Reducing Waste in the Backcountry

Happy first weekend of Eco Challenge!

If you’ve never heard of the Eco Challenge, it’s an event sponsored by the Northwest Earth Institute, and it challenges participants to make changes to their environmental impact for fourteen days in a row.

I think this quote from their site sums it up well:

“Common wisdom says it takes two weeks to change a habit: if you can stick with a new behavior for 14 days in a row, you’re a lot more likely to keep it up forever. Eco Challengers share their progress and earn points for taking action. The combination of collective inspiration, camaraderie and friendly competition makes change a little easier — and a lot more fun.”

I love the idea of the Eco Challenge – bringing people together to promote healthy competition, accountability, and improve lifestyle habits along the way!

When picking challenges, you have the option to say if you already do something – such as shop at the farmer’s market, or purchase only whole, unprocessed foods. Then you can select Daily Challenges (up to 10) as well as One-Time Challenges. There’s one aspect that particularly interests me in Eco Challenge, and that’s the waste/food waste section. I’m currently practicing a minimal-waste lifestyle, especially in the kitchen, and have been doing so for about a year and a half. I still buy cans and recyclables from time to time, but have managed to cut back on waste significantly.

There’s one area where zero waste is especially difficult, and that’s out camping. Salmon packets, soy sauce packets, individually wrapped protein bars, tiny tubes of toothpaste… all previously commons staples on our camping/backpacking trips, all accumulated to an awful lot of waste. Even when I’d de-package my food prior to hitting the trail, I was still leaving a bunch of trash at home. On my most recent trip to Alaska, I sought to go totally zero waste – from prep, to trail, to cooking, to cleaning. Let me tell you, it was hard. But, it was doable!

So, with the first weekend of Eco Challenge done, I thought I’d do a quick post on some of my favorite tips for cutting waste on a camping or backpacking trip. Hopefully they can help you on your next adventure!

A few notes: I am lucky enough to live in the incredibly environmentally conscious Upper Left USA where I have lots of access to bulk foods; something I know is not readily available around the country. I also acknowledge that I have the privilege to afford supplies below, and the time to make these lifestyle adjustments. I do not pretend to believe that this lifestyle is one that anybody can adapt, but for the sake of the Eco Challenge, maybe give it a shot! You’ll find that many of these tips are effective in daily life as well. Bea Johnson over at Zero Waste Home has an awesome Bulk Finder tool here that you can use to find the bulk foods stores near you.

*Disclaimer: this post assumes that you already use your own water bottle. Enough places have listed that as one of the top 10 ways to cut back on waste. If you still don’t own one, go to any free fair or like, bank event and you get a free water bottle. Seriously, ya’ll. Fill it up at fountains. Buy one with a filter on it if you’re that picky. They come in all sorts of pretty colors. Enough with the overflowing landfills of plastic water bottles. We hear time and time and time again of the negative impact plastic water bottles have on our environment.


  1. Invest in a dehydrator

This is, in my humble opinion, crucial to cutting back on your food waste when backpacking. A dehydrator makes it ridiculously easy to prep your own trail-friendly food: just cook food, put in dehydrator, turn on, and BAM. In several hours, you have an ultra-light, ultra-compact meal. Dehydrators can be crazy expensive, like the Excalibur models, but the one I own from Nesco was very affordable and does the trick. That being said, reviews tell me the Excalibur is the best – so if you’re loaded, invest in this bad boy.

  1. Use mini Nalgenes for sauces

One of my favorite things to take backpacking used to be soy sauce and hot sauce. Dried eggs taste gross? BANG: hot sauce, gourmet mexi-scramble. Not digging the ramen? BOOM: soy sauce, instant noodles rival an NYC ramen bar. But those packets added up, especially when I was using two per meal. Instead, I nabbed some tiny Nalgenes to fill with Liquid Aminos and homemade hot sauce. My local WinCo has Liquid Aminos* in the bulk section, as well as dried hot peppers to make this stuff. You could also use them for oil, powdered peanut butter, or pretty much anything else that needs to be sealed in a bottle.

*If you don’t know of liquid aminos, they’re a soy sauce and tamari alternative. They taste pretty dang similar, especially with a dash of sea salt.

  1. Get some hefty, easy to wash, reusable plastic bags

I’ve raved about these before, but I’m gunna do it again. BlueAvocado’s (re)Zip bags are awesome. I use them as snack bags and food storage bags, and they clean up much better than Ziploc’s. While I totally understand the financial benefit of having cheap, large bags like Ziploc, and know that spending $20 on five plastic bags seems pricey, I could never get my hefty plastic bags to last more than a few uses before the zippers would stop wanting to seal or the plastic would be terribly stained. With the (re)Zip bags, we use them all the time with no issue. The 8oz size is great for snacks and breakfasts, and the larger 7” x 5” bags fit a meal for one, sometimes two. Jump up a size if you think you’ll always be cooking for two.

