Have you ever been hiking along, enjoying the day, enjoying the views and sounds of nature…. only to suddenly come across what looks like a mini-explosion of wrappers and food scraps in the woods? Or even worse… a minefield of used toilet paper, wet wipes, and human poop?
I’d like to give these people the benefit of the doubt and think that they simply don’t know how to store their trash while hiking or how to dispose of waste while camping or backpacking. Storing and packing out your trash doesn’t have to be messy or complicated. Follow these simple tips on your next camping trip.
Leaving wrappers, packaging, and food scraps (even things like banana peels and apple cores!) are not only an eyesore and annoyance to other hikers, but they are dangerous for the local wildlife too.
This post may contain affiliate links for your convenience, see my full disclosure for more info.
And not disposing of human poop properly is not only disgusting, but also leads to contaminated water sources and spreads around diseases and illnesses like giardia, e. coli, c. diff, and more! Studies have shown that digging a proper 6-inch deep cathole to poop in is very effective at preventing the spread of these harmful bacteria.
How to deal with your waste, the Leave No Trace Way
Leave No Trace is an amazing non-profit organization that helps clean up and protect our wild spaces. It is also the overarching idea behind hiking and camping in such a way that no other humans could tell that you ever hiked or camped in the area that you did, like a hiking ninja. Here’s how we do it:
- Bring less trash and packaging with you into the woods in the first place. Take your food and snacks out of the bulky plastic and cardboard packaging at home and repackage them into Ziploc baggies that can then be reused as trash bags on the trail.
- Always pack out all trash and food scraps – even if you think it’s “biodegradable.” Animals will get after your trash and try to eat it long before it biodegrades, which is super unhealthy for them and can cause the animals to learn to turn to humans for food – creating ‘nuisance animals’ or nuisance bears who either need to be euthanized or relocated.
- Never bury food waste, trash, wrappers, or napkins. Again, animals will smell it and dig it up long before it starts to decompose. Which just makes them sick/malnourished and creates a big mess for other hikers or volunteers to clean up.
- Never burn food waste or trash in a fire – anything processed or man-made rarely burns completely. So you’ll just be leaving food scraps and smelly litter in the fire-pit, which will attract animals to the campsite and leave a mess behind for the next camper or park service staff to clean up.
- Dispose of human waste properly. Be sure to pee at least 200 feet, or about 80 adult steps, away from the trail, water sources and your campsite. Salty urine can sometimes attract animals, often deer. Also, no one wants to accidentally walk up on you while you’re indecent. There’s a whole separate day dedicated just to Naked Hiking if that’s what you’re into 😉
- Always poop in a properly dug cat hole, or pack it out in Wag Bags. In most places, a 6-8 inch cat hole dug 200 feet away from all water sources, trails, and campsites is totally fine. In some places though like delicate high alpine environments, deserts, or river corridors you may need to pack out your poop in wag bags or poop tubes.
- If cat holes are allowed, you can bury your plain, white, unscented toilet paper in the cat hole, stirring it up with your waste and a little water with a stick. Some call this ‘poop soup’ and it kick starts the decomposition process for your waste and toilet paper. Do not bury any wet wipes, pads, tampons, scented or colored toilet paper, animals have a very sneaky way of finding these things and digging them back up.
- Pack out any used wet wipes, scented toilet paper, tampon or sanitary pad products in a designated Ziploc bag. You can cover it up with duct tape, or line the inside with a black ‘dog poop’ bag, so that you (and your hiking partners) don’t have to see your used trash. You can also crush up some aspirin and put it in there if you’re worried about the smell.
How to store trash while backpacking
Planning is key here. As I said earlier, getting rid of as much plastic and cardboard packaging at home will save space in your pack later. I like to repackage my snacks and meals into quart-size Ziploc bags that will then be repurposed as small trash bags while backpacking.
Any time I have any food waste, coffee grounds or wrappers, they go inside an empty quart-size Ziploc bag which is then sealed shut and kept with the rest of my food and snacks. If you’re out on a long-distance hike, section hike or thru-hike, keep a keen eye out for bear-proof trash cans along the way at visitors centers or trailheads that you might be able to dump your trash in.
If you still have trash baggies in your pack, be sure to store them properly at night, with your food and any other smelly items, 200 feet away from your campsite either hung in a PCT-style bear bag or tucked away in a bear canister.
Pro tip: I carry two or three large odor-proof Loksak Opsak bags to put all of my scented items inside of – including all toiletries, food, and trash – and then put the sealed odor-proof bags inside my bear bag or bear canister. Bear canisters are not scent-proof, so I’ll take any extra protection from critters I can get.
One last reminder: Please, please, please always dispose of your waste properly when you’re hiking, and pack out everything you packed in.
Not only for the sake of the environment and wildlife, but out of respect for other hikers and trail maintainers, so they don’t have to clean up after you.
For more Leave No Trace backpacking tips, check out these posts:
If you have any questions at all about Leave No Trace, drop them in the comments below!