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Do We Really Have to Pack Out Our Toilet Paper?

September 9th, 2009

"Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints." This slogan about how tourists should treat national wildlife reserves and parks is poetic, romantic, and ecologically friendly. It sounds great until you have to actually do it. Then details you may not have thought about rear their ugly head, and this picturesque slogan suddenly seems somewhat difficult and cumbersome. There is one thing, or example, that humans leave everywhere on a regular basis: excrement. Humans don't really consume food or water; we merely borrow it for a few hours. Luckily, the most popular and well-traveled hiking trails and campsites usually have chemical latrines at regular intervals, pumped out and removed periodically by septic waste companies. Unfortunately, the less traveled backcountry hiking trails usually don’t have such conveniences. But no one can "hold it" during a three-day backpacking trip… so what are tourists to do? "Pack it in, Pack it out." This slogan, although less poetic than the first, cuts to the heart of the matter in a no-nonsense way. If you pack it in—even inside your bowels—you pack it out. This strikes most people as disgusting. People want to know why they have to do this, and if so, how. This article will answer those questions. Urine Thankfully, you don't have to pack out your urine. Just find a place away from your campsite or any water sources, and do your business. The only rule to keep in mind it to try to use a bare patch of ground or a rock instead of on plants. Certain animals may be attracted to the salts in urine, especially in dry country. If you urinate on a plant, an animal might damage or destroy the plant later trying to get at the salts. Feces Do you have to pack your excrement? In most places, it's encouraged, but not strictly required. Instead, they just ask you to dispose of it responsibly. "Responsible disposal" usually means burying it. Here are some rough guidelines for burying feces. First, dig your "cat hole" at least two hundred feet (about 70 adult paces) away from your campsite, the hiking trail, or any water sources. Dig the cat hole at least six to eight inches deep. A small, cheap garden trowel is perfect for this task. After doing your business, fill in the hole and pack it down with the trowel blade. Unfortunately, you can't bury the used toilet paper with it. The only exception is if you use "natural alternatives" to toilet paper like leaves, sticks, or smooth stones. These can be buried along with your feces. Toilet Paper The one thing park rangers are fairly strict about is requiring you to pack out your used toilet paper. At this point, many people ask, "Why? Can't I just burn it, or bury it with my feces?" 1. Burning Doesn't Work: Although clean toilet paper is highly flammable and burns quickly and completely, used toilet paper rarely burns up entirely. The end result is only slightly better than leaving used toilet paper out in the open. 2. Wildfires: A lot of wildfires have been started by the burning (and highly-flammable) toilet paper blowing away. 3. Slow Decomposition: When buried, toilet paper—especially the types that are synthetic, scented, or contain lotion —decomposes slowly and incompletely. This increases the already-high likelihood that animals may dig it up. 4. Pollution: Human waste left lying around concentrates over time, especially in popular highly traveled areas, detracting from the natural beauty of an area. For example, when a cleanup of Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch was done in 2001, huge amounts of human waste needed to be packed out. How to Pack Out Used Toilet Paper The first, and perhaps easiest, option is to buy special Human Waste Bags (commonly referred to as "wag bags"). These are secure, airtight, neutralize odors, and are easy to use. Each "wag bag" contains two plastic bags, one inside the other. The smaller inside bag contains a small amount of organic toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The larger bag has a small amount of chemical powder in the bottom designed to eliminate any odor. Fold your used toilet paper, put it in the smaller bag, and seal it. Then place the smaller bag in the larger bag and seal that one too. You can make your own "wag bags" easily. Just use two sizes of seal-able plastic sandwich bags with a little bit of baking soda in them to absorb odor. Some people wrap these clear bags in duct tape to hide the unpleasant contents from site. Packing Out Poop A lot of people get squeamish about storing the used toilet paper (or even feces) in their back with the rest of their equipment. To separate it from the rest of their equipment, many people make a "poop tube." A "poop tube" is simply a length of rigid, plastic PVC pipe with airtight butt caps at either end. The materials for this can be bought quite cheaply at any hardware store. You simply place the bags of used toilet paper inside the tube, put the cap back on, and pack it out. Feminine Hygiene Products Feminine hygiene products should be treated the same as toilet paper, perhaps even more so. Like used toilet paper, they rarely burn completely, sometimes have non-biodegradable components (especially pads), and run a good chance of being dug up by animals.

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