Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Plastic-Free Camping: Is It Possible?

This past weekend, my friends and I went on a lovely camping trip.

We took the train out to the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore on Friday and then spent our time laying on the beach, swimming in the cool waters of Lake Michigan, and even partying with a friend's family (his Dad has a house on the beach). We also made some nice campfires and spent hours under the stars talking and drinking whiskey.

Yes, it was a wonderful little vacation, but it had its downside.

I think I may have used more plastic this weekend than I have in the entire year put together.

And it was all my fault. Almost.

I didn't go to the grocery store the night before our camping trip because someone stole the wheel off my bike, my primary mode of transportation and the vehicle I use for my grocery shopping. This meant that I had to wing it and eat what I could find in Indiana. That meant buying turkey dogs in plastic wrappers and various other plastic-ful things. It was sad.

But I'll get over it.

Still, the experience got me thinking. I absolutely love backcountry camping, but is it possible to do backcountry camping trip without plastic? I mean, I usually rely on those freeze dried dinners, which are packaged in a thick plastic bag, because they are light and very easy to prepare after a long, exhausting day of hiking. And that's just dinners. Lunch is typically a bagel or a pita straight out of a plastic bag. And of course, I kind of want everything to be in plastic because it's light and prevents food from getting all over my backpack.

What's a girl to do? Ideas? I don't want to stop backcountry camping!

I guess I'll have to consider adding this to the "What I Haven't Given Up" List. Hmpfh.


arduous said...

What about pb&j sandwiches (using your homemade bread) wrapped in foil? If you have a camp fire, you could also do camp fire baked potatoes.

You could also take some fruit and veggies with you. Stick em in one of your produce bags, or in an old plastic bag you have on hand.

You could also just try and minimize your plastic consumption ... maybe make some hummus dip, put in an old tupperware container, and buy some pita.

Home made yogurt and honey in your second hand plastic cooler?

I guess the point is, you can do it, it just means a lot more planning.

LifeLessPlastic said...

Indeed car-camping is do-able with a bit of planning, but I'm not sure about backcountry.

arduous said...

Oh, I see what you're saying. Sorry, I guess I missed that when I read your post initially. Hmmm. I think this is a matter for FPF.

Robj98168 said...

Turkey dogs? Camping? I says get out your fishin' rod and catch a fish!

LifeLessPlastic said...

Rob, Interesting. I guess this means I need to learn how to fish. ;)

LifeLessPlastic said...

Arduous, Yeah, it's a tricky situation. The problem is really many sided, but I think one of the best solutions would be what a friend sent to me in an email. It turns out you can find lots of homemade backcountry camping meal recipes online, but they usually suggest putting the finished products in plastic baggies. My issue is that I don't use plastic bags, so I'd have to store my homemade meals in resealable containers. Now, most resealable would probably pop open in my backpack at one point or another. So I guess this means that I might have to purchase some screw top resealable plastic containers. At least I could use them many, many times. Hmmmm....

Anonymous said...

What did Lewis and Clark use to store food when they explored the country before plastics?

LifeLessPlastic said...

Anon., I suppose they fished, foraged, and hunted. It seems I need to hone my skills :)

Maria said...

Lock & Lock containers won't pop open. They're my favourite to use for lunch because I can just toss them in my bag even if there's soup inside them and not have to worry about them leaking. Of course, they're plastic. I don't know where you stand on buying reusable plastic things.

Fix said...

My dad and I talked about this when we went backpacking last year. His take is that your resulting stewardship of the plants, animals, air, and water outweighs the plastic use. It's an imperfect formula, I know - but I tend to agree...I wouldn't stop backpacking because of all the packaging!

katecontinued said...

I suspect weight is the primary issue. I believe Japanese and Chinese (metal and bamboo) stacking units could solve storage - but will add weight to your pack. I would also love to see us all become experts in Furoshiki or cloth wrapping - just because it is so aesthetically pleasing - while sustainable.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about small metal canteens with screw tops for foods like dried soup mixes that have small particles of spice powder in the mix. Chocolate (for s'mores) could go wrapped in aluminum foil and then into a light aluminum tin so it doesn't get smushed. Trail mix could go into a paper bag and then put that into a cloth bag (the paper would absorb and oils from the nuts). Hotdogs could be wrapped in tin foil and then put into a cloth or paper bag.

The Minimalist said...

I think the most important thing you're pointing out is that it's so much harder to be green hen you're traveling. Sometimes there just aren't any good choices. I found this out when I went to Vegas last March which I wrote about on my blog. Everyone seems to be handing you a plastic something! Great post.

Christi said...

I've made sandwiches for lunch at work, wrapped in a cloth napkin. Works great.

