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Leave No Trace Principle 3 – Dispose of Waste Properly

Rocks near a river bank

This is the third in a series where we are discussing Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethic’s seven principles. In this series, we are really diving deep into each of the seven principles in order to have a better understanding of them and be better stewards of public lands. Today’s principle is Leave No Trace Principle 3 – Dispose of Waste Properly.

This principle seems like a no-brainer, but while taking the Leave No Trace Trainer Course I learned several ways I was breaking this principle and why it is important to follow all aspects of it.

Leave No Trace Principle 3 – Dispose of Waste Properly is more than just remembering to pack out your trash. If you follow this principle you will leave the wilderness wild and a better experience for the next visitor.
The trash can is right there! We’ll just hope they didn’t know they littered here

This rule is also the one that irks me the most when it’s obviously broken because no wants to see trash along the trail. This includes trash in fire rings as well. At the beginning of the year during the 2018-2019 government shutdown, one of the biggest problems national parks faced was overflowing trash cans. Because of the shutdown, parks did not have enough employees to empty the trash bins. They soon overflowed and were extremely unsightly.

Leave No Trace Principle 3 – Dispose of Waste Properly and the shutdown

I thought this was crazy. During the government shutdown of 2013 one Saturday, my friend and I spent the entire day fishing on the lake. Because the lake was a U.S. Army Corp of Engineer lake, there was no trash collection during the shutdown. So at the end of the day, I packed out our empty sixpack of beer cans.

Keeps things pristine
We go into nature for the solitude and serenity like this scene at the Buffalo National River

Because my job as a photojournalist would often take me into work at inopportune times, I found myself in a tricky situation. On my way home, there was a police-involved shooting and I had to go to cover it. I ended up being at a crime scene with pretty much every cop in the county and an empty six-pack of beer in the back of my car!

Fortunately, nothing ever came of it and it makes for a funny story to tell. But the moral of the story is the thought of leaving my trash in an area where there was no trash collection never crossed my mind.

I realize that as backpacker to pack in and pack out has been drilled into my mind, but not everyone has been taught this.

When we go into nature, we are a guest of that wild space. And just like we wouldn’t trash up our friends’ homes, we should not trash up nature.

Pack in, pack out is a great rule of thumb for Leave No Trace Principle 3 – Dispose of Waste Properly. It means just what it says – if you bring it in, you need to bring it out. And that includes everything.

One misconception is that if something is biodegradable, then it is OK to leave it in nature. It just decomposes right? Well, that’s not entirely true.

First, have you ever been on a hiking trail and looked down only see a half black nasty banana peel or orange peel? Nothing can ruin your solitude like seeing food waste from the hiker before you.

Orange peels on the ground near a picnic table is not good Leave No Trace Principle 3 practices
Orange peels do not add to the aesthetics

On a recent backpacking trip we crossed a campsite that had been used the night before. Whoever camped there just dumped their leftovers on the trail. Yuk! It reminded me of puke and then I wanted to puke.

My dog also began to eat it and I had to pull her away. Which brings me to my second point about food waste – it attracts wildlife. Feeding wildlife goes against Leave No Trace Principe 6 – Respect Wildlife. When you leave your food waste and it begins to attract wildlife, animals begin to rely on humans for food and we want to keep wildlife wild.

Jefferey Marion, a founding board member of Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics writes in his book, “Leave No Trace in the Outdoors,” that leaving food waste is the worse than leaving trash.

“Even a few pieces of dropped granola or spilled noodles are sufficient to attract wild animals, including bears, which quickly lose their fear of humans and develop nuisance behaviors that may threaten your safety,” he writes.
Leave No Trace is important to follow in popular destination
You really need to be mindful of your trash in popular destinations like floating the Buffalo National River during peak season

Marion writes that burying or burning food is not advised either. Because animals have such a strong since of smell, buried food is quickly located and dug up. When you burn food, you can never really get rid of the smell, which attracts animals, he explains.

Before leaving a site inspect it for any micro-trash such as spilled or dropped food in order to leave it as clean as possible.

Let’s talk about Leave No Trace Principle 3 and poop

It is recommended to either carry out your pet’s waste or dig a cat hole for multiple day trips. Pet waste poses health risks to both you and you pet.

