Long-term camping is teaching me to be more sustainable

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As I ramp up my car-camping digital nomad lifestyle, I’ve been reflecting on how it’s teaching me to be more sustainable. More so than I’d be at home with seemingly unlimited resources. Out on the road, I have noticeably finite resources, especially when I’m in more remote places for long periods. So long-term camping has me thinking about how the products I use affect the environment and how I can best stretch out my resources.

Rationing resource usage

Camping is usually a game of determining how much you can pack in your car and survive off of before calling it quits or making a trip to the nearest store. The game becomes more complicated when camping long-term, maybe for a week or more, while also in remote locations. The essential resources I’m usually thinking about are:

  • Water
  • Energy (gas and electricity)
  • Food

I use water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. Gas is obviously used for my car, but my vehicle sometimes doubles as a gas-powered generator so that I can charge my equipment. The electricity stored in my battery packs and Jackery generator is used for whatever electronic devices I bring, whether for entertainment, work, or survival. As for food, I try to bring a good combination of dry foods and whatever fits in my portable refrigerator.

And then there are the miscellaneous resources such as cleaning wipes, paper towels, personal hygiene items etc.

With the essential resources, long-term camping has forced me to think about what can be recycled. For instance, after a week of camping, I realized how quickly water is used. Everything from washing my hands to doing dishes uses much more water than I had expected. So I started thinking creatively and realized that some of the water I use could be recaptured and used again. I try to capture any excess water I use for cooking, doing dishes, or washing my hands in a container. Later, I re-use it for putting out campfires or rinsing dirt off of some things.

Furthermore, I’m forced to think more about my electricity usage and how far I can stretch my battery power before recharging. Whenever possible, I operate my electronics in lower power or eco mode, and I completely power down devices when I’m not using them, as well as when I’m charging them.

My electric generator is easily the most essential piece of equipment I have. It has a large capacity, but I need to give it some charge often so I’m not stuck in a situation where it is depleted when I really need it. Soon I plan on buying a solar panel accessory to have it charge throughout the day when there is sunlight. But for now, I plug it into my car port whenever I drive somewhere else. Sometimes I’ll let it run off my car battery alone for a bit. Or sometimes I’ll do a “5-minutes on, 10-minutes off” sort of rotation with my car so that I don’t drain my car battery.

When cooking food, I try to estimate the exact serving size that will fill me up instead of cooking a surplus of food and wasting some. However, if you bring suitable food storage containers and can prevent things from spoiling, that’s a good alternative. I also find getting food that doesn’t need to be reheated is a good idea. I have a propane gas burner that can reheat some food, but even the gas used for that is limited.

Sustainable products

Another thing I often think about these days is which products that I bring into the wilderness are the most harmful to the environment. Of course, sustainable consumerism is something I think about a lot at home in the city too. But things feel more palpable when you’re directly interfaced with nature. Certain products, such as plastic, stand in contrast to my immediate surroundings whenever I pull them out to use. It also doesn’t help that I sometimes see the trash remnants of prior, less sustainability-minded campers in the spots I choose. One principle I’ve been following is to try and leave a camping spot cleaner than how I found it.

In terms of sustainable products, I try to think about possible alternatives to the things I’d traditionally use while camping. For example, there are biodegradable versions of most cleaning wipes, such as hand wipes, body wipes, and general cleaning wipes. In addition, the soap I use for dishwashing is environmentally-friendly, and I’m currently shopping for other sustainable personal hygiene products. Toothbrushes & toothpaste, body wash/soap, and paper towels are examples of things I’m hoping to replace soon.

Gas usage

Arguably the worst thing I’m doing to the environment is constantly driving. Unfortunately, I’m a bit priced out of high-range electric vehicles with 4WD, and there are limits to where I can go with EVs due to the underdeveloped fast-charging network infrastructure. Nevertheless, I have high hopes that EVs will become a better alternative for digital nomads soon. 

For now, I try to do things like better trip planning and getting better at timing when I have my car engine on. As I mentioned before, there are times when I need to charge a bunch of things in a pinch. In those situations, I may use a “5-minutes on, 10-minutes off” rotation to avoid emitting too much gas while keeping in mind my car battery. Fortunately, I do have a portable jumper cable that I can use if my battery does die.

Overall I try not to let my car idle. I also tend not to drive aggressively and prefer seeing how high I can get my gas mileage while driving. It helps to have a vehicle that displays that sort of info in the dashboard. For what it’s worth, I also use premium gas because apparently it gives you better gas mileage and price savings in the long run.

Becoming one with nature

Going forward, it’s a no-brainer that I should continue optimizing my sustainability as a digital nomad. Not only does it help the environment, but it potentially helps to save me money. I’m thinking about how I can recycle my grey water, which products are biodegradable, and how I can stretch out my resources. I suspect that I’ll bring this improved mindset home with me when I head back to the city.

To be one hundred percent sustainable may not be realistic for most digital nomads. But with the products on the market today, we’re privileged to have options. As consumers, we can also make sure we are buying from sustainability-focused companies and advocate for better products.

There’s so much more I could be doing better, and I’m only scratching the surface. If you have any tips or suggestions for me, please let me know, and I’ll try to incorporate them into my lifestyle!