21 Tips For A Sustainable Vanlife
1. Aim for Zero Waste: This should be a priority for every vanlifer, for obvious reasons. Aiming for zero waste helps maximize space and reduce what we send to the landfill.
Dustin and I make a weekly meal plan. We purchase ingredients like grains and beans because they’re versatile and easy to store. When combined with seasonal veggies from local farmers’ markets, we have all the ingredients for a variety of fresh, van-made meals for the week. This also saves valuable pantry space.
If you’re interested in a zero waste challenge, click here for some tips.
Shop in the bulk the section at the grocery store and buy only what you need - it’s a sure way to minimize packaging. Food waste is a topic we don’t talk about enough. In America we toss 150,000 tons of food each day consisting primarily of fruits and vegetables. This waste has an environmental toll, with the volume of discarded food equivalent to the yearly use of 30 million acres of land and 4.2 trillion gallons of irrigated water according to The Guardian. Rotting food also clogs up landfills and releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Which leads me to the next one...
2. Compost: This is hard in our lifestyle! Dustin and I have gotten to a point where we ride around with food scraps, sometimes for a couple weeks, until we find a drop off because we refuse to send it to the landfill. When we pass through cities we check to see if they offer municipal composting and drop it off there. Even if the city does not have an option, it’s likely someone within the city will take it - try calling around to local schools, nurseries, or community gardens, co-ops, even local farms. Some farmers markets offer drop off services for food scraps and compost which they then use to fertilize the soil. You can even give away your compost on Craigslist - yeah, really.
We hang our food scraps in a mesh bag to dry and store it in the fridge if we have room, or in a compost bag (converted dry bag) until we find a facility.
3. Recycle: This should be a last resort (after reducing and reusing), especially since most of us don’t have the extra space. Dedicate a container for recyclables and sort them at the recycling facility. To save on space, buy cans instead of bottles and crush them down. Buy in bulk, and if you do buy packaged products, opt for items packaged in recyclable and/or compostable materials.
4. Use a Wash Basin To Save Water: Water is life. And those of us living and traveling in our adventure mobiles don’t have an unlimited supply flowing through our tiny taps - so conservation is key. When you do the dishes, use a wash basin. Check out this video showing how to do dishes using a wash basin and how to dispose of the gray water. This is extremely important for those who don’t have a gray water holding tank.
5. Shop Secondhand: One of the best recycling systems available! We rotate seasonal gear and clothing through this system. We wrote a blog about it. Check it out.
6. Go Non-Toxic: The type of toiletries we use in the outdoors is often overlooked, but many common products produce waste that can be detrimental to the environment. They contain micro-plastics and harsh chemicals that harm wildlife and pollute waterways. And since most of us live in the outdoors, knowing what’s in our products can make a big difference in our efforts to Leave No Trace.
These are some of the products we’ve switched to:
- Sunscreen: We use all-natural, fragrance-free, non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen. Try Badger Balm (use code IRIETOAURORA for 20% off)
- Insect repellent: we use lemongrass and citronella essential oils. Depending on where we are we may need something that will last longer - our backup is an all-natural insect repellent spray or balm. (Again, Badger Balm makes some great options).
- Body wash and dish soap: we use biodegradable castile soap or a natural solid soap.
7. Un-paper Your Van: This was probably the easiest switch we’ve made in our van and it’s helped reduce our waste significantly. We cut up an old t-shirt for cleaning up floor spills and checking the oil, and use microfiber cloths for wiping up when we cook and wash dishes. We found a beautiful set of linen napkins at a thrift store for $2. There are so many possibilities!
8. Ditch The Wet Wipes: I know, they’re practically a staple in vanlife - and they’re terrible. These popular soapy washcloths are wreaking havoc in waterways and sewer systems around the world. They contain plastic fibers that break down into microplastics and end up in waterways, in the ocean, and in our water supply. And they’re extremely harmful to wildlife. Also, many contain chemicals and fragrance that should not come in contact with human skin. Even if it says “biodegradable,” rethink them! This applies to all types of cleaning wipes - makeup wipes, the hand wipes they offer at the grocery store, even the moist towelette from the restaurant.
