How do we all stay green when we go camping? Even if we recycle everything and choose plastic-free when we’re at home, it’s understandably easy to slip into lax ways when we’re camping.
At the same time, campers rely on beautiful, rubbish-free places to pitch a tent or park a campervan. None of us want to stroll down to a plastic-strewn beach or overnight on a track covered in junk food packaging.
So, here’s our evolving guide to making camping a bit more environmentally friendly.
Latest Update: March 2021
Reduce if you can, reuse if you can’t, recycle if all else fails
Providing there’s a reliable way to collect, sort and sell waste, then recycling is great. Otherwise, it’s simply making ourselves feel better while passing the problem down the line.
It’s far better not to make waste in the first place. When that’s not possible (let’s be realistic here!), it’s better to reuse packaging or products.
Not all biodegradable plastics are as green as they seem. Many are made from petrochemical-based materials (just like normal plastic), but have compounds added to help them disintegrate. What you’re left with is a slurry of toxic chemicals.
Many biodegradable products actually take a LONG time to disappear. Scientists at the University of Plymouth tested different materials and found that some biodegradable shopping bags, for example, were still intact enough to carry shopping even if they’d been in the soil for three years.
So, opt for bioplastics made of cornstarch or other plant-based materials. Better still, avoid plastics all together. Look for alternatives like toothpaste in metal tubes, glass jars and metal tins, loose vegetables and paper or card packaging.
Shopping when camping
It’s much harder to avoid waste and excess packaging on holiday. You want things simple and easy, and your usual choices might not be available, but…
- Take your own reusable shopping bags.
- Buy your own unbleached brown paper bags or totally degradable plastic bags for fruit and veg and take them along.
- Never buy food in plastic trays. Those black plastic ones used for fruit and veg and for a lot of readymeals aren’t generally recyclable and a billion go to landfill in the UK every year (say Friends of the Earth).
- Shop in zero waste or bulk buy shops (the ones where you get ingredients like nuts, flour and rice out of tubs or dispensers.
- Use discarded cardboard boxes for your shopping and storage.
But we want to relax on holiday…
Do we really have to think about everything we buy? Can’t we just have a day or two off?
- Markets are great. Take your own bags and don’t be afraid to say no (even in a foreign language) to plastic bags.
- Make some meals in advance. A stew or a pie for your first night away, maybe. A container of ingredients ready to add milk or water for pancakes.
- Choose readymeals with minimum packaging. Tins of beans, soup, stews and so on; fresh vegetables, and if you eat meat or fish, avoid the prepacks.
- Firepot have started making some of their range of camping meals in paper packets. Just add water, simmer and eat – and it’s real food!
Wax wraps – the clingfilm alternative
Wax wraps – beeswax or vegan – are excellent for covering dishes instead of clingfilm or for wrapping sandwiches.
They can be used lots of times, simply washed in cool water.
Make your own easy wax food wraps
With a big thanks to reader Sharon O’Neill.
1. You need 100% cotton cloth and food-grade beeswax. ED: Sadly, I haven’t been able to find food-grade wax suitable for vegans, except in bulk amounts. If you know of somewhere, do tell.
2. I use an old fitted sheet. Wash it without fabric conditioner and put on an extra rinse cycle. Dry and iron it.
4. Cut to the sizes you need.
5. Melt wax, dip cotton fabric in. Squeeze off excess gently.
6. Allow to dry flat, hanging over a clothes maiden.
7. Once dry, fold and keep in an old biscuit tin (just to keep them clean).
We’ve also found this fantastic plastic-free wrap on a roll.
Cut the size you need for wrapping sandwiches, using to seal bowls or for wrapping around loaves to keep them fresher. We struggled to find wrap big enough for large loaves, so this is a super alternative.
There’s a metre x 33cm on a roll and it costs around £10. You can rinse it in cold water and use it over and over.
Make your own tea and coffee bags
Have you read our article on reusable travel mugs and insulated coffee cups? Well, there are some nice options there for when you pop to a cafe, but we’d much prefer to make our own (MUCH cheaper!).
Tea and coffee bags are very convenient, but the bags usually contain plastic. Before I knew this, I put them in my compost heap – two years on and I’m still finding teabag-shaped bits of plastic around my plants! Reusable stainless steel filters are the best choice, but there is cleaning up to do.
You can also make your own disposable bags using unbleached paper sachets. They’re also great for herbs and spices.
That looks a faff?
If you really can’t be bothered with making your own coffee bags, we’d recommend Percol ground coffee. The company is going completely plastic-free and are already a good way there! You can find it in most supermarkets but use the links if not.
They make coffee bags in plant-based foil sachets and a plant-based ‘bioweb’ for the bag itself. The foil is home compostable and the sachets are industrially compostable (so it depends if there’s a facility near you, of course).
But go on…make your own!
Want to avoid too many chemicals? There are some good ways of making your own cleaning stuff that are a lot less toxic and have the BIG advantage of not involving yet another plastic spray bottle.Buy a 500g box of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda or powder) for around £2.
- Use a sprinkle of bicarbonate of soda on a sponge to clean any surface you’d usually clean with a cream cleaner.
