By Amber McDaniel
Mary Ritter Beard wrote, “Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
Sound familiar? It should, because at its core, sustainable living embodies this same deep and permanent change in perception. Despite this, sustainability and travel are largely incompatible. Vehicles are greenhouse gas emission-spewing machines, after all. For those of us that love to travel but are also conscious of our impact on the planet, this leaves us with a bit of an ethical conundrum.
Fortunately, modern day nomads and “vanlifers” (aka long term vehicle dwellers) are seeking to change that to the extent they can. With the van life community experimenting with sustainable vanlife and even zero waste vanlife, these inspiring folks are out to show that travel need not be entirely bad for the planet. Just like the near effortless zero waste swaps you made at the beginning of your sustainability journey, here are some simple actions you can take the next time you hit the road.
Whether you’re looking to jump eco-foot first into full-time vanlife or just looking for some ways to make a weeklong road trip a little more environmentally friendly, this list has a tip or two to help.
1. Pack your reusables.
A sustainable road trip starts by planning ahead. Road life may not afford you the ability of sticking to all your more sustainable or zero waste habits, but you’ll still be able to refuse a large portion of single-use items by keeping just a few reusable essentials on hand:
- Reusable coffee mug: Perfect for all those gas station coffees to keep your wired for the drive. Most gas stations actually even give discounts for bringing in your own mug. 20¢ a cup adds up!
- Stainless steel water bottle: Since you won’t have constant access to drinking water, having a few of these with which to stock up is a great idea. Don’t get tricked into buying cases of plastic bottles!
- Reusable grocery and produce bags: These likely live in your car anyway, so why mess with a good system?
- A few empty jars: You may have to make some bulk shopping sacrifices while on the road, but having a few extra jars on hand never hurt anyone. That way, if you come across a grocery store with bulk bins, you’ll have a plastic-free way to fill up.
- Stainless steel food container: Chances are you’ll be eating out a fair bit while traveling. Avoid contributing to take-out container waste by having a reusable food tin or two on hand.
- Reusable utensils: Don’t forget the reusable straw.
2. Stay in the slow lane.
Roadtripping is the definition of “taking the scenic route”, and you have to drive slow enough to enjoy it! Plus, for every five miles per hour you drive over 60mph, a vehicle’s fuel efficiency decreases by seven percent.
Consider this scenario: You’re planning a 1,000 miles road trip and your car optimally gets 40mpg when highway driving. That’s the 2019 average for light duty vehicles, and outputs 222 grams of carbon dioxide per mile driven. If you regularly drive on interstates with a 75mph speed limit (so let’s be honest, you’re going 80mph), 40mpg becomes 32mpg, a 20% decrease in fuel efficiency for a measly 15mph faster.
While new car manufacturers claim there is no relationship between fuel economy and vehicle emissions, it’s all a bunch of greenwashing. Various studies, like this one, have found older vehicles do have a stronger correlation between the two, but all vehicles have one nonetheless. Driving fast may save time, but it comes at a heavy cost to your bank account and the planet.
3. Keep your tires properly inflated.
Coasting on Tip #1, another way to minimize emissions is to keep your tires inflated to the recommended PSI. This can boost a vehicle’s fuel efficiency anywhere between 0.6%-3%. That may not sound like much, but it’s that attitude that’s led us to the single-use plastic crisis we’re currently facing. Every little bit matters.
Start by knowing the recommended PSI for your tires (hint: the outside tire walls tell you). Make a habit of monitoring their pressure once a week using a cheap, pocket gauge. If they get a little low, just top them off the next time you stop for gas. Some gas stations make you pay for air, but plenty give it away for free. This website can help you find them. It’s also worth knowing that some states, like California, legally require gas stations to provide free air with any fuel purchase.
If you don’t want to depend on gas station air, carry a portable DC-powered air compressor.
4. Roll down the windows to cool off.
Yet another way to optimize fuel efficiency is by keeping the use of air conditioning as minimally as possible. While a car’s heater simply uses the hot engine to warm the cab, A/C requires your vehicle to cool this extremely hot air. This decreases fuel efficiency (increasing CO2 output) anywhere between 1% and 10% depending on factors like speed and ambient temperatures.
Of course, if you’re driving at high speeds, fully rolling down all windows can create drag which also decreases fuel efficiency. Only roll down windows as far as needed, and again, another reason to keep that speedometer on the low side.
5. Wherever you go, be a public land steward.
Land stewardship involves the protection and preservation of wild spaces. Many of these places are under additional protection by the government (i.e. National and State Parks), while others require recreationists to take up the mantle of responsibility.
The core of these outdoor ethics is Leave No Trace, a set of principles that states we take no more than photographs and memories, and leave no more than footprints (and hopefully not even those since you should be sticking to established roads and trails). Some basic LNT tenants include:
- Don’t built campfires outside designated rings or within 50 feet of a body of water.
- Don’t leave trash (even something as seemingly harmless as an apple core can be devastating to fragile ecosystems) and try to pick up any you find. Leave it better than you found it.
