have time or the ingredients to make it, we opt for a natural toothpaste like Toms.
- Bug spray – Most insect repellents found in stores contain toxic chemicals that are bad for our health and the environment. Many “deep woods” mosquito repellents contain deet, which is super effective but there are questions about how safe this chemical actually is. Deet can also damage plastics like sunglasses. Personally, it’s not a risk I like to take. We make our own insect repellent using citronella essential oils. When we need something a little more powerful, we use a natural bug spray like this one.
- Soap – Many soaps and shampoos contain harsh chemicals and detergents. We use Dr. Bronners biodegradable soaps and dish soap to ensure we’re not pouring chemicals into the soil.
7. Have a Low Waste Period
Periods are a natural part of life for us menstruators, whether we live in a van or not. And one of the biggest impacts we can have on the environment and our bodies is our choice of period products. More than 100 billion period products are thrown away globally each year. Most are made of plastics which can take up to 500 years to decompose. And many traditional period products contain fragrances, pesticides, and toxic chemicals. Yikes!
Before vanlife I made the switch to a menstrual cup. There are many on the market – I use the DivaCup. It can take a bit of practice, but once you get used to inserting the DivaCup, it’s easy to use. And when inserted correctly, you won’t even know it’s there. It’s the ultimate tool for managing my period on the road. When it’s time to empty, I bury my blood like my poop: 6-8 inches deep and away from water sources. I give it a wash with water or, when needed, with mild soap. If I’m in a public restroom that isn’t private, I wipe my cup with toilet paper, reinsert and wash it when I have privacy. Sometimes I bring a water bottle with me into the stall. At the end of my cycle, I sterilize my cup with boiling water and store it.
There are many other eco friendly menstrual products on the market, including Thinx period panties and Lola’s biodegradable options. I haven’t tried these yet since my DivaCup has been my tried and true option. But I have heard from friends who swear by both of these brands.
8. Un-paper Your Van:
Eliminating paper towels was probably the easiest switch we’ve made in our van and it’s helped reduce our waste significantly. We cut up old t-shirts for cleaning up floor spills and checking the oil, and use microfiber cloths for wiping up when we cook and wash dishes. We found a beautiful set of linen napkins at a thrift store for $2. There are so many possibilities!
When it comes to toilet paper, I haven’t completely given it up. (Though I considered it during the great toilet paper shortage of 2020). For peeing I use a Kula Cloth – a reusable antimicrobial pee cloth. It’s ideal for vanlife and a great option for backpacking, I just snap it onto the outside of my backpack. At the van, I hang it up to dry. Thanks to the antimicrobial fibers, Kula Cloth doesn’t need to be washed between uses. I just rinse it with gentle soap and water once every few days and hang it to dry.
9. Ditch The Wet Wipes
I know, they’re practically a staple in vanlife – and they’re terrible. These popular soapy washcloths are wreaking havoc in waterways and sewer systems around the world. They contain plastic fibers that break down into microplastics and end up in waterways, in the ocean, and in our water supply. And they’re extremely harmful to wildlife. Even biodegradable wipes take years to breakdown.
Instead of taking a “baby wipe bath,” we fill a bowl with water and use a washcloth and a small amount of natural, biodegradable soap. Though our favorite way to get clean is a swim in whatever body of water we can find. Just remember to forego the soap since even the smallest amount of soap or detergent can alter the pH of the water and harm wildlife.
10. Opt for Reusables
We have our homes with us 100% of the time which makes it super convenient to ditch the disposables and opt for reusable. These days you can find reusable EVERYTHING, from grocery bags to water bottles and takeout containers. While reusable items come with an upfront cost, they will save money, resources and impact in the long run.
If you’re not ready to make the investment in the myriad of reusables, a good place to start is with a reusable water bottle. LifeStraw’s Stainless Steel bottles with filter and Hydro Flask insulated bottles are great replacements for single use plastic bottles. For a budget friendly option, BPA-free Nalgene water bottles are light and durable. Instead of buying cases of water or gallon jugs, opt for a 5-gallon reusable water jug (like the kind on the office water cooler). You can refill it with fresh filtered water at one of many refill stations. Or you can exchange your bottle for a new full one at Walmart, Lowes, or several other locations. Click here to search for a water refill or exchange location near you. Adding a pump like this one gives you a portable water station without the plastic waste. Side note: this was our water setup in the van for years.
11. Build Green
If you’re building out your van you have a great opportunity to create a healthy home from the start. Many building materials are known to off-gas, which is especially dangerous in a small space. Dustin and I didn’t build out our van, but we have made loads of upgrades and additions. Recently we removed all the old fiberglass insulation and replaced it with recycled denim batt insulation.
As I mentioned earlier, check out Habitat for Humanity ReStore for used home improvement items at a fraction of the cost. And consider installing a foot pump connected to your water tap for hands-free operation and water conservation.
Do your research and make sure the materials you use are safe and durable. And use recycled or upcycled materials whenever possible. Making smart decisions in your build will go a long way in providing you with a healthy vanlife and help to minimize your environmental impact.
12. Go Solar and Rechargeable
Most of us already use energy from the sun to power our life on the road. As digital nomads, energy efficiency is crucial for our work-life balance. And not relying on the grid for power allows us to take our office with us wherever we go.
To maximize power, make sure you have proper wiring and energy efficient appliances, which for most of us just means a good fridge. We upgraded to a Dometic Dual Zone because it’s energy efficient and having a freezer in the van is such a luxury. While we love our Dometic fridge, it’s not the only van-friendly brand out there. The ARB Fridge/Freezer is a good option, we have friends who swear by it.
