Part 1 of this series introduced the concepts of Leave No Trace Canada, and noted the 7 principles of Leave No Trace. On other pages, we cover “Planning Ahead” and “Travelling on Durable Surfaces“. The third of these principles is “Dispose of Waste Properly”.
Wilderness waste comes in two basic categories: garbage and excrement. Realistically, both must be handled whether you’re out for a day or several days in K-Country. Last we checked, there’s no backcountry garbage pick up in K-Country (heck, there’s limited pick up in the bear proof bins in parking lots and campgrounds).
First up: Garbage
So how do you handle garbage? It’s pretty simple: if you brought it in, without exception, take it out. Without exception. That includes things that are biodegradable like apple cores, orange peels, sunflower seed and pistachio shells – none of which anyone wants to find on a trail or at that perfect picnic spot for a lunch break. All biodegradables are wildlife attractants. All will take a LONG time to decompose. Apple cores & orange peels take 6 months, much longer in the winter. Pistachio Shells take 3-5 years.
Blow your nose and the Kleenex will be a trail sight for a year. Don’t spit out your chewing gum; it won’t decompose at all, and will be there forever. The paper gum wrapper you toss will be there 1-3 years. Your aluminum beer or pop can will be there about 50 years. That plastic bottle? A 100+ year eyesore.
Perhaps you’re a fisherman. That fishing line tangle will be there 600 years. The photo at right is a pile of fishing line the Kananaskis Stewards pulled out of Grotto Pond in 2014. A rifle hunter? Brass shell casings basically will be there forever, as will the metal bases of shotgun shells.
Maybe you’re a backpacker. There are things you can burn if you’re having a fire – paper and such – but ANY biodegradables like apple cores and orange peels leave behind organic residue that’s a wildlife attractant. Burning plastic in a campfire releases lots of toxic smoke that comes from incomplete combustion (your wood fire just isn’t hot enough).
In 2016, we got a reminder about just how long waste takes to break down in the wilderness. The photo at the top of this article is of a 1950’s era Canadian Forestry Services garbage dump. Their waste was literally just pushed off a cliff into what is now the Lusk Creek Day Use Area. In 2016 and 2017, the Kananaskis Stewards took several days pulling all the trash out of there — tin cans, glass, plastic, wood, fibreglass, metal, tires, clothing, dead animals — you name it, it was in there. And other than the organic material, it was all basically intact after 60 years.
So if you carried it in, carry it out. Everything — including trash you find. Make it easier by ditching plastic bags and switching to re-useable plastic containers for things like sandwiches, snacks and fruits and vegetables. Voila, a pack-sized garbage can to carry waste out when you’re done.
And if you don’t like to see waste in the wilderness, join the Friends annual Highway 40 cleanup. You can do your part to help K-Country, and help us.
What about human waste?
For the time being, managing human waste is a bit simpler, but it must be done correctly. There is possibly no less pleasant discovery in what you thought was a pristine forest than finding a pile of used toilet paper. Enter: The “Cathole”.
A cathole is a mini outhouse well you dig when it’s time to go. It needs to be 6”-8” deep, 4”-6” in diameter, and in organic soil. Ideally, your spot is sunny (the sun makes heat that aids in decomposition). You want to be at least 60 metres from any water, and in a spot that others won’t pass by. You’ll need something to dig the hole with; you can’t kick a deep enough one with your shoe, and you’ll compact the soil in the process. A garden trowel is the perfect cathole digging tool.
The toilet paper you carry should at least be the plain, white, non-perfumed type. Most stores (including Canadian Tire) sell inexpensive toilet paper specifically designed for backcountry use; it degrades rapidly.
Do your thing into the hole, toss in the toilet paper, and bury it all with the material that you dug out of the hole. Then disguise it so no one can tell you were there. If you’re staying in an area for a while, spread out the catholes to prevent contamination of a particular area.
If for soil reasons you can’t bury your toilet paper, put it in a plastic baggie and pack it out. Never burn used toilet paper; it will generate hazardous fumes.
Catholes aren’t needed for urine. To quote Leave No Trace Canada:
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.
An idea for dog poop
And here’s a suggestion: consider using a cathole to dispose of pet waste. Far, far, far too many people bag up their dog waste and leave it on the side of the trail (or toss it into the forest). If you’re willing to bag it up but not pack it out: carry it off trail, dig a cat hole, toss it in (without the bag), and bury it properly.
The possible future for human waste
Now, we note, “for the time being”, managing human waste is easy. Some high use backcountry places in the USA now require you to pack your human waste out, too. They have unique outhouses at backcountry campsites that take specialty plastic bags, but you have to carry those bags out. How does it work?
The two leading products are the “Go Anywhere Toilet Kit” (formerly WAG Bags) and Restop 2 bags. Both neutralize waste with gelling compounds that absorb moisture (and stink) when you deposit your urine or feces inside. They come with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and used bags can be dropped in any trash container or landfill.
Climbers on Mt. Rainier started using these “blue bags” in the early 1980s, and mandatory carry-everything-out programs later spread to popular peaks like Shasta and Denali, as well as to environmentally sensitive Utah canyons like Buckskin Gulch and the Virgin River Narrows. We are aware Alberta Parks has considered requiring these instead of servicing outhouses at backcountry campgrounds.
Carrying stuff out is easy. Leaving stuff behind is unnecessary and unethical.
- If you carried it in, you can carry it out
- Biodegradables take too long to degrade; carry them out, too
- Learn how to dig and use a Cathole; it’s easy
- Don’t leave dog poop bags anywhere. Take them out, or use a Cathole to bury the contents.
- When in doubt, consider WAG Bags
Onward to “Leave What You Find” –>