9. Go Reusable: We have our homes with us 100% of the time. That being said, there’s no reason we should be using disposables. Sorry, not sorry!
10. Build Green: If you’re building out your van you have a great opportunity to create a healthy home from the start. Many building materials are known to off-gas, which is especially dangerous in a small space. Do your research and make sure the materials you use are safe and durable. And use recycled or upcycled materials whenever possible. We know several vanlifers who’ve insulated their vans with recycled denim batt, rather than nasty fiberglass. Read what some of them had to say about their green van builds here.
Making smart decisions in your build will go a long way in providing you with a healthy vanlife and help to minimize your environmental impact.
11. Go Solar and Rechargeable: Most of us already use energy from the sun to power our life on the road. As digital nomads, energy efficiency is crucial for our work-life balance. And not relying on the grid for power allows us to take our office with us wherever we go. To maximize your power, make sure you have proper wiring and energy efficient appliances (which for most of us just means a good fridge).
If you’re interested in solar or looking to upgrade your current system, the folks over at Renogy Solar can size one out specific to your needs.
Disposable batteries produce gnarly waste. Go rechargeable or solar for exterior lights. There are many good options on the market - our favorite is BioLite.
12. Maintain Your Home on Wheels: Home repairs are a necessary part of home ownership - and that’s especially true for a home on wheels. Maintain your home - get your oil changed regularly, check your tire pressure, make sure your emissions are up to par. Proper maintenance will eliminate leaking coolant, oil and other nasty liquids that can pollute groundwater. These things not only reduce your carbon footprint and save you money in the short-term (think fuel economy), but they also extend the life of your home on wheels.
13. Travel Slow: It’s easy to get caught up wanting to see and do it all, but magic happens when you travel at the speed of slow. It allows you to develop a real sense of place and helps to minimize your footprint. Stay awhile when you visit a town or landscape you really enjoy. Get to know the locals and the environment. Hike the trails, swim in the rivers. And this takes me to the next one...
14. Shop Local: While you’re enjoying the in-between time in a small town, support the local businesses. Have a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop, eat at a local mom-n-pop pizza joint, visit the local library. Buy groceries at the local co-op and farmers’ market. Invest in the local economy.
15. Volunteer: And while you’re there, offer your services to a local project in need of help. Restore a trail, pull weeds or plant tomatoes at a community garden, organize a beach cleanup. These opportunities are easy to find if you do a little research and most local co-ops and supermarkets have boards with event listings.
16. Be a Good Steward for Mama Earth: When you’re on the trail, carry a ‘dirt bag’ and pick up trash as you go. If you find a trashed campsite, clean it up. We know, it sucks! Feel free to rant on social media. It’s up to us to be better stewards of our environment by following responsible environmental practices in the outdoors and encouraging others to do the same. Bottom line, it’s up to us to be the change.
17. Advocate For Our Public Lands: We are the voice of our public lands. It’s where we sleep, work, and play. As vanlifers and outdoor enthusiasts it’s our responsibility to advocate for the protection of our public lands. We can do this by speaking up and bringing attention to issues that threaten them, by spreading awareness, voting, and reaching out to our representatives in government. Support organizations and companies who are investing time and resources to the protection of our public lands. And encourage your friends and loved ones to get out and enjoy our public lands and build a relationship with them. Let’s drive the conversation of conservation.
18. Cook More, Eat Out Less: This can be hard at times. When you’ve been driving all day and you get to camp late, the last thing you want to do is cook. But healthy home cooking is essential to minimize waste and fuel our adventurous lifestyle. Plus it makes you healthier and happier. And this goes hand-in-hand with the next tip...
19. Exercise & Meditate: These two can be hard to work into a routine in a lifestyle of constant movement. But once you do, they can be very grounding. I’ve found a combination of running, yoga, and meditation has helped me in relieving stress and fatigue from travel.
20. Build Community: The vanlife community is one that Dustin and I are very proud and fortunate to be a part of. If you’re new to the community, reach out for support, advice, and inspiration. We’re always looking for reasons to get together and share stories from the road. Hold a gathering or insta-meetup. Some of our favorite memories are of impromptu camp outs with fellow travelers.
21. Do Something Creative: Everyday! Bonus if it’s outside your comfort zone.
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