And speaking of cat holes, let’s talk about human waste.

Leave No Trace Principle 3 – Dispose of Waste Properly – tells us that when there is a restroom available, we should it. I will admit this one is hard to for me. I have seen some bad backcountry toilets, from ones that are super nasty to ones that have no walls and are right next to the trail.

But what do you do if there are no backcountry toilettes? The best practice to dispose of human solid waste, i.e. poop, below the tree line is to bury it. You can dig a cat hole six to eight inches deep and four to six inches in diameter. You should also take care of business at least 200 feet or 80 steps from water, trails, and campsites.

Dig a cat hole six to eight inches deep is good Leave No Trace Principle 3 practice
Using a trowel to dig a cat hole

I used to try to cut down on my weight by using rocks and sticks, however, I found it much more effective to simply purchase a lightweight trowel to dig my cat hole.

Most trowels have markings on them so you know how deep to dig.

To avoid damage to the plants and speed up decomposition, choose a site that does not have a lot of vegetation and is rich with organic soil. After you take care of business mix soil with your waste (I would use a stick) and cover your cat hole up with the soil dug out of it so no one knows it’s there.

Marion writes in his book that “Soil microbes will decompose human wastes but studies reveal that pathogens can remain viable for up to two years in cat holes, hence the importance of cat hole placement away from water and deep burial.”

You should always check the local regulations regarding human and pet waste. This is good practice for Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare. Some places require you to carry out human waste all together. I know it’s gross, but getting sick from too many people pooping in the wood is more gross.

Urinate on nonvegetative when possible
Urinate on nonvegetative when possible

And do NOT bag your poop or your dog’s poop and leave it on the side of the trail to collect on your way out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this, and each time it’s disgusting. And plus, in the event you forget it on your way out, then you have left a plastic bag in the wilderness.

Urine for the most part does not pose health problems to people or disrupt animals. However hikers and campers tend to use the same spots, like behind a good rock or bush. High concentration of urine does pose a problem.

You should urinate at least 100 feet, or 40 steps, from trails or campsites. Also, you want to avoid commonly used areas, such as behind that big rock. Use nonvegetative surfaces when possible.

Taking care of female business

Although it’s OK to bury biodegradable toilette paper in a cat hole all feminine products should be packed out. They often are made with synthetic materials and do not decompose as quickly.

This trash should also be stored with all food and trash as it can smell and attract animals. However, Marion write that research show that black and grizzly bears are not attracted to this waste any more than other waste. Polar bears seem to be an exception, he said.

To minimize your toilette paper waste consider a pee rag like a bandana or Kula Cloth.

What Leave No Trace Principle 3 teaches us about bathing and washing dishes

When bathing in the backcountry, you should either not use soap or use soap that is biodegradable as to not harm the sensitive environment. Although, it is important to use hand sanitizer or biodegradable soap when washing your hands to prevent illness. But you should do so 100 feet or 40 steps away from any water.

Dishes should not be washed in stream as they create micro-trash which can attract wildlife.

Bag meals are great for Leave No Trace Prinicple 3
Consider eating option that eliminate dishes so you don’t have to worry about the micro-trash

Food should be consumed down to the last drop, and then you can lick your plate. However, if you simply cannot finish you meal, you should pack it out. Be sure to consume any micro-trash left over on your bowl and spoon. Or wipe your dishes with a paper towel that you can pack out.

After you have removed the micro-trash from you dishes, you can rinse them off and then sanitize them in either boiling water for 30 seconds or by dipping them in water mixed with 1.5 teaspoons per gallon of bleach. However, water over 115 degrees Fahrenheit stops the bleach from sanitizing.

After your water has cooled, strain it through a cheese cloth or other lightweight strainer to capture any micro trash left over. Then disperse the leftover water over a wide area.

When in an established campground or recreation area, do not dispose of any cooking waste in the restrooms sinks. You can dump the water in a noncomposting flush toilet or down a sink for washing dishes.

Leave No Trace Principle 3 – Dispose of Waste Properly is more than just remembering to pack out your trash. If you follow this principle you will leave the wilderness wild and a better experience for the next visitor.

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Leave No Trace Principle 3 – Dispose of Waste Properly is more than just remembering to pack out your trash, it's about leaving things wild.

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