April 17, 2012

Zero Waste Camping - if it wasn't for cling wrap

Hanging out at Joshua Tree

We're back from Spring Break! Rested and tan (unintentionally). Having rented our home for the whole period, we decided to "rough it" for a profit and spend ten days camping our way down the California coast, an experience that Scott and I had longed to share with our boys.

This trip was a first for our Prius too, and I must say, its trunk capacity exceeded our expectations, accommodating the belongings for our family of four with ease.

This is what we packed:

  • Dining: 4 mugs, 4 bowls, 4 plates, 4 forks, 4 spoons, and each of us carried a personal pocket knife.
  • Drinking: 4 Stainless steel canteens, always filled with water (or tea). And refillable pouches for waterless sites (i.e, desert camping).
  • Cooking: A two-burner propane stove, 2 nesting pots and a pan, an Italian espresso maker, and a wooden spatula.
  • Sleeping: 4 sleeping bags, 4 mattresses (2 mats, 2 inflatables), 4 small pillows, 2 regular pillows (what seem like extras, assured restful nights for both Scott and I).
  • Sitting: 4 folding chairs.
  • Light: 4 LED head lights.
  • Shelter: Our 12-years-old tent and a hand broom to sweep it (Scott's anti-stress device)
  • Mini First aid/emergency kit: It contains a tiny roll of duct tape, which saved our tent, see below.
  • Cleaning: 2 microfiber cloths, one bar of solid Castile soap, a metal scrubber, and a kitchen towel.
  • Clothes: 2 layer outfits per person (I brought jeans + tights, shorts+leggings, 2 long-sleeve shirts, 2 tank-tops, 2 sweaters, and one jacket), bathing suit, socks, underwear and hats. We used our shopping totes for easy access and transport. We also stored one clean outfit for back-to-school in a hidden compartment of the car to keep them clean.
  • Hygiene: All we have in our bathroom medicine cabinet, which is not much, but included eyeliner and mascara for myself (an extra which I happily used once we got to LA;), and scissors, which I used to give Leo a "plein-air" haircut. SPF lotion, solid soap, toothbrushes and tooth powder are the items that we used most. We also brought TP, but did not use it, as it was available everywhere we went.

Our car packed

  • Entertainment: Books, a handful of toys, football, sketchpad, pencil and pastels, plus Scott's fishing equipment comprising of 2 rod/reels, waders, a tackle box and calamari in a jar (bait).
  • Food: We brought salt, pepper, olive oil, homemade vinegar, eggs, cheese, bacon, potatoes, 2 baguettes, fruit, veggies, oatmeal, peanuts, homemade jam, wine refills, dog food to get us started. All were stored in shopping reusables (glass, bottles, jars or cloth bags).

What I love about camping is making do with the necessities and allowing nature to replace the grocery store. On this trip we foraged and consumed: Yerba buena, rosemary, seaweed, rock crab, bay leaf, mussels, dock, plantain, dandelion greens, mustard greens, and pine shoots. All these came un-packaged, local, and fresh... My botany class is really paying off;)

Our remote location on Easter Sunday made room for improvisation: The Easter Bunny not having access to bulk (not even a regular store), boiled eggs at night and hid them at the crack of dawn. No color, no chocolate, just plain eggs, but the kids were excited about the hunt, as if they had landed in an episode of the Little House on the Prairie, far away from the marketers who have exploited the holiday into an extravanganza. No pressure, no stress, no fuss, no sugar highs or drawbacks, just plain simple.

