A Guide to Low-Waste Bikepacking
Convenience has become so highly prized that we often seek it out without a second thought, even in our outdoor adventures. If you’re disheartened with all the packaging that seems to accompany your pursuit of the simple life, check out this guide for hints and tips for reducing the trash you create on your next bikepacking trip…
As bikepackers, we’re privy to a side of society that many – especially other holiday-makers – don’t often get to see. We notice the trash that collects along roadsides and we pedal past smouldering landfills as we wind our way out of cities. Perhaps ocean-loving surfers have the same impression of the waters in which they bob around, in terms of the ever-increasing amount of plastic waste in existence today.
It’s also hard to avoid the ugly underbelly that lurks beneath our love of clean, wholesome bike touring. More often than not, a day in the saddle and a night under the stars ends, somewhat incongruously, with a handful of disagreeable packaging emptied into the first trash bin we can find the next day, to be conveniently magicked away. If only! According to uninvironment.org, only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest — 79% — has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment.
I’d expect we would all prefer to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Not just because we’re especially aware of the delicate beauty of the outdoors, but because we want to safeguard the air, water, and health of our world for everyone. For that to happen, we have to accept that it will mean making some changes. Unfortunately though, we’re at a point where both the problem and the solution are so complex that it’s sometimes hard to know what to do, let alone committing to something that might well be challenging.
The principles behind the suggestions below are based on what’s known as the Three Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Although they’re listed in order of importance, it should be noted that R number three – Recycling – now trails the pack considerably. In the last few years especially, its value has become questionable at best and completely ineffectual at worst. Follow up on the links in the Background Reading box-out to better understand the complexities of this conundrum, because they’re not easily paraphrased – except to the point that Reducing and Reusing are where we should be shifting our attention.
And before someone says ‘but what about your tent’ or ‘how about that flight to Timbuktu’… it’s worth being straight with ourselves and admitting that yes, it’s all part of a large and interrelated picture. We have a guide to thoughtful gear choices we can make in the future – along with repairing what we already own – coming up soon, as well as a post that discusses the pros and cons of where to bikepack in the first place, in terms of getting there. It’s a contaminated minefield out there for sure, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and navigate a way through. Constructive suggestions are always welcome.
But what’s the point?
The number of components that contribute to our climate emergency – and how to tackle them – can feel distinctly overwhelming. On a personal level, there’s packaging waste to worry about, food choices to make, fossil fuels to consider, consumerism to ponder. And then there’s a history of corporations – like the ones responsible for fossil fuel extraction in the first place, or those selling us soft drinks for all these years – nefariously directing responsibility to the general population. Trying to think it all through is enough to get your head in a whirl… or depressed.
Some of these problems are clearly more worrying than others, as are some of the culprits. There’s no doubt we should be insisting our governments keep to key environmental protection targets and strictly regulate the activities of big corporations, if we’re to see change on a scale that’s meaningful. And, we can also show financial support to local groups who advocate for changes on a policy level. Talk to politicians, check up on their voting history, and attend climate demonstrations.
Even so, I think that taking steps to reduce our own impact on the world, especially as advocates of the great outdoors, should still be seen as a ‘good thing’. There’s also a lot to be said for the power of positive change and the argument that one shift can lead to the next. As inconsequential as it may sometimes seem in turning down a straw (no, it’s not going to change the world), doing so creates an active mindset in which we’re not just making ourselves accountable, but we’re also doing something about it. Sounds like a bit of a hassle? That’s ok! In each choice we make, we’re effectively deciding how much we’re willing to pollute the planet on a personal level. And as a population with money in our pockets, the decisions we make within our economic system – namely, what we choose to buy – do hold sway. Combined with advocating for policy changes, we can help make a difference.
Preamble over, here are some very hands-on and relatively straightforward ideas for reducing our general waste imprint as bikepackers. It’s not rocket science and much of it overlaps with ways we can live our day to day life too. For the most part, it just requires forward planning… which, when it comes down to it, isn’t so different to what we do everytime we plan a bikepacking trip. Added bonus? Cutting down on packaged food tends to be much healthier, too!
