Low-Trash Backpacking

On your trips you're careful to pack it out, be cautious of delicate ecosystems, and practice LNT principles. But what about all the plastic you throw out once you get home? Learn great ways to decrease your trash production while upgrading your on-trail eating.
Hailey Oppelt Hailey Oppelt
Communications Associate
November 10, 2018

Backpacking is popular for good reason – it provides isolation, time away from the stresses of work and home, and a window into the natural world. However, there is one element of backpacking that’s incongruent with its value set: the amount of trash produced.

Compared to most folks’ at-home habits, backpacking creates an incredible amount of trash. Trail mix, granola bars, dehydrated meals, single-serving coffee packs, and energy gels are vacuum packed and plastic wrapped to perfection, all of which goes into the landfill when you get home. Backpacking is inherently inconvenient – you’re forced to bring all of your necessities in a single pack, a much smaller space than the house you’re accustomed to filling up and living in. Sacrifices are made to get that drawstring tight, and among those is often the kind of foods we eat and the way we package them.

Tupperware, however reusable, is not backpack friendly. That said, convenience shouldn’t triumph over responsibility, especially in the backcountry. Read on for tips to reduce the amount of plastic you produce on the trail while creating an enviable food plan.  

Make and Dehydrate Your own Meals

Making and dehydrating your own food is far less convenient than a pre-packaged dehydrated meal, but many people cook their meals at home already. Instead of an inconvenience, view this as an additional step beyond your usual food prep. In addition to avoiding plastic wrap, you’re also creating meals that will cost less and likely be better for you than carb-heavy dehydrated meals designed for lengthy shelf lives.

You can dehydrate most foods in your oven at home – read up on the process here. You can mix dehydrated ingredients together to prep a meal, or cook it at home then dehydrate it. To start, check out these recipes for bulger chili, beef and barley stew, and 3 mushroom risotto. Dirty Gourmet (Mountaineers Books) also has a wealth of information on dehydrated camp meals, including this coconut curry soup.

Next up: making your own granola bars. Granola bars sound like a pain to whip up, in no small part because they are readily available pre-made at a low cost. However, making granola bars is one of the easier food prep moves you can make, and allows you to choose exactly what you want in your pack. Most bars are high in sugar and missing great ingredients like flax seeds, sunflower seeds, or dried coconut. Granola requires only a handful of ingredients and an oven, and you have your trip snack ready to go.

Choose Reusable Packaging

Reusable packaging is the most obvious solution to the issue of excess trash, but also one of the more difficult ones to execute. In most of our kitchens we have two options for storage: Tupperware or ziplock bags. The former is not pack friendly, and the latter is often flimsy and good for a handful of light uses at most. This means that you’ll have to invest in storage specifically for your trips. It may seem like an unnecessary encumbrance, but you’ve probably bought and brought along a one or two things on the trail you don’t really need - an inflatable pillow instead of using your extra layers, coffee to get your morning started. One more accommodation won’t hurt.

For dry goods, tightly woven cloth bags with drawstrings are great. Trail mix, beef jerky, granola, and dehydrated veggies will all do well in a cloth bag tied up neatly. It’s not sterile, and it will accumulate crumbs inside that will need to be washed out, but they will serve you well and last for years if you treat them well. Purchase your cloth bags online, at craft stores, or repurpose other items from around the house. Remember that stuff sack you never use that came with your down jacket? What they don’t tell you is that it doubles as a granola bag.

If your trip is long enough (or wet enough) that moisture and rot are potential issues, grab a large reusable plastic bag to seal your dry goods in. For any wet goods you may bring along on short trips, consider durable plastic bags (not ziplock!) that you can re-use many times over.

No More Single-Serving Products

We all have our convenient go-to choices for backpacking, but many of these products are available in larger quantities that require less plastic per serving. Skip the single-serving packets and pick up a jar of instant coffee, grab the mega bag of beef jerky, and surf online for substitutes for your more unique single-serving foods. You can even find big packs of energy gel, seen here at Running Warehouse.

An even better option is getting foods in bulk. Grab jars from around the house and go pick up your nuts, berries, and grains from a store with a bulk section. Trail mix is the easiest thing to put together. Not only are you saving plastic, you can choose exactly what you do and don’t have to eat. No more pawning off Brazil nuts on your less particular trail partners.

For the Pros

If you backpack often and have the funds, space, and inclination to invest in additional gear, you may want to consider purchasing tools to make your dehydrated meal prep faster and smoother. This will not only encourage you to take those extra steps prior to a backpacking trip, but will also decrease the risk of over-dehydration and make the food that you do prep last longer. This added shelf life means that you could prep meals months in advance of your trip, or store leftovers until next season.

Food Dehydrator

A big step up from an oven, a good dehydrator can take a lot of the guesswork out of prepping food. Many dehydrators come with timers, allowing you to leave the house or leave it on overnight without concern. The cost range is significant, so be sure to research which features are most important to you and which you can live without to avoid paying for features you won’t use. If you’re unsure of how a dehydrator would fit into your routine, check out this guide on dehydrating to get a stronger idea of the process.

Vacuum Sealer

The best way to keep food dry and air-tight, vacuum packers are part of every serious food saver’s arsenal. It can be used to store extra dry goods for years, as well as meat and other goods you want to save from freezer burn – maybe following a fishing trip or a holiday with too many leftovers. There is a wide variety of reusable vacuum seal bags, and starter vacuum sealers are fairly inexpensive. This tool has a variety of uses outside your trip’s food prep, helping to mitigate any guilt you feel for buying yet another piece of backpacking-related gear.

Although it’s hard to add one more element to an already lengthy trip prep plan, taking steps to decrease your trash production on the trail is a great way to continue your efforts to protect and maintain the outdoors. Environmental stewardship doesn’t end when you get back to the car, and it’s important that we continue to practice and prioritize it even when it’s inconvenient. Many of these habits can also be incorporated into your normal routine, like shopping in bulk and saving food in re-sealable containers. Taking your time and being thoughtful about your backpacking food prep will not only improve your on-trail dining, but help protect the wild places that you love to explore.