When we got to a metropolitan area, we found bulk and refilled our cloths bags with grains and bread buns. We bought seasonal fruit and veggies, splurged on a few bottles of wine and beer (we depleted our refillable wine stash quite quickly), and treated the kids to root beer. But the nature of our camp trip generated the purchase of packaged products otherwise banned at home:
  • Two plastic jugs of milk: Because we camp without ice, we bought milk for the kids on two occasions, in small quantities, in a plastic jug (vs.carton, for its recyclability). But even though, it is recyclable, I cringe at our purchase, i.e., our vote. We recycled them at the campground.
  • One gallon jug of water: Although we refilled every water container we had (both collapsible and stainless steel containers) before entering Joshua Tree, Scott freaked out at the idea of running out of waster in a desert, and bought a jug as an emergency extra. I freaked out about him buying the plastic jug. But I have to say, we used it all up, recycled the jug at the campground, and came out of the desert with no water left and thirsty.
  • One loaf of square bread, in a plastic bag: When we camped in the boondocks, the only bread we found was square bread (bread was available in neither bulk nor paper). Boy, we had forgotten what it tasted like, and although it was organic, we could not wait to get back to baguettes. We recycled the bag in a grocery store receptacle.
  • Two propane canisters: Since propane burns cleaner than wood or charcoal, we used it exclusively for cooking. Special recycling receptacle were available at some camps.

Little bowl made out of foraged clay

Obviously, had I camped on my own, I could have done without some of these. I can rough it and do without bread or milk for breakfast for the sake of conservation. But I did consider these necessary in making camping pleasant for the kids. I want them to look forward to the outdoors, not resent its harshness; enjoy it versus fear or hate it. I even agreed with the purchase of cling-wrapped firewood. (Ironically, state and national parks sell wood in saran wrap, but outside these parks, we found it at convenient stores sold in cardboard or bundled in twine and for cheaper). Yeah, burning wood is not eco either, but when temperatures dropped to 37 degrees Fahrenheit and penetrated thick layers of clothing, we used it for warmth. We made the most of the fires that we did start though: to warm water and keep my hands from freezing during dishwashing for example, to wash greasy/oily dishes with its ashes the next day (the combination of ash and oil acts as a primitive soap), or to fire the bowl that Leo and I made from foraged clay.

Camping promoted togetherness. Putting up the tent, setting up camp, making decisions on activities, preparing food or fire, cleaning dishes, digging a trench for compostable scraps... At night, we'd cuddle up in our tent and play charades. During the day, leisure activities included reading, drawing, writing, hiking, fishing, foraging, bouldering, picking up litter, playing football or just sitting on the beach, watching waves perform perfect rolls. Simplicity at its best.


Camping not only connected us to one another, it also evidently connected us with our surroundings. During our journey, we spotted dolphins and rabbits, watched a gopher make his burrow, avoided roadrunners, chased blue jays from Zizou's food, and listened to coyotes howl at night. We woke up the last morning to the repertoire of a mockingbird.

The environment is the reason why we embarked on the Zero Waste journey in the first place. The beauty of the landscape we visited and the fauna that we observed reminded us of the treasures we are fighting to save. They renewed our strength to keep going against the flow, on the unbeaten path of Zero Waste.

Camping confirmed my naivety too it seems... Not so long ago, I remember stressing out about beating after-dinner rush to the sink, as people would line up to wash dishes. Last week, I not only noticed the line missing, with a closer look I found that our family had exclusive use of the washing sink and tap water. I wondered: "How come no one uses the sink? Do they handwash when I sleep? Do they pack dirty dishes to clean at home" and got answers when Scott pointed to the throw-away flatware, plates, cups, and water containers used by neighboring campers. One family actually did not even use these. Their diet consisted of single servings of Gatorade, shrink wrapped hot dogs and a bag of marshmallow for dinner; Gatorade and a bag of chips for breakfast. No sinks required there. Camping has changed. Today, it has become synonymous of disposability for many. For us, it is synonymous of affordable fun.

At one point, our trip was interrupted by heavy rain and a subsequent stay at a friend's house for couple of nights but we enjoyed camping so much we did not want our vacation to end. Two tent poles also broke along the way. We used duct tape from our first aid kit to temporarily repair it. In the old days, I would have sent a whole tent to landfill for a broken pole. But I'll be sending these here for repair instead, for I can't wait to go camping again!

Do you enjoy camping?