Also what about hermetically sealed jars? Around the house, they are wonderful. For camping, I have no idea, but it's a thought.

Dagny said...

Great topic to think about. Seemed like a lot of the solutions involved plastic containers. What about glass? You'd have to be more careful. Or mesh bags and tinfoil to wrap things?

bamboo and organic clothing

Carly B. said...

Have you heard of Mary Jane's Outpost? She makes organic backcountry foods that mostly come in paper packs (though if I remember correctly they may have a plastic or wax lining). The cool thing is you can actually cook the instant meals in the pack, and then burn it in the fire. http://www.maryjanesoutpost.org/

The lentils are awesome.

Kyle said...

My girlfriend directed me to this site, and I love it. Next time you'll have transportation and more time to prepare. I've only read this post, so I don't know what sort of foods you eat or personal views, so forgive me if I make a dumb suggestion.

If there is an army surplus store in your area, it might be worth checking out. They may have a variety of meals meant for backpacking. I'm not sure if they come in plastic.

I also immediately thought of the packaged pasta and rice side dish pouches available at the store. A nice camping desert could be some homemade bread and cherry pie filling to make some dumplings.

Anonymous said...

Use a stainless steel flask with attached stainless steel screwtop for your whiskey (or other liquids).

Anonymous said...

Plastic bags don't have to be "disposable". I haven't bought plastic bags in over a year and a half, and I have a large collection that I use for various food storage things. Wash them out and air dry them when you are done and you can reuse them for a long time!

Jenn said...

I've tried to give up the ziplocks...but there just seem to be some situations (like camping)where nothing else will substitute. But I wash are reuse until they fall apart.

pia said...

what about biodegradable packaging? here in South Africa we have stuff that's made of corn starch (probably GM, but that's another issue altogether) which is used at food markets and festivals for disposable plates, cutlery, cups and even boxes (see www.greenhome.co.za). would that cut the grade?

Anonymous said...

There is another solution to deoderants. Health food stores sometimes sell deoderant stones in little cloth bags. You keep them in a little dish, moisten them and rub them under your arms. They work only as a deoderant, not as an anti-persperant. My husband has used one for years.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Lewis and Clark - I suspect they did hunt and gather, but they probably also ate things like dried fruit, dried meat/fish, nuts, and some kind of bread or oat cakes that was probably stale because they couldn't store it in plastic. Your food probably won't go bad if you don't put it in plastic, it just won't be as fresh as you want it.

I don't do backcountry camping, but can't you carry dried fruit or meat wrapped in wax paper and cook things like rice or oatmeal (stored in paper bags) at camp?


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, and a good one to address on my blog, too.

My advice would be this: wrap foods individually in paper bags and tin foil, then pack them in a tin, either a cooking tin with a lid (I have one, very lightweight and useful,) or just some other lightweight storage tin especially for the purpose. You may only need to use the tin for "juicy foods" like the hot dogs, and keep the dry stuff in paper bags.

You will be sacrificing some weight with the tins, and some foods might get a bit messy, but chances are you might need a cooking tin anyway, so you might as well get one with a clamp lid so you can store the food you intend to cook in it!

Try this stowaway pot from REI: http://www.rei.com/product/601897

Basically, though, food storage seems to be the least of the worries. I personally can't seem t find a single pack or stuff sack or sleeping bag without some plastic bits on it. But, like you said, I'll be using these things ad infinitum, so maybe it's not such a concern.

Love your blog!

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite camping foods is instant oatmeal, which comes in a paper pouch. Rather than a plastic bowl, a wooden salad bowl is great for camping and is light too. Oatmeal will keep you satisfied for a long time, too.

Robj98168 said...

Shucks maam- Fishin is easy. You go spend hundreds of $$$$ buying top line equiptment, spend more $$$$ on bait. Then you go to the store and buy 5 nice fish and come back and tell everybody that you caught them using nightcrawlers.

Anonymous said...

This is tough. I went car camping with friends and decided that reusing platic ikea plates and silverware were MUCH better than the paper plates and throw away utensils that we have used in the past.Once you throw kids into the mix its soooo much harder to avoid plastic. We just stick to the most non leaching recyclable kind we can find.My husband and myself owned almost no plasic before the kids came along. I guess I am just saying, give yourself a break!A couple of locking plastic containers,reused again and again is will be ok! You are awesome and so inspiring!

Paul said...

tough question...
My rucksack.. nylon with lots of plastic clips
My tent... ripstop, or something similar
Boots.. synthatic soles
Waterproofs - Goretex. certified synthetic..
Sleeping bag. Down :-) in a synthetic outer.

Cotton tent, Canvas rucksack, make your own sleeping bag????
... or use what you've got till it wears out.

