According to Leave No Trace principles, anything that does not belong in nature in the first place should be carried out. This “pack in, pack out” philosophy applies to trash and food waste, human and domesticated animal waste, soaps, lotions, and other products.
“Human waste is a hazard to public health and also attracts wildlife,” explains Alex DeLucia, Leave No Trace programs manager for AMC. “Trash can be unsightly and often has extremely long decomposition rates as well as causes harm to wildlife and local ecosystems, and food scraps and gray water can habituate wildlife to humans.”
In cases where carrying out waste is not possible, methods exist to ensure we minimize our impact on the environment.
Everyone poops, and sometimes nature calls when you’re out in the woods. Improperly disposing of human waste can contaminate water sources or spread disease, so it’s important to know what to do when the situation arises.
Whenever possible, try to use designated facilities like bathrooms, privies, or outhouses. Before a trip, check if and where there are bathroom facilities at the destination, and if not, be sure to pack trash bags, a trowel, and any other personal hygiene products.
Burying solid human waste is recommended in most cases, with a few exceptions—like narrow river canyons, where separating the waste 200 feet from a water source or trail may not be possible. A little online research of the destination will help determine what is allowed. To successfully bury waste, first identify a location at least 200 feet from a trail (to avoid others stumbling upon it) and 200 feet from a water source (to avoid potential contamination of the water). Then, using a trowel, dig a hole, called a “cat hole,” 6 to 8 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches in diameter to deposit the waste. When finished, fill the hole with dirt and cover it with leaves, sticks, or brush. If camping with a group, be sure to disperse these holes.
In the White Mountain National Forest, AMC set up compost toilets at its backcountry campsites and huts to accommodate the biological needs of the many hikers who pass through every day. “That is a lot of poop,” Delucia says. “If we were to simply have holes dug in the ground, they would be filling up far too quickly and we would be left with hundreds of masses of human waste sitting in the ground contaminating the surrounding environment and the visitor experience.” Delucia adds that waste is manually composted, dried, and returned to the forest as fertilizer.
In winter, Delucia says the best method is to carry out our waste. “The waste will not breakdown in the winter months, leaving lots of composting for our caretakers each spring,” he says. “But, if you don’t pack it out, we would rather folks deposit it in the composting toilets as opposed to leaving it in the snow to melt out and be on the surface come spring.”
When camping, especially with younger children, a WAG bag or other toilet-in-a-bag product is a good alternative, Delucia says. These are kits that contain a large bag with chemical powders that help to break down the human waste and include toilet paper and sanitizing wipes. Once used they are safe to dispose of in a common trash receptacle.
Urine will not harm vegetation or soil, according to Leave No Trace, however it may attract wildlife. When locating a discrete spot, follow Leave No Trace guidelines to travel on durable surfaces as well as stay 200 feet away from water sources. Dilute the urine afterwards by pouring water over it.
Using toilet paper or wipes is ok as long as you plan to pack it out with the rest of your trash, Delucia says. Do not bury or leave behind toilet paper—or tampons, pads, and other female hygiene products—but rather store used products in a discrete, sealable, plastic bag and dispose of it at home.
Leaving behind food wrappers, cigarette butts, even broken gear is not only unsightly, it’s dangerous to wildlife. If an animal accidentally ingests trash we leave behind, it could make the animal very sick or in some cases, lead to death, or the animal could get trapped in improperly discarded fishing line or tent cable. Remember, the goal of Leave No Trace is to do exactly that—leave nature the way you found it, and that includes taking care of the animals.
It’s also important to pack out food waste or, even better, minimize the amount we produce while outdoors. Decomposing food is smelly, so on a multi-day trip carrying that food can be a nuisance. Taking time before a trip to carefully plan out meals helps avoid this, but if there is some leftover food—even organic materials likes apple cores or banana peels—plan to pack it out in a sealable trash bag to dispose of later.
Gray water is the leftover water from washing dishes, bathing, washing clothes, or similar activity. It’s relatively clean, but still contains toxins from the soaps used and needs to be disposed of properly.
The most common example is dish washing, where gray water ought to be run through a strainer first to collect the leftover food bits (and be sure to pack those out with our trash), then scattered so that it doesn’t collect in one area, damaging plants. Be sure to do this at least 200 feet away from camp and from water sources and keep this in mind when bathing or brushing your teeth.
Consider how soaps and other lotions and bath products you use might affect the environment—especially outdoors. Leave No Trace advises we limit our use of soaps in nature, as even the most environmentally friendly products can still contaminate waterways. Sunscreens, bug sprays, and lotions can wash off in rivers, lakes, and streams when we swim, so keep that in mind before taking a dip. For hand washing, choose a hand sanitizer that does not require rinsing to minimize the amount of toxins put into the environment.