- Pack it in, pack it out. That includes human and dog poop, too.
For road travelers, the single most important rule is to camp only in designated sites. Wild camping (aka free camping) is fine as long as you aren’t driving your vehicle or setting up a tent where it isn’t supposed to be. Driving on unbroken terrain can irreparably damage the ecosystem. For example, the Utah desert presents so many areas that look like sand, but are actually cryptobiotic crusts, or where the ground is actually a living being. Don’t risk destroying these habitats simple because you want a more Instagram-worthy campsite.
6. Use a refillable propane tank rather than disposable canisters.
If you’re camping on your road trip, chances are you’re going to be doing your fair share of cooking (unless, of course, you enjoy living on overnight oats and protein bars). Ultralight backpacking stoves may be cute and convenient, but those single-use white gas fuel canisters are hell on the planet, especially since they’re only good for a day or two worth of cooking.
A much more eco-friendly camp cooking option is to invest in a Coleman stove and a refillable propane tank. Note, however, that all Coleman stoves are designed to run off those green 1lb. disposable canisters, which are basically as unsustainable as the white gas canisters (they just last a little longer). However, you can purchase a cheap adaptor hose that will allow you to hook up the pressure regulator arm of any Coleman stove directly to a full-sized propane tank. These large tanks are far cheaper to fill than buying disposable canisters, but they’re also just about endlessly refillable.
7. Use biodegradable soaps and NEVER dump them in natural waterways.
After dinner comes dishes, and it’s not the most sanitary idea to leave your crusty dishes until your next opportunity to use the sink. Plus, take my word for it, doing your dishes in a gas station sink will garner some funny looks from fellow travelers.
Instead, wash your dishes using earth-safe biodegradable soaps, like Dr. Bronner’s. Make sure you’ve packed some sort of wash basin, too, like a collapsible camp sink or even just a plain storage tub (maybe one you’re using to keep your car organized). Washing dishes directly in a lake or stream is a big no-no. Even though biodegradable soaps are eco-safe, marine environments are particularly fragile and even the safest disruption can damage the ecosystem.
On that note, when you’re done washing, dump the soapy water at least 200 feet from any waterway, preferable in dense foliage or a pre-dug hole to reduce soil erosion.
8. Shop and eat local.
Road tripping is a wonderful opportunity to experience local dives and experience totally unique stores. Make the extra effort to support these local joints rather than a familiar chain. Rather than hit up the Walmart for groceries, find a local mom-and-pop shop or go to the farmers’ market. That way, you’re both supporting the local economy and refusing to support systems that thrive on inorganic mass agriculture and a complete disregard for shipping emissions. Plus, you get a more genuine and memorable experience!
9. Rewear your clothes between washes.
This may come as a shock to some, but wearing a garment once doesn’t inherently make it dirty. Reducing how often you wash your clothes not only limits water and energy usage, but greatly decreases the wear-and-tear on your clothes. Washing and drying puts far more wear on clothes than actual wear!
What better time to get in the habit of re-wearing your clothes than when you’re living without immediate access to a washing machine?
10. Seek out recycling and composting drop-offs.
Just because you’re on the road and away from your home composting and recycling systems, doesn’t mean you can’t responsibly dispose of the waste you generate. A quick online search for “nearby recycling centers” can show you exactly where to drop off your recyclable goods, no matter where you happen to find yourself.
For food scraps and other organic waste disposal, albeit a little trickier to find, use this awesome resource by Litterless (for US only sorry) to find compost drop-off locations in ALL 50 STATES! Just make sure that the compost collection receptacle you pack is odor tight so you don’t stink up the car in between drop-offs.
11. Offset your carbon footprint.
The hard truth is that driving any amount of distance is going to negatively impact the environment. No matter how consciously you minimize your impact, the very nature of motorized travel is environmentally unsustainable. Fortunately, you can still account for that by purchasing carbon offsets if its in your financial means to do so.
Start by calculating just how much of an impact your gallivanting had using this carbon footprint calculator. Be warned: the number may have some shock and awe(ful) factor. The site follows with a direct link to a handful of organizations you can support with a set monetary value equivalent to your emissions.
If you can’t afford to buy enough carbon offsets for the entirety of your trip’s footprint, purchase what you can. If none of Carbon Footprint’s options appeal to you, shop for your own independent carbon offset companies. Here are some of the best in the U.S.
So don’t be shy: plan that road trip you’ve been dreaming about! Because these helpful hacks, you’ll hit the road knowing you’re doing your best to keep the planet healthy.
Amber McDaniel is a writer, rock climber, and full-time vanlifer living in her self-converted campervan named Giovanni. Aside from running her own vanlife website, she regularly writes about sustainability and land stewardship issues through websites Sustainable Jungle and Outdoor Advocacy Project. She believes in the power of intentionality, mindful consumption, and strong, black coffee. You can follow Amber on Instagram or connect with her on Facebook.
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Feature image by Carlos Cesar via Pexels.