How to Adapt Leave No Trace for Urban Travel

Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

Traveling increases your carbon and waste footprint; there’s no way around it. Every time you get onto a plane, into a car, or even ride the cleaner, more energy efficient trains, you’re using energy.

For most of us, travel also increases our trash footprint. Every piece of “travel gear” that we purchase to replicate something we have at home, garbage is created. Every time we opt for convenience foods or products as we travel we add to the trash problem. Sometimes our best intentions towards light living in the name of minimalism are the culprit when it comes to increased consumption, and the ensuing waste, on the road.

So, what’s an eco-conscious, Leave No Trace committed traveler to do? Buy carbon offsets, obviously. That’s the low hanging fruit. However, “low hanging fruit” also sometimes equates to the easy way out. Of course we should be mitigating our impact, but we can do more.

Even folks who are assiduous recyclers and almost obsessive in their dedication to minimizing their waste at home let their hair down on the road. Somehow it’s harder in places that are littered from end to end with trash, where “everyone’s doing it,” to continue to dedicate ourselves to low-impact living. And yet, those are precisely the places where efforts need to be redoubled and where we, as visitors, need to be particularly careful not to add to the problem.

Reducing your daily impact while traveling is easier than you might think, and it may actually save you money too. Most of the convenience items that we pick up and then throw away while traveling can be avoided altogether (without sacrificing convenience) by simply thinking ahead and planning for the most obvious offenders in each category of living.

Where Waste Happens

Let’s think for a minute about where waste is most common in our travels. What do we throw away on the road that we probably don’t throw away at home? What do we use on the road that we don’t necessarily use at home? How can we avoid convenience sized items altogether?


Food consumption is probably the biggest offender where excess waste while traveling is concerned. Consider all of the things that we throw away:

  • Paper plates
  • Styrofoam cups
  • Plastic grocery sacks
  • Packaging of all sorts
  • Plastic cutlery
  • Napkins
  • Plastic water and beverage bottles

Often, all of those things at every single meal. Times three meals a day. Times the number of people in your party. Times number of days traveling. That adds up quickly.

Personal Hygiene

Our self care needs and rituals are the other big waste point when traveling. I wonder how many little plastic shampoo bottles I’ve added to the landfill in my lifetime? A sobering thought. Here are the obvious trash contributions where our hygiene is concerned:

  • Travel sized bottles – shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, toothpaste, all the things
  • Plastic wrappers
  • Feminine hygiene products

Packing a Leave No Trace Kit for Travel

Linn Kelly, a Packsmith reader, was the one who brought this thought back to the surface. We were having a conversation about her family’s commitment to carry on packing and minimalism without sacrificing one’s principles. Her family packs a Leave No Trace kit in their bag, and I realized, while we were talking, that for years I’ve done the same, but hadn’t named it.

What’s a Leave No Trace kit? A small collection of items that will replace most, if not all, of the items that would normally be thrown away through impulse or convenience buys on the road.

Here’s what’s always been in my Leave No Trace kit:

Water Bottle

This is an obvious one, right? Most travelers have a water bottle along for the ride. But what about in places where the water isn’t clean and you can’t just refill out of a tap? I highly recommend the GRAYL; your clean water problems are solved, anywhere. Also, I prefer a metal bottle over a plastic one. The metal can be recycled eventually; plastic haunts landfills forever.

Take it up a notch and make it a double walled metal bottle that keeps hot things hot, and cold things cold, and you’ve eliminated the need for paper coffee cups or styrofoam soda cups, ever. Simply have them pour right into your bottle.

Foldable Plate

The original origami style (instead of snap) version of these Fozzils travel plates were in our bags for years. As a family of six, dish-wear while traveling is a big waste item. I’ll tell you now that the cup is overkill (you have a water bottle) but the plate and bowl will take up no room at all in your bag. You’ll never need to buy paper plates again.

Reusable Cutlery

The To-Go Ware RePEaT Reusable Bamboo Utensil Set is my absolute favorite in the travel cutlery department and we’ve tried many kinds. The storage pouch is durable (we schlepped them all over three continents for two years using them daily) and the inclusion of chopsticks is particularly nice for world travelers. Get these.

Cloth Bag

I travel in only a carry on. Always. But my Outbreaker is just a little too big and unwieldy for daily life on the ground once I get where I’m going. So, I have a reversible cloth bag that a friend of mine picked up for me in El Salvador that always gets folded in last.

This bag is my overflow bag if I buy too many souvenirs, my day bag when I’m out and about, and it neatly holds my computer and work gear if I’m nipping off to a coffee shop to work for an afternoon. The bag doubles as a purse, a lunch bag, and a shopping sack. My goal, on all continents (but especially in places where trash is a big problem and recycling hasn’t become mainstream) is never to add plastic bag trash to the world. A simple cloth shoulder sack solves that problem.

Cloth Napkins

Face wiping, hand wiping, and spill clean ups; think of how often you use paper towels or paper napkins. Replacing that paper waste is so simple.

Pack two cloth napkins: One to use for mealtime, one to use for “everything else.” Throw these in the laundry with your clothes every third day (you’re washing regularly when you pack carry on) and you’ve just narrowed your waste footprint in a rather significant way.

Shampoo, Conditioner & Lotion Bottles

There are two options in the toiletries category.

1. GoToobs

Stop buying knock offs that leak by the third trip and just invest in the real deal. If you are brand specific with your self care products, or if you have allergies that require you to use certain products, this is the answer.

2. Go Dry
Lush is my absolute favorite cosmetics company, for home and travel. In addition to being freshly made and eco-sensitive, they are perfect for taking on the road. The shampoo bars, conditioner bars, and massage bars, specifically, are staples of my travel routines.

These products are TSA friendly because they aren’t liquid, which means you have more room in your 1-quart clear ziplock bag. And, they fit into their own metal tins which means there is zero waste, you simply buy a new bar for your tin and the tin, eventually, is recyclable. Body care for the win!

Feminine Hygiene

A highly personal topic with many factors, every woman has to make her own choices here. At the very least, consider how you can reduce the waste associated with menstruating. The quality of supplies found in developing countries is considerably lower than those found in the first world. By switching to something reusable you’ll not only help the earth, you’ll reduce uncomfortable frustration on the road.

Tampons are less waste than pads. Menstrual cups are less waste than tampons. Cloth pads are washable and reusable. Then, there’s the trendy new Thinx panties, which I haven’t tried, but apparently get rave reviews. Think carefully about your impact in this area of life too. One week a month, twelve weeks a year, a hundred and twenty weeks a decade, about four decades of Aunt Flo… that’s a lot of trash. We can do better.


Packaging is the bane of my existence, and mother nature’s too. There aren’t easy ways around this on the road. At home I shop at “bulk” style stores that reduce the pile of plastics and cardboards that fill up the trash can. On the road, I try to buy from markets instead of grocery stores, using my own reusable bags. That helps. As with most things, it’s the small choices to “do better” that make the biggest impact over the long haul.


By packing a small Leave No Trace kit and tucking it into your carry on bag you can reduce the amount of trash you’re creating while traveling by a lot. Consider assembling a kit containing:

  • Water bottle
  • Foldable plate
  • Reusable cutlery
  • Cloth bag
  • Cloth napkins

Further reduce your waste by switching to dry toiletries, or using GoToobs. Ladies, think about how to increase your comfort while traveling and reduce waste during “that time of the month” too.


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