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.

Human Waste

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.

Trench Latrines

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 fragile environment.

Toilet Paper

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.

How Long Does It Last?

Packing out trash is increasingly important as greater numbers of people visit the backcountry.

Here are some estimated life expectancies for different kinds of litter:

Paper: two to four weeks Rubber boot sole: 50 to 80 years
Banana peel: three to five weeks Tin can: 80 to 100 years
Wool cap: one year Aluminum can: 200 to 400 years
Cigarette butt: two to five years Plastic six-pack holder: 450 years
Disposable diaper: 10 to 20 years Glass bottles: Thousands or millions of years
Hard plastic container: 20 to 30 years