How to Live (or Camp) Out of Your Car the Leave No Trace Way

Haley and Gary - September 9, 2021

Camping in tents and even in RVs is nothing new. But today we live in the day and age of custom-built vans and SUVs that allow for a more accessible form of spending time outside. Many people are realizing that building out a van or an SUV-sized vehicle allows for longer term, more comfortable travel than traditional tent camping, yet easier to get around in than RV camping. This mode of travel has proven to provide access to the outdoors to so many more people, whether through rental or ownership of vehicles like this. 

As a Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Team, we have had the opportunity to meet many individuals, couples, and families who have been able to make travel a fundamental part of their life because of the ability to “live out of a car”. With many workplaces still allowing employees to work remotely, this allows for even more people to get the chance to spend significant amounts of time in our beloved outdoor spaces. We also get to experience this lifestyle firsthand, as we live out of our Subaru Outback full-time, as we travel around the country teaching people about how to treat public land with the respect it needs and deserves. Between living on the road with Leave No Trace and having spent a significant amount of time “living” out of our personal vehicles while traveling to beautiful places, we wanted to share some go-to items that have helped us live a minimal impact lifestyle on the road:

  • Dish-washing bins
    As we continue to learn more about how much impact humans have the potential to leave at a campsite, we see that washing our dishes in an environmentally aware manner is vital to protect the land we camp on. To avoid spillage of food scraps and grease and to reduce our water usage, we’ve found it helpful to carry two separate bins with us for dish-washing—one for washing with minimal dish soap, and one for rinsing. After we’re done washing, we strain both of these bins for any remaining food scraps and then broadcast the gray water (making sure it’s 200 feet away from water sources!)
  • Plastic water jug
    In order to eliminate the need for single-use water jugs and buying cases of personal-sized plastic water bottles, having a refillable water jug has changed the game for us. This allows for us to have ample amounts of water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, etc. while leaving a minimal environmental footprint. We have one that has a 5-gallon capacity and can last us several days, but they make ones of all sizes to best fit your needs.
  • Reusable trash bags
    When you are driving long distances, cooking meals, and potentially sleeping in your car, there is opportunity for a LOT of trash build-up. There’s nothing that we hate more than finding little wads of trash in every nook and cranny in the car, and we also don’t have the space to carry a huge box of plastic trash bags with us. What solves this problem is carrying a reusable trash bag with us, so that we can dump trash out, wash the bags if we need to, and use them over and over again. Pro tip: If you don’t own a reusable trash bag or don’t have access to one on your trip, save your plastic ice bags after you dump your ice into your cooler and collect your trash in that!
  • Reusable food storage containers
    This is a fairly new one for us that we have found to be super helpful as we travel long-term. Our eyes are often much larger than our stomachs, resulting in us preparing WAY too much food for us to eat in a single meal. Rather than throwing the extra food away (which we would previously do), we simply transfer the food to our stainless steel food storage containers, pop them into the cooler, and have a meal ready to be heated and eaten the next day.
  • Refillable propane tank
    If you cook over a camp stove that is powered by propane, you may have found that your local REI, hardware store, or even grocery store has no/low stock of those propane canisters that you need to be able to make your delicious meal or coffee. As we had trouble finding these ourselves, we also realized that we would need to purchase a lot of these small canisters for the amount of time we are spending living out of our car. We recognized that this would amount to a lot of empty fuel canisters we would need to dispose of when empty, so we’ve opted for a larger, refillable propane tank. You’ve probably seen the huge ones that RVs and your fancy grill at home use, but we were able to find one small enough to fit in our car (1-gallon capacity) and can last us about a month. Once it is empty, we can simply refill it at any store that offers this.

The tips that we’ve given above are by no means a set of rules that every traveler who is traveling by car must follow. These are simply realizations that we have personally had while living out of our car that have made us feel better about the impact we are leaving on the environment. In turn, making room in our car for the items that we’ve listed above has allowed us to live a more sustainable, comfortable life while getting to have incredible places as our backyard.

By the Subaru/Leave No Trace Teams. For over 20 years these teams have provided tangible solutions to serious issues facing our outside space and reach over 15 million people every year. Learn more about the important work of our mobile education teams.  Proud partners of this program include Subaru of AmericaREIEagles Nest Outfitters, Thule,FjällrävenThe Coleman Companyand Klean Kanteen.

Related Blog Posts

Let’s protect and enjoy our natural world together

Get the latest in Leave No Trace eNews in your inbox so you can stay informed and involved.