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 Every packing list and shopping list should take zero waste into consideration. I look up to folks who have achieved this lifestyle with awe and admiration. They seem to be able to make sacrifices and sign up for inconveniences for no immediate return. They spend more money to be earth-friendly. Money that can be used for brunch / clothes / travel / vacation / buying a house / retirement or what ever else is our priority. They deserve the recognition and applause. Take a bow for doing what I can’t seem to achieve. It is an intimidating concept. ( A 0 or 1. Trash in a mason jar. It has a branding problem ! ) The binary connotation to it that always makes me fixate on my failures instead of what I have done right. Low waste is my goal and very achievable given my location, circumstances and resolve. Ariana talks about finding a way to make zero waste work for you – great advice and thank you for all the encouragement. 

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware” – Martin Buber

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Camping means different things to Harsha and me. It’s his escape from the city life for a day or two… a getaway. I go because I want to live in the woods. I go for the pleasure. Campgrounds are million star hotels in disguise. The beauty of living close to nature with as little as possible has a purity that I lose constantly find myself losing in my everyday life. Perhaps I am looking for an escape too, from my own bad habits. Our backpacks are always packed and ready to go at moments notice. I see the nature that we currently have access to, attached to a ticking time bomb. The castles in Italy and the vineyards in France will stand. Not sure about the health of our forests. I am determined to explore California’s backcountry until our list is exhausted. I want to be that aunt who introduces the kids to the pleasures of sleeping under the trees and eating pancakes at sunrise. I want to be the grandma telling her grand-children about the great trees she walked under. I will tell them about the makeshift jingles that Harsha and I used to sing, to alert the bears of our presence on our trails. I will tell them about how we became children of the forest – climbing trees, jumping into swimming holes, counting banana slugs, cooking with fire, snuggling in feather beds, breathing the pure air, … Camping without trashing is a matter of planning and doing the required prep work. This is our master packing list. The longest we have done is 12 days. The longest backcountry trail we did was 15 miles in day while carrying our gear and carried it out it out the next day. We do weekend trips and day trips which require a subset of items from this list. It’s optimized for weight, budget and self-sufficiency.

0. COMPANIONS

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When I go with Hombre and Cinco, they show me the world with a different point of view. Hombre sets the pace. He stands down when we run into deer/geese/rabbit/… etc. ( He maintains a distance, doesn’t scare them, lets them pass. His kindness astonishes me. ) Cinco sees the little details. ( Who knew there were so many creatures hidden everywhere! We have to stop him from hunting them down and going off trail. ) I want to travel with people who have eyes that haven’t lost a sense of wonder. Very few people I know in my real life have the ability to embrace the discomfort for the sake of exploring an unknown place. And they are a notch higher in their fitness and don’t want to go with me. I slow Harsha down, but he travels with me. A handful of people – my mother, Reuben, Somesh, Kartheek, …. embrace the tao of camping. With the good, comes the bad. Each place has its unique beauty. The summits have to be earned. The trees and the animals should be respected. We are in their home as guests. There is a leave no trace policy that has to be obeyed. Backcountry trails are pilgrimages. Travel companions who understand this are a treasure. Hombre was my fav. ( I wouldn’t mind having a horse friend in the future. )

1. WATER

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It physically hurts when I see plastic disposables being used around me on campgrounds and trails. I would assume its nature lovers who come there after all. If the beauty of it all doesn’t inspire conservation, I don’t know what will. We have been using our beer growlers and camelbacks to fill water at home / taps at camp sites / fresh water sources, … Plus we make it a point to check out some local breweries on our way home to fill up our empty growlers. #beAnUnFucker.

2. UTENSILS

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Camping is an instance where adults play the doll house game. The cute boy I get to play the game with, has a man beard and has excellent fire lighting skills. He and I can set up our tent in under 2 minutes. He asked for a camp stove for his birthday and got it. He wants to collect miniature camping cookware. I am that frugal wife who won’t let him.  Things we own for our kitchen work well outdoors. There is nothing I can’t flip or whisk or stir or eat with a set of chopsticks. These steel plates are a family heirloom and are 40 years old. Indian craftsmanship ladies and gentleman!

3. TOWELS, RAGS, SOAP

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We use the thin cotton ones that are commonly available in India for the body. Dry them on your tent or on the bonnet of the car or using twine if your campground allows it. At home, I use these towels to dry my hair as a substitute for the hair dryer. The kitchen towel and one napkin is sufficient for two of us. A bar of olive oil soap can be a solution for every need – face, body, dishes, laundry, clothes, … Most campgrounds don’t have a sophisticated filtering system in place before they allow the sewage water to run into a stream nearby. The cleanest soap that doesn’t come in a plastic bottle is my best option.

4. PANTRY

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As I write this post, I realize that a life in India prepares you for a more zero waste friendly lifestyle. We didnt have plastic and disposables at home during my childhood. Our kitchens are made of steel, iron and clay. The Indian Spice box is quite ingenious. Fill from a bulk bin and you have a small arsenal of flavors to work with.

