Dispose of Waste Properly (Pack It In, Pack It Out)
This common saying is a simple yet effective way to get backcountry
visitors to take their trash home with them. There is no reason why people
cannot carry out of the backcountry the extra food and packaging materials that
they carried in with them in the first place. Trash and litter in the
backcountry ranks high as a problem in the minds of many backcountry visitors.
Trash and litter are human impacts that can greatly detract from the naturalness
of an area.
Reduce litter at the source. Much backcountry trash and litter originates
from food items. Perhaps the easiest way to practice the principle of pack it
in, pack it out, is to follow principle number one?plan ahead and
prepare. It is possible to leave most potential trash at home if you take
the time to properly repackage food supplies. Reduce the volume of trash you
have to pack out. Save weight by repackaging solid foods into plastic bags and
liquids into reusable containers.
Another good idea is to keep your menu simple. For short trips, consider not
taking a stove and taking only food that requires no cooking. This significantly
reduces backpack weight and excess food packaging taken into the backcountry.
Your first preference for dealing with trash should be to pack it out. Most
trash will not be entirely consumed by fire and conditions frequently make fires
unacceptable. Areas are often closed to fires because of high fire hazards or
excessive campsite damage. Some areas, such as desert settings, are impractical
for fires because of the scarcity of firewood.
Under no circumstances should food scraps be buried! Discarded or buried food
scraps attract animal life. It is common to see chipmunks, ground squirrels, and
various species of birds gathering around camp kitchens. These "camp
robbers" have become attracted to campers as a food source. Human food is
not natural to wild animals, and their natural feeding cycles and habits become
disrupted when they are fed by humans.
A conscientious no-trace camper always keeps and leaves a clean camp.
Strain dishwater through a small strainer or bandana. Put the food particles
in a sealable plastic bag and pack them out. Broadcast the strained dishwater
over a wide area at least 200 feet from the nearest water source, campsite, or
trail. Scattering dishwater in a sunny area will cause the water to evaporate
quickly, causing minimal impact.
Proper disposal of human waste is important to avoid pollution of water
sources, avoid the negative implications of someone else finding it, minimize
the possibility of spreading disease, and maximize the rate of decomposition.
If an outhouse or bathroom is available, use it. In most backcountry
locations, burying human feces in the correct manner is the most effective
method to meet these criteria. Solid human waste must be packed out from some
places, such as narrow river canyons. Land management agencies can advise you of
specific rules for the area you plan to visit.
Contrary to popular opinion, research indicates that burial of feces in
mineral soil actually slows decomposition. Pathogens have been discovered to
survive for a year or more when buried. However, in light of the other problems
associated with feces, it is still generally best to bury it in humus
(decomposing plant or animal matter that forms organic soil). The slow
decomposition rate emphasizes the need to choose the correct location, far from
water, campsites, and other frequently used places.
Catholes are the most widely accepted method of waste disposal. Locate
catholes at least 200 feet (about 80 adult steps) from water, trails, and camp.
Select an inconspicuous site where other people will be unlikely to walk or
camp. With a small garden trowel, dig a hole in humus that is 6 to 8 inches deep
and 4 to 6 inches in diameter. Cover and disguise the cathole with natural
materials when finished. If camping in the area for more than one night, or if
camping with a large group, widely disperse cathole sites.
Catholes in Arid Lands
A cathole is also the most widely accepted means of waste disposal in arid
lands. Locate catholes at least 200 feet (about 80 adult steps) from water,
trails, and camp. Avoid areas where water visibly flows, such as sandy washes,
even if they are dry at the moment. Aid decomposition by selecting a site that
will maximize exposure to the sun. Because the sun's heat will penetrate desert
soils several inches, it can eventually kill pathogens if the feces are buried
properly. South-facing slopes and ridgetops will have more exposure to sun and
heat than will other areas.
Though catholes are recommended for most situations, there are times when a
trench latrine may be more applicable, such as when camping with young children
or if staying in one camp for longer than a few nights. Use similar criteria for
selecting a latrine location as those used to locate a cathole. Since this
higher concentration of feces will decompose very slowly, location is especially
important. Deposit feces in one end of the trench and lengthen the other end as
needed. A good way to speed decomposition and diminish odors is to toss in a
handful of humus after each use. Ask your land manager about latrine-building
techniques. Carry a urine bottle when caving to avoid impacting an extremely
Use toilet paper sparingly and use only plain, white, nonperfumed brands.
Toilet paper must be disposed of properly! It should be either thoroughly buried
in a cathole or placed in plastic bags and packed out, which is the best way to
practice Leave No Trace. Never burn toilet paper because of the danger of
starting a wildfire.
Urine has little direct effect on vegetation or soil. In some instances urine
may draw wildlife that are attracted to the salts; wildlife may defoliate plants
and dig up soil. Because urine has an objectionable odor, be sure to urinate at
least 200 feet from a campsite or trail. Urinating on rocks, pine needles, and
gravel is less likely to attract wildlife. Diluting urine with water from a
water bottle also can help minimize negative effects.
Special Considerations for River Canyons
Western river canyons often present unique Leave No Trace problems. In large
western rivers the most common practice is to urinate directly in the river
(because urine is sterile) and to pack out feces in sealed boxes for later
disposal. Check with your land manager for details about specific areas.