No Waste Wilderness Camping

With the proliferation of garbage both inside and outside of wilderness, "Pack it in, Pack it out" is more important than ever. Reducing waste during the planning stages of your wilderness camping trip helps reduce waste during and after your trip. Learn more about how to:

Eliminate Single-Use Plastics

Examples of single use plastics

What can you substitute for the seven most common single-use plastics?

  1. Cigarette butts = Rolled paper cigarettes
  2. Plastic drinking bottles = Reusable bottles and containers
  3. Plastic bottle caps = Bottles and containers with reusable lids
  4. Food wrappers = Reusable containers
  5. Plastic grocery bags = Reusable grocery bags
  6. Plastic lids = Drink cups with reusable lids
  7. Straws and stirrers = Reusable straws and wood-based stirrers

Food Storage

Probably the most common types of single-use plastics that wilderness campers use are associated with food storage. Instead of ziplock bags, use reusable food wrappers and storage containers such as cotton bags, stainless steel containers, lightweight Tupperwares, or bees wax food wraps. Avoid tin foil. Instead substitute waxed paper or parchment baking paper. Select all-natural waxed paper made from Soybean wax instead of Paraffin wax. Paraffin wax is made from non-renewable petroleum resources. Soybean wax is non-toxic and biodegradable. Select parchment baking paper from well-managed forests, certified compostable, and chlorine-free using silicone, which is abundant in nature and non-toxic.

Bags

Use reusable shopping bags before your trip as you shop for backcountry food and gear. For pet waste, use compostable dog poop bags that are made from corn starch or sugarcane, but never leave these in the wilderness. Carry them home for disposal or to a trash receptacle outside the wilderness.

Dishes and Utensils

Invest in reusable camp dishes and cookware. Select cutlery made from wood, bamboo, or metal and avoid disposable paper or plastic plates. Consider sporks, utensil combos, or reusable chopsticks to minimize weight. For drinks, forego straws or use reusable metal straws. Consider investing in things that can serve double-duty so you only purchase what you really need--for example, a wide-mouthed insulated cup can also serve as a bowl. Always select reusable/refillable water bottles instead of bottled water in disposable plastic bottles. Consider using a single reusable insulated container with multiple caps--one that seals and one for sipping coffee, for example--for both cold and hot liquids.

Toiletries

Purchase refillable containers for toothpaste, lotion, bug spray, sunscreen and other toiletries so you avoid repeatedly purchasing travel-sized versions. Most gels and liquids, including those that generally come in squeeze-tubes, are easily stored in screw-top containers. Where possible, buy toiletries in bulk, or in larger quantities (ex. a fully summer's worth of sun screen) to refill your smaller containers and minimize overall packaging.

Ice

Although you obviously won't be using ice in the backcountry, you may want to keep foods cold while driving to the trailhead or if car-camping at the trailhead before heading into the wilderness. Substitute gas station ice in plastic bags with: non-toxic ice or gel packs; frozen water bottles (don't fill bottles all the way to the top); home-made block ice using a tub, Tupperware or casserole dish; ice from an ice machine; or frozen meals you plan to eat later in your trip. Get a high quality cooler, keep it in the shade, and insulate it to keep ice frozen longer.

Make Smart Backcountry Food Choices

Dehydrated food

Shop Local and Buy Bulk

Patronizing farmers markets and local farms, orchards and ranches can help you avoid buying foods already pre-wrapped in plastics. Some states and counties have local Extension Services that list local food providers. Now during COVID, many farmers markets have websites that allow you to pre-order foods from particular farms online. Many chain grocery stores also have extensive bulk sections. Bring your own containers when shopping to fill with everything from trail mix to rice and pasta.

Prepare All Meals in Advance

Preparing and procuring all of your food, including what you'll eat in the car on the way to the trailhead, helps you avoid last-minute food decisions at gas stations and convenience stores where most foods are individually wrapped.

