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Reducing Waste and Protecting the Environment on Camping Trips

An experienced hiker, camper, and backpacker, I strive to be kind to the environment while enjoying the outdoors.

Camping is a great experience!

But campers can create a lot of trash and be pretty rough on the environment while “getting back to nature.”

Fortunately, with some planning and a little effort, we can all be better stewards of the environment while camping.

Scouts learning about fire safety during a camping trip.

Scouts learning about fire safety during a camping trip.

Reducing waste and protecting the environment begins prior to the camping trip itself and continues through the time you return home.

The main areas to consider include:

  • Purchasing, preparing, and packing food wisely.
  • Choosing reusable supplies instead of disposables.
  • Using environmentally friendly dish detergent and personal care products (toothpaste, shampoo, soap, sunscreen, insect repellent, etc.).
  • Separating and properly disposing of trash, recycling, and compost.
  • Observing eco-friendly standards for the disposal of dirty dishwater, trash, and other waste.
  • Following Leave No Trace principles.

All of these ideas are explored in this article, with tips to successfully navigate common eco-challenges when camping.

Buy Food in Bulk and Shop with Reusable Bags

  1. Bulk food items have less packaging and therefore create less waste. They are usually less expensive than packaged goods.
  2. Purchase foods in bulk, then pack them in reusable containers at home prior to the camping trip, portioning as needed.
  3. Bring reusable bags when buying items in bulk, rather than using the store’s plastic bags. (Reusable bags for bulk foods should have a tight weave and a good drawstring so the contents don't spill.)
  4. Using high-quality, canvas shopping bags is an excellent way to create less waste whenever and wherever you shop. They are also convenient for packing items when traveling for camping trips or other outings.
  5. When purchasing reusable bags, look for high-quality products – ideally made of natural, organic materials. Bags produced domestically have a smaller carbon footprint than imported products.
  6. Plastic shopping bags do tremendous damage to the environment.

Food Packaging

  1. Repackage bulky food items at home, placing them in reusable containers as needed, e.g., remove bags of cereal from their boxes. (Each member of my family always packs trail mix and cereal ahead of time, placing their food in reusable plastic containers with screw-on lids to maintain freshness and avoid spills.)
  2. When packing food (and other items), consider the amount and type of waste
    it will generate at the campground.
  3. Plan ahead to reduce the volume of garbage that must be managed at the campground and anticipate how you will dispose of the trash you do create.

Prepare Snacks at Home

  1. Items such as trail mix and snack bars can be made ahead of time to reduce both waste and cost.
  2. This can present logistical challenges for Scout troops. Scouts not going on the trip might prepare the snacks during the meeting prior to the trip, while the others discuss the rest of their menu. Or one or two scouts might prepare snacks at home for the whole group.
  3. Great care must be taken regarding food allergies and other special dietary needs! Any food made ahead of time should be prepared with all dietary needs in your group taken into account. This means having nut-free, gluten-free, vegan and/or other specific recipes available – as needed – so every person in your group can safely consume the food. (See Planning Group Camping Menus to Accommodate Dietary Needs.)
Homemade chocolate no-bake mini-bars (nut-free and vegan), packed with extra protein and calcium.

Homemade chocolate no-bake mini-bars (nut-free and vegan), packed with extra protein and calcium.

Drink Water

  1. Plan to drink only water on the trip. Everyone brings their own reusable water bottles (preferably stainless steel) and uses water taps or pumps at the campground – or filters or otherwise treats their water.
  2. Water is the healthiest drink there is – perfect hydration without extra sugar, artificial colors, artificial flavors, or other chemical ingredients.
  3. Purchasing bottled water at stores is terribly damaging to the environment and is financially wasteful. Bottled water is no better than regular tap water – unless your tap water is contaminated.
  4. Without juice or soda (pop) containers, there is less waste to manage at the campground.
  5. If campers insist on juice, bring packets of Kool-Aid or other powder and a large, reusable container to mix it up at camp. (Everyone pours from the large container into non-disposable cups.)
  6. Or pack lemons and sugar to make lemonade in the large container.
  7. If you drink freshly brewed coffee, plan to compost the grinds at home.

Reusable Mess Kits

  1. Everyone should have a mess kit comprised of a reusable plate, bowl, cup, and utensils. This can be purchased as a set or put together with items from home or a thrift store.
  2. Scout troops should bring a couple of extra reusable mess kits in case anyone forgets theirs.
  3. Disposable items should not be used as backups. Having disposables available at all sends the message that they’re okay to use.
  4. Scout troops might consider supplying mess kits to scouts who are not able to afford their own. They might also give mess kits to all new scouts as part of their “welcome package.” This would emphasize the excitement of camping, as well as the expectation of camping responsibly.


Each camper has their own mess kit and cloth napkin to reduce waste generated at the campsite.

Each camper has their own mess kit and cloth napkin to reduce waste generated at the campsite.