1 – Carry a few re-usable bags and containers
It’s a good idea to carry a variety of reusable bags and containers. Bear in mind that because such items are inherently more robust in design, so they will likely be a little heavier and/or much trickier to deal with at the end of their lives.
For example, a silicone bag is extremely durable and impervious to boiling water, making it great for storing and rehydrating food. But it can only recycled in particular facilities, and because it’s so tough, it takes hundreds of years to break down (though it doesn’t create microplastics in the process). On the other hand, beeswax paper is a more sustainable alternative that is ideal for certain situations. It’s non-sealable but it’s perfect storing sandwiches, vegetables, and cheeses. It’s biodegradable too. Alternatively, Ziplock style bags may not be as robust as silicone, but many people own them already. If treated carefully they can still last a number of years, whilst their lightweight nature makes them quicker to degrade or easier to incinerate, relatively speaking. So when you decide what bags to buy and re-use, choose what you need carefully, use them to their full, look after them as best you can, and be sure to recycle them at the end of their lives.
Re-inventing items you already might have in your household is another option. Examples include OVC pill bottles that work well for spices and saline eye droppers, that are great for oils (I find the ones with the non-clear plastic tops are less likely to crack over time). Or old jars of peanut butter are also really useful.
Whatever you choose, keep everything clean because when you’re dealing with food hygiene, shop employees will be much happier re-filling a pleasant-looking bag or bottle over a grimey one.
In many parts of the world, supermarkets are moving towards compostable produce bags. There is considerable discourse over which style of compostable packaging is best – based on both how it’s made, and how and where it can be processed. Whilst compostable bags will break down much more quickly than conventional plastic packaging, this needs to be done in a special facility. So if you have reusable bags already, better to keep using them and save compostable alternatives for when they’re really needed.
This is a core list of reusable bags and packaging I carry with me, which I adjust depending on the trip and its length. It works best if you buy in bulk at home and then refill containers for shorter tours. But I find a number of these such are also useful for longer journeys too, helping eliminate a lot of the needless everyday packaging that pervades our lives. See Personal Hygiene below for other ideas.
- 1 x cotton bag: these are good for general items, be it fruit, trail mix, or porridge oats. They’re also good at reinforcing re-used plastic bags, so you can eek more life out of them.
- 1 x mesh cotton bag: These dry more quickly than solid cotton bags, are airier, and are another useful means to store produce in your framebag, for instance.
- 3 x backup freezer-style zip lock bags: take care and these will last for ages – you can easily patch them up too.
- A few small Nalgene bottles: These seal reliably and are great for cooking oil, olive oil, coconut oil, salt, spices, sunscreen, and even emergency medicines. Re-used OVC pill bottles are good options too.
- A few strong rubber bands: to keep stuff shut.
- 1 x Sea to Summit X-Seal & Go Container (large): I use this silicone, flat-pack bowl for breakfast, as a chopping board, and for storing leftovers, as it seals completely shut. It’s lasted me years. I also use a 1L screw-top Nalgene container too; it’s even more robust but not flat-packable.
- 1 x sheet of beeswax paper: great for wrapping sandwiches, cheese etc… and biodegradable.
- 1 x Stasher bag: Despite the added weight, I sometimes carry a sandwich-sized silicone bag as it’s easier to clean than a zip lock and better for leftover food, or take-outs that are piping hot. You can also use silicone bags for dehydrated meals, as they’re safe for pouring boiling water into. See above for thoughts on silicone.
- 1 x re-used Justins peanut butter jar: Not only does the initial peanut butter taste good, but I’ve found these plastic containers are really tough, have an efficient shape, and are re-usable for as long as you have them. They seal very well, making them ideal for honey too, which can often be found locally in bulk.
- 1 x cotton bandana: Good for wrapping tortillas, or buying a bakery product.