Meal Choices

Instead of purchasing one-serving, store-bought, freeze-dried backcountry meals, which are pricey and generate a lot of plastic waste, consider:

Commercial Bulk Dehydrated Foods

A variety of companies produce bulk meals and raw freeze-dried ingredients. Mountain House sells #10 cans. Companies like Pleasant Hill Grain that specialize in emergency food supplies also sell larger quantity cans or tubs of meats, eggs, grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Homemade Meals

Home cooking takes more time, but in addition to reducing waste, you have control over: price, portion size, salt and sugar content, preservatives, and spicing. In general, avoid meals that contain a lot of grease (ex. fresh bacon), as this creates smelly, messy garbage. Home-cooked options that help reduce waste include:

Dehydrated: If you have or can borrow a food dehydrator, you can easily make delicious, healthy, inexpensive, and lightweight backcountry meals yourself. The Backpacking Chef website offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner recipes that include instructions for dehydration, preparation, and rehydration in the field. REI's How to Dehydrate Food blog provides a great primer and includes instructions with pictures.
One-pot: Meals in which all ingredients go into a single pot reduces packaging. Suggestions: soups, burritos, stir-fry, mashed potato hash
No-cook: Similarly, meals that don't require cooking in the field, but can be prepared in advance can reduce waste and eliminate the need for fuel. Suggestions: sandwiches, wraps, dips (cheese, hummus etc.) with vegis/chips/crackers

Batch Storage

Store like items (ex. batch-cooked snacks such as energy bars/balls) and multiple meals/servings together in a single container to minimize the number of containers you use overall. Bring a lightweight scoop or measuring cup to portion out rice, pasta, or other premade items into appropriate servings.

Spice it Up

Substitute single-serving packets of salt, pepper, sugar, mayo, mustard, parmesan cheese, dried red pepper etc. with a reusable spice and condiment kit. Small vials or jars that screw together or fit in a cloth sack will enhance flavor without disposable packaging.

Choose Fuels Wisely

Camp stove

Campstove Fuel

Many campstoves use non-refillable cartridges, which can't be recycled. Instead, consider buying campstoves with refillable fuel canisters or bottles, those that use multiple fuel types (ex. white gas, kerosene or unleaded gasoline), or those that burn twigs or alcohol. When lighting your fire, develop the skills to use flint and steel or bring matches or refillable lighters rather than disposable plastic lighters. If you choose to cook on a twig-burning stove or over a wood fire:

  • Abide by current fire regulations (which can apply to twig-burning stoves)
  • Make sure weather conditions are conducive to fires (ex. no wind)
  • Plan to camp in areas with adequate wood supplies (ex. not above or near treeline) and gather wood over a wide area
  • Only select small pieces of wood (wood must be Down, Dead, Dinky!)
  • Use an existing fire ring/grate or fire pan/blanket
  • Keep fires small and extinguish them entirely

Batteries

Many devices, such as headlamps or light sources, required batteries. Ideally, choose items (such as Luna-type lights) that can be solar charged and/or electrically charged at home or in your vehicle. Select high quality, long-lasting lithium batteries and LED bulbs for devices that require them to minimize the cost and number of batteries used over the lifetime of the device.

Reduce Toilet Paper and Feminine Hygiene Products

Select a plain, white, non-perfumed brand of toilet paper and use it sparingly, or use "natural toilet paper." Popular types of natural toilet paper include stones, vegetation, and snow. For women, consider using a bandana (which you can rinse periodically in a lake or stream) or a female urination device to eliminate the need for toilet paper when urinating. Always pack out all toilet paper you do use; never bury or burn it. When menstruating in the backcountry, consider using a menstrual cup instead of tampons or pads or select tampons without applicators. Always pack out all tampons and pads; never bury or burn these. Instead of disposable wet wipes, easily make homemade reusable wet wipes from old sheets, shirts, washcloths, or any extra material you have lying around that can be cut into squares or rectangles. Cut them with pinking shears so the edges don't fray or hem the edges. Store the cloth wipes in a container and cover with a wet wipe solution. Simply wash when you return home.

Repair and Repurpose Gear

Used hiking boots

Borrowing or renting gear you don't own both saves you money and reduces consumer supply chain waste. Alternatively, buy second-hand gear at community outdoor gear swaps, used gear sales, consignment stores, or on craigslist. For new items, buying high-quality gear may be more expensive initially, but you'll save over time by not repeatedly paying for cheap, inferior replacements. Choose brands that sell repurposed or recycled products and have reliable warranties and repair departments. For difficult gear repairs, seek assistance from local sewing professionals--ask dry cleaning shops, wedding dress stores, and sporting goods stores for connections to sewing professionals that do zipper repairs and alterations.

Maintain gear you do own to lengthen its lifespan:

  • Dry wet gear before putting it away
  • Wash or clean dirty gear promptly following a trip
  • Store gear inside when not in use and during the off-season
  • Invest in UV protectants and waterproofing treatments (ex. Sno-Seal for waterproofing boots)
  • Keep zippers functioning by cleaning them with an old toothbrush and applying zipper lube
  • Patch holes and micro-tears promptly (keep any patch kits that came with your gear or purchase patching materials intended for outdoor gear repairs)