Trash Stinks: Backcountry Waste Disposal

By Molly Herber

Jul 10, 2015

Editor's note: Guidelines from the fourth edition of NOLS' Soft Paths, by Rich Brame and David Cole.

Let's talk waste. When we go somewhere to camp out, we're going to produce garbage and human waste. It's inevitable. What's not inevitable is the way we clean up after ourselves. After all, you wouldn't go into your neighbor's backyard, have a barbecue, and leave all the trash behind, right? (Maybe it depends on how well you get along with your neighbor...)

Assuming that you truly enjoy the wild places you're visiting and want to maintain them for future users, here are a few guidelines to follow for disposing of your waste properly. 

Repackaging food before you head out reduces waste you have to carry on the trail. Photo by Brad Christensen.


Basic Principles

In areas that are not equipped with toilet facilities, packing out feces is the most responsible way of dealing with human waste. For those who choose not to do this, either because of inconvenience or impracticality, proper disposal should accomplish four objectives:

  1. Minimize chance of water pollution.
  2. Minimize the chance of anything or anyone finding the waste (no one likes to dig up someone else's #2).
  3. Maximize the rate of decomposition.
  4. Eliminate contact with insects and animals that may transmit disease.

Human Waste

  • Digging a cathole is the best option in areas that are regularly visited by people.
    • Choose a site that is out of the way and more than two hundred feet from water, trails, and camps. Then, dig a cathole six to eight inches deep and four to six inches in diameter. When you are done with your business, stir in soil with a stick, cover with two inches of topsoil, and camouflage the surface (if you are traveling with a group, signaling the spot with an upright stick may be a thoughtful final touch).
  • Digging a latrines is the least desirable option, but may be appropriate where the number of disposal sites is severely limited, where a large group intends a long stay, or with inexperienced campers incapable of selecting proper sites for catholes.
    • Dig a hole at least six to eight inches deep and make sure that it's wider than it is deep. After each use, cover feces with soil and compress it with a foot or a shovel to encourage decomposition. Fill in the latrine once the contents get within four inches of the surface and naturalize the site.

Toilet Paper

  • Rocks, sticks, snow, and vegetation make good natural toilet paper subsitutes (trust us, give it a try!). If you must use toilet paper, don't burn it—pack it out in a plastic bag. Bury it only as a last resort, and then only in moist organic soil.


  • Pack it in, pack it out. Wrappers aren't just going to disappear, so make sure you get all the little bits and pieces.
  • Repackage food in plastic bags before your trip to minimize trash in the backcountry (NOLS is good at this—check out the photo above).
  • Plan food rations carefully to avoid leftovers.
  • Pack out solid food scraps.


  • Strain dishwater and scatter the liquid at least two hundred feet from any water source.
  • Use soap far from streams and lakes to avoid contaminating water.

Visit our website to learn how you can earn a Leave No Trace Master Educator Certification.

amy-christesen-alaska-latrine If there's a pre-built facility available, use it! You may even get to enjoy a stunning view while you do. Photo by Amy Christeson.

Written By

Molly Herber

Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber

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