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What Should I Know About Hiking and Waste Disposal?

Hiking boots.
A group of hikers.
Leave the trail at least 100 ft to urinate and avoid water sources.
Disposal of human waste helps keep environments safe for native creatures, such as raccoons.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2014
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Though backcountry hiking and backpacking can be wonderful experiences, the issue of hiking and waste disposal becomes an important one. By waste, here, we would mean not only garbage, but also human waste. Since many areas do not offer toilets of any type, you do have to consider how to leave less debt to the environment you are enjoying.

Some people may ask why hiking and waste disposal are such a big problem. After all, don’t bears, raccoons, and the like simply leave their waste wherever they please? This is true but it’s important to remember that the natural environments you hike in are part of these animal’s habitats, and human waste may pose problems and health risks for these animals and for other humans.

You should consult the area you plan to visit, since many have specific guidelines for waste disposal. Some operate on a specific “pack it out” rule. This means you can either buy things like Wag® bags, which have special chemicals that will break down waste, and can be carried along with you until you reach a special waste disposal destination, or until you get back to the starting point of your trip. Many forestry stations also have waste disposal bags for purchase and ask or insist that you bring these back with you instead of leaving them somewhere along your hike.

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In earlier times, hiking and waste disposal usually meant packing a small shovel or spade with you. When you needed to use the bathroom, particularly for a bowel movement, you would leave the trail and walk at least 100-200 feet (30.48-60.96 m) away. Directions on hiking and waste disposal were often given that you would dig a hole 6-12 inches (15.24-30.48 cm) deep, use it as a makeshift toilet, and then bury the waste. Some hiking and backpacking areas still permit or recommend this method, but others have shifted to the “pack it out” rule. Know in advance what the rules are regarding hiking and waste disposal in the areas in which you will be hiking.

Usually you don’t have to worry as much about hiking and waste disposal for human urine. Yet there are a few ways to ensure you won’t ruin someone else’s trip or an animal’s environment by peeing in the wrong place. Again, leave the trail and travel at least 100 feet away. Do not urinate near water sources like ponds, creeks, or rivers, or by someone else’s camping site. Since urine is typically sterile and will degrade easily, you can simply find a convenient bush or the like and urinate.

However, if you do use toilet paper, you should plan to pack this out by placing it in something like a Wag® Bag. You can also use these bags to collect urine, which will turn into a gel-like form. If you’re concerned about leakage, you can double bag these bags in zip lock bags, and keep them stored away from any food, pots and pans or sleeping equipment.

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