LNT Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly

(First posted at The Trek)

Pack It in, Pack It Out

All of the Leave No Trace principles are geared around a common theme, preserving the wildness of the outdoors.   Depending on your world view, there’s a number of good reasons for this.  Mine are primarily selfish – I want things to stay nice so that I can enjoy them later.   For me, it’s an investment – I spend time and energy now so it will be there later.  A simple way to do this is to pack our your trash.  I’ll quote Teddy Roosevelt, who is often and simplistically reviled as a big-game hunter:

We are, as a whole, still in that low state of civilization where we do not understand that it is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals—not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.


Once the wild is gone, it’s really hard to get it back, if you ever can.    I’ve seen trash in the California desert that’s 50, 60, 100 years old.   The glass and metal just sit there and maybe rusts, but it doesn’t go away.  While an old rusted jalopy near an abandoned mine has a certain coolness factor, piles of broken glass are just trash.  Eventually everything composts, but it’s sometimes a geological time frame rather than a human one.   It’s small consolation to the person looking at a toilet paper “bloom” that in a year, or in the case of a Styrofoam cup, millions of years, it will be gone; that person’s wilderness experience has been impacted.  I pack out trash, but because I can, and to balance out the micro trash I might be leaving behind without knowing it.  I draw the line at biohazard type stuff.

And to belabor the point, the old classic Keep America Beautiful commercial from the 1970s.  Cliched and stereotypical?  Yes.  Legitimate message that’s still true?  Yes.   “People start pollution; people can stop it.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7OHG7tHrNM]

I met (and helped) a caretaker on the AT up in Maine at Horns Pond; he made it his mission to clean up a decades-old trashed out fire cabin and outbuildings in the Bigelows.   In addition to taking hundred-pound packs of trash out himself, he organized a program so hikers heading down the mountain could take piles of trash with them.  http://www.matc.org/assets/Resolved-Refuse-Removal-ATJourneys-MarApr2014.pdf


My pet peeve is microtrash.  You know the stuff:

–The little pieces of blue foam that get scraped off cheap closed-cell foam pads.

–The ring of plastic under a bottle cap that someone snipped in order to save a gram.

–The corners of Snickers, Clif and granola bar wrappers.

–The tear-off top of ‘Goo’ tube snacks.

–Those little SKU stickers on apples and other produce.

The little stuff contributes to the broken-window effect, where once there’s a visible piece of trash on the ground, the obstacle to leaving more is gone.  It’s like how an unopened package of cookies can be left in a workplace break room for days, but once opened, it’s gone within hours.  Rarely do people consciously say or think “I will just throw my trash on the ground,” but it happens.  And when it does, it tends to happen more.

I use one of the pockets on my cargo shorts as an external trash can for this sort of thing, picking up as I go.   I used to tell people at my site on the AT in Maine, “If everyone picked up one piece of microtrash, there wouldn’t be any.”


Of course bigger stuff is also bad.  It also seems more deliberate.  You may accidentally leave half of a Band-Aid wrapper on a bench, but you intentionally leave a waterlogged sleeping bag in a shelter.  As a caretaker on the MATC, I’ve packed out jeans, frying pans, half-full 1-pound cans of propane, and other large pieces of junk.  There’s one thing in particular I’m really not a fan of – Mylar balloons.   There’s few things more buzz-killing than looking out at an unspoiled vista, and then noticing a giant red heart balloon draped over a cactus.   Or of hiking through a mile of unbroken woods to an unexplored vernal pool to check out the tadpoles, and seeing a big “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” balloon in the middle of an otherwise pristine place.


Just because it is or was food doesn’t mean it’s cool to leave it on the ground   This includes orange and banana peels, apple cores, and the peanut and pistachio shells found in fire pits.  It’s gross, the smells attract flies and vermin, and it can quickly turn a campsite into what looks a parking lot outside a gas station.  You wouldn’t do this in your backyard; why do it in the woods?


I once had to pack a palette of rock-colored spray paint up to the top of  Saddleback in Maine to cover some red paint.  It’s hard to make paint look like rock, but I needed to not only blot out the red, but to make it look like it was never there.  I forget what it was, but it was your typical “Joe was here” or “Bob loves Alice” stuff.   Just no.

On day three of my PCT hike last year at around mile 50, I passed through the fog along a high ridge.  I learned I was near a parking area by the increase in trash, and finally on one majestic overlook the words were painted: “Larry is a fag.”   C’mon, now people!

TP, Etc.

In wetter areas (most of the AT for instance), you can bury TP, and the moisture and bacteria in the soil will compost it down to mush.  In the desert, or if you’re using anything else, you should pack it out.  How exactly?   First, use less.   Give it a try; you probably don’t need to use as much as you use at home.   Secondly, ladies, click here.  Finally, get yourself a sturdy ziplock, maybe one of those beefy freezer ones, and clearly mark it.   Go crazy, put poison logos on it, or do what I do, take a permanent marker and write “FOR POOP!!!” on it.  Then:

–With a trowel (not a stick, not a boot, not a trekking pole) dig your cathole – and the six-inch depth is in addition to whatever ends up in the cathole.   Try and go about a foot deep.   Don’t dig a barely six-inch hole and then fill it up in step two.

–Do what must be done.

–Fill in the cathole, and put something over it, ideally a log, rock, etc.   Basically you don’t want someone else to have any reason to randomly pick the same spot.

–Roll or fold the used TP or wet-wipe up in on itself, into a tight ball, with the business side of it completely enclosed.   The point is to keep stuff off the ziplock.

–Place wadded-up materials in your poop ziplock, squeeze the air out to keep the paper compressed.  You might want to point the bag opening away from your face for this step.

–Wash hands with hand sanitizer.   This is important.

–Put everything in an outside pocket on your pack.

When you get to town, empty the wadded-up balls of TP into a proper toilet.  This is a manageable issue.   It’s not hard.   It’s not silly.   Everybody uses hygiene products, and none of them belong in the ground.   You’re not putting anything into the municipal waste stream that wouldn’t have been there anyway.

Be Responsible

Your mother isn’t out here following you.   Pick up after yourself.