- 1 x Klean Kanteen (1.9l): Not the lightest way to carry water… but these stainless steel bottles are impervious to rocks and can handle boiling liquids. Nalgene’s 1.4L bottle is another option that’s less than half the weight and is also very robust. Otherwise, I have a 3L HydraPak water bladder. Being made from silicone, it can be patched easily with the repair kits supplied with air mattresses.
- 1 x re-usable Dr Bronner 60ml hand sanitiser spray: refill with alcohol and a few drops of lavender oil.
- 1 x Dr Bronner’s castile soap bottle (59ml): These bottles are easy to refill, they tend to seal well, and the soaps are kind on the environment.
2 – Personal hygiene
In terms of personal hygiene, a bamboo toothbrush is a good idea; cut it down at the end of its life to create an excellent nail scrubber, which is all the more important in this era of heightened personal hygiene!
Non-plastic, biodegradable dental floss can be purchased in speciality stores or online, and I refill a small (22ml) tube of toothpaste – squeezing it in from a larger one. I also refill saline solution into small (15ml), re-usable saline eye drop bottles – great for clean dust from your eyes at the end of the day. These same bottles are great for face oils; I have Vitamin E/Jojoba oil in mine. I replenish my Bronner’s castile soap bottle (59ml) from a larger one which can, in turn, be topped up in many health food stores.
Note that most outdoor education services recommend using smooth rocks for wiping your backside, or leaves – just make sure they’re not poisonous! See our post on the Leave No Trace principles here.
Women can check out the Diva cup – visit our post on bikepacking on your period for more details – and may find an old bandana perfect as a ‘pee rag’. Keep your hand sanitiser close by and refill it with medical-grade alcohol and a few drops of lavender oil.
3 – Pre-empting the straw
So you’ve got all your re-usable bags, vials, and bottles. Now you need to use them! Although there’s been a general shift in shops and restaurants towards the use of less packaging recently, it still might mean pre-empting certain situations.
For instance, you could have a clean bandana ready if you’re headed into a bakery, in lieu of a napkin and a bag. Or a cotton sack for a loaf of bread. As a courtesy or a conversation point, sometimes I’ll explain that I’m trying to cut down on packaging. On more than a few occasions I’ve actually been given (unexpected) discounts for my efforts and ended up having interesting discussions about the environment.
4 – To go!
If you’re stopping for food at a restaurant during the day, consider ordering extra and loading it into one of your reusable containers. Aside from being easy to reheat in the evening, it can save waste compared to creating a meal from scratch… or you can even tuck in instead of buying snacks later in the afternoon. Take-outs don’t have to be in polystyrene boxes!
5 – Adjust your eating habits
Buy in season and local when you can; this results in a smaller carbon footprint and often less use of heavy-duty packaging. Invest some money on eating organic when you can, too. Travelling across unfamiliar lands? Expand your palette to suit what is being sold without packaging – see it as part of the immersive, learning experience of being somewhere different. Can’t get a snack without resorting to excessive packaging? Then try something else! Can’t do without a soft drink? Choose the locally re-bottled glass option if it’s available, or shop around if need be. We tend to be very used to instant gratification and certain ‘needs’. It’s amazing how our worlds can change once we become more adaptable.
6 – Prepare meals in advance
This is a great way of eating well and cutting down on impromptu packaging, particularly in countries where it’s gas station food… or an empty belly.
Making a few evening meals with a dehydrator before setting out is another great option. Even a ziplock bag of dehydrated, mixed vegetables can be good to carry, as it can be easily added to soups or pasta over several days to taste and nutrition. See Logan and Gin’s recommendation for a dehydrator here, or if you have access to a desert (!), do it au natural in the sunshine – fruit leathers work particularly well.
If you don’t have the means to do it yourself, look into brands that offer pre-prepared food in compostable packaging – see suggestion 13 in the list for brands we like.
7 – Read the labels
Start by eliminating all single-use plastic from your shopping list. But just as importantly, read the fine print and gen up on what can and can’t be recycled locally.