5. FOOD

When we first started out, we ate junk – ramen of all kinds. The irony of living so close to the nature while eating most processed unhealthy food really bothered me. There was a night when it rained so hard that we couldn’t light a fire. We waited for hours with our stomach growling while the outdoors roared in fury. It was the first time that I felt like an animal in the echo system. The civilization has spoilt me to a point that I dont ever remember going hungry because its raining outside …  I would like to think we now have more experience and are better prepared. Depending on the length of the trip, we make 3 kinds of suppers :

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No cook meals for bad weather :

Indian Mango-tamarind Rice and yoghurt rice.

Pbjs: something for the days when you have no energy to cook or when you cant light a fire outdoors.

Pick me up : Trail mix and brownies are a good to have on hand. There once was a trail that knocked the wind out of me. I fell to the floor and started crying. “I can’t do it. You go without me. I will never forgive you for dragging me along. Can a helicopter airlift me ?” Harsha found the whole incident hilarious. Brownies saved him from my wrath.

Always have some thing to eat on hand for weather can take a turn for the bad.

Quick Carb & protein rich food for after long hikes :

Chilli and polenta – canned food that only needs heating before serving. Carry the tins out and recycle.

Eggs – I know a dozen ways to cook them.

Beer is mandatory. We carry some up the hikes to drink at the summits. Fire cooked food becomes a feast when in the company of good craft beer.

The leisurely day in camp :

Bulgogi with roasted veggies. ( Its the easiest meat to get right of on camp fire. The meat is very thin, the marinade is easy, sears quickly, cleans easy, … )

Pancakes with honey/maple syrup.

Minced turkey burgers in lettuce. A patty can be made by mixing an egg with some meat. Caramelize some onions. Assemble on a bun.

Boil some potatoes and peel them at home. Cut them up into chunks. Fry on a skillet.

I use freezer bags to pack this food in an ice box. Steel boxes add too much bulk and weight. We clean and reuse our freezer bags. We carry out our food scraps and compost them at home.

6. FIRE

“Now, as when I was a child, campfires lure me to their edge. With the expected crackle and unexpected pop, its warm face conjures up memories of the best joke ever told, the unmistakable aroma of a meal being cooked over an open flame, or simply a thoughtful look exchanged in the dark. The campfire is an invitation. It invites us to share with the community that encircles its glow and to connect with the earth.” —Keith Hobbs.

Another skill we learnt the hard way, while being hungry. The most simplistic explanation :

  1. Find a safe spot. Away from the tent and trees. I have no intention of starting a forest fire.
  2. Gather the tinder ( paper, cardboard, dried leaves, pinecones) , kindling (small twigs ) and firewood.
  3. Lay the smaller tinder in the middle, lay the kindling on top in the shape of a cone and fire wood on top as a tipi. There are few other configurations more suitable for cooking.
  4. Ignite the tinder. Make sure it gets enough fresh air and kindling. Once ignited, add more firewood.

7. FORAGING

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We don’t eat the mushrooms can’t identify. We have camped in a few places like Big Basin multiple times and can identify a few safe-to-eat varieties. It’s a good idea to look up the local vegetation prior to visit. It’s also a good idea to take photographs of the new varieties and do some research after coming home. Mussels are easy to find if hiking along the shoreline. I wish I knew more about the greens we see. Give me a few more years with California and I will.

 8. LEARN THE TRAILS

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There is a question that once came up among our friends. If a war wiped out most of the infrastructure and if we were scurrying like rats into a forest for survival, what skill do you have that will save your life ? For most of us, the answer was NONE. Skill sets like lighting a fire, figuring out cardinal directions, ability to run long distances, foraging, saving seeds to plant a garden, building a shelter, … were viewed with a new mindset. Everything in life can be done like a daily laborer or like an artist/scientist. I don’t want to mindlessly brisk walk on the trails. I want to learn something during each hike. Read the night sky. Pay attention of the movement of the sun. (Individuals with visual impairment are taught this skill to figure out time and direction. ) Observe the shadows. Observe the topography. Learn to ford a stream. Learn portaging basics. Learn how to bait a hook and gut a fish. I have hiked with folks who also think of what to do incase of a fire – gauge the wind direction, be aware of the closest water bodies, avoid dry areas prone to fires, … Know what to do in case of an animal sighting. Pumas are timid and easy to scare off. Mountain lions can be scared off with waterbottles/sticks/loud noise. Dont run when you see a bear. Slowly back off. Dont couch and look smaller. Make noise, talk loudly, spread out the arms, look ferocious. In the worst case, use bear spray only after gauging the wind direction. Play dead if it charges – you cant outrun a bear. Look for animal droppings and paw prints as a warning sign. Know when the sun sets to avoid getting lost on trail. Don’t hike alone. …

 

9. SHOES

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Backcountry hiking with a backpack is intense on the knees and shoulders. Thick sturdy soles that can absorb the shock + boot shaft that can protect from scrapes is an essential. Danner makes this pair using GoreTex that are the best of the best. This is the pair used by the US Army. They have a lifetime warranty. This is my replacement pair after I sent in my first pair for repair after two years of use. They stand by their product. They should – it’s fantastic. Shoe trees prolong the life of boots.

