A Guide to Minimal Waste Backpacking

By Hailey Hirst

My great grandmother is famous in my family for hauling a cast iron skillet on a backpacking trip. She made breakfast from scratch and packed extra weight so the lake trout would brown perfectly over a campfire. Meanwhile, I can peel open a backpacking meal and add water that I brought to a boil ridiculously fast on a tiny stove. Aren’t we spoiled these days?

Things may be easier with ultralight packs and high-tech gear, but lately I’ve been feeling like this pre-packaged style of convenience backpacking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It’s true that backpacking is inherently low waste. Because you can only pack what you can carry, your life is condensed to the bare minimum basics: shelter, food, water, warmth. But products made for the sake of convenience: Pre-packaged granola bars, backpacking meals, single-use coffee packs, individually-wrapped bug repellant wipes, that travel-size tube of toothpaste… these things add up.

Even when I’m packing out trash and leaving the backcountry as I found it, it feels a little contradictory to unload my pack and send a wad of wrappers and packages to the landfill after I’ve been so immersed and connected with nature. 

High among the peaks at McGee Pass in the Sierra — photo by Gale Straub

I’m not an expert lightweight backpacker, nor do I live a truly “zero waste” lifestyle, but this my honest, researched attempt to plan a backpacking season with less single-use plastic.

It’s worth acknowledging that it’s a privilege to invest time in trip planning and money in reusable gear, and it’s a choice that not every outdoors person can or will make—and that’s okay. As much as I’m writing from my own experience and goals, I respect that other people will make different choices that are right for themselves. Not going low-waste doesn’t mean people are doing it wrong. But if you are interested in reducing your use of disposables and single-use plastics…

Here are a few tips for going minimal waste:

Meal Planning and Prep

Meals

Not only are homemade backpacking meals less expensive than the pre-packaged ones, there’s a good chance they’ll taste better, too. Going low waste has multiple perks. 

I’m guilty of often opting for a Mountain House meal on an overnight but I’m trying to think outside the box (plastic bag) this year. Thanks to resources like Fresh Off the Grid and other backpacking blogs, I feel like the leap to DIY backpacking meals won’t be a difficult one. I like to cook at home anyway.

Best practice is to buy in bulk and prepare what you can at home so cooking in the backcountry is as simple (and fast) as possible. This might mean using/borrowing/buying a food dehydrator, or finding already-dehydrated ingredients.

Some staples:

  • Quick oats
  • Nuts or nut butters
  • Couscous or other pasta
  • Minute rice
  • Hard cheese
  • Dry cured meats
  • Freeze dried fruits and vegetables
  • Dehydrated beans or meat

Some recipes:

If you’d still like the convenience of a ready-to-go dehydrated meal, TrailFork offers backpacking meals in fully compostable packaging.

Snacks

Make your own: 

Alternatively, buy your favorite snacks in bulk and store in reusable containers. Like: beef jerky, whole wheat crackers, trail mix, chocolate.

A simple pack for an overnight, including reusable paper towels, reusable containers and food wrap, along with the usual backpacking essentials — photo by Hailey Hirst
Anna Brones’ book Best Served Wild has more backcountry cooking tips and recipes — photo courtesy of Anna Brones
Sharing a meal with friends in the Sierra — photo by Gale Straub

Reusable containers

Food storage 

The ziplock bag reigns supreme for its low weight and utility for a lot of backcountry meal prep, but there are much more eco-friendly options out there. 

Some worthy alternatives:

If you have favorite reusable containers at home, they might work just fine in a backpack too. Some of your backpacking kitchen items might also double as storage. Can your cups or pot hold food? Load ’em up!

Beeswax wraps for cheese and a sandwich, and Stasher silicone bags to pack trail mix, oatmeal with dried fruit, and crackers and jerky — photo by Hailey Hirst

Drink Storage

Liquid containers — for food, cleaning, bug, and body products

To store:

  • Olive oil
  • Hot sauce 
  • Liquid soap
  • DEET repellant
  • Sunscreen
  • Alcohol hand sanitizer

These all are great options:

Dealing with Human Waste

Use a p cloth for #1. And follow LNT guidelines for your cat hole, or pack out #2 if you’re in a sensitive environment and/or heavily used recreation area. Always pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.

Hate packing out used tampons? Consider using a menstrual cup if you’re dealing with a period while backpacking. It’s not something to try for the first time ever in the backcountry, but it’s a great low-waste alternative to disposable products when you’re out there.

Finally, bring along a trash bag for any waste or trash you make or find along the way.

Calm at camp after a long day on the trail — photo by Gale Straub

Takeaways

Trying to live more minimally is more work at home, and the same goes for backpacking. It requires supplies, planning, and preparation. But don’t we backpack for the effort and experience anyway?

I like the intentionality of leaning towards a lower-waste version of backpacking. Even though it appears complicated to gather ingredients and really consider every container, it feels like a simplification.

I could be my great grandmother in 1981, grating potatoes at camp for a morning breakfast or cooking lake trout with tiny bottles of olive oil and lemon juice. Unlike her, though, I won’t be hauling a cast iron pan or a cotton sleeping bag on my next backpacking trip.


Do you have other tips for minimizing waste while backpacking?

Photos courtesy of Gale Straub, Anna Brones, and Hailey Hirst

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