Leave-Less-Trash: Car Camping Edition

Residents of the WLSSD are super-duper lucky, not just for our sweet wastewater treatment system (bwahahahaha) or top notch trash and recycling options, but for our proximity to endless splendor. North Shore state parks. Superior National Forest recreation and campgrounds. The Boundary Waters. Lakes! Rivers! Campgrounds! Car camping can be a great way to get out and enjoy it.

Let’s get this out of the way before we dive into waste reduction: there’s a bit of a hierarchy in the camping world. Plenty of hard-core hiker/campers scoff at the car camper or assume car camping is a less sophisticated outdoor experience. But protecting and preserving our wild and natural spaces now and into the future will depend on people who are passionate about them, who live and work and play in these spaces. We will need people to speak to all the values of natural spaces and how to best manage them. So if car camping gets you out there, and shower facilities and coolers and smoky fires and s’mores are your gateway to a greater understanding and appreciation of northern Minnesota’s ecology and rich cultural history, I’m all for it!

Minimizing waste when car camping requires a special mindset. The temptation of a big ol’ dumpster there in the campground can be strong. Begin with a mindset of less-waste and stick with it; besides being gentler on the earth, it’s more economical in the long run. And, less trash means fewer distractions from the fun. Pack up, get out, and have a great time!

Gearing Up

Buy the best gear you can afford if you plan on camping again. If this is a one-time deal, borrow from friends and neighbors, or check out the UMD Rental Center, the College of St. Scholastica’s Rental Center, or other outfitters. Invest in quality pieces to reduce waste in the long run. Should you decide camping isn’t for you, you can list quality pieces on Craigslist to recoup some costs; it’s a bit tougher to find a buyer for lower quality goods when they can easily purchase them new.

Buy any gear in advance, so you can check it out and see if it’ll work for you.  Recycle the packaging at home, where you have comprehensive recycling services available for items like film plastic and pasteboard.  Rural campgrounds often don’t offer recycling for anything but aluminum, a valuable recyclable that can “pay” for the cost of hauling. Other, less valuable recyclables like plastics, glass, and paper, may end up in the trash to save cost or because recycling simply isn’t available in these rural communities.

Resist the urge to fill the vehicle with “stuff,” especially if you aren’t able to invest in durable goods. Peek into the dumpster at a local state park and you’ll find heaps of broken camp chairs and screen houses.

Food Prep

Car camping is cool because you can bring a full-on camp stove and eat bacon a lot, but careful meal planning and packing will help to reduce tossing food packaging and leftovers.

Cut your melons, fruit and veggies at home and store in reusable containers in the cooler. Doing this work at home avoids picnic table messes and ensures that the rinds, peels, and crusty bits can be composted in home piles or at a WLSSD food waste drop site.

Scramble eggs at home and freeze them in a reusable container. Compost the egg shells, recycle or reuse the carton, rejoice knowing there’s an “eggy ice pack” to keep the cooler cold. We place frozen eggs close to the top of our (regrettably, not high quality) cooler so we can be assured the eggs will melt in time for our traditional Saturday brunch bacon-n-egg-stravaganza.

Use reusable ice packs or freeze water in plastic water jugs. Bonus: cold, refreshing bottled water all weekend long as they melt. When we don’t plan out this step, we tend to stop at the gas station and grab ice for the coolers, contributing to more film plastic waste (the bag). The worst is that loose ice makes everything soggy as it melts, so we tend to lose more food to water-loggedness.

Exercise portion control as you’re packing. Be realistic about how much people can eat and pack accordingly.  Don’t forget to factor in special snacks that take up tummy real estate, like trail mix or other treats. Too often my urge to feed my people exceeds their appetites, and leftovers in the cooler can be a dicey proposition due to food safety recommendations, so extras are trashed.

Dining Supplies

We’ve invested in a tub for our camp “kitchen” that includes a set of silverware and a full plate-bowl-cup combo for each family member. It also has a couple of sharp knives, a cutting board for picnic tabletop food prep, and a couple of pots and pans.

Most of the dining items have been pilfered from kitchen extras or our camping gear from pre-kids-pre-car-camping, or purchased at Goodwill. It makes the experience nicer to use real items rather than flimsy and wasteful disposables. Washing up is a snap with some camp soap and a scrubby, and air drying is a breeze (haha).

Other Random Sources of Junk n Funk

Brochures & Maps multiply in the backseat like snowshoe hare.  Our family rule is to grab just one for all of us and to return it on our way out.  I used to have lofty goals about scrapbooking or creating a memory book using maps and photographs, but never followed through and they ended up soggy and muddy and unusable. Taking just one and returning it means there aren’t maps lying around taunting me about my DIY mommy failures, and it’s fun to imagine another family enjoying it.

Spur of the Moment Drinks It’s hot and there is a pop machine by the showers, but don’t forget that cool and delicious water back at your cooler. Resist the drinks. These last-minute purchases just add more waste packaging that might not even be recyclable.

Campfire Wood We love Minnesota forests and are excellent rule followers, so buying our wood at the campground is a no brainer. Occasionally there will be licensed vendors just outside the park, too. In that case, we try to buy from the vendor using the least packaging.


By Sarah Lerohl, Environmental Program Coordinator