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Properly Dispose of What You Can’t Pack Out

outdoor-backpackIn the backcountry, we create certain waste that usually can not be packed out. This includes human waste and waste water from cooking and washing.

Dispose of human waste responsibly. Correctly disposing of human waste helps prevent pollution of water sources, the spread of illness such as Giardia, and aesthetic impacts to other visitors. Some designated campsites have outhouses. If it will work into your route, use these facilities.

Where they don’t exist, a bit of knowledge and planning is required for minimum-impact disposal. Burying human feces in soil is the most effective method. However, recent research indicates that buried feces decompose more slowly than previously thought. Pathogens buried in a mountain site in Montana were still alive a year after burial. The slow decomposition rate emphasizes the need to choose correct locations for depositing waste.

There are four guiding principles behind the LNT sanitation practices:

  • avoid polluting water sources
  • eliminate contact with insects and animals
  • maximize decomposition
  • minimize the chances of social impacts.

Catholes: An individually dug “cathole” is the most widely accepted means of backcountry waste disposal. Catholes should be located well away from j water, trails, camp and gullies. Use 200 feet as a good guideline, but remember that local regulations or environmental factors may dictate greater distances.

Catholes should be widely dispersed. Go for a short walk to find an appropriate site away from camp. Better yet, use a remote location during the day’s hike. Choose a site that other visitors will be unlikely to accidentally discover. In early season when terrain is snow-covered, seek dry ground for cathole sites. Human waste buried in snow does not decompose and may be exposed when the snow melts.

To promote decomposition, locate catholes in organic soil (top soil) rather than sandy mineral soils. With a small garden trowel, dig a hole four to eight inches deep and four to six inches in diameter. After use, mix some soil into the cathole with a stick, cover it with the soil plug, and disguise it with natural materials. It is inappropriate to deposit human waste under rocks, because the rock inhibits heat that aids decomposition.

If members of your group are unable to utilize catholes effectively (for example, groups of young children), it is best to choose a route or campsite where outhouses can be used.

Urination: Urine has little direct effect on vegetation or soils. Research indicates that urine poses little threat to human health. However, the odor of urine can create an aesthetic impact, and animals occasionally paw up ground and defoliate plants to get the salts deposited from urine. Try to urinate on rocky or sandy areas away from camps.

Toilet paper and feminine hygiene products: Use toilet paper sparingly and use un-dyed and unscented brands. Toilet paper must be disposed of properly! Doing so is really quite simple and requires very little effort. A good method is to pack it out in doubled plastic bags, which effectively confines odors. Burying toilet paper or used feminine hygiene products is unacceptable because of slow decomposition and the high likelihood that animals will dig it up. Toilet paper should not be burned-it rarely burns completely and is a fire hazard. If you are willing to go the extra mile, consider using “natural” alternatives. Popular forms include clean stones, smooth sticks, and snow. Obviously some experimentation is necessary to make this practice work for you, but it is worth a try.

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