This is part 3 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.
The third principle, dispose of waste properly, refers to food waste, human waste and garbage. Knowing how to deal with each of these before your trip will help you make responsible decisions about waste in the backcountry.
Why dispose of waste properly?
From a personal experience perspective, it’s disgusting to see trash and human waste on the trail. It takes away from the experience. I have seen it all, from human feces, toilet paper, water bottles, food wrappers, orange peels, dog waste bags, broken tents, the list goes on and on. I even came across a backcountry campsite that had piles of lemon and lime halves all over the ground, like they had a margarita party and left their waste behind! It is unsightly and inconsiderate to leave waste behind.
From an environmental perspective, human and pet waste can contaminate water supplies. Food scraps can train wild animals to come to rely on humans for food or even make them sick. Products like sunscreen, soap, and insect repellent don’t readily biodegrade and can linger in the soil and water. There are many reasons to be mindful of what you may leave behind on a hiking or camping trip.
As the saying goes: “pack it in, pack it out.” And also, “Your mother doesn’t live here. Clean up after yourself.”
How to dispose of waste properly?
In order to manage waste in the backcountry there are some simple things you can do.
Minimize the trash you generate. Carry what you need. Repackage food into zipper bags or reusable containers. Choose reusable water bottles instead of single-use plastic. and fences are put in place to concentrate the impact.
Carry a trash bag and use it. I often re-use the Ziploc bag from my lunch to haul out trash in. Trash includes fruit peels, nut shells, apple cores and other organic matter. Those pistachio shells you just threw on the trail won’t break down for several years. Imagine how cluttered the trail would be if everyone tossed their shells on the ground!
Pick up trash you see while out hiking. Take a hint from the Swedes, who turned “plogging“—picking up trash while jogging—into a fitness craze. Since you’ve already got a trash bag in your pack (see the tip above!) it’s easy to grab litter you see along the trail. If you’re concerned about sanitation, like if you see some TP or bandaids on the trail, put on a pair of latex gloves or use the bag as a barrier between your skin and the discarded item. People are less likely to litter in a clean area than an already trashed one.
Wash your dishes at least 200 feet from streams or lakes. Use biodegradable soap, like Dr. Bronner’s, if any. Take the resulting “gray water” from your dishwashing chore and throw it over a wide area. This prevents concentrating human food waste in a small area, which will attract critters.
Pack out Fido’s poo. Dog poop carries viruses, bacteria and worms that can be spread to humans or wildlife. Due to the processed foods pet owners typically feed dogs, their poo takes much longer to biodegrade than the feces of wild animals who are eating a natural diet. There are a number of reasons why packing our pets’ waste out is really important. Read more on the lnt.org blog: There is no dog poop fairy. And those little poop bags you use to collect the poo in? Carry it out. Don’t set it on the side of the trail for later. I’ve seen some dog owners tie the bags to their dog’s collar or doggie backpack. It can be done!
Dispose of human waste properly. This warrants a longer discussion, which follows…
What to do with your poo
You can read entire books on bathroom hygiene in the backcountry. Actually, I recommend you do! How to Shit in the Woods is a great primer on strategies for dealing with waste in a wide range of situations, including multi-day group camping excursions. But here are a few basic principles and strategies to keep in mind.
Urine is much easier to manage than feces. You can pee in the woods just about anywhere. Try to stay 200 feet away from your camp and water sources whenever possible.
Poop can be a messy problem, but only if you’re not thinking ahead. If you’ll be hiking in a forest where there are opportunities to dig a hole and go, you’re in the best possible situation. Pack a trowel for digging a 6-12″ cathole. Poo in the hole, fill it with soil, cover it up and get on your way. If you choose to use toilet paper, bury it deep in the hole or (ideally) pack it out. There are plenty of alternatives to TP: moss, leaves, rocks and snow can do a great job too!
To make your life a bit more comfortable, always carry a hygiene bag in your backpack: Inside a resealable bag, carry some hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and another resealable bag or two. If you use toilet paper you can pack it into a ziploc bag and then use some hand sanitizer once you’re finished. Simple!
In some areas, like popular alpine hiking and climbing areas, there are rules requiring people to pack out their poop. Some agencies will provide a waste kit or blue bag for you to use. Check the local regulations before embarking on such a trip. You can carry your own hard-sided container to transport your used poo bags during your trip. An old Pringles can or plastic container with a lid works just fine. Be sure to label that container clearly!
Feminine hygiene products should always be packed out. Alternatives to disposable products, like the Diva Cup, help to minimize single-use waste in the backcountry.
And one more thing. If you forget your trowel, if you have no waste kit, and you’ve just got to go, please do us all a favor. Find an out-of-the-way place in which to do your business! Nothing drives me crazier than seeing poop right off the side of the trail or piles of TP near a forest campsite. It’s unsanitary, it’s disgusting, it’s thoughtless. Walk off the trail a bit, to a non-desirable location. Scratch a hole in the ground with a stick. Do your thing. Cover it up with leaves, rocks, dirt, whatever you can. And walk back to the trail, reminding yourself to prepare better next time.
If you have questions about how to handle waste in the outdoors, please ask below! Share your stories and strategies. And leave it better than you found it.