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Van Life Guide to Environmental Sustainability

Kalem and I chose, along with a fast-growing group of people, to live a nomadic lifestyle so that we can visit and live in far-flung places. It's impossible to travel with everything you own and not see the impact that humans have on these spaces and consider your individual environmental footprint there. I often think of how different my life would be if I also had to carry with me everything I've thrown away as well.

As we've made this transition to a more mobile life, we've spent a lot of time researching ways we can do so and be minimally impactful and would love to share them with you today!

As a disclaimer to this post, Kalem and I are not zero-waste, nor do we aspire to be. We have a substantial carbon footprint. We recognize that simply being alive means we are going to have to consume and depose things, just like every other living thing on our planet has also done.

But, we are committed to continually find ways to make our impact a more positive one. We aren’t perfect, we don’t always remember our reusable grocery bags, can’t always find a place to dump our compost bucket separately from our garbage, and we buy things we don’t explicitly need. We will keep trying to improve and would love to share the ways we’ve felt have been most effective in our lifestyle.

Comment below with the actions you’ve taken to live a lifestyle that is more sustainable for the environment! We'd love to hear what you are doing as it inspires us and gives us new sustainable practices to implement ourselves.

Plan Your Itinerary Smartly

To save on travel time and the amount of fuel we burn, we like to sit down ahead of a trip and plan out our driving route carefully. Especially when traveling in the west, popular destinations can be hours away from the nearest towns with amenities, so planning out when and where we are most convenient to buy groceries, shower, etc. helps us cut down on trips to town. We take time to outline what we want to do, places to sleep, and a calendar of chores like showering, picking up groceries, refilling water, and dumping waste to make sure we do so efficiently.

Buy in Bulk

I love the bulk section. The rows of containers filled to the brim with all different kinds of food give me butterflies. My mom and I have transformed a lot of old napkins, tablecloths, and scrap fabric over the past couple of years into produce/gift bags. I make sure to take at least 5 with me to the store to not only stuff in heads of broccoli and my favorite honey crisp apples, but also bulk items. The awesome thing about bulk is you can get as much or as little as you need, which also cuts down on waste and space in the van.

The best bulk section in a large grocery store chain here in our region is WinCo. Price comparing a lot of items we normally buy to those from the bulk section, buying in bulk is cheaper. They also have lots of fun (healthy and not-so-healthy) snacks. Before we head on any trip (family road trip, adventure with friends, long weekend backpacking, we like to go get hefty bags filled with veggie chips, dehydrated hummus, chocolate covered nuts, and dried fruit.

Meal Plan

On top of buying in bulk and planning on our itinerary, planning out our meals helps us use up the food we buy so it doesn't go bad or take up precious space in the van and have meals ready as we’re on the go. It’s so nice when we’re traveling to just pull out a quinoa salad rather than pulling into a drive-through. Again, this doesn’t happen all the time, and we definitely plan on experiencing the local food scene in our travels, but we chose to live in a van to be able to cook and bring our daily routine with us on the road.

Waste and Compost

We have this Bamboozle composter that sits on our counter in the van. When we are driving a lot, it sits on the ground next to our trash bag. We love having this guy around. We aren’t always able to find a place to dump our composter when it’s full (sometimes it goes into the trash), but we try. The giant hidden positive in having this composter is it keeps most of the items that start stinking in our garbage contained. Smells aren’t something you consider when building a van, but you definitely notice them living in the van.

Skip the Souvenirs

A fun part of visiting new places is to visit local shops and artisans, or just buying a commemorative t-shirt at the gift shop. As much as we love remembering and celebrating our travels and supporting the local economies we visit, we try not to buy things we won’t use, to cut down on the things we’ll eventually get rid of.

Instead, we opt to take pictures, grab a meal, or treat from a local restaurant or buy things we already needed from local shops. At the moment, we are looking for a rug to cover up our cold floors this winter, and we’re checking out local shops on our travels first in our search for the perfect one!

Environmentally Friendly Building Materials

Where we could, we tried to use more environmentally friendly building materials, such as our Havelock wool insulation. We love that our wool is all-natural and non-toxic. It is an awesome insulator, absorbs moisture, and resists fire.

We also tried to buy secondhand when possible. Used is always better than new, no matter how sustainably an item is produced. By periodically checking the local classifieds we scored big finding a brand new Nature's Head Composting Toilet from a couple who had purchased it for a tiny home they were building. We also bought the mirror over our sink and our projector for watching movies and playing Mario Kart used as well.

Follow Leave No Trace Principles

While camping in the van, it is important to practice strict Leave No Trace principles. It always sucks when you roll up to a beautiful site only to hop out and find litter(or worse) on the ground. I live by the "golden rule"- leave a campsite how you want to find it.

Reuseable Containers and Plastic-Free/Reused Items

We were lucky enough to be getting married while we were building our van, and in the process had to purchase or were given a lot of items to start our new household. We prioritized putting items like reusable items and plastic-free or sustainably and ethically made items into our van. The best thing you can do for the environment is use items you already have and we each brought things from limited dorm rooms with us into our marriage and the van. But, we didn't have everything, and where we could, we filled those needs with things we can use over and over again and depose of sustainably when we can't use them anymore.

Some of our favorite reuseable items are mason jars (the only glass we have in the van!), Stasher bags, wooden dish brushes, laundry strips (like zero-waste Tide Pods!), and Nalgene bowls.

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