You’ve heard it’s harmful to litter. But when hiking it’s not clear what the best way to get rid of your trash actually is, especially once outhouses are involved. For example, when you are two miles into a hike, what do you do when you realize you forgot toilet paper, or that you need to change a tampon? It can take some planning ahead to dispose of your waste properly.
GMC Backcountry Caretakers get a unique insight into waste disposal, because they see everything in the privy… including any and all trash thrown in. (You can read here about how trash complicates privy maintenance.) We’ll tell you what the most common found items are, help you plan ahead so you don’t make the same mistake on your next hike, and share some behind-the-scenes trash stories.
Most trash in the privies appears to come from folks who found themselves without toilet paper. For example, while maintaining outhouse composting bins every GMC caretaker has found at least one of the following: a single sock, underwear, a bandana, book pages, or one of the informational signs that once hung on the wall.
These suggest a hiker had a very desperate moment. Sound familiar? Don’t worry, we’ve all done it. Maybe you thought “it’s just a day hike, why would I need toilet paper?” or you went camping and thought your partner had packed the TP. Either way, once you’re in the outhouse, it’s already too late. And once you’ve used your sock instead of paper, it may feel easier just to drop it into the loo.
Fear not! Adding a bathroom “go kit” to your backpack can be lightweight and stress-reducing. Start with a gallon-sized sealable plastic bag. Add a small roll of toilet paper, made by rolling out part of a regular roll. Add a travel-sized bottle of hand-sanitizer. Ta-da! Now just leave it in your pack for whenever you go for your next hike.
Why toilet paper instead leaves? For one, leaves don’t give you that clean feeling. But also, if we all use leaves, the plants around the privies will soon be stripped bare. But if it’s an emergency, using leaves is preferable to throwing clothing into the outhouse.
“Can I drop biodegradable wipes in?” Unfortunately, those don’t break down as fast as natural waste. When the compost batch finishes, the wipes are still intact and need to be picked out by (gloved) hand.
Other common outhouse finds are food wrappers, wrapper corners, and other tiny trash items, which probably fell out of a pocket unintentionally. Keep your trash bag near the top of your pack so you can put items in it easily instead of using your pockets. You can also put “microtrash” in a sealable pants pocket if you’re on the go.
Dog poop bags
We also find a lot of full doggie bags. We know outhouses are for poop, but not when it’s in a plastic bag. The plastic doesn’t break down (even if it’s a biodegradable bag), and it makes the composting process much more difficult. There are some great tips online from Orvis and PetGuide on dealing with your dog’s waste in the woods. Also, a machine-washable fanny pack is a great way to carry baggies if you’re trying to hike light.
These are found in almost every privy. Don’t worry, you’re not alone if you’ve felt too embarrassed to pack these out, or too grossed-out by the prospect. With a little planning, this can be a clean, easy process.
We recommend making a privy “go kit” specific to hiking on your period. For instructions, see this great article from REI. They also have plenty of other great tips for hiking on your period!
Once you’re in the privy, there’s usually a small amount of space next to the toilet which you can use as a shelf. BEFORE getting your hands dirty, take out everything you need and set it on the kit so it stays off the wood. Set the waste bag open and upright so you can easily drop things in.
Leave the waste bag open until you’ve finished up, then close it once you’ve sanitized your hands. You want the outside of the waste bag to stay clean so you can put it back in the kit. Put everything back in the gallon bag, throw it in your pack, and hike onward!
If you need to throw out condoms or diaphragms in the woods, please don’t throw them in the privy. We really don’t want to find them. If you’re packing them for your hike, you can also pack a quart-sized Ziploc taped over with duct tape to make a discreet trash bag.
We’ll leave you with some finds that stuck out in our memories…
“I found a plastic bottle of olive oil in the Sterling Pond privy in 2014. I can just imagine some poor hiker discovering their bottle of olive oil – meant to spice up the bland ramen they packed – had exploded in their pack and soaked all their things in slick disappointment. I always wonder if the oil added anything special to that run – did it give it an extra boost?”
“I once found a broken phone in the privy at Battell Shelter on Mt. Abe. I was accustomed to packing out trash, so I doused it with hand sanitizer, bagged it, and packed it out of the woods. Weeks later I met the woman who had dropped her phone in the privy when she hiked up Mt. Abe again. I decided it was better not to tell her I had sold it to one of broken cell phone wholesalers online.”
“There is still wreckage of a plane crash on Camel’s Hump… I genuinely did not expect to find a plane crashed into a mountain of poop in the privy at the trailhead. It isn’t everyday you came across a balsa wood airplane inside a catcher. I came up with three plausible explanations: The first is a darkly ironic coincidence. The second is a sad child who was incredibly excited to send it from the top, but dropped it while using the privy before the journey. The third option is it was a dud when the child arrived, and as punishment for malfunctioning it was dropped into poop mountain… ‘Who knows?’ I asked myself as I gleefully smashed the airplane apart with my shovel.”
We hope we’ve helped you prepare to answer with confidence the next time nature calls!