Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly
The Center encourages outdoor enthusiasts to consider the impacts that they leave behind, which will undoubtedly affect other people, water and wildlife.
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.
In most 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.
There are several EPA-approved, commercially produced pack-out systems available that are easy to use and sanitary for backpacking/hiking use. Other systems (including reusable, washable toilet systems) are bulkier and may be better suited for paddling/rafting trips. As more and more people enjoy parks and protected areas every year, packing out human waste is likely to become a more common practice to ensure long-term sustainability of our shared lands. In some environments, particularly in fragile alpine settings, land managers may require that all solid human waste must be packed out.
Cat holes are the most widely accepted method of waste disposal. Locate cat holes at least 200 feet (about 70 adult paces) 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 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter. The cat hole should be covered and disguised with natural materials when finished. If camping in the area for more than one night, or if camping with a large group, cat hole sites should be widely dispersed.
Select a cat hole site far from water sources, 200 feet (approximately 70 adult paces) is the recommended range.
Select an inconspicuous site untraveled by people. Examples of cat hole sites include thick undergrowth, near downed timber or on gentle hillsides.
- If camping with a group or if camping in the same place for more than one night, disperse the cat holes over a wide area; don’t go to the same place twice.
- Try to find a site with deep organic soil. This organic matter contains organisms which will help decompose the feces. (Organic soil is usually dark and rich in color.) Refer to the jars used to demonstrate decomposition. The desert does not have as much organic soil as a forested area. (See number 2 under Digging a Cat hole below.)
- If possible, locate your cat hole where it will receive maximum sunlight. The heat from the sun will aid decomposition.
- Choose an elevated site where water would not normally go during runoff or rain storms. The idea here is to keep the feces out of water. Over time, the decomposing feces will percolate into the soil before reaching water sources.
Follow these steps to dig a cat hole.
- A small garden trowel is the perfect tool for digging a cat hole.
- Dig the hole 6-8 inches deep (about the length of the trowel blade) and 4-6 inches in diameter. In a hot desert, human waste does not biodegrade easily because there is little organic soil to help break it down. In the desert, the cat hole should be only 4-6 inches deep. This will allow the heat and sun to hasten the decay process.
- When finished, the cat hole should be filled with the original dirt and disguised with native materials.
Avoid areas where water visibly flows, such as sandy washes, even if they are dry at the moment. Select a site that will maximize exposure to the sun in order to aid decomposition. 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 ridge tops will have more exposure to sun and heat than other areas.
Though cat holes are recommended for most situations, there are times when latrines 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 cat hole. Since this higher concentration of feces will decompose very slowly, location is especially important. A good way to speed decomposition and diminish odors is to toss in a handful of soil after each use. Ask your land manager about latrine-building techniques.
Use toilet paper sparingly and use only plain, white, non-perfumed brands. Toilet paper must be disposed of properly! It should either be thoroughly buried in a cat hole or placed in plastic bags and packed out. Natural toilet paper has been used by many campers for years. When done correctly, this method is as sanitary as regular toilet paper, but without the impact problems. Popular types of natural toilet paper include stones, vegetation and snow. Obviously, some experimentation is necessary to make this practice work for you, but it is worth a try! Burning toilet paper in a cat hole is not recommended.
Toilet Paper in Arid Lands: Placing toilet paper in plastic bags and packing it out as trash is the best way to Leave No Trace in a desert environment. Toilet paper should not be burned. This practice can result in wildfires.
Proper disposal of tampons requires placing them in plastic bags and packing them out. Do not bury them because they don’t decompose readily and animals may dig them up. It will take a very hot, intense fire to burn them completely—campfires are not an adequate solution.
Urine has little direct effect on vegetation or soil. In some instances, urine may draw wildlife which are attracted to the salts. They can defoliate plants and dig up soil. Urinating on rocks, pine needles, and gravel is less likely to attract wildlife. Diluting urine with water from a water bottle can help minimize negative effects.
Other Forms of Waste
“Pack it in, Pack it out” is a familiar mantra to seasoned wildland visitors. Any user of recreation lands has a responsibility to clean up before he or she leaves. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash and garbage.
Plan meals to avoid generating messy, smelly garbage. It is critical to wildlife that we pack out kitchen waste, such as bacon grease and leftovers. Don’t count on a fire to dispose of it. Garbage that is half-burned or buried will still attract animals and make a site unattractive to other visitors.
Overlooked trash is litter, and litter is not only ugly—it can also be deadly. Plastic bags, cigarette butts, fishing line and other trash can be harmful to our environment when not properly disposed of.
Carry plastic bags to haul your trash (and maybe someone else’s). Before moving on from a camp or resting place, search the area for micro-trash such as bits of food and trash, including organic litter like orange peels or pistachio shells. Invite the kids in your group to make a game out of scavenging for human sign.
To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes. Scatter strained dishwater. Hand sanitizers that don’t require rinsing allow you to wash your hands without worrying about wastewater disposal.
For dishwashing, use a clean pot or other container to collect water, and take it to a wash site at least 200 feet away from water sources. This lessens trampling of lakeshores, riverbanks and springs, and helps keep soap and other pollutants out of the water. Use hot water, elbow grease, and soap if absolutely necessary. Strain dirty dishwater with a fine mesh strainer before scattering it broadly. Do this well away from camp, especially if bears are a concern. Pack out the contents of the strainer in a plastic bag along with any uneaten leftovers.
In developed campgrounds, food scraps, mud and odors can accumulate where wastewater is discarded. Contact your campground host for the best disposal practices and other ways to Leave No Trace at your campsite.
Soaps and Lotions
Soap, even when it’s biodegradable, can affect the water quality of lakes and streams, so minimize its use. Always wash yourself well away from shorelines (200 feet), and rinse with water carried in a pot or jug. This allows the soil to act as a filter. Where fresh water is scarce, think twice before swimming in creeks or potholes. Lotion, sunscreen, insect repellent and body oils can contaminate these vital water sources.