Zero waste backpacking is surprisingly difficult. Between all the gear, packaged food, and on-the-go hydration needs, a typical backpacking trip can lead to a lot of plastic waste. It takes effort and planning to be zero-waste or ‘low-waste’, but I am here to tell you that it IS possible.

Coupling zero-waste with backpacking seemed like the last piece in my sustainability puzzle. Finally taking the plunge, and making the necessary changes, has left me feeling like I am actually protecting the very nature I am interacting with.

Eventually the changes became habits, and now Mother Nature is far better off for it. Here is my story and top tips for backpacking sustainably, let’s protect the very environments that we love to explore.

My Journey to a Zero-Waste Lifestyle

Four years ago, I found myself on the floor of my bedroom, staring at thirty-plus plastic bathroom products, having an epiphany that would change my life. This is the moment my zero-waste journey started.

As plastic lipsticks, toothbrushes, shampoos, conditioners, body soaps, razor blades, mascaras, combs, brushes, and more stared back at me, I realized I had a plastic problem. I realized our world had a plastic problem. Most of all, I realized that I needed to change the way I consumed products. 

Over the next four years, I would learn how to buy food in bulk, how to refill my handsoaps, laundry, and dishwashing liquids. I would learn to carry a stainless-steel water bottle and reusable coffee mug with me everywhere I went.

Small changes over time have resulted in massive lifestyle shifts. Now, when my partner and I empty our one-foot-tall rubbish bucket every three weeks, we can truly see the impacts of our waste-reducing efforts. 

My Big, Zero-Waste Backpacking Trip

Alongside my zero-waste pursuit, I was developing my outdoor skills. My first job outside of University was glacier guiding in Alaska. This role then carried me to New Zealand, to continue glacier guiding.

New Zealand is where I have lived for the last four years. This is where I would harness many outdoor-skills including ice climbing, mountaineering, rock climbing, canyoning, free-diving, marathon running, gardening, and more. 

After spending years developing my backpacking, hiking, and camping skills, I decided to go for a long hike, a 272-mile-long hike, in fact, The Vermont Long Trail. The trail begins in Canada and hits every major peak of Vermont, winding through cute, maple-loving towns, before it terminates in Massachusetts.

Zero Waste Backpacking on the Long Trail in Vermont

This hike would take me twenty days to complete and I would be hitting the trail solo. I felt a sense of nervousness, but excitement to be finally ticking off a long-time goal. I had graduated from the University of Vermont five years prior and had always intended to return and complete the trail.

So, there I was, ready to embark on a journey that had been a long-time coming. Yet, I found myself at the foot of the trail with a new goal, a goal to hike the trail in a sustainable way, in a zero-waste way. 

The Challenges of Zero-Waste Backpacking

Before I go on, it is worth noting that zero waste, as in no waste what-so-ever, is completely unattainable. Rather, zero-waste is a “stretching goal”, a goal that allows for constant growth, the type of goal I love. “Low-waste” might be a better phrase.

Whichever term you prefer is fine, but just know that when I say I was doing the trail “zero-waste”, I mean that I was attempting to complete the trail with as little waste as possible. This goal would prove to be more difficult than finishing the 272-mile Long Trail itself. 

As I began researching “zero-waste backpacking”, it became apparent that not many people were writing about the topic. This meant that I needed to figure out some stuff for myself.

The Long Trail went from being a zero-waste backpacking trip, to a trial-and-error trip. I was able to learn what worked and didn’t work, and along the way, I kept notes that I hoped to share with the world later. 

Prior to setting this goal, I had never worried about my backpacking waste. I was so low waste in the rest of my life, that I allowed backpacking to be the “exception, not the rule.”

Backpacking is supposed to be fast and light, which often meant dehydrated, processed food, in non-recyclable packaging. It meant eating muesli bars and “treat-yo-self” style snacks. But now, I wanted to see if I could shift away from this wasteful lifestyle. I wanted to stop cutting myself slack. I wanted to see if I could make the change and still be fast and light. 

