It’s September, which means I’m in the middle of my super strict zero-waste living challenge (I challenge myself to complete a No Waste September Challenge every year to remind myself to be mindful of my purchases and of all the little bits of plastic that are involved with most of our every day purchases). This year, I decided to give myself the extra challenge of taking my zero-waste life out into the woods for a weekend. Camping is usually one of the time I’m a little more lenient on how much waste I generate—from using baby wipes to clean hands and plastic bags to keep things contained and safe from water, to all the plastic packaging used for snack foods. I’ve yet to be able to purchases chips or crackers in a recyclable or reusable container and there isn’t a single ingredient in S’mores that doesn’t come wrapped in plastic.
So for me, the biggest change for trying to be zero waste during my camping trip was going to be a change in what type of “fun snack-y” foods I’d be bringing. I opted for fresh mini baguettes from a local bakery with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. My main meals were all cooked and prepped the night before (I cooked very large batch of quinoa/black bean salad, a spicy green bean dish I often make, and grabbed fresh bagels from a local spot for breakfasts). Beverages are also tricky. I decided on bringing a large water bottle, pre-ground coffee for my morning french press, and a 64 ounce growler of beer. The only exception to the reusable containers were two plastic gallon jugs of water I also brought, but these double as lanterns when inverting a headlamp on them and I have a gardening project where I plan on using the leftover empty jugs for. With food all planned, being zero waste sounded like it would be pretty easy.
As with most things in life, plans don’t always go as you expect them to. The original plan was for a two night camping trip with just me and one other person who had been briefed on the whole zero waste plan. The realty ended up being a one night camping trip with a lot more peoples (all of whom spontaneously dropped any other weekend plans they might have had to come camping with me.) I’m very thankful to have so many people in my life who are willing to come out on a last minute camping trip with me when my original plans fall through. I was excited I didn’t have to go alone or cancel. This last minute change meant that I only held myself to sticking to zero waste instead of forcing a whole group of people generous enough to come camp with me to give up their favorite camping foods, plastic bags, or non-growler beverages.
While I tried to stay zero waste and not use anything that would generate trash, I did have a few weak-willed moments where I allowed myself to eat a handful or two of snacks other people brought (including cast-iron nachos, which are a fantastic camping food—btw). I did stick to my original plan for zero waste eating with my actual meals and beverages. I also became a bit of stickler for sorting out waste verses recycling so I could make sure anything I was planning on recycling or reusing didn’t get mixed in with the trash. So while it wasn’t a zero waste camping trip in regards to the whole trip being strictly waste free, I do feel pretty decent about my particular waste contribution (or lack there of) during the trip.
I’ve done camping a few different ways between big car camping trips and backpacking/hiking in camping. I really love the place I camped at this past weekend (it’s one of my favs but I won’t tell you where it is specifically as to not give away my spot). It’s a nice compromise between hiking and car camping being a quarter mile hike-in campground. I also happen to love that it’s only about a 45 minute drive outside of Portland and half the camp spots can be reserved ahead of time so you can head out on a Friday evening after work without worrying about not getting a campsite. Zero waste camping isn’t a particularly light weight form of camping. While I found it perfectly doable for car camping (or just the shorter hike-in), it wouldn’t be particularly easy for a longer backpacking style trip where your pack weight is of concern.
It’s very difficult to snack without wasteful wrappers etc. (this is true even when I’m not camping). While you can get different fruit options to snack on, other common snack foods generally come in non-recyclable packaging. Take a look at all your favorite snacks, from granola bars, cheese rounds/sticks and chips, to mixed nuts, dried fruits and crackers. So many of the options out there come with some sort of plastic wrapping involved. For me, this means saying goodbye to cheese and crackers for the month of September and limiting myself to only what I can make from scratch or find in a bulk bin. As someone who’s not a huge trail mix fan, zero waste can be pretty limiting when it comes to snacks. (Seriously guys, I really miss eating cheese… It’s one of my favorite things!) Beyond just the extra prep and thought I had to put into what foods I had, I found myself avoid as many things that need to be kept chilled as possible. It’s not easy filling a cooler with ice when ice is sold in plastic bags and your avoiding creating trash. Nor is it easy to keep items in water proof containers while maximizing space when you aren’t using ziplock bags. This might have been a real big problem if we had been camping for a longer period of time.
Would I do this again? Sure! It really wasn’t as difficult as I thought, but I did miss some of my normal camping items. For example, I missed having makeup wipe (which I only use while camping) to clean my face at night. And I missed the tradition of camping foods like S’mores; however, there is a fire ban throughout most the campsites in Oregon at the moment and we actually weren’t able to build a fire to roast marshmallows over anyway. (Next time I camp during a fire ban I might pre-bake a fancy S’more-like cookie recipe of mine to bring as a tasty alternative.) At the very least, I feel like I have a good idea now of how to prepare ahead to have a camping trip with minimal trash.
GRETCHEN IS A WRITER-BASED IN PORTLAND, ORE. SHE GOT HER START AS A JOURNALIST WORKING ON THE SUSTAINABLE FASHION AND RESTAURANT BEAT BEFORE MOVING INTO COPYWRITING AND ADVERTISING WORK. SHE CURRENTLY BLOGS AND WORKS AS A FREELANCE WRITER.