- Clean off stains from mugs.
- Get rid of smells from upholstery.
- Degrease the stove or barbecue.
White vinegar is magical. Try to find it in a glass bottle, of course! Some zerowaste shops also do refills. It can:
- Clean your car windows (keep it off the paintwork).
- Freshen your chopping board.
- Deter ants and bugs.
- Soothe a sting or bite.
- Unstick stickers.
- Leave orange skins to macerate in your vinegar for a couple of weeks for a lovely household cleaner.
Just imagine how many of those 5l plastic containers of screenwash get chucked away every year.
Keep the one you have and use P1 Autocare screenwash pods instead. They work just as well and work out cheaper.
Just add one to your empty container and fill with water. Around £9 for six (30 litres in total).
A similar system for home cleaning
For home, try the Ocean Saver pods – varieties for kitchens, bathrooms, windows, anti-bac and multi-purpose.
Strong, scrubby-but-kind, these Kilo plastic-free scourers are fantastic. Use them for washing up, cleaning kit…whatever you like.
After trying loads of alternatives made of loofah, coir and so on, these were the only ones that did what they were supposed to do.
Each piece of this bamboo kitchen roll can be used 1,700 times and is super-strong – just tear off like normal kitchen roll, clean up the mess and chuck it in the washer.
You’ll need a little laundry bag to keep the used bits ready for washing, of course. Maybe more for home than travelling, but they are UK-made using a sustainable source of bamboo.
Paperwrapped recycled kitchen roll is an alternative, but bear in mind that recycled paper may actually include some toxic stuff because old paper can include plastics from thermal receipts and magazines.
Best kitchen roll is Greencane, made from 70% recycled sugarcane and bamboo fibre and 30% certified wood pulp. The packaging is 100% compostable including the see-through cellophane. All sustainably sourced and free of inks, fragrances and plastic.
Who Gives a Crap make a bamboo and sugarcane kitchen roll wrapped entirely in paper.
As mentioned earlier, if you do want a takeaway drink, take your own cup. Have a look at our favourite reusable cups.
Plastic tableware might be light and practical for camping, but it’s horrid. There are much nicer alternatives made of bamboo, enamel, wood or other plant materials.
We’ve just come across this neat little travel kit. It’d be a great present, wouldn’t it? Cutlery, chopsticks, straws and cleaning brush in a folding pouch – all made from bamboo.
Great tip from reader Dave Harding. These vintage stoneware hot water bottles (provided you check for leaks) are a brilliant way to keep warm. And no plastic!
Recycling when camping
So, the problems are keeping things separate and having the space to store bags ready for recycling.
There are some strong paper-based bin-liners that would do the trick too nicely.
As for keeping this stuff in the car or van…there are now so many recycling points around you can make a quick trip while camping rather than wait till you get home. The best campsites always have good recycling points too.
Camp cooking with gas or wood?
Rocket stoves and little gasifying stoves (great for backpackers and wild campers) need only twigs, pinecones or a bit of driftwood to give you a fire good enough to cook on.
There are plenty of others to choose from too – in fact, we have a whole article on the best woodburning camping stoves.
BUT, if you’re in a hot country or a dry season in the UK, lighting fires (however small) isn’t good and probably won’t be allowed.
Next best is a gas stove that takes refillable bottles. Our long-time favourite is the Cadac Safari Chef, which you connect via a hose to the gas bottle. Lots of cooking accessories, very reliable and easy to pack.
And what about solar cooking?
Could you use the sun to cook your sausages? It’s definitely a useful method in countries where the sun is reliable and electricity isn’t!
There are foldable solar cookers available, but it’s also an area where DIY comes in too. You can make a simple solar cooker using a box, rolled up newspaper for insulation and foil. Have a look at the books below for inspiration, or (of course), there’s lots to look at online.
The problem is that cooking time is very difficult to judge. A small solar panel cooker might take a couple of hours to cook rice; while a large parabolic device might take an hour or less. But the weather could halve or double that time. It’s very much trial and error. A lot of fun, though.
GoSun make a portable tube-shaped solar cooker for around £140 that they claim can make a meal in as little as 20 minutes and boil water in 40 minutes – some slight discrepancy there, I feel! There are also larger models and plenty of copycat designs.
To give it a try, though, you might be better with a less high-tech (and cheaper) option, like a foldable solar cooker in the pictures below. Or copy the parabola idea and convert an umbrella?
Slow cooking is green too
A great choice would be a passive slow cooker like the Wonderbags that also help make the world a better place for more people. Cook your dish in a pan and then let it sit in the insulated bag till ready. Easy. We wrote a wonderbag review that you can check out.
Stay clean and green when camping
Look for toiletries in easy-to-carry metal tins and tubes, or make your own lotions and potions.
Make your own wet wipes?
We’ve always loved being able to grab a wipe for quick face washes, body washes when showers aren’t available and for cleaning sticky or muddy hands.
But, think of the waste. Most wipes are made of synthetic drain-blocking, non-degrading material.
Have a look at our step-by-step guide to making your own quick and easy wet wipes, including an Oscar-worthy video!