Cloth Napkins

  1. Rather than tossing paper napkins or towels into the trash after every meal, bring cloth napkins to use during the trip – preferably napkins made from natural, organic materials.
  2. Paper towels should only be used for jobs that truly require them.
  3. Cloth napkins can be purchased at thrift stores.
  4. Scout troops might consider purchasing cloth napkins as part of their group camping supplies. Have each scout take responsibility for the napkin(s) they use by laundering them at home.

Plate Only What You Will Eat

  1. Ask everyone to take only what they are definitely going to eat when putting food on their plates.
  2. Folks can go back for seconds (and thirds!) if they’re still hungry.
  3. Uneaten food that has been plated becomes garbage. But food remaining in pots, pans, or serving dishes can be saved for later.
  4. Bring reusable containers to store leftovers. Avoid using plastic bags for food and equipment. Choose reusable containers whenever possible.
Campers enjoying tacos and wraps. Everyone has their own reusable mess kit, and food is served in reusable containers with reusable utensils.

Campers enjoying tacos and wraps. Everyone has their own reusable mess kit, and food is served in reusable containers with reusable utensils.

Cleaning the Kitchen

  1. Use dish cloths, washcloths, and hand towels to wash and dry the dishes. (Preferably organically produced cloths.)
  2. Wash out and air dry reusable cloths as needed during the camping trip, then put them in a canvas bag when packing to leave. The canvas bag and cloths all go in the laundry at home.
  3. Dish cloths can be thoroughly cleaned in the laundry and are far more sanitary than sponges. Because they have a much longer lifespan than sponges or paper towels, cloths are better for the environment. (Dish cloths and towels can be purchased at a thrift store.)
  4. Rubber or plastic pot scrapers are excellent for removing tough “gunk” from pots and pans.
  5. Use only environmentally friendly soap for cleaning. Look for biodegradable products that are for both kitchen and personal use – a combination dish soap/body soap/shampoo – to reduce the number of supplies you have to bring. (Campsuds is a reliable workhorse for this job.)
  6. Even biodegradable cleaning products (or water mixed with those products) must be disposed of at least 200 feet away from water sources.
  7. Scout troops might consider providing environmentally friendly soap for all scouts on the camping trip to ensure everyone is using appropriate cleaning products.
  8. Dispose of dirty dishwater properly, at least 200 feet from water sources and the camping/sleeping area. Do not pour dirty water straight onto the ground from the container. Instead, give the water a “wide dispersion fling.” If an appropriate sink is available, pour the water there – being careful with any food scraps.
  9. Knowing that the dirty dishwater will be disposed of into the surrounding environment, remove all the food scraps you can and place them in the trash or compost bin, and use as little soap as possible.
When camping, clean dishes with as little soap as possible, and use eco-friendly soap.

When camping, clean dishes with as little soap as possible, and use eco-friendly soap.

Trash Disposal

  1. Have separate containers for recycling and trash.
  2. These can be hard plastic tubs or collapsible bins. The collapsible bins provide structure for trash bags; you can certainly use trash bags only.
  3. There are several makes and models of collapsible containers available. Coughlin’s trash and recycling containers are specifically designed for camping, with grommets at the bottom for staking down.
  4. The negative environmental impact of trash bags can be minimized by using biodegradable trash bags. Biodegradable trash bags are also excellent for use at home. Use 30-gallon biodegradable bags to line large trash and recycling containers. Use 13-gallon biodegradable kitchen bags if you have a smaller container, want to separate your recycling, or are using just a bag and not a large bin. (I use Hippo Sak kitchen bags, both when camping and at home.)
Many campgrounds provide trash and recycling receptacles for campers to use.

Many campgrounds provide trash and recycling receptacles for campers to use.

Recycling

  1. Prepare aluminum cans for recycling by cleaning them well. Scrape out as much food from the can as possible when preparing the meal. Fill the can with water to soak, if needed, and wash the can after the other dishes are done. Allow the can to dry before placing it in the recycling bin.
  2. Thoroughly clean all recyclables prior to placing them in the recycling bin. Dirty items can cause serious problems at the recycling facility, contaminating other materials and rendering them unrecyclable.
  3. Clean recyclables are less attractive to mice, raccoons, bears, and other animals that may explore your camping area.
  4. Divide recycling appropriately (paper/plastic/aluminum) if your facility does not accept commingled recycling.
  5. Some campgrounds have recycling containers for visitors to use. If your campground offers this service, just collect your clean recycling in a container and take it to the campground’s recycling collection at the end of each day.
  6. Remember: If you use a trash bag to collect recyclable materials, the bag itself does not get recycled. Reuse the bag for trash or more recycling.
These aluminum cans are thoroughly cleaned and ready for recycling.

These aluminum cans are thoroughly cleaned and ready for recycling.

Composting

  1. Compost food scraps and certain other items to further reduce the amount of trash being sent to landfills.
  2. All fruits and vegetables can be composted. Learn more about what can and cannot be composted.
  3. Items to be composted should be chopped into reasonably small pieces. (Greater surface area leads to faster composting.)
  4. Compost can be stored at the campground in a reusable container with a tight-fitting lid.
  5. If composting, you or someone from your group must take responsibility for bringing the compost home, adding it to an existing compost pile or bin, and cleaning the container.
  6. Do not leave any food to compost at the campsite or in any natural environment! Those items are not native to the local ecosystem and take time to break down completely.


Container of food scraps to be composted.

Container of food scraps to be composted.

Keep Bodies of Water Clean

  1. Any soap, shampoo, lotion, or other product on your body can find its way into local water sources, negatively impacting the ecosystem. Contaminants may even travel to ecosystems downstream.
  2. Eco-friendly sunscreens (approved for use in delicate ecosystems) and natural insect repellents are available. These are better for the environment and less toxic to your own body.

This is the sunscreen that I use

Toothpaste (if sinks are not available)

  1. Use an eco-friendly, all natural, non-toxic toothpaste. (I use JASON Sea Fresh.)
  2. Use only a tiny amount of toothpaste.
  3. Swallow the toothpaste. (Only if it’s made of natural, non-toxic ingredients!)
  4. If spitting, add water to your mouth, swirl it around, and do a “broadcast spray.” (Do not spit toothpaste within 200 feet of a water source.)
  5. Try using a wet toothbrush without toothpaste.
  6. Alternatively, try using a dry toothbrush with such a small amount of toothpaste that it just creates a thin film on your teeth and you don't really have the sensation of swallowing it.

Shampoo

  1. Shampoo bars are a zero-waste product, as the paper wrappers can be recycled and there are no plastic bottles or other containers to dispose of.
  2. Most brands use all-natural, eco-friendly ingredients.
  3. Only use shampoo in a shower with modern plumbing. Even all-natural shampoo products should not be used in streams, other bodies of water, or primitive showers.
  4. Unlike liquid shampoos, shampoo bars cannot leak, making them especially sensible when traveling.
  5. Shampoo bars are also convenient to use at home and can significantly reduce the number of plastic containers disposed of over time!

This is the shampoo bar that I use

Bathrooms, Privies, and Catholes

  1. If staying at a campground with flush toilets, use those.
  2. When using a privy (pit toilet), use the minimal amount of toilet paper needed.
  3. Never put anything other than pee, poop, and toilet paper into a privy!
    (Exception: Some composting privies are stocked with cedar chips to add after making your deposit.)
  4. Catholes must be dug properly and in appropriate locations.
  5. When using a cathole, toilet paper must be packed out.
    Never bury or burn toilet paper.
  6. Carry a bathroom kit when backpacking or on a day hike where toilets are not available. A bathroom kit should include toilet paper, hand sanitizer, trowel (optional), personal wipes (optional), feminine products (if needed) and a receptacle for used toilet paper. The system I have is to place used toilet paper into a small zip-style baggie, then place that bag into a paper lunch bag (so no one sees the contents when it’s thrown away), then place both into another zip-style baggie. For sanitation reasons, this is an area where I choose to use disposable plastic bags.

Campsite Cleanup

  1. Clean your campsite as you go. If you see trash, pick it up immediately and place it in the correct receptacle.
  2. When camping as a group, sweep the site at the end of your stay by lining up at arm’s length apart and moving slowly as a long row across the campsite, picking up trash along the way. Then cross the campsite a second time in a line perpendicular to the first line.
  3. Always use Leave No Trace principles.
  4. If you pack it in, you must pack it out – no exceptions.
  5. Leave the campground cleaner than you found it by picking up any trash that was already there, as well as your own.

Miscellaneous

  1. Do not burn any trash – including paper or kitchen scraps.
  2. Follow established firewood guidelines, and do not transport firewood beyond its local area. (This is becoming a huge ecological problem because of the various tiny, damaging pests unknowingly transported along with the firewood.)
  3. Use rechargeable batteries for any battery-powered equipment, and use a solar recharger for the batteries.

Additional Thoughts

  1. People are much more willing to put in extra effort when they understand the importance of the tasks at hand. Engage members of your group to discuss how they can truly make a difference in helping the planet through their choices and actions.
  2. If some of the ideas to manage waste at the campsite seem inconvenient, use that as inspiration to be creative and do whatever you can to generate less waste in the first place!
  3. Many of us want to do the right thing for the environment but stumble when it gets difficult or inconvenient. This is a natural reaction. We can support each other by being in this together.

Thank You!

Thank you for taking the time to consider how to reduce waste and be kinder to the environment on camping trips.

If we each do something to help, we can have a huge, collective, positive impact!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Valerie Bloom

Please share any tips or tricks YOU have for reducing waste and protecting the environment while camping!

Alicia from New York on January 16, 2019:

Fantastic article! Excellent information, thank you!

ET on July 05, 2018:

Wow! A really helpful and thorough article.