With the #trashtag movement still inspiring people volunteer to pick up other people's trash and April 22nd being Earth Day, we figured we'd write about living small in an RV, consuming less, and hopefully not wrecking the planet.
We're definitely not experts on recycling or ecological consequences. We do, however, consider ourselves good stewards of public lands. We are fulltime RVers who mostly live on public lands (boondocking), we practice "leave no trace" camping & hiking, and often we also pick up other people's trash. We're very aware of how much we can damage the soil just by driving over it, and we are very much nature lovers. We are solar-powered and only very rarely run a generator or plug in to the electric grid. As avid boondockers, we consume much less water than your average American. As fulltime RVers, for us minimalism and anti-consumerism isn't just fashionable, it's a matter of survival. Apart from the size of the motorhome and its gaudy swoop graphics we attempt to be invisible and merely a part of the nature surrounding us.
Live small, consume less
Living in an RV makes minimalism feel natural. Having less space means you have less need to fill the emptiness with unnecessary things. You'll care more about how good the few things you have actually feel, how well they work. You realize you don't need to "keep up with the Joneses" and buy the latest status items and gadgets.
In the beginning of your journey, you likely end up selling or donating many of your previous possessions; a year down the road, you won't even understand why you ever had all those things.
Boondocking naturally teaches you to conserve resources. Limited water tanks teach you to not waste water. You'll get used to navy showers (turning off water while you're soaping up) and low-flow shower heads, further slowed down to under 1 gallon per minute with a shutoff valve (how-to video).
Living on batteries will make you very concretely understand how much electricity your gadgets and appliances work. You'll replace burned incandescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes with LEDs not because some public service announcement told you to, but because it benefits you. You'll realize how much power leaving a television on for the whole day consumes. The wastefulness of air conditioning makes you look for a more suitable climate.
Living on solar power makes you realize how much potential there is in renewable energy sources — as I'm writing this, I'm running a power hungry two-way propane fridge on 110 VAC while dry camping, because the batteries are already full and the energy is free!
Similarly, having a fixed-size propane tank makes you very concretely understand how much energy you put into heating. The difference between overnight heating a whole RV or just the bedroom is huge. Needing to fill that propane tank will make you, once again, look for a more suitable climate. You can also switch to cooking with an induction plate, to use solar power.
Reuse what you can. Buy sturdy reusable grocery bags and keep using the same bags for years. We have some that are 10+ years old, while lower quality new bags break in a year. For frozen and cold things, we're very happy with Trader Joe's blue insulated bags, and if you haven't been far west enough to experience Trader Joe's groceries, well, put that on your bucket list. Fun story, if you bring your own bags to a grocery store in Montana, they'll say "You're from California, aren't you?"
Love your public lands
A couple of days ago we drove past a stretch of BLM land where we had camped earlier. It was closed to camping a while back due to the amount of trash that had been left around. For nature lovers like us, that just hurts. And even for the most selfish person, you should realize there's a limited number of areas to camp in, and they will become more regulated the more they're abused.
Camp responsibly and pack out your trash. Camp on established sites, use only well-established fire rings (where fire restrictions allow), drive only on official roads and established tracks (where off-road travel is allowed). Don't crush the brush. Pick up your dog poop too, it doesn't matter if "it's natural", it'll still transmit disease and pile up with many visitors. It takes years for a dog poop to decompose in arid climate.
Hike responsibly, too. Protect cryptobiotic soil and stay on established trails. And once again, pick up your dog poop and carry it out — or better yet, make the dog carry it out. While you're at it, don't feed or approach wildlife. Whether camping or hiking, blend into the nature, don't make unnecessary noise (music, generators, ATVs, boats, even wind chimes all count). Let others enjoy nature, not your presence.
How to deal with trash when boondocking
Pickup owners tend to just transport trash bags on the pickup bed, but what if you don't have a pickup? We have a Trasharoo "backpack" on our Jeep spare tire that we use to transport trash, see my review. We also use its convenient mesh pockets to store and transport dog poop bags. If we're not in bear territory and trash is not close by, it'll expand to store two 13-gallon kitchen trash bags. It'll also easily transport your recyclables. Some people attach a Trasharoo directly to an SUV tailgate. If you don't have any such attachment options, maybe consider a hitch-mounted cargo tray or box? As far as we're concerned, transporting trash — or especially dog poop — inside a car just isn't an option.
Where to take your trash and recycling? This has turned out to be one of the biggest surprises about boondocking: how hard it is to get rid of your trash. This makes you very aware of much trash you're creating.
Reduce your trash by avoiding disposable products, especially easily avoidable things plastic water bottles. Invest in water filtration and drink tap water from reusable containers, or at least use larger jugs and refill them from the filtered water vending machines you see at grocery stores. Use rechargeable batteries where you can, even if you have to go out of your way to make them work. While you're at it, switch to biodegradable dog poop bags.
Gas stations often have only very small trash cans near the pumps, with the main dumpster locked away; they haven't worked well for us. Smaller towns, especially ones that have a tourism industry, tend to have a Visitor Center of some sort, and they tend provide dumpsters as a courtesy to campers. Please ask first! Smaller and mid-size grocery stores often have dumpsters you can use, but once again buy a week's worth of groceries and ask nicely, don't just assume — and don't even imagine doing that at a Walmart.
Recycling tends to be hard in the US in general, by my Northern European standards. In Finland, we had 11 different recycling bins in our residential building, and almost every grocery store had a reverse vending machine for returning plastic & glass bottles for a refund. In contrast, recycling is almost impossible in small US towns and especially in rural areas. Every now and then an RV park owner will brighten our lives by collecting recyclables, but I'm ashamed to say that where we tend to travel, we practically cannot recycle without carrying our recyclables for a month with us. National parks tend to be great at having receptacles for plastic bottles, but it's definitely aimed more for things consumed while visiting.
We can all make a difference. Let us know on Instagram what you will be doing this Earth Day — and hopefully every day — to leave it better than you found it!
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