Sneakers : great for hikes with small milage, kayaking sort of water activities, wear around campgroud, …

If you have taken a shower in a campground, you know why rubber sandals are an essential. They are also great for lounging around the tent after a long day in boots.

I own a pair of hiking sandals for our everyday walks with Hombre. They are useful to do yard work and for summer hikes.

10. CLOTHING

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I don’t need any special clothes to camp. My regular clothing is comfortable enough and I dont seem to destroy them during the walks. Anything below a 5 miler, we classify into a ‘walk in the woods’. I don’t want to use polyester if it’s not needed. For anything above 6 miles, I bring out my technical clothing. For backcountry, I use technical clothing and a whole lot of polyester. Merino wool works wonderfully too. Cotton clothes don’t dry out soon enough if there is kayaking or paddle boarding involved. I always carry a set of swim clothes just in case and change behind the trees.We try not to sleep in our dirty clothes for the sake of our sleeping bags staying fresh. I do some jumping jacks to warm up the body before entering the sleeping bag.

11. PROTECTION

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Hat. Mineral sunscreen. Sunglasses. Clothing with full sleeves. Bear safety spray. Mosquito spray. Our lanterns were a gift from Harsha’s sister. She somehow gets us presents that we need and use. My bike lights do their bit with helping out.

12. HOUSING

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This bag contains all the polyester that I treasure. I am pro natural fabrics but I can’t hike carrying a waxed canvas tent, … I don’t have that sort of fitness. Owning things that get used 20 days of the year isn’t exactly low waste. We are trying to bring up the utility factor of the camping gear we own. We often lend out our camping gear to our friends and discourage folks we know from buying things that can be borrowed from us. These two backpacks are more traveled than us. These are also packed to aide us in the event of a natural calamity. It’s good to have them packed and equipped to sustain us for 72 hours – a bug out bag.

We own a jet boil which uses propane, not really good for the environment but is the only fire lighting allowed in the back country. In car camp sites, we use the fire pit. I won’t lie. Working in smoke over the fire looks good in Instagram pictures but is not doing any favors to the eyes and lungs. This year, he wanted a propane stove for his birthday and he got it. REI is his weakness just like second-hand shops are mine. We try to keep each other in check.

I have to say this : the difference in what money can buy and expectations of comfort are very evident in car/RV camp sites. Some folk live very simply with the least amount of gear. We once were neighbors with a group of bikers. They literally had a few things that would fit on a bike as opposed to what can be carried in a car. I have seen the opposite too. Inflatable mattresses, portable batteries, fairy lights, flags and other decorative ornaments, tents that look like a mini apartment with attached patios, appliances that make sure that you forget how close to nature you can be, … exist. The equation can quickly change from live as close to the nature with as little as possible to live as comfortably as possible with a good view. We see them all the time and slip into self pity. We start making a list of things we could buy. But then, my mother’s DNA always pulls me out of it. “If you can’t sleep on the floor, you have aged beyond your years. Sitting on the floor touching the ground has a connection to mother earth”.  I have read similar words in the teachings of Native American Hopi tribe. Backcountry is different. You got to hike to your primitive camp ground or a spot of your choosing. You can only take what you can carry on your back. They is a leave no trace policy and no facilities. There is more solitude. There is silence. There is no artificial lighting. There are no crowds. It’s pure. It’s exhilarating.

House emblem. Every aristocratic noble house from the medieval times had a crest/emblem. Harsha and I want to find a symbol for our selves. I have been looking out for patterns in the wild. This shadow on the floor is a contender. These drawing of the trees are next in line. We spotted this bear face in a redwood tree …

13. Make it last

The least fav part of it all is coming home exhausted to piles of equipment that require cleaning. The tent needs to be wiped down and dried in the sun. The sleeping bags need to be wiped and aired out before being put away. Backpacks can benefit from getting a quick dusting on the inside and out. Utensils and water packs require a rinse. There is a mountain of laundry to do. Shoes need a good wipe. We would have missed out on the weekend farmers market. The house needs to be cleaned because we spent the weekend away. We usually are exhausted. But such is life. With the good, comes the bad.

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When speaking of travel, it should be about the matters of the heart. Packing lists, where to stay, what to wear, … are noise. Walking along trails and sleeping under the stars have been my biggest source of peace and quiet. I live with Harsha but we are always distracted. There are the constant news updates that make me cringe. There are the chores. There is the social media. There are constant messages that warrant replies. Long walks and lounge time at sunset far away from the reaches of cellular networks is what it takes for us to have great-uninterrupted conversations. It feels healthy to shut down when the sun sets and to wake up to the birds chirping. I definitely don’t take it for granted. Oh California! You are stunning ! I can’t get enough of you.