ZERO WASTE BACKPACKING - GOING PLASTIC-FREE IN THE WILDERNESS
Dustin and I just wrapped up three glorious days on our first zero-waste backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park. This required a lot of planning and prepping - making lists, reevaluating our gear, etc. It also meant obtaining a level of awareness about our waste consumption that we’ve never had before. Though we could have just done it the way we always do, we wanted to see if it was plausible for us to go zero-waste and still maintain the quality experience we’re used to.
We’ve always been aware of our impact and practice Leave No Trace (LNT). But after traveling through SE Asia for 6 months, we’ve become more conscious of our waste. We’ve learned the importance of planning ahead, recognizing that waste begins with the choices we make as consumers. This is especially true for plastic, which inevitably ends up in landfills and eventually our oceans - and will outlive us all.
VISTAS, VALLEYS, AND LAKES
We chose Yosemite National Park because it holds a special place in our hearts. You see, our first trip to Yosemite four years ago was the spark that ignited our nomadic lives.
The hike we chose was Ten Lakes Basin - a 13.8 mile out-and-back with 2,200 feet of elevation gain. It offers stunning vistas with sweeping panoramas of the Grand Canyon of Yosemite and the Tuolumne River Valley. We spent two nights in the wilderness, so we prepared for a total of three days. The goal was to minimize or eliminate our waste from prep to return.
| "The goal was to minimize or eliminate our waste from prep to return"
WHAT WE PURCHASED
On previous backpacking trips we ate freeze-dried camping meals, but these are typically packaged in single-use plastic and are expensive. Plus they’re not as nutritious as home-cooked meals.
We shopped for our dry goods in bulk and visited a local market for perishables. This not only reduced our packaging waste, but also saved us some money. Overall, it was the least expensive backpacking trip we’ve ever done!
Have you heard of beeswax wraps? We recently learned about these from a friend and now we use them for everything. Made from beeswax and hemp cloth, they’re reusable and extend the life of your food (ideal for backpacking). My favorite thing about them is they stick to themselves - a great alternative to foil, plastic wrap, and ziplocks. (There’s also plant-based vegan options).
| "This not only reduced our packaging waste, but also saved us some money."
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Anyway, we made really good use of these on the trip, from start to finish. We brought them to the deli and bought cheese directly into them, this sparked up some interesting conversations at the counter.
Beeswax wraps aren’t recommended for raw meat, so we used a tupperware container to purchase our bacon. For dry goods we opted for cotton reusable bulk bags in lieu of the thin plastic bags you find in the grocery store.
We nearly made a grave mistake - we forgot to buy wine in town, an essential for sitting around the campfire. Fortunately, the general store in Yosemite carries Bandit Wine. It comes in a 1L Tetra Pak carton which is made from paper and is 100% recyclable. Even though it’s still waste, it’s a better alternative than the bag-O-wine or bottle we would normally bring with us. It’s lightweight and made for backpacking.
Half the fun was preparing our meals. It was also half the work, but this meant we wouldn’t have to cook at camp, leaving plenty time to play! Our meals were vegetarian (except, of course, for the bacon). I’m always nervous about meat spoiling, especially in the heat of summer.
The beeswax wraps were a lot of fun to work with. We used them to wrap our sandwiches, cooked bacon, and our vegetable sticks and cheese. We twisted them, wrapped them, rolled them, and at dinnertime we made them into bowls. Our fruit and nuts remained in the bulk bags just as we purchased them - ready for the trail.
Pre-cooking our meals eliminated 90% of the waste we would normally carry into the backcountry, including compost waste that we would otherwise have to pack out. This helped to minimize our gear, as we didn’t need cooking utensils. We carried only our sporks and a small mess kit for coffee.
Speaking of gear, we used only solar powered and rechargeable lights, eliminating disposable batteries - which contribute to gnarly environmental troubles if not disposed of properly. (Topic for another day).
| "Pre-cooking our meals eliminated 90% of the waste we would normally carry into the backcountry"
6 boiled eggs
Bell pepper sticks
1 lb bacon (pre-cooked)
Tofu & peppers sandwiches on french bread (a vegan version of steak & peppers) - 2 each
Lentil couscous pilaf - 4 servings
Block of cheddar cheese
4 Clif bars
Dark chocolate bar
Box of wine
Flask of brandy
Four Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee (cordyceps)
If you’ve ever backpacked in Yosemite, you’ll know it’s bear country, so proper food storage is required. In order to safeguard our wilderness friends we stored all our food, trash, and toiletries in bear canisters. Dustin and I always travel with one, but this time we needed a second. We rented another from the backcountry office for $5. You can also purchase ziplock baggies at 10 cents each for packing out toilet paper. But since we’re minimizing waste, we decided to use an old dry bag, or ‘dirt bag’ as we like to call it, to pack out our trash.
| "This was the lightest our packs have ever been."
The next part I left to the tetris master. Dustin somehow manages to fit an elephant into a toy car. I often wonder where he gets the patience, but he always makes it work.
First, he packed all our food into the bear canisters and each of us carried our own rations. Next, he strategically packed our gear, balancing out the weight proportionately. My pack is 40L and I can comfortably carry between 20-25 pounds. Dustin’s is 50L and he tries to keep it under 30 pounds.
This was the lightest our packs have ever been. They were more organized and less bulky than usual.
LEAVE NO TRACE
The type of toiletries we use in the outdoors is often overlooked, but they produce waste that can be detrimental to the environment. Many contain microplastics and harsh chemicals that can harm wildlife and pollute waterways.
| "Animals, especially bears, are attracted to the scent of toiletries"
Animals, especially bears, are attracted to the scent of toiletries, so we opted to leave most of it behind - deodorant, soaps, lotion, toothpaste. I recently read that you don’t even need toothpaste to remove dental plaque, just soft brushing twice per day will do the job.
What we brought was an all-natural, fragrance-free non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen. For insect repellant we used lemongrass essential oil (which worked for about an hour), our backup was an all-natural insect repellent spray.
Something we’ve always done on the trail is collect any trash we encounter along the way - this is where our ‘dirt bag’ really came in handy. On this particular trail, however, we didn’t find much trash, so packing out was a breeze.
Our three days spent in the Yosemite wilderness were incredibly relaxing. We set up a basecamp at a previously existing campsite with a fire ring, overlooking one of the lakes. We cuddled in our hammock and watched sunset every night, played backgammon, went swimming, hiked around the lakes, and found beautiful cascading waterfalls.
Wine box (recycled)
2 Clif bar wrappers
1 cracker sleeve
2 coffee packets
On this trip we used water purification tablets for our drinking water. A better option would be a SteriPen or a lightweight water filtration system like Lifestraw. Next time we’ll likely opt for a wine flask, which is more durable and flexible than a box. As an alternative to packaged protein bars, perhaps we’ll make our own. One thing we didn’t have that would have been handy is a couple of food thermos or a set of lightweight stainless steel food canisters. This is an upgrade we’ll be making before our next backpacking trip.
| "it felt great knowing we were doing it right by Mama Earth."
What we learned from this experience is, next time, bring more wine! On a serious note, this was probably the most enjoyable and organized backpacking trip we’ve ever done. We were more intentional with our planning. It required more work to prepare, but the result was lighter packs, less waste to pack out, and more time relaxing at camp. Plus it felt great knowing we were doing it right by Mama Earth.
SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCE
Have you done a zero-waste backpacking trip? We’d love to hear from you.
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