Recycling is drought with issues at the best of times and if it’s not available in the area you’re travelling through, then it serves absolutely no purpose! The unfortunate truth is that most ‘recyclable’ containers end up in landfills or incinerators (see Background Reading). This is why ‘reducing’ and ‘reusing’ are so much more important. Still, do what you can. Clean your containers when you’ve finished with them, so they’re more likely to be accepted by recycling companies, and give yourself time to swing by the local recycling centre and dispose of them correctly.
8 – Pack a water filter
As cyclists, we guzzle vast amount of liquids per day. There’s really no reason to buy bottled water along your journey if you carry a water filter. I like Steripens, as I find them very quick and easy to use. But there are lots of reliable options to suit different budgets; check out our roundup here.
9 – Forage
As a recent commentator to this site pointed out, “Foraging is a way of engaging with the landscape, while getting some nutrition out of it at the same time”. Foraging for food is both an adventure and a responsible way to live off the land, though you’ll need to gen up on what is available and safe to eat. Here are some recommended books to get you started.
Foraging is coming in much of Scandinavia. For instance in Sweden, there is an ancient customary law referred to as “Allemansrätten”, meaning “All Men’s Right”. It allows you to roam in any wood, meadow or field to forage for wild food.
Fruit is often wasted so in a similar vein, ask landowners if you can pick fruit from trees if they’re not doing so themselves. I remember bike touring past a row of fig trees in Turkey and being pointed towards the last one, whose bounty was put aside for travellers. Score! Even time your trips with fruit seasons. Blackberry season is a great time to tour in the UK!
10 – Research your route
How about factoring in suitable resupply points into your core route planning? We have an amazing amount of resources at our fingertips, so it’s just a case of thinking ahead. Is there a weekly farmer’s market you can pass by? A farm shop with local produce? A zero-waste store in town? Are there any shops selling in bulk? Check opening hours in advance, so you don’t have to resort to late-night supermarkets. Think conscious consumerism, rather than immediate convenience.
At other times, keep your eyes peeled for local, low waste opportunities! Farmyard eggs, a jar of preserves, local honey… they can all add to the bikepacking experience and may save you the need to visit a supermarket.
You could even time your trip for seasons when the land is most abundant!
11 – Be roomy
I know this goes against one of the tenants of bikepacking: be minimal. But the ability to carry more can often help in reducing waste.
For instance, I like to make sure I have space to pack a loaf fresh bread, so I can make sandwiches for a couple of days. Or, devise a packing system that allows for loose vegetables from the greengrocers. I like to dedicate a large stem bag to snacks, and fill it with local fruit whenever I get the chance. Your body will thank you for replenishing it with nutritious food!
I always keep a jar of nut butter easy to access (sometimes mixed with coconut oil and honey) and scoop directly for an excellent low waste, high energy snack. Don’t eat enough nut butter to go through a whole jar? This refillable baby food pouch is a good option too.
An ‘overflow’ backpack – like this one from Outer Shell, which is made with upcycled sail fabric – is highly recommended, both for shopping and carrying produce to your chosen campspot. I use mine every day, both at home and on tour – it packs down tiny and lives in a stem bag so it’s easy to access.
12 – Try cooking with biomass
In areas where it’s not a fire hazard, cooking with a biomass stove – like this one – is both a fun way of camping, and an effective means to avoid using gas canisters or gasoline/petrol. Otherwise, consider using bioethanol in a homemade coke can cooker (see here for ideas) or a Trangia alcohol burner.
13 – Support business at the forefront of making changes
- In the US, Fernweh Food Co offers delicious local, seasonal, and vegan dehydrated camping food in home compostable packaging. Order in bulk and get a 10% discount. See our review here.
- In the UK, Firepot Foods offers something similar, with vegan options too. See our review here and note that there are now home compostable versions.
- For snacks in the UK, check out Outdoor Provisions, who offer a range of gluten-free, vegan energy bars in home compostable packaging. There’s a 30% discount off your initial order.