If you’re interested in solar or looking to upgrade your current system, the folks over at Renogy Solar can size out a system specific to your needs. And if you’re unsure about wiring up solar yourself, this is one area where I recommend taking it to a professional and getting it done right the first time.
For lighting and power we opt for rechargeable gear since disposable batteries produce some gnarly waste. There are many products that can go days on one charge. Our go-to is this BioLite headlamp. It’s hands-down the most comfortable headlamp we’ve ever worn. And we always keep a portable solar charger and battery pack in the van just in case. For lighting around camp, Dustin and I use this LuminAid solar lantern. It’s inflatable so it packs down small, it gives a nice diffused light on lower settings, and it recharges with the sun. It also doubles as a cell phone charger. We keep ours on the dash when not in use so it’s always juiced up and ready to go.
13. Maintain Your Home on Wheels
Home repairs are a necessary part of home ownership – and that’s especially true for a home on wheels. Maintain your home – check your tire pressure regularly (keep a tire gauge as part of your roadside tool kit), get your oil changed at the recommended intervals, make sure your emissions are up to par. Proper maintenance will eliminate leaking coolant, oil and other nasty liquids that can pollute groundwater. These things not only reduce your carbon footprint and save you money in the short-term (think fuel economy), but they also extend the life of your home on wheels.
14. Practice Slow Travel
It’s easy to get caught up wanting to see and do it all, but magic happens when you travel at the speed of slow. It allows you to develop a real sense of place and helps to minimize your footprint. It’s also a great way to save money, since fuel is the biggest expense for most vanlifers.
When Dustin and I first got on the road we moved fast and tried to see and do as much as possible. It didn’t take long before we started to feel burned out. Having our home with us means we can take our time. We rarely drive more than four hours in a given day and seldom do we drive on back-to-back days. When we find a place we really like, we’ll stay for a week or two, sometimes longer.
15. Shop Local and Volunteer
COVID Note: Dustin and I love to immerse ourselves in the local scene wherever we go. But during COVID we’ve chosen to drastically minimize our public interactions. Hopefully the world will open up again soon. Until then, wear a mask, stay 6 feet apart, be safe.
When it is safe to visit small towns again, stop in and support the local businesses. Have a cup of joe at a local coffee shop, eat at a local mom-n-pop pizza joint, visit the local library. Buy groceries at the local co-op and farmers’ market. Invest in the local economy.
And consider volunteering to a local project in need of help. Restore a trail, pull weeds or plant tomatoes at a community garden, organize a beach cleanup. These opportunities are easy to find if you do a little research. Most local co-ops and supermarkets have boards with event listings, check them out when you make your bulk shopping trip.
16. Treat the Outdoors Like Home
Dustin and I spend most of our time outdoors, so we like to do our part to keep it clean, both for our own enjoyment and for the folx coming after us.
The first thing we do when we get to our campsite is spread out and pick up any trash we find. If there’s a fire pit, that’s the first place we look and we often find trash, broken glass and partially burned food scraps. When we pack up to leave, the last thing we do is make one final sweep to make sure we’re not leaving any trash behind.
17. Honor Native Lands
Native people have inhabited every part of this continent since time immemorial. By taking the small step of acknowledging and verbalizing the Indigenous names and true history of the land we’re on, we’re paying respect to the land and the peoples, and we move one step closer to unlearning the painful legacy of colonialism.
Native-Land.ca is a great resource to learn whose land you’re on. It’s important for us to understand the history that has brought us to this land and seek to understand our place within that history. But understanding will not come from land acknowledgement alone, we must go Beyond Land Acknowledgement by taking action.
After learning whose land you’re on go a step further and use Google to research the history of the people and their land. Consider making a donation to a local Indigenous organization. Support Indigenous businesses, creators and artists. Share what you’ve learned with others and have conversations about honoring Native Lands on social media and in your social circles.
18. Cook More, Eat Out Less
This can be hard at times. When you’ve been driving all day and you get to camp late, the last thing you want to do is cook. But healthy home cooking is essential to minimize waste and fuel our adventurous lifestyle. Plus it makes you healthier and happier. And this goes hand-in-hand with the next tip…
19. Exercise and Meditate
These two can be hard to work into a routine in a lifestyle of constant movement. But once you do, they can be very grounding. I’ve found a combination of running, yoga, and meditation has helped me in relieving stress and fatigue from travel.
I’ve also implemented a TRX workout routine into my vanlife and it has been a game changer. The TRX system comes with a suspension strap which wraps nicely around a tree of medium thickness. I’ve even used a tree strap from my hammock when the tree I want to use is too thick for the TRX strap. If there are no suitable trees, the TRX also comes with a “door anchor” which works perfectly in the top of the passenger or driver door of the van. I hook up my TRX, roll out my yoga mat, and I’ve got my own outdoor van gym.
20. Connect with Community
The vanlife community is one that Dustin and I are very proud and fortunate to be a part of. If you’re new to the community, reach out for support, advice, and inspiration. We’re always looking for reasons to get together and share stories from the road, hold a gathering or insta-meetup (post-COVID of course). Some of our favorite memories are of impromptu camp outs with fellow travelers.
I’m the founder of Diversify Vanlife, a platform turned community dedicated to creating a safe space for representation of Black, Indigenous, Asian, LatinX, and other people of color and underrepresented individuals within the nomadic community. Give us a follow on Instagram @diversify.vanlife. Check out the free resources on our website. Follow our Vanlife club on Clubhouse (search for vanlife under clubs, we’re the first one). Reach out and connect with us.
21. Do Something Creative
Everyday! Bonus if it’s outside of your comfort zone.
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