The irony that I considered myself an environmentally-conscious person except when I was camping, hiking, or backpacking in nature, was not lost on me either.

In hindsight, it seems amazing I was consuming so much waste in the very environment I was trying to protect. I don’t think I am alone in this proclivity, which is why I am here to share my top seven tips for producing less waste while backpacking. 

1. Dehydrate Your Own food

Dehydrating my own food is probably the most significant thing I did to keep my backpacking trip zero waste. It’s one of the best ways to build a sustainable backpacking food plan.

This was one hundred percent new to me, so there was a lot of reading and You-Tube video watching. Buying the ingredients, cooking them from scratch, and dehydrating them myself was both cheaper and healthier, it felt good knowing what was really in my food. These are two luxuries you don’t often get when you buy the packaged dehydrated meals. 

Dehydrating your food is one of the most important tips for zero waste backpacking

Dehydrating does take a very long time. Each session can take anywhere between six and twelve hours. Because of this, I was only able to prepare half of my meals and snacks for the trail this way.

I ended up with three vegan risotto’s, three vegan Bolognese, and four chili’s for dinner meals. I also dehydrated lots of fruit, like bananas, apples, pineapples, and strawberries.

2. Choose Sustainable Food Containers

It took a while to figure out how I could package the dehydrated meals. It was important to me to be as light as possible and to be able to seal hot water in the container, to rehydrate the food. 

I landed on using silicone-resealable bags. Silicone is able to withstand extreme-heat, which meant I could pour boiling water directly inside of them to rehydrate the food.

The plus-side of using silicone bags was that I could re-use and keep them for the rest of my life. The disadvantage was that they were 3 ounces (100g) heavier than pre-packaged meals.

They seal nicely, but depending on how long your hike is, I think you could even get away with packaging the meals in cloth produce bags or paper bags instead. They could then be rehydrated in a covered pot. 

Resealable Silicon Bags for a Zero-Waste Backpacking trip

3. Buy Supplies from Environmentally-Friendly Companies

Purely due to time constraints, I was only able to prepare half of my meals and snacks using the dehydration method. For the other half of my meals, I opted for packaged dehydrated meals.

However, instead of buying the cheapest brand on the market, I did my research and sought out one that was doing good things for the environment. The brand, Good-to-Go”, is made by a chef and fellow backpacker in Maine. She uses whole foods and sources local ingredients as much as possible.

Although it was more expensive, I asked myself, “What is the true cost, if the cheaper options are worse for the environment?”. The answer was simple. I was happy to support this business.

4. Buy Snacks and Meals in Bulk

Most plastic produced while backpacking comes from our food, which is why the first few zero-waste backpacking tips are focused on sustainable backpacking food tips.

I was able to avoid a lot of plastic by buying food in bulk and storing it in cloth produce bags and brown paper bags. For breakfasts, I ate granola and oatmeal, and for lunch I had banana peanut butter wraps.

For snacks, I had a range: sour patch kids, chocolate-covered pretzels, trailmix, and date balls. All of these items, I bought in bulk. 

Buying in bulk for your sustainable backpacking trip

Before the hike, I was able to stock up for my first five days with these bulk items from Whole Foods. And yes, I was even able to get peanut butter in bulk. At Whole Foods, they offer “grind-your-own peanut butter.”

Luckily, backpacking in Vermont, a typically “green” state, I was able to re-stock my bulk snacks along the way at organic shops and grocery stores. I even got to refill my peanut butter at another “grind-your-own peanut butter” station in one of the organic shops, what a score!

It really is amazing how much plastic you can avoid if you take the time to look and think about your packaging. Eventually, it just becomes the norm.

5. Choose a Sustainable Water Bottle and Filter

Most people who are focused on ultralight backpacking buy plastic Smart Water bottles because they pair nicely with the Sawyer filter, making a lightweight combo-deal. But there are plenty of sustainable alternatives that will bring you closer to zero-waste backpacking.

A stainless steel water bottle is the most sustainable choice

I think you’ll find, a Platypus Bladder paired with a Steri-pen Filter results in only a 4-ounce difference, and is faster, more reliable, and better for the environment. 

A stainless-steel bottle is a great way to avoid buying those cheap plastic “Smart Waters”.  A stainless-steel bottle will not only avoid microplastics leaching into the environment, but unlike plastic water bottles, they are truly recyclable once you are done using them.

The topic of hydration on the trail is hotly debated within the backpacking community, so read more in my full review of the most sustainable water set-up on the trail.

6. Switch to a Bamboo Toothbrush

This one doesn’t need much explanation. Switching to a bamboo toothbrush far more environmentally friendly than using a plastic toothbrush. You can still cut it down to size, if you are looking to save weight too. These can be easily found online and in stores.

7. Always Use Matches over Lighters

Matches are made of wood and come in cardboard boxes, making them environmentally friendly. They will break-down after use and will not pollute the environment. Lighters, on the other hand, litter coastlines.

Birds, especially albatrosses, consume them thinking they are food and eventually die to too much plastic consumption. Like the toothbrush, this is a very easy switch. The only challenge that comes with using matches is keeping them waterproof, but that is entirely manageable. Another good option could be a refillable zippo. Just ditch those plastic lighters! 

If you are planning a backpacking trip in the near future, then it is vital that you prepare yourself to ensure that you are completely safe while travelling. To ensure you have a memorable and enjoyable time on your trip, you should take a look at the following travel safety tips for backpackers. This will provide you with all the information you need to feel secure when abroad. 

Always plan ahead

One of the most important steps for safe travel should occur well before you step on the plane, starting with your passport. Before you do anything, make sure you check the expiry date on your passport, as an out-of-date passport will not be accepted in any airport around the world.

Checking your travel documents is one of the most important travel safety tips

Some countries require travellers to have at least six months left on their passport from the entrance date. If your passport has run out or you have less than six months until the expiry, make sure you apply for a new passport at least three months before travelling to be on the safe side.

You may also require a visa to gain admittance into the country you are visiting. Of course, this will depend on where in the world you are travelling to, as some destinations are more lenient than others.

One country that does require a visa is the United States. If you are taking a backpacking trip to the US, you will need to obtain an ESTA before your trip. This applies to 38 countries, including the UK, EU countries, Australia, New Zealand and more. If your country is not listed, you will need to apply for a B-2 tourist visa which will grant you six months of travel access across the US. 

Protect yourself

When backpacking, you protect yourself at all times. This is especially important right now, with the COVID pandemic spreading around the world. While travel is restricted, there will be a time when borders are lifted, and backpacking trips will begin again.

When this occurs, you need to ensure that you maintain excellent hygiene standards by washing your hands regularly and keeping a compact hand sanitiser nearby at all times. It would help if you looked up the guidelines regarding COVID for each place you visit by checking the destination’s government or embassy website.

Travel Safety Tips in the age of Coronavirus

By sticking to the guidelines and maintaining good hygiene habits, you can significantly reduce your chances of getting sick. However, we are all human beings, and sometimes we get sick, especially when travelling, as this could result in reduced sleep, which may affect your immune system.

To prevent any problems with illness, you should purchase travel insurance which will cover you if you need to visit a doctor or require medication. It will also protect you financially if you suffer an injury such as a broken ankle. If you are hospitalised and miss a flight, having travel insurance will be a God’s send, as this will prevent you from splashing out on a new flight.

Watch what you eat and drink

It may seem like obvious advice, but maintaining a balanced diet is one of the most important travel safety tips when backpacking. Sometimes the distraction of sightseeing and meeting new people can result in missed meals or an unhealthy diet, which can leave you feeling lethargic or even ill.

Some people may think eating a balanced diet means you must eat healthy at all times, but this is not the case after all your backpacking trip should be all about fun and treating yourself to local food is part of that. However, you should try to be careful, especially if you have a weak stomach, as some foods may not agree with you, resulting in sickness.

Staying hydrated is also a massive must, especially if you are travelling to hot destinations. To ensure you keep on top of your water intake, you should pack a few reusable water bottles which you can put in your backpack or clip to your side while hiking, exploring and sightseeing.

Travel Safety Tips and COVID

Now you have all the travel safety tips you need for an exciting and super secure backpacking trip, why not look at our article on COVID-19 and backpacking. This guide will offer all the tips you need to stay sane before you can start travelling around the world again.

Kauai is a popular destination for nature lovers and outdoors enthusiasts. From the moment you fly over the island, you’ll see why Kauai is called the Garden Isle. As the greenest of all the Hawaiian islands, it’s popular with visitors who are into hiking, backpacking, and exploring as opposed to people who just want to chill at a beach resort.

While it’s possible to travel Kauai on a budget, costs can add up quickly, so be sure to check out this list of things to do in Kauai for free. Who knows, you might even be able to splurge on a once in a lifetime helicopter flight over the Kauai, or a sunset dinner sailing cruise around the island!


Hiking and Backpacking in Kauai

Hiking on Kaua’i offers everything from hidden waterfalls, volcanic coastlines, and tropical plant life. Hiking is an ideal activity for those traveling to Kauai on a budget who want to immerse themselves in the natural beauty of this Hawaiian island. From short paths to multi-day overnight treks, here are some of Kauai’s most impressive hikes.

Ke Ala Hele Makalae

This 8-mile long pathway hugs the east coast of the island and is ideal for either biking or walking. The pathway crosses through small towns where you can pause for lunch, breakfast, or refreshments.

Kalalau Trail

Free Things to do in Kauai - The Kalalau Trail takes you along the Na Pali coast of Kauai from Ke'e beach to Kalalau beach.

The 11-mile Kalalau Trail takes you along the Na Pali coast of Kauai from Ke’e beach to Kalalau beach. The Kalalau hike is one of the most beautiful hikes in the world through rugged terrain overlooking the churning surf below. The trail hugs the cliffs of the Na Pali coast and can be dangerous, so be careful and wear proper shoes. Most hikers complete the trail in three days with two nights of camping along the way. You are required to get a permit for backpacking along the Kalalau Trail in Kauai.

Koloa Heritage Trail

A 10-mile route takes you past areas that are important to Kauai’s history like the Spouting Horn, a geyser created when the surf powers through an old lava tube. The spout reaches heights of up to 50 feet and is the source of many Hawaiian legends.

Kuilau Ridge Trail

This 2.5-mile trail is one of the most stunning trails to explore the interior of Kauai. The beginning of the Kuilau Ridge Trail is at high elevation, and as its name suggests, you’ll mostly be walking along a ridge. While walking along this trail, you’ll experience a real jungle ecosystem with lush ferns below and towering canopy trees above.

Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail

This 2-mile hike begins at Shipwreck Beach and takes you along the uninhabited coastline and beaches of Kauai’s southern coast.

More Natural Beauty in Kauai

If hiking is not your thing, or if you need a break from walking, there are plenty of natural attractions in Kauai that are accessible by car.

Waimea Canyon

Due to its deep valley views, the Waimea Canyon is known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. There is no entrance fee to the National Park and visitors are welcome to visit the coffee farms as you drive through this beautiful landscape.

Blue Room Kauai

The Blue Room Cave, located only 200 feet from a nearby parking area, glows bright blue at high tide when the sunlight reflects off the seabed.

Hanalei Lookout

Free things to do in Kauai - visit the Hanalei Lookout

Enjoy sweeping views of Kauai’s natural beauty from the Hanalei Lookout. This is one of the most photographed spots on Kauai because of its panoramic view of the mountains, the ocean, and Hanalei Valley. 

Wailu River State Park

The Wailu River State Park is home to two famous waterfalls: Opaeka’a Falls and Wailu Falls. Both falls can be easily seen from the parking lot and viewpoint, so there is no need to hike to catch a glimpse of these falls. The way down to the base of the waterfalls is very slippery and muddy, so you should only explore the Wailu River State Park trails if you’re an experienced hiker with proper shoes.

