Camping/Holidaying with Less Waste: Part 2: A How-To Guide

Camping/Holidaying with Less Waste: Part 2: A How-To Guide

As we mentioned in Part 1 of this two-part post, in January 2018 we delivered a talk about Zero Waste Camping at Totaranui campsite – the biggest campsite in Abel Tasman National Park. Like all our talks, we based this talk on our own experience of living without a rubbish bin since the beginning of 2015, but also drew on the learnings we’ve developed since we started The Rubbish Trip (in July 2017), for which we travel full-time, while also maintaining our zero waste lifestyle.

*** If you want Christmas tips as well as Summer Holiday tips, check out this post we wrote for Sustainability Trust’s ‘Ask an Expert’ blog. ***

Before hitting the road to start The Rubbish Trip, we had been living for two and half years in Wellington without a bin. During that time we hosted many travellers who were often quite inspired by the low-waste lifestyle we were leading, and would say things like “we are so motivated to make some real changes once we get back to our homes. But we can’t start now because on the road it’s just too challenging”.

When we decided to do The Rubbish Trip, we were 100% committed to continue living by zero waste principles. We were worried that it would, indeed, be too difficult. For sure, low-waste living on the road is a different kettle of fish to low-waste living in a long-term home. There are different challenges – the transience, living in small spaces, having to be prepared and organised when your life is otherwise quite spontaneous, and needing to find out where zero waste shopping options are in each new place you visit. Having said all of that though, our experience, after 7 months on the road, is that it is totally possible to produce minimal or no waste while travelling, camping or roadtripping in New Zealand. Like so many other spheres of life where we have the potential to go waste-free – be it business, work or play – attitude counts for a lot; where there’s a will to achieve low-waste aspirations, there’s a way.

So, in this post, we want to share with you the tips we communicated in our talk at Totaranui campsite. Little things that you can try out when you go on holiday, road tripping, camping or tramping.

But first… lessons from litter:

As part of our journey through the Abel Tasman, we decided to pick up every single piece of rubbish we found along the way. A couple of things we did not pick up – a single shoe, a bra, soiled tissue papers, and plastic bags we could see in the sea when we were high up on land – but otherwise we picked up everything else. By the end of our 4 day journey, this is all the litter we found:

Most of this litter was snack food related, particularly bits of muesli bar wrappers and chippie packets. This shines a light on the sorts of waste people tend to generate when travelling, most of which will not be littered, but will be taken away with people after they finish the walk, to be carefully discarded in a rubbish bin. So… great that it’s not being left on the ground in the Abel Tasman, but sad that the stream of people tramping, camping and travelling in New Zealand represents a steady stream of snack food packaging going into landfill, where it will remain for hundreds of years.

For this reason, we find the ‘pack in, pack out’, ‘leave things as you find it’ philosophies often trundled out for campers and trampers lacking in ambition. They focus on the displacement of rubbish – “put it somewhere else, not here” – without recognising the reality that there is no “away” to throw things to. And, they don’t encourage you to try and reduce your waste in the first place – the approach which we feel makes a bigger difference.

Based on what we found on the ground, we suggest that if you don’t necessarily want to be extreme as us (fair enough!) but still want to do something to reduce your holiday waste, start by making and preparing from scratch your favourite snacks before you go on holiday. For example, if all you do is make yourself a massive batch of muesli bars, as we did before we left (for 4 days we made 44 mini muesli bars!), that’s a great start. Another great idea is making crackers – we have a recipe that is not dissimilar to Shapes and is very easy. You can find our easy food recipes here (but note you can find recipes for just about anything on the internet).

The kinds of rubbish we found on the track also makes us believe that people are not intentionally littering on the Abel Tasman. We found a lot of items that people were probably quite annoyed about losing – a brand new hot pink cup, a pair of sunglasses, the bra and shoe, and a full bottle of water. And when it comes to all that snack packaging… a cynical person might presume these were intentionally dropped, but we can also see how this happens accidentally – the corners of packets are light and small and can easily blow away or slip out of fingers. Similarly, crumpled up wrappers can easily fall out of pockets, especially if you are getting in and out of the water, changing around clothes, like so many people do on the Abel Tasman.

For this reason, our overarching takeaway point is that the best way to avoid littering when you travel through wilderness areas is simply not to bring litter in with you. How might you do that? Well, that’s where the zero waste philosophy kicks in.

So, without further ado, here are our top tips for reducing waste while on the road, holidaying, camping and tramping.

Note that the following list is focused on when you travel to wilderness areas. For a briefer, more general discussion of waste reduction on the road, check out the Summer Holiday section of this post we wrote for Sustainability Trust’s ‘Ask an Expert’ blog.

Waste related to food and eating

Eating is generally the main potential waste generating activity for us when we are on the road, and we suspect it is for most other people too. Here are our tips for cutting this waste down:

1) Bring reusables with you rather than disposables for meal and drink times. That is, reusable cutlery, cups, plates/containers and water bottles. Apart from the fact that reusables are not designed to be chucked out after a few uses (so inherently less wasteful), you’re also much less likely to forget these items or accidentally litter them because they’re probably worth something to you!

