Waste Disposal in the Wild

Waste Disposal in the Wild

Outside of small weekend trips, Summer time is perfect for extended outdoor excursions. Whether it's your first foray into a weekend out or a multi-day trek, one of the most important things to understand is proper disposal of your waste. I've discussed this briefly in other posts, but I wanted to dedicate a full post to the different methods and tools used to leave as little of a trace as possible. Especially in national parks or trails, helping to maintain the land for others to enjoy in the future is hugely important. Not only does this help to maintain the land and keep it free of human trash, it also helps to maintain the safety of the trail. If more scavenger animals creep closer and closer due to a constant availability of human scraps, their predators will follow shortly after. This is just a few of the reasons on why it's so important to not only clean up after yourself, but to leave little to nothing behind as you continue on your way. 

As always, the first consideration is what you're packing and how you're packing it. Let's take the iconic trail mix, many varieties of which exist on the shelf of grocery and convenience stores alike. You can also buy the ingredients separately and make your own of course, and in those cases you'll likely bring a container of some kind. For any store bought snacks that come in non-resealable packaging, I would recommend repackaging these at home into something that can be later reused. A plastic food container or even a sandwich bag with a zipper lock is perfect, as it allows you to recycle the container into holding certain waste items in an airtight or watertight container. Watertight containers are recommended wherever possible, as they're extraordinarily useful for waste like food scraps and oils. Cooking oils should be soaked into a paper towel and then placed into a watertight bag or container, allowing you to properly dispose of them rather than leave the trash out in the wild or burning it up in the fire, something that should be avoided. Burning waste in the fire releases odors that animals can smell from quite a ways away, so it's best to avoid this to keep their curiosity down. 

There will always be waste items you don't want to dispose of, especially non-biodegradable items like the plastic or foil bags that store bought snacks are commonly packaged in. If they can be repurposed for something else then it isn't a detriment to bring along, but just keep in mind that anything you cannot find a use for should not make it out with you in the first place. You can make as many exceptions to that rule as you'd like, but the more items that can become trash, the more you have to carry out as well. As a rule of thumb I also carry 2 extra gallon zip style bags with me. Rolling these up in my pack takes up a miniscule amount of space and adds virtually no extra weight, but provides me plenty of room for waste disposal, as well as serving as laundry bags or back up water containers. These types of bags are also watertight, allowing me to safely pack them with waste items inside, without worrying about tarnishing the rest of my gear. I would however recommend creating a separate area in your pack for waste disposal items, making it easier to find and dispose of if you come across a proper trash disposal area. 

Everyone will need to eat at some point, and whether you have pre-packed meals that are ready to eat, or need to whip something up with your handy camp stove, there will be food waste generated. As I mentioned earlier, burning any additional food scraps is bad practice. The best practice is to eat all of the food, which is best achieved by bringing food you know you'll enjoy. However, dealing with the waste is important, whether it's pre-packed or cooked on site. The best way to do this is to dig a sump hole, and a reason why items like a backpackers shovel exist. Not only can you dig waste holes to bury away liquids and foods that will biodegrade, this also serves the purpose of hiding human waste. For food purposes, additional scraps and liquids, such as water from cleaning your pot, can be dumped and covered in a sump hole. A proper sump hole will have 6-8 inches of depth, allowing you to cover it well. Items that decompose over time can be discarded in a sump hole, but I would avoid putting entire chunks of food in these. Small bits and scraps are fine, but a whole piece of food should be placed in a disposal container for later if you're not able to just eat it all up. 

Now for the fun part - human waste. While a single human urinating on a bush may not have detrimental effects, consider that you don't know how many humans have been on this path, and how many have chosen that particular bush. The chances may be slim, but especially on popular pathways, I would avoid doing so and revert to a sump-hole. Especially for solid waste, a sump hole is the best option. The old method of flipping a rock over it may have worked before, but it's been proven that a sump hole is much better for the longevity of the health of the environment. By burying your waste you allow it to properly decompose while keeping it out of the scents of the wildlife. All sump holes, especially ones with human waste, should be dug at least 20 feet away from any freshwater source. This minimizes the possibility of heavy rains or other elements from washing your waste out onto the surface. 

As I stated in the beginning, proper consideration and planning will help reduce your trash disposal woes while you're on the trail. Our natural parks are environments should stay as close to natural as possible, and it's up to us as guests of these environments to help maintain a clean, welcoming environment for other enthusiasts to enjoy for years after. Pack smartly, plan to bring non-biodegradable items out with you, and most importantly, bring a shovel

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