- Similarly, Stoats offer a range of affordable, enery-filled oat bars that come in home compostable packaging.
- For snacks in the US, try Liv Bar, with a range of plant based treats that are also in compostable packaging.
14 – Pack out (other people’s) trash
How about planning a specific tour to collect plastic waste from hotspots, like national parks, beaches and trailheads? Follow Packing It Out for inspiration, as they collect trash and organise educational talks as they go. Or get grassroots and start in an initiative in your local area to get groups together to do the same, like this one in Pisgah, which campaigns to encourage mountain bikers, hikers, and anglers to help keep the Pisgah National Forest clean.
Over in the UK, check out Trash Free Trails for ideas and inspiration. Their mission? “To reduce plastic pollution on our trails and wild places by 75% by 2025 and (re)connect people with nature through purposeful adventure.”
15 – Challenge yourself to a plastic-free tour!
Given our love for creating somewhat arbitrary challenges in our outdoor adventures – be it a race or a tough-as-nails route – why not try a plastic-free trip? It’s almost like it goes hand in hand with the Leave No Trace principles we’re all so keen to uphold… except we’re applying it to the rest of the ride, too. A plastic-free/low waste tour is great way of rewiring the brain to what’s possible on a bike tour. It’s also a way of connecting more deeply with the land around us, and changing the fundamental dynamics of an adventure. Nothing beats experiential learning!
Last year, I spent two weeks on a bikepacking tour around the UK’s Pennines, in which we set ourselves a challenge: sixteen days without any plastic packaging. The rules were simple but strict – and the detours were satisfying. We gorged on late summer fruits, picked up local cheeses and farmyard eggs, diverted via village delis, tapped into local knowledge, and packed a handful of supplies in reusable or compostable pouches as backups. I realised that with enough determination, planning, and a shift in expectations, plastic-free adventures are not just possible, but are enjoyable too. And like many challenges, the more we do them, the easier they become. Read about the experience here.
Ultimately, our trash and what we do with it is a rapidly growing problem that’s impacting every part of the globe, be it on land or in the sea. This podcast from Today Explained reveals how little waste is really recycled, day to day. National Sword, from the excellent 99 Percent Invisible podcast series, offers a fascinating insight into this complicated topic – past and present. Similarly, NPR’s The Litter Myth offers a background to the US’s devilish Keep America Clean Campaign… as financed by Coca Cola et al. Unfortunately, the solutions aren’t always as clearcut as we may hope, as this BBC report suggests.
Netflix’s Recycling Sham, part of the Broken Series, makes for a sobering watch and the Story of Plastic is another shocking must-see. And watch the BBC’s War on Plastics – co-hosted by the inimitable
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a chef and forager known for his ethical and seasonal commitments to cuisine – for ideas of what you can do.
Cutting down significantly on packaging waste is a great first step to making other radical changes to help protect the environment. It’s actually relatively easy – we just need to make it a priority and plan ahead accordingly. With time it becomes habit, and can be adapted to our specific needs and locations. If I find myself wavering, I like to remind myself that nothing I use for a matter of minutes should pollute the environment for hundreds of years – wherever or not it has a discernibly direct impact or not.
And who knows what other differences it will spark us to make? When it comes to safeguarding our planet, it’s not a political debate. Protecting the environment is simply a baseline we all have to incorporate into how we live. The ideas here are hands-on ways to cut down on the waste we create as individuals. But it’s important to evaluate other changes we can make in our day to day lives, from the food we eat to the goods we consume. And, to apply pressure on our governments to regulate Big Business and garner crucial change. Before it’s too late!
P.S. We recognise that in the times of COVID-19, some of these suggestions aren’t currently possible. For example, you won’t be able to use your own packaging for pick up bakery items at the moment. But then again, most people are staying close to home anyway, so use it for future planning… or reduce your waste at home!
Let’s add to this resource! Do you know a brand that offers camping food in compostable packaging? Do you have a good resource to point people to? Any tricks and tips for reducing waste whilst riding? Let us know in the comments below.