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LNT: Dispose of Waste Properly

Posted by Sharon Harrington on

The third LNT principle is probably the one most people think of when they think leave no trace: dispose of waste properly. Unfortunately, you’re still likely to find trash on any trail, river or mountain you explore. And, this principle goes beyond, “Pick up your litter.” Disposing of waste properly includes trash, used water and human waste.

Everyone knows that leaving garbage behind outdoors is unsightly and dangerous to wildlife. Even burning trash should be avoided, as it can still attract critters. The easiest, and most effective, way to deal with trash: if you packed it in, pack it out! Therefore, in order to reduce the amount of trash you carry out of the woods, reduce the amount you take into the woods. Plan meals and repackage goods with this in mind. Unwrap snacks and place them in plastic baggies that can double as garbage bags. Remove all packaging from gear before heading out. And never leave behind any piece of trash you see outdoors. Even if it’s not yours.

Wastewater is a form of waste often overlooked, but to maintain the quality of water sources and campsites, these guidelines should be followed: obtain water in a clean vessel and carry it at least 200 feet from the water source before using the water for cleaning. Whether you’re washing dishes, laundry or yourself, first try to do so with hot (or warm) water only. Add an approved, biodegradable soap only if necessary. Keep in mind that even these “safe” soaps have an effect on the environment. When you’re done washing, dispose of the wastewater at least 200 feet from the source, and also well away from camp. If it’s dishes you’ve washed, strain the water so that any food scraps can be collected and packed out with the rest of your leftovers.

Human waste, be it in solid or liquid form, can attract animals and harm vegetation, so it is important that it is taken care of correctly. Usually, cat holes are enough to aid in the decomposition of human feces, but be certain they are approved in the area you plan to be. As always, find a spot at least 200 feet from any water sources, preferably a place with a slight grade (but not where water freely runs, even if it’s dry at the time of use). If your site is in the sun that’s even better. Dig a hole about 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches across. In the desert, where the soil is less rich, only dig 4-6 inches deep so that the sun can play more of a role in decomposition. When you’re done, cover the hole with natural sources (soil, pine needles, leaves). If you’re staying in the same area for several days (or your group is large), disperse your cat holes. It is in these circumstances that a latrine or a packed-in toilet system may work better. Toilet paper can go right in the cat hole with your waste, but be sure it contains no dyes or perfumes. It is better to bury it than to burn it (best yet, pack it out!).

Urine is not as long-lasting as solid human waste, but it can still impact the environment. Try to urinate on rocks, pine needles or gravel as opposed to vegetation or soil, as these can’t really be damaged by wildlife attracted to the site (but vegetation and soil are still fine to urinate onto). If possible, dilute your urine by pouring water into the area afterwards. This will help disperse the salts, making the area less attractive to wildlife.

Disposing of waste properly goes beyond not leaving trash behind in the woods. Understanding what to do with trash, wastewater and human waste is a responsibility all outdoorsmen need to take on. It’s easy to see how this Leave No Trace principle directly and significantly impacts the environment.