(re)Zip bags
See the 2oz Nalgene full of liquid aminos??
  1. Go for snack nuts, not snack bars

As delicious and convenient as protein and snack bars may be, the individually wrapped products produce a ton of waste. Opt instead for trail mix or nut mix that you can fill in the bulk section. Added bonus: you can see all the ingredients!

  1. Get a bowl with a lid that seals, and a cozy to keep it warm

I’m a fan of the Sea to Summit Delta Bowl with Lid, but any sealable Tupperware with big enough capacity will do. With most reusable plastic bags, you won’t be able to boil in the bag. Instead, add your dried food to the bowl, add your water, seal, and keep warm. I like to wrap my food bowl in my down jacket that I’ve been wearing, or a hat that’s been on my head, but there’s also a number of great backpacking food coozie bags out there. I just like to use something that’s already warm from my body heat for added warming power. There’s no science behind that, it just makes sense in my head.

Mexican Quinoa

  1. Ladies, get a pee-rag

Korrin Bishop over at Misadventure details the magic of the pee-rag pretty well, and the name is self-explanatory, so I won’t lay it on too thick. I will say that carrying a pee-rag has been the smartest decision I’ve ever made for my outdoor lifestyle – and I’ve found myself wondering over and over again how I ever lived without it! The benefit is you don’t have to carry out toilet paper (if you even wipe when you pee) or deal with that awkward damp feeling when you do the shake. After a few times using a pee-rag, I never leave the trailhead without it. That fresh and clean feeling is just too precious. I guarantee your pee-rag will be the proudest pack-swag flag you’ll ever fly.

Marmot Pass
Note the pink pee-rag hanging off my pack!
  1. Lose the wipes, bring the Bronner’s

Dr. Bronner’s is effectively magical soap (it even says so on the bottle!) and it should be treated and honored as such. So why, when you have access to wizardly powers of soapy cleanliness, would you choose to use wipes?!? A tiny drop of Bronner’s on the hands with a little splash of water is enough to wash your hands, your face, and, ahem, other places. Dampen a bandana to rinse your face and hands, and – look lady pals, I told you you’d love this thing! – your rinsed pee-rag to de-soap your hoohah, and you’ll be fresh, clean, and zero waste! A quick note: while a few stores up here in the PNW have Dr. Bronner’s refill stations, I learned recently that Dr. Bronner’s is no longer refillable in most places due to a dispensing pump clogging issue. You can, however, buy a huge bottle of Bronner’s from their website; and if you dilute properly, it’ll last you eons. Er, several months, at least.

  1. Make hygienic friends with Baking Soda

Baking soda is like the stain-and-scent fighting sidekick to Dr. Bronner’s. Baking Soda is an excellent toothpowder and a great natural deodorant with no smell (that’s right, bears, no smell). Plus, most large bulk grocery stores will have it in scoopable form! Toss it in a tiny Nalgene and you’re good to go.

  1. Learn to recognize “Nature’s Toilet Paper”

This is my favorite. For my birthday, we did a medicinal herb and plant walk. Astor came up, and while it had a whole variety of medicinal uses, the one I remember is that it’s great as toilet paper. And it is! Astor is soft, large, and, most importantly, won’t give you a rash. So, if you do your business in the woods, dig your hole deep enough to bury several large leaves of Astor, and leave the TP behind entirely. There are several other plants that work well as toilet paper, but Astor is common pretty much everywhere. *Disclaimer: use several, and I mean several sheets of Astor when wiping. This stuff is not as, well, absorbent as TP, and you don’t want to end up with a mess on your hands… literally. But hey, if you do, that’s what your Bronner’s is for!

It’s no Downy, but it does the trick.
  1. Practice minimal waste at home

Obviously, the less waste you produce at home, the easier it will be to do the same on the trail. I’d recommend scoping out stores around you to see if it’s possible to go plastic free, and then from there start limiting your shopping to the “outer limits” of the grocery store – more on that here – and see what you can come up with for food. In our minimal waste house, we eat an awful lot of grains + veggies, Asian style-stir fry due to the access to peanut butter and aminos in bulk, and roasted vegetable and legume salads. It’s surprisingly easy, once you get the hang out it.

This are just a few ideas and items that have helped me reduce my waste while out camping. It’s an ever-evolving system for me, and I definitely have not perfected it! I am also, by no means, zero waste OR a minimalist in my life. I just don’t like producing unnecessary waste or using disposable anything. I find minimal waste, minimalism, and the whole zero-waste lifestyle incredibly freeing, and so do the many, many people who blog about or just live this life. So, don’t just take my word for it. For more inspiration on zero waste cooking, living, and the whole zero waste movement, check out these blogs:

Zero Waste Chef

Trash is for Tossers

Zero Waste Home

Note: This post contains affiliate links. I only recommend products I use, that I stand by. These affiliate links are through Amazon, so if you do purchase something, please consider lumping your purchase together and checking the “send in as few shipments as possible” box to reduce the amount of packaging.


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