Food packaging. Tin boxes and cans make good alternatives to plastic or bottles. I hang on to any I find!
Food in paper packaging will need to go inside something more resilient to avoid spillling e.g. rice in your rucksack. A cloth bag may do.
Cloths and greaseproof paper can work for wrapping stuff.
'oilskin' is traditional... I can imagine that waxed cloth would make practical wipe clean bags.

A great aƶmbitiion.. but it's going to be tough. Most alternatives are going to nudge your pack weight up

By the way... you can make your own dried meals. You should be able to get info on the www. Basically long slooow cooking at low

I love reading your blog :-D

LifeLessPlastic said...

Thanks for your question, Paul. Most or all of my camping gear currently contains plastic and I plan to just use it until it wears out. At that point, I'd imagine that I'd just buy something used. I think that's the best way around the problem.

Oh, and thanks for your food tips!

Jen from Clean Bin said...

You're so right. We've been trying to cut down our waste and avoid soft plastics and it's so hard! We have been using plastic bags we already had in the house though, so hopefully those can be re-used for awhile.

We just came back from a week long cycle trip (not quite backpacking, but we were carrying a lot of food). It took a lot of extra planning and prep, but this is what we settled on: We made granola bars, cookies, and energy balls in advance. We ate things like falafel, dried fruit, trail mix and pasta all of which can be bought in the bulk section and carried in cloth bags. You can also find dehydrated hummus and bean soup in bulk some places. I sucked up the extra weight and carried a small glass jar of pesto and fresh veggies like carrots.

But, what do you do for water? All our bottles and bladders are plastic or lined or capped with plastic.

As for camping gear, as long as you are using it until the end of its life, I think it's ok. Plastic is an amazing material, and I don't think you can compare the quality of a lightweight waterproof tent to a shopping bag that lasts half an hour before heading for the landfill.

Going Crunchy said...

I do seem to use lots of foil when I camp, and it can also double as cooking food pouches for veggies and such.

How about organic cotton bags and such like you would at the market and filling them with nuts, beans, granola and other dried foods?

Ruth said...

I would also suggest beans and rice. They don't leak, so they can be transported in cloth bags. They are also quite lightweight and durable. They are easy to prepare and the protein from the beans will keep you satisfied for a while.

Anonymous said...

I keep repatching my vinyl air mattress for camp sleeping, but when that finally goes kaput, I'm not going to buy another one. I am going to be looking for one of those foldable cots made of wood and cotton canvas.

Viki said...

Hey, just wanted to say I really like your blog. I'm a new reader (although I didn't find you through Time Magazine, I'm more a Google type of person). I just wanted to let you know your blog has inspired me to be a little more conscious of my plastic usage. I don't know that I could go as plastic-free as you do, for example, I LOVE all of my make up and couldn't possibly give it up. But I did bring along my own tin to my local LUSH store, and refused a paper bag. Plus I've been on a trial run of two different types of contact lenses - the daily disposables, and the two week kind - and thanks to your blog, I believe I'll go with the two week kind since the daily disposable ones would make me end up throwing away 365 little plastic bubble containers a year, which I previously didn't particularly care about, other than that it meant taking out the trash more.

Anyway, good luck on exploring options for plastic-free backcountry camping... it does seem like a real challenge.

I look forward to reading more posts. =D

Scott said...

Ray Jardine is a guru of ultra-light backpacking and pioneered the 9 lbs. pack that allows PCT through-hikers of ordinary ability to reach 30 miles/day. See his book "Beyond Backpacking":


(Also in WorldCat & available through your library, but WorldCat doesn't do persistant links.

And he's an advocate of cooking with whole, fresh foods on the trail. Says that even packing potatoes & all, he has to resupply only once per week. I haven't tried it on that scale, but my experience supports his point that eating fresh, whole food on the trail helps your body so much as to more than make up for the small amount of extra weight.

It helps to use efficient cooking techniques like flash-steaming: Cut your veggies thin, boil a table spoon of water under a lid, pop the veggies in and reclose immediately, turn off the stove & let sit. This really stretches your fuel.

Good luck! And thanks for your blog - I'm learning a lot.

Tina said...

Exactly my point! What's a girl to do! Especially when you live in monsoon-y India and you have to keep your books dry and do it all - economically! Plastic is bad, definitely but its also the cheapest and most convenient thing!
I really really appreciate your blog and the effort you're taking to make a difference! Kudos to you!

Tina said...

I really appreciate your blog and the effort you're taking to make a difference! Hats off to you! I just wish there was something that's environmentally-friendly AND as convenient and economical as plastic! I live in Bombay and its really not possible to do without plastics here, unfortunately. Especially in the monsoons when you have to commute far and keep your books dry in your cloth bag!