By properly managing waste they produce and packing everything out, outdoor enthusiasts prevent other visitors, wildlife and water sources from the undeniable damage caused by pollution.
Proper disposal of human waste is important in order to maximize the rate of decomposition, prevent pollution of water sources, avoid the negative implications of someone else finding it and to minimize the possibility of spreading disease to other people and animals.
In most locations, burying human feces in the correct manner is the most effective method to meet these criteria.
Catholes are the most widely accepted method of human waste disposal. After use, the cathole should be covered and disguised with earth, stones and natural materials, such as twigs, pine needles and leaves. If camping in the area for more than one night, or if camping with a large group, cathole sites should be widely dispersed; do not go to the same place twice.
Finding the right location for a cathole:
- Choose a site at least 60 m (200 feet or about 70 adult paces or 100 child paces) from water, trails, campsites or any other utilized site (parking area, picnic area, beach, etc.).
- Select an inconspicuous site where people are not likely to walk or camp. For example, thick undergrowth, near downed timber or on gentle hillsides.
- Try to find a site with deep organic soil. This organic matter contains organisms which will help decompose feces. Organic soil is usually dark and rich in colour.
- If possible, locate your cathole where it will have maximum exposure to the sun in order to aid decomposition. The sun’s rays, which penetrate several centimetres into the soil, will kill pathogens if the feces are buried properly. South-facing slopes and ridge tops will have more exposure to the sun and heat than other areas.
- Choose an elevated site where water would not normally go during runoff or heavy rains so that feces are not carried away by water. Over time, the decomposing feces will percolate into the soil before reaching water sources.
- Avoid beaches and sandbars that could be covered in water, even if they are dry at the moment.
Steps to follow when digging a cathole:
- A small trowel is the perfect tool for digging a cathole. Light and compact trowels are available at a range of prices in outdoor stores. A garden trowel can also be used.
- Dig the hole 15-20 cm (6-8 in) deep (about the length of the trowel blade) and 10-15 cm (4-6 in) in diameter.
- When finished, use a stick to break up the feces and mix it with dry leaves and twigs. Leave the stick in the hole. Then fill the hole with the original dirt and disguise it with plant material. Leave No Trace calls this “making a poop soup”
- Ideally, place toilet paper in a sealed bag and pack it out with your regular waste. If not, put it in the hole and fill it in.
- Wash your hands with a little biodegradable or organic soap, and wipe them well.
- For more comfort, you can dig the hole after defecating on the ground. Use a stick to move the feces and other organic material that was soiled into the hole. Put the stick in the hole and fill it in.
Packing out human waste
In winter, solid human waste must be packed out since it cannot be buried in frozen ground. Burying feces in the snow is not an adequate solution because during the spring thaw, the pathogens they contain will still be active and will be visible or swept into waterways.
There are several approved, commercially produced, pack-out systems available that are easy to use and sanitary for backpacking or camping. Other systems (including reusable, washable toilet systems) are bulkier and may be better suited for paddling or 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, such as river corridors or alpine settings, land managers may require that all solid human waste be packed out or placed in designated containers. Check with the land manager about rules and precautions.
Taking Precautions in Mountainous and Desert Areas
- In areas with scarce vegetation, human waste does not biodegrade easily because there is very little organic soil to aid decomposition. The best thing is to bring along airtight bags or containers so that human waste can be packed out.
- In alpine areas, visitors who do not have bags or containers can hike down below the tree line where they will find enough organic soil to bury their waste in a cathole. If this is not possible, human waste can be buried close to the soil’s surface. Conceal it under a thin layer of sand, gravel or rock debris to speed up decomposition with the effects of the sun and rain. Choose a barren site to prevent damaging alpine plants.
- In desert areas, the depth of the hole must not exceed 10 to 15 cm (4 to 6 in). This will allow the heat and sun to speed up the decomposition process.