Best Beaches in Kauai

Both the North Shore and South Shore of Kauai have breathtaking beaches. Here are some of our favorites:

Tunnels Beach

This snorkeling and diving beach is often called the best beach in Kauai. It’s called Tunnels Beach because of the many underwater lava tubes that can be explored by divers.

Haena Beach

Haena Beach is well-equipped with restrooms, showers, lifeguards, and barbecue facilities. With the dramatic Kauai mountains in the background, the stunning sandy beach makes a great sunset spot. The ocean current can be dangerous so take caution and pay attention to warnings from the lifeguards.

Lydgate Beach Park

Great for watching the sunrise, Lydgate Beach Park also has beach amenities and lifeguards on duty. The offshore coral reef protects the coast from large waves, making Lydgate Beach a great place to go snorkeling.

Native Hawaiian Culture on Kauai

Lawai International Center

The Lawai International Center is an archeological and cultural Buddhist center known for its serenity and healing powers. You can learn more about this place and the numerous shrines built in this place during a guided tour. The Lawai International Center is open for free admission on Sundays.

Kauai’s Hindu Monastery

This spiritual spot has Hindu temples and a beautiful botanical garden. The Hindu Monastery offers a guided tour once a week, so check the schedule online to find out which day the tours are running.

Free Hula Shows

Keep an eye out for free hula shows on Kauai

Among Hawaii’s best-known customs, a Hula show offers a great way to understand the local traditions. A handful of spots around the island offer free Hula shows on different days of the week:

Kauai Town Life, Art Nights, Museums

  • Hanapepe Art Night One of the things to do in Kauai for free – The Hanape Art Night is like walking through a free outdoor museum. You can soak in the town culture of Hanape by discovering the town’s history and art scene. In addition to musical performances and food stands, the Hanape Art Night features exhibitions from local galleries. Check out the nearby Hanapepe Swinging Bridge while you are there.
  • Old Town Kapaa Art Walk – Local music, food, and art exhibitions. The Old Town Kapaa Art Walk takes place on the first Saturday of every month.
  • Kauai MuseumThe Kauai Museum is one of the best things to do on Kauai, and on the first Saturday of every month, admission is free!
  • Waimea Walking Tour – Every Monday, there is a free walking tour where you can discover the best of Kauai with a local tour guide.

Only in Kauai

Kauai has a unique identity that sets it apart from the other Hawaiian Islands. Get to know the island with these unique things to do for free.

Grove Farm Train Day

The Grove Farm Train Day is a family-friendly event takes place on the second Thursday of every month. Visitors can hop on a steam-powered locomotive and follow the historical sugar plantation route in Grove Farm.

Moir Gardens

The Moir Gardens are a botanical area located on an old sugar plantation and is full of rare plants.

Menehune Fishpond

The locals built this manmade fishpond to catch fish. The Menehune fishpond is a well-preserved example of old Hawaiian aquaculture.

Food and Drink in Kauai

Food on Kauai can be very expensive, so it’s best to stay in accommodation that has a kitchen or kitchenette so that you can prepare your own food. Even though the prices at restaurants can be surprising, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy the food and drink of Kauai on a budget.

Kauai Coffee Company

Take a free walking tour of the Kauai Coffee Company, the biggest coffee plantation in the United States. Learn about coffee-making from start to finish while enjoying beautiful grounds.

Farmer Markets

Farmers’ markets are held throughout the island of Kauai every week. Load up on fresh produce and locally-made products, or just enjoy the vibe at the market.

Koloa Rum Company Tasting

Stop in for a free (yes free!) rum tasting at Koloa Rum Company Tasting to try different flavored rums. Due to the popularity of the restaurant, there may be a waitlist, so it’s best to check the Koloa Rum tasting room website ahead of time.

Traveling to Kauai on a budget? Check out our blog for more budget tips, itineraries, and off the beaten path ideas!