Q. I have a 3-day snow camp in the wilderness planned for a class I am taking. It looks like freeze-dried meals – while convenient, light in weight, and easy to prepare in harsh conditions – are not recyclable. Are there other, more eco-friendly options out there that would be easy to pack and cook in potentially snowy or rainy conditions? I did find one package that can be burned, but I’m concerned that in the wilderness, it could be toxic to the environment.

Stephanie
Los Angeles, CA

A. Dearest Stephanie,

Being willing to sleep out in a snowdrift impresses me plenty already. So the fact that you’re concerned about trash and toxins in the face of other, more pressing concerns — such as oh, not freezing to death — makes me extra-wowed. You are a hardy breed indeed.

You’re right that freeze-dried or plain old dehydrated meals are a popular choice among other hardy explorers, for all the reasons you cite. When you have to carry your entire pantry on your back, things like canned chili or baked potatoes no longer seem so appetizing, do they? Several companies sell just-add-hot-water meals for exactly this purpose. But because stouthearted mountain women like you often battle snow or rain in the course of their adventures, those meals tend to be packaged in watertight pouches made of mylar, foil, or plastic — making some of them difficult or impossible to recycle.

The brand you dug up, Mary Jane’s Farm, is a little different. According to a company spokesman, their EcoPouch is made of paper lined with linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), a type of plastic that doesn’t give off uber-terrible chemicals like dioxins when burned. Still, organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service are not keen on burning plastics or trash of any kind.

For the final word, I’ll defer to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, the authority on how to conduct ourselves sustainably in the wilderness. The experts there say don’t burn any trash in a campfire. The reason: You have to stoke your fire long and hot enough to completely burn the pouches, which has its own environmental impact, or you’ll leave unsightly, animal-attracting scraps behind. Better to carry the empty pouch back out with you and throw it away (check with your local recycling company, but plastic-paper hybrids are usually tough to recycle).

As you probably suspect, Stephanie, we can do even better than that. Did you know you can make your own dehydrated meals at home? That way, you can create a menu as organic, local, affordable, and tasty as you wish. You can even pull this off using a regular oven, though if you keep up with the camping thing, a dehydrator is a more efficient way to go. Even better: You have a world of lower-waste packaging options open to you.

There’s a reason backpackers love plastic baggies for carrying pretty much everything — they’re light, cheap, and waterproof. They’re also made from #4 polyethylene (LLDPE falls under this umbrella), considered a “safe plastic.” But it isn’t recyclable in most communities. One alternative would be toting your treats in reusable containers like Tupperware (perhaps taped shut to be safe), but I know that’s on the heavy, bulky side for your purposes.

You might also try reusable lunch baggies: The ones fashioned from plastic-lined fabric could suit. They’re still heavier than a Ziploc, but that could be a price you’re willing to pay, Stephanie. While it’s always advisable to reduce plastic wherever we can, a plain old fabric pouch would lose that essential waterproofness — and some brands are using BPA- and phthalate-free liners, which we like. Here’s one more idea: Carefully wrap your meals in recyclable aluminum foil packets or paper bags, then slide them inside a reusable dry bag. These watertight pouches are made for outdoor pursuits, and the smaller ones are still pretty lightweight.

And if you end up defaulting to a few plastic baggies anyway? Just give them a rinse, dry them, and save them to use on your next camping trip. Turning to plastic bags a handful of days a year does not an environmental disaster make, especially considering you won’t be showering, using electricity, or driving on those days (and you took a bus to the trailhead, right?).

Heartily,
Umbra