Though catholes 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 cathole. Since this higher concentration of feces will decompose very slowly, location is especially important. A good way to speed decomposition and reduce odours is to toss in a handful of soil after each use. Ask your land manager about latrine-building techniques.
Use toilet paper sparingly and choose non-perfumed, unbleached, undyed and biodegradable brands. Toilet paper must be disposed of properly! It should be placed in sealed bags and packed out. Burning toilet paper in a cathole or further away is not recommended due to the danger of starting a forest fire.
For many years, some campers have opted to use natural materials instead of toilet paper. When done correctly, this method is as sanitary as regular toilet paper, but without any impact on the environment. It consists, for example, of using a rounded stone, a handful of dried leaves, grass or snow. Obviously, some experimentation is necessary to make this practice work for you, but it is worth a try! Don’t forget to put the soiled natural toilet paper in the cathole before filling it in. The use of a portable or travel bidet is another good method that is gaining popularity.
Tampons, wipes baby diapers
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.
Proper disposal requires placing them in sealed bags and containers and packing them out. Odours can be neutralized by various environmentally-friendly processes such as the use of wood chips and sawdust (both of which are sold in the form of animal litter) or baking soda: one handful in each bag or container.
It can simply be poured into a cathole. The use of a menstrual sponge or menstrual cup will help to limit the quantity of waste to be managed during outings.
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.
If dogs are permitted, you must bury their feces or pack it out. The cathole technique can be used according to the same guidelines that apply to human waste. Bags containing dog waste must be thrown in the garbage. Double the bags if necessary, to control odour and leakage.
Other Forms of Waste
“Pack it in, pack it out” is a familiar mantra to seasoned nature enthusiasts. Anyone who uses recreational areas has a responsibility to clean up before leaving. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or traces of food.
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 wildlife and plants when not properly disposed of. Animals can choke or get tangled in plastic or aluminum packaging or other objects. Wildlife and plants are exposed to contaminants and endocrine disruptors contained in cigarette butts and plastic microparticles that percolate in the soil and water.
Use sealed bags or containers to pack out your waste as well as waste left behind by careless visitors. Before moving on from a camp or resting place, search the area for micro-trash such as bits of food and packaging or leftover food that can be composted, like orange peels or pistachio shells.
Bring your own bags or containers to sort waste into three categories: 1) compostable organic waste; 2) recyclables; 3) grease and ultimate waste that ends up in landfill. Drop them off at a designated collection point near your home or on site.
Wash dishes in a clean pot or other container filled with water, at least 60 m (200 feet or about 70 adult paces) away from water sources. Take water for washing clothes at least 60 m (200 feet or about 70 adult paces) from streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands. This lessens trampling of shorelines, and helps keep soap and other pollutants out of the water. Use hot water, elbow grease, and a small quantity of soap if absolutely necessary.
Strain dirty dishwater with a fine mesh strainer before scattering it broadly, at least 60 m (200 feet or about 70 adult paces) away from the campsite or bank. Ideally, find a field that is well exposed to the wind and sun since this will quickly dissipate odours, especially if wildlife are a concern. Pack out the contents of the strainer in a plastic bag along with any leftover food. A fine mesh strainer can be cut out of a window screen made of metal, fibreglass or cloth.
Once bears become accustomed to approaching a campsite, or if there is a risk of attracting them, it is usually best to discard wastewater by digging a hole, similar to a cathole. Find a site with no vegetation at least 60 m (200 feet or about 70 adult paces) from the campsite or water’s edge. Dig down to the mineral soil. In rocky soil, remove the first layer of rocks. Strain the wastewater by pouring it into the hole or onto the rocks. Then, return the site to its original state by putting rocks back in place or covering and disguising the hole with the unearthed soil and natural materials.
In very popular campgrounds, food scraps, mud and odours 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 waterways, so minimize its use. Always wash yourself well away from shorelines (60 m, 200 feet or about 70 adult paces), 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. Lotions, sunscreen, insect repellent and body oils can contaminate these vital water sources.