2) Think about what food you can prepare at home before you go camping. We knew we’d be in the Abel Tasman for 4 days, so we prepared 4 days’ worth of food (instead of going to the supermarket and buying it all pre-made). What you prepare will depend on what you like to eat. Our food prep for the 4 days took us a sum total of 2.5 hours the night before we left, so it wasn’t a particularly big deal. This is what it looked like (minus the muesli bars and loaf of bread that are missing from the photo for some reason!):

3) How do you make these things without producing waste though? Good question. We do this by buying all our ingredients from stores that sell things loose/in a bulk bin, and bringing our own bags and containers to fill up. Places like Bin Inn, or organics bulk stores are a great option. If you want to know where such places might be in your part of the country, check our Regional Zero Waste Shopping Guides to see if we’ve done one for your region yet. Remember too that you can also check these guides to see what options exist in parts of the country that you are visiting – so you can be as informed as the zero waste locals are!

4) What do you put all this home prepared food into if it’s not packaged? We use whatever containers we have on hand. Upcycled ice cream containers or Tupperware are probably what most people have in their home already. We also use beeswax wraps rather than plastic cling wrap to wrap food (for a vegan version, order from Wellington business What the Vegan).

5) Stock up on pre-made, unpackaged/sustainably packaged snacks. We get that sometimes you don’t want to have to make everything yourself before you go on holiday. Fortunately, you can get many snack foods from bulk bins – be it pretzels, trail mix, lollies, bhuja mix, etc. Most supermarkets have good snack foods in bulk, but you can get this stuff much cheaper if you go to a dedicated bulk bin store like Bin Inn or a packaging-free store. You will almost certainly pass a store with bulk bins on your journeys through the country – check our regional shopping guides to see where they might be if you don’t know already. 

6) Bring unpackaged “staples” with you. We brought a small loaf of bread we got from the bakery in our own bag. We also got muesli in our own container from a bulk bin at the local organic store in Takaka (we could have made our own but were lazy). We also got veggies (unpackaged of course) for our meals, including avocados, tomatoes, cucumber and lemons, but you can take what you want. Fruit is obviously another great item to have on hand for snacks.

7) If you don’t have a travel cooker, don’t bother with one! It’s just another waste generating item/thing that you have to lug around. Here are things you can do instead:

  • Sprouts! People think we’re a bit weird because we really advocate sprouting on the road. It’s excellent because you can get dried anything from a bulk store (legumes, nuts, seeds, etc.). You soak them overnight, then put them in a sprouting bag that you can hang from your pack. Every 12 hours you give them a rinse in the bag and then leave them to drip dry again (please make sure you ONLY soak sprouts in water that is safe to drink – i.e. don’t big dipping your bag of sprouts into waterways that you come across on your tramp!). If you use something like lentils, within 48 hours of the time you first put them in the soaking water, they’ll be ready to eat. They do not need cooking (though they can also be cooked and will cook just as fast as legumes from a can if you decide to do this), so you can eat them raw and get that protein hit. You don’t need to eat them in a rush either – as long as you keep rinsing them, the sprouts will just keep growing, so it means that you can definitely take enough to keep you going for several days.
  • Cook a bunch of grains before you go. We cooked an ice cream container worth of rye grains, which lasted well for the 4 days. Other grains like cous cous would work too. Be aware that for health/safety reasons, after pre-cooking you should let the grains cool down fully, keep them in a fridge overnight, and then only take them if you have a chiller to keep them cool, otherwise the water in the pre-cooked grains may cause bacteria to grow. We were a bit laissez-faire about this, but don’t want others to get sick! We also found that the pre-cooked grains were the heaviest thing in the bag (because of all the water they absorb) so in the future we’d be likely to pre-cook only one days’ worth of grains, and then bring extra bread and crackers!
  • We are coffee addicts. If Hannah does not have her daily coffee, she gets a migraine. Without a travel cooker to boil water, this was going to be a problem. Until we learnt that eating coffee is just as effective (perhaps even more so than drinking it) at getting that caffeine hit to ward off withdrawals. So, we bought a packet of Trade Aid instant coffee (which comes in HOME COMPOSTABLE packaging), and made a large batch of coffee bliss balls the night before we set off. Hannah was very sceptical that it would work, but after 4 days of only bliss ball coffee, we can confirm that no withdrawals were experienced at all.