- Use reusable baby wipes (aka a flannel or cloth!!). The reusable bamboo kitchen roll mentioned above would be great too.
- Reusable make-up remover cloths are lovely.
- Concoct a spray bottle of water with maybe a dash of essential oil, aloe vera, witch hazel and/or little Dr Bronner liquid soap. Aluminium bottles are good. Spray onto wipes as needed
- Make your own disposable wipes out of thick tissue or kitchen roll. Spray with solution as above when you need them (don’t make too much, as you’re not adding preservatives).
- If that’s all too much, then buy TRULY biodegradable wipes. Biodegradable doesn’t mean you should ever chuck them in the wild. They take a long time to disappear and are just litter meanwhile. Take them home!
- We’ve long been recommending Aqua Wipes because they’re chemical-free and biodegradable. 99.6% water, plus a bit of cleansing stuff and aloe vera. They’ll break down in around 15 days because they’re plastic-free.
Cheeky Panda wipes are made from bamboo with 99% water, apple extract and aloe juice. They take 28 days to disintegrate by 50%.
Mum&You is another contender (plant fibres break down in four to six weeks). For other brands, don’t buy unless you can find out how long it takes for them to disappear saf
Going to the loo when camping
When there are toilet blocks and showers, then there’s no problem, but if you’re wild camping or want to be able to use your own loo in the night, then what’s the most environmentally friendly way? Read our camping toilets article for more.
- There’s nothing simpler than a good bucket with a lid. You can simply empty it into the first loo you come across.
- Our article on camping toilets has lots of other recommendations. Go for biodegradable options – even wood pellet cat litter for absorption!
- Wee tubes are a lifesaver. No spill and work for men and women. That’s Kathy showing off her bargain night-time loo. Empty in this photo, I promise!
- Travel John now do paper-based wee bags with a gel inside to absorb the liquid.
- Some people have recommended portable travel bidets for after-loo cleaning. We haven’t tried them and they are made of plastic, but worth a go?
- For loo paper, we like Cheeky Panda’s bamboo rolls, but love Greencane’s paper-wrapped toilet paper too. ‘Who Gives a Crap’ is super for its ethics (50% of profits to charity) and paper wrapping, but some complain about its thin-ness!
Never buy shampoo again
Confession! I haven’t ‘washed’ my hair (in the usual sense) for three years.
No SLS, paraben, silicone or other dubious ingredient has touched my head…and my hair is the best it’s ever been. I even think I’ve stopped going grey!
- Instead, I buy a big paper bag of ghassoul/rhassoul clay, mix a couple of tablespoons with water to make a paste and fill a screw-top aluminium tin. Rub it in my hair, leave for a minute maybe, rinse.
- I condition with apple cider vinegar (kept in a glass spray bottle). I might add a few drops of rosemary oil too.
- This is not a great method unless you have a decent shower to rinse under. So, in wild camping situations, natural dry shampoo is wonderful. Klorane dry shampoo is nice too and cheaper.
- Make your own dry shampoo using cornflour or arrowroot and very fine rice flour. Add a bit of cinnamon or cocoa if you have dark hair.
- A lot of people love Lush shampoo bars. Fantastic for avoiding plastic, but not so great for avoiding chemicals.
We’ve bought tubes of travel wash before, but no more!
- We either take an everlasting bottle of liquid eco detergent bought from a shop that does refills.
- Or we use Dr Bronner (see above).
- Or we buy a cardboard box of washing powder. Remember those?
- Some people swear by soap nuts, put into a bag or even a sock for clothes washing. The jury’s out, though, on whether these wash any better than just plain water.
We love our two portable showers, plus plain old water and a paper-wrapped bar of soap. Perfect.
- One of our showers is the Colapz rechargeable pump shower (shown above) that you simply drop into a bucket of warm (or cold!) water for a decent spray shower.
- The other is this nifty foot-pumped shower that heats up in the sun. It holds a good 15 litres, is easy to pump and folds down for portability.
- An alternative to wet wipes are no-water washing products. All of them come in plastic bottles and all of them are a bit severe for sensitive skin, so wouldn’t be our first choice. Try Muc-Off, Nilaqua or Pits and Bits.
- Top tip: Store any excess boiled water in a flask and use it for washing later.
- Soap bags are ace. Knit or crochet your own or get them from Etsy. Hang your soap up in the shower, pop in all those usually-wasted slivers of soap, hang outside the tent or campervan to dry.
Solar panels and LED lights
For info on solar panels – portable and for installation on a campervan – have a look at our camping power article.
If it’s just light you need, then solar lights or rechargeable LED torches, lanterns and fairylights are the most energy-efficient way to light up your tent or campervan. There are countless, but here are our favourites:
The packable Luminaid with phone charger built-in.
Luminoodle – an LED light strip (different lengths available) with rechargeable powerbank and clever hanging options. Bright enough to read and cook by too. Plus they come with a semi-transparent bag to make a sort of table lamp. Clever.
Solar and rechargeable bulbs – simple and affordable and with the versatility of two power sources.
Luci Base Lamps – waterproof, solar lighting (USB back-up if there’s no sun), plus phone charging in the ultimate folding, blow-up design!