20 ways to make camping more environmentally friendly

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 there being 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.

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. 

Biodegradable plastics…pah!

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.

 
  • Take your own reusable shopping bags.
  • Buy your own unbleached brown paper bags or plant-based see-through 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 yea

    Quorn have swapped to white plastic trays. Shame they couldn’t have ditched the plastic completely.

    r (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; freshvegetables, 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.

Wax wraps are great for keeping bread fresh.

It’s easyish to make your own too. You just need a square of fabric and some food-grade beeswax. Sorry, but it’s impossible to find food-grade soy wax except in bulk amounts.

Place a square on a baking tray, scatter with wax chips, warm till melted, brush over and leave to dry. 

We’ve just 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 £17. You can rinse it in cold water and use it over and over.

Cleaning up

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! 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.

Recycling when camping

So, the problems are keeping things separate and having the space to store bags ready for recycling.

Firstly, you don’t need to keep things apart if they’re clean. Give tins, bottles and jars a rinse through and they can all go together in a truly-compostable rubbish sack, or a reusable container.

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.

Make your own tea and coffee bags

Have you read our article on reusable travel mugs and 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.

The Wacaco Nanopresso is our favourite hand-pumped coffee-maker, but simple drip filters work well. Go for one that doesn’t need a paper insert.

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. The company is going completely plastic-free and are already a good way there!

They make coffee bags in plant-based foil sachets and use 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!

Reusable coffee cups and plastic-free tableware

Around 2.5bn cups (in the UK alone) are binned each year, according to Friends of the Earth.

 

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 or other plant materials.

Bamboo travel set

We’ve just come across this neat little travel kit. It’d be a great present, wouldn’t it? Toothbrush, cutlery, chopsticks, straws and cleaning brush in a folding pouch – all made from bamboo. Around £6.

Camp cooking with gas or wood?

Kelly Kettle

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.

The Campfire Solo Stove four-person stoveNo wonder people love their Kelly Kettles (including my little sister!) and their Solo woodstoves.
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.

Reusable kitchen roll?

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.

Paper-wrapped 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.

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 shop-bought 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 these two books 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 £700 parabola by converting 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. Around £50. Cook your dish in its pan and then let it sit in the insulated bag till ready. Easy.

Stay clean and green when camping

Look for toiletries in easy-to-carry metal tins and tubes, or make your own lotions and potions.

 

We found the metal tube of toothpaste while camping in Portugal. Euthymol is an option in the UK. Go for a toothpaste in a jar for more natural ingredients.

It’s easy to find deodorants in tins or jars. Our other tins have clay ‘shampoo’ (see below) and Castile soap from a shop that refills containers.

A big thumb’s up for Dr Bronner and their 18-in-1 soap liquid

People have been raving about this pure, organic liquid soap for ages. We ignored them because it comes in a plastic bottle. We were WRONG and here’s why!

It’d be hard to find a more ethical, people- and environment-minded company and their bottles are actually all made from recycled plastic. Plus, you can use the liquid for so many things and it’s diluted for many of those uses. That means you’re safe from a mountain of wasted plastic.
  • Wash yourself
  • Wash the pets
  • Clean the whole house – toilet and shower included
  • Do your laundry
  • Wash the dishes
  • Keep ants and aphids at bay
Fairtrade, organic, no detergents, foaming agents or synthetic preservatives. Lots of lovely scents too – our current favourite for household and campervan cleaning is the citrus one, but the pure castille soap (no essential oils) is super for sensitive folk. A range of sizes, but we went for the mid-range 437ml for around £11.50 from Ethical Superstore (remember it gets diluted so last ages and works out more affordable than it looks).

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. 

  • Use reusable baby wipes (aka a flannel or cloth!!). The reuasable bamboo kitchen roll mentioned above would be great too.
  • Reusable make-up remover cloths are amazing. Just water and even waterproof mascara comes off.
  • Make up 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.

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 safe

Never buy shampoo again

Confession! I haven’t ‘washed’ my hair (in the usual sense) for two years.

No SLS, paraben 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!

The side benefit of this new regime is that I also haven’t bought a plastic bottle of shampoo or conditioner for the last two years.

  • 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. You can use very fine rye flour instead of the clay, but don’t premix it.
  • 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 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,. not so great for avoiding chemicals.

Washing clothes

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.

What have we forgotten? Please share your own green camping tips in the comments below. 

There might even be a plastic-free, organic, zero waste prize for the best suggestions!

Going to the loo when camping

folding bucketWhen 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.

 

Wild camping or sites without showers

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. Around £40. 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-OffNilaqua 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 Wearth. Hang your soap up in the shower, pop in all those usually-wasted slivers of soap, hang outside the tent or campervan to dry.

Lots more shower suggestions here.

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 like the packable Luminaid or rechargeable LED torches, lanterns and fairylights are the most energy-efficient way to light up your tent or campervan.

There are so many to choose from, but here are two of our favourites:

  • 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. From £20.
  • Solar and rechargeable bulbs – simple and affordable and with the versatility of two power sources.



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2 Comments

  1. MrsKathleen Fulton

    When I get up in the morning, I put the kettle on and nip in the loo.
    Then I make a coffee in a mug and a coffee in an insulated cup with a lid and put them both in reach of my bed.
    I take my Weetabix and climb back in.
    By the time I’ve eaten breakfast the 1st cuppa is just right and by the time I’ve finished that, the second one is perfect. ED: What a lovely image you conjure up!

  2. Some great tips. But I have to point out that vinegar or other acidic liquid in an aluminium bottle is really not a good idea. ED: Thanks for the tip, Maimie. Acidic things can degrade aluminium and other metals.

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