8) If you have a travel cooker already, then your options for low-waste camping increase because you can bring dehydrated and uncooked foods that are much lighter to carry because they do not have water in them. For example:

  • Bring dried grains with you (which you can get in any bulk store around the country, again, check our regional shopping guides).
  • Consider investing in a dehydrator or better yet, asking to borrow one from someone you know. If you dehydrate veggies throughout the year, then this is just another job you don’t have to bother doing around the time you are about to set off tramping. You can dehydrate veggies and meat and if you get them fresh unpackaged then that means no waste production for you!
  • Hot drinks – use tea leaves rather than bags because most tea bags have plastic in them. You can get tea leaves loose in various bulk stores around the country. If you’re into instant coffee, opt for Trade Aid’s because it comes in home compostable packaging. If you like flash coffee, then stock up from roasters that are happy to fill up BYO bags/containers with coffee beans and grinds – pretty much any roaster in the country will do this unless they really are ornery. For cocoa/drinking chocolate, you can get this in bulk from most Bin Inns. You can also got Kokako drinking chocolate, which comes in home compostable packaging.

9) What to do with food scraps when you’re on the road? Many people believe that when you are travelling, composting your food scraps becomes impossible. This is simply not true. We have not put a single bit of food waste or scraps into a rubbish bin the entire time we’ve been on the road. Wherever we go though, we bring with us a dedicated container for food scraps, so that we can carry these around with us until we find somewhere we can put it – whether it be a community garden or the compost of a kind stranger or host (find ones near where you are through Share Waste). You do have to be prepared to carry your food scraps around with you (the most we’ve gone is about 3 days). If you are travelling with a vehicle, consider investing in a bokashi bin for your car/van/caravan/motorhome. These are small, so take up very little space. They are airtight and odourless and you can put pretty much any food waste in them (including meat, seafood and cooked food), which ordinarily you would not put in composts because of the odour and the potential to attract pests. They break food down very quickly and then you just need to find somewhere to dispose of the juice, but the side of the road would be entirely fine (just don’t put it in conservation land because it may be disruptive of natural ecologies).


  • When it comes to toiletries and cosmetics, we recommend keeping things simple when you are on the road and paring back on the items you “need”.
  • Avoid buying travel-sized toiletries because these are super wasteful.
  • We make all our toiletries from scratch and we just make sure we have the basic ingredients with us at all times so we can replenish easily (basically, coconut oil and baking soda are the main ones you’ll want on hand). When you are in the middle of the bush and you run out of toothpaste, it’s pretty hard to go to a corner store to buy a new tube, but it’s very easy to whip up an emergency batch if you have a tablespoon of coconut oil and a bit of baking soda. All our recipes for our toiletries can be found in our Bare Essentials booklet. When we travel, we just put our homemade toiletries into very small jars that we have picked up in op-shops and second hand stores.
  • If you don’t wish to make your own toiletries, fair enough. Instead of buying toiletries in plastic bottles though, look out for shampoos, soaps and moisturisers that come in bar form. Excellent examples are those made by Ethique, Global Soap, Dirty Hippie and Wouldn’t Know ‘Em From a Bar of Soap Co. You can transport these bars in soap containers, or make your own soap container using the bottom of a plastic bottle (if you have got a spare plastic bottle already that you would otherwise put in the recycling) as we have found that these make excellent soap containers.

Washing up those dirty dishes

  • We carry around a small jar of our dishwashing liquid that we make out of bars of castile soap. This is excellent for travelling with – so convenient! We’ve even shared it around at campsites with campers who’ve run out of their own dishwashing liquid, to much amazement and approval 😉
  • We use a wooden dishbrush with replaceable, home compostable heads (find out where you can get one by looking at our regional zero waste shopping guides).
  • We carry around a 100% cotton dishcloth too (synthetic cloths release microfibers into waterways and also get gluggy really fast when you are travelling – cotton cloths dry well and are pretty durable!)

A note on recycling – get to know your destination

If you do bring some packaging with you (or acquire some along the way), opt for easily recycled options (e.g. avoid soft plastics and foils that are not easily recycled everywhere across New Zealand). Be aware that recycling systems vary widely across NZ – what you do in your region may not be the same in the region you’re going. So, check both the local council website and the campsites you will visit, to see what is and is not recyclable where you are staying, and how the recycling system works. Finally, be prepared to take your recycling home with you if there are little or no services in the area you visit, or take a trip to a recycling centre on your way home, rather than putting your recyclables in a rubbish bin.

That’s all, folks!

This is pretty much all we’ve needed to keep The Rubbish Trip rubbish free! We hope you find some of these tips useful for your own holidays, camping and tramping trips. Maybe you’ve got your own tips you’d like to share in the comments below. Or, if you’d like to know more about reducing your waste when it comes to camping gear and leisure equipment, we discuss this in Part 1 of this two-part post.

Happy holidays!

3 thoughts on “Camping/Holidaying with Less Waste: Part 2: A How-To Guide”

  • This is a super, comprehensive list. Thankyou so much. One question about the pre-cooked things you could do…isn’t rice unsafe to keep?

    • Thanks for this message, Eleanor! You’re right, so we have updated the post in response to your comment to suggest people only take pre-cooked grains if they’ve got a way to keep it cold (i.e. chiller). This might mean making only one days’ worth rather than several days 🙂

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