As our population grows and more people make their way into the backcountry, more of our waste makes its way into what used to be pristine wilderness. Diapers, plastic trash, and other remnants of “civilization” are now found in places that used to be out of reach thanks to off-road vehicles owned by the multitudes.
With that ease of access comes human waste improperly disposed of in the open or under rocks, leaving areas filthy and disgusting. It is not just unsightly but dangerous and unhealthy.
The importance of backcountry etiquette cannot be overly emphasized. There is no delicate way to approach the subject, but it is one that needs to be dealt with.
Let me start with some links that are very useful and important:
- Grand Canyon National Park’s Trail Courtesy Practices That Leave No Trace – See item #2
- WikiHow – How to Make a Poop Tube – Excellent page on making a reusable tube as well as using a dry bag with a paper bag insert with optional kitty litter to cut the smell
- Grand Canyon’s Maintained Trails – A table of Grand Canyon’s maintained trails showing campgrounds, toilets, emergency phones, water stops and other useful information
- How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art – The excellent classic book on the topic of human waste disposal in the backcountry.
Now on to waste management
When you’re not in an area that provides toilets be sure to follow the proper method of waste disposal. Always, always, always make sure you are at least 200 feet away from any water source.
This includes watercourses that are dry for the moment—a common thing in the Southwest. The next rainstorm could turn it into a raging river. Sometimes it’s hard for people to accurately guess how far 200 feet is, so I use the following image to help people figure out the proper distance.
In town, a small house lot is about fifty feet wide. Walk at least the distance of four lots away from the water source. Never use an area that may be used as a campsite or kitchen area by others in the future. Use the same guidelines concerning distance for urinating or dumping out wash water.
Dig a hole about 6″ deep, commonly called a “cat-hole.” (For the best trowel I have found for backpacking, check out my blog post “MontBell’s Handy Scoop Gets a Thumbs Up.”)
Do your business, cover the feces with soil removed from the hole, and return the looks of the area to normal as much as possible. The reason for using a shallow hole is because soil is biologically active within the top six inches. Naturally-occurring bacteria assists in breaking the feces down into humus, a rich soil.
Go too deep and decomposition will not occur; not deep enough and animals could expose it, possibly spreading disease. Pack out, do not burn or bury your toilet paper.
I cannot emphasize the importance of the last statement enough. I’ve heard stories from folks who had either buried or burned their toilet paper and ended up with nasty endings.
I personally know of someone who had burned their toilet paper and lost control of the flame, causing a lot of damage to the fragile desert environment.
I have a friend who experienced it first hand as well. A hiking partner burned some toilet paper and started a serious wildfire which they were fortunate enough to put out—after a very large area and its vegetation was destroyed!
Don’t think it can’t happen to you. The National Park Service’s video tape on hiking Grand Canyon safely even has a woman talking of her experience of starting a wildfire, which ended up burning trees that were hundreds of years old, along with all of the other vegetation in the area. Please, please, please don’t burn your toilet paper.
Another avid hiker of Grand Canyon told me the story of what changed his mind about burying toilet paper. He buried the used toilet paper in the cat-hole he had dug, but as he was walking away, a raven flew overhead with a lovely streamer of toilet paper hanging from its beak! Animals are notorious for doing things like this! Don’t contribute to their delinquency!
A major misconception people have is that they can wash in water sources as long as they are using biodegradable soap. Unfortunately even biodegradable soap takes time to break down. So while washing up, take water at least 200 feet away from the water source (I use a Seattle Sports Camp Bucket which weighs less than 6 ounces and is good for so many things on the trail! See my Wonder Bucket page for details.). After you’re through with the water, sprinkle it into the vegetation.
When doing dishes, always make sure you are not leaving any food particles in them. Either clean your plate real well (listen to Mother!), strain the water through a screen before dumping the wash water, or wipe the particles out with tissue before washing.
Pack out the trash. Do not dump the food on the ground; this encourages things like mice and ants to inhabit the area. I can’t stress enough how important this is!
To find out more valuable information and learn the latest in backcountry ethics, be sure to visit the Leave No Trace (LNT) website. The mission of the Leave No Trace (LNT) program is to promote and inspire responsible outdoor recreation through education, research, and partnerships.
The LNT Principles of outdoor ethics are simply common sense but you’ve got to use it!
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts (fires aren’t allowed in the Inner Canyon)
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors