During one of my first adventures, I was boondocking in one of the most beautiful free campsites I’ve ever seen. It was waterfront at Moosehead Lake, the weather was perfect, and there were only two other campers nearby so it felt relatively private. I was able to stay there for the full 14 days allowed on public land because my rig is well-equipped to be off-grid for these stretches of time. I’m sharing my insider tips, tricks, and products for a zero-waste, sustainable van life so you can extend your beautiful stays, take better care of our planet, and maybe even save a little bit of money in the process!
1. Save Leftovers With Beeswax Wrap
First of all, I think we can all agree plastic wrap is so ineffective at actually sticking to your containers, that you should ditch plastic wrap even if you’re not living in a van. Beeswax wrap is an upgrade on multiple levels. It sticks better, it’s washable, and it creates a stackable surface so you can put other items on top of your wrapped container inside your fridge. This is especially helpful in my chest-style fridge. Beeswax wrap also takes up less space than a box of plastic wrap in the drawer. A win-win!
2. Swap Sandwich Bags For Stasher Bags
Another reusable kitchen item, Stasher bags are silicone alternatives to plastic food storage bags. Not only are they perfect for reducing plastic waste, but they also outperform plastic bags because you can do so much more than save leftovers. Reheat food by placing the bag in boiling water or in your tiny van oven if you’re lucky enough to have one. You can even make ice cream with these bags!
3. Ditch The Cotton Towels
In your precious storage space, you don’t want bulky cotton towels taking over. I swapped mine for Lava Linens hemp and flax towels. These natural linens are better than microfiber towels which are made of plastic fibers that shed and end up in our air, water, and soil. Not only are these more absorbent, fast-drying, and antimicrobial, but they’re also produced by a women-owned small business that offers lifetime repairs. There’s nothing more sustainable than a lifetime product.
4. Use A Diva Cup
I’ll never have to leave the campsite because I started my period and need to run into town for supplies. Not with a Diva Cup! This medical-grade silicone menstrual cup is reusable and allows me to totally ditch disposable period products. On a large scale, one DivaCup Diverts an average of 300 pounds of waste from landfills annually. On a small scale, it reduces the amount of trash I generate and have to pack out from public land. DivaCup is also a Certified B Corp! Certified B Corporations are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions regarding governance, workers, customers, community, and the environment.
5. Use Baggu Reusable Bags
If you haven’t already said goodbye to plastic grocery bags, when you live in a van, you’ll definitely want to make the switch. I love my Baggu bags for the fun prints they come in too! Reusable bags are stronger, multipurpose (I use mine as a gym bag sometimes), and take up less space than a collection of plastic bags. In some states like Maine, you’ll be charged a small fee if you use bags provided at the store. Better to bring your own to save the planet and some coins!
6. Reuse Containers – Be Creative!
The second tenet of recycling is reuse. Extend the life of your containers by repurposing them when they’re empty. For example, I’ve reused glass jars for bulk pantry storage, coffee ground tins to refill with coffee at local roasteries, and paper boxes for fire kindling.
7. Buy From Local Markets – No Packaging!
Stroll through your traditional grocery store and you’ll see almost everything comes in some sort of packaging–many of which are non-recyclable. Not to mention that in vanlife when you’re responsible for disposing of your own trash (no more curbside trash services) packaging like this will quickly fill up your trashcan. My favorite alternative is to shop at local farmer’s markets. Here, you can buy produce, meat, unique local goods, and more. These items typically don’t have packaging! Bring your reusable grocery bag and directly support the local economy.
8. Get Reusable Water Bottles And Coffee Mugs
I don’t have cups in my van. I drink only from two vessels: my Hydroflask for water, and my Yeti mug for coffee and tea. I never buy plastic water bottles or disposable coffee cups. Plus, it reduces the number of dishes I have to do in the van!
9. Swap Plastic Dog Toys For Consumable Chews
My dog, Walter, needs entertainment too! He has a couple of coveted squeaky plush toys but when he’s bored of those, I buy toys that he can eat! I usually find a local pet store that sells dehydrated animal parts like bully sticks, duck feet, or cow ears. It sounds gross but he loves them, they entertain him for days, and they’re totally consumable. No more plastic dog toys that wear out and need to be thrown away.
10. Use Zero Waste Home’s bulk finder app To Buy In Bulk
Keep your van well-stocked by buying in bulk! Buying in bulk can look different depending on how much space you have, but the important aspect is to use your own containers to buy larger quantities of things that don’t come in traditional packaging. I use the bulk finder app to find stores where I can refill items like coffee, pasta, cleaning supplies, pet items, and more.
11. Learn The Basics Of Sewing For Repairs Before You Throw Something Away
Basic sewing is actually really simple and easy to do. I had a shirt that I loved dearly, but it started coming apart at the seam. This is one of the easiest sewing fixes ever! Instead of throwing this shirt away, I got out my needle and thread. In less than 5 minutes, the shirt was like new. You’ll feel a sense of satisfaction when you’re able to repair your own clothing.
12. Swap, Don’t Shop For Clothing
This one is more challenging when living in a van, but if you can pull it off, the rewards are great! For me, a minimal wardrobe gets old, fast. I don’t like to shop for brand-new clothing, so a clothing swap is a perfect solution. A clothing swap is exactly what it sounds like. People gather for a one-time event to swap their gently-used clothing with others. The basic concept involves bringing some items to donate to the community pile and taking some items away with you–all for free. This is a great way to donate your own clothing while getting something in return, saving money and the environment. If you’re having trouble finding a clothing swap, try launching one yourself! Vanlife gatherings are great opportunities to swap clothing with other vanlifers too.
13. Use Tru Earth Laundry Detergent Sheets
Before I lived van-life, I used giant, plastic bottles of laundry detergent. Now that I have to do my laundry at the laundromat, I’m no longer lugging around those hefty containers or finding a place to store them in the van. I switched to laundry detergent sheets and you should consider doing the same. They come in zero-waste compostable packaging, are readily biodegradable in accordance with OECD 310D, and are super easy to use.
14. Use An Intimacy Blanket To Lengthen The Time Between Washing Your Sheets
Who said sustainable van life couldn’t be sexy? If you want to lengthen the amount of time between washing your sheets, consider getting yourself an absorbent, waterproof intimacy blanket called The Layer. No one likes to sleep in the wet spot anyway. This can be especially helpful if your bed doubles as the main seating space in your van. The Layer can be used any time, but it’s also helpful for sex while on your period, protecting your sheets from lube, massage oil, sweat, and anything else that brings you pleasure. We use ours every time!
15. Schedule Regular Maintenance For Your Van
This is probably a no-brainer considering you’ll want to take the best care of your vehicle and home to make the most of your travels, but getting familiar with the basic maintenance can help reduce the carbon emissions from your vehicle. Things like proper tire inflation, changing your air filter, and getting oil changes on a regular schedule can have a huge impact on your overall gas mileage.
There’s nothing like vanlife to make you a conscious consumer. Suddenly, you’re aware of every piece of trash you throw away, every drop of water you use, and every device you recharge. When the resources aren’t unlimited, you have to consider how to conserve them!
Bethany travels full-time with her husband, Wade, and her dog, Walter. She really enjoyed the design and creativity that went into completing their self-converted T1N Sprinter van. She travels with the seasons, preferring to stay in mild climates. You can find her in Maine for the summer and in the desert for the winter. She loves to share insight into living in a van because she thoroughly enjoys the freedom to explore and the novelty she experiences every day.