Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Waste in the Wilderness

One of the things I enjoy about the wilderness experience is that it causes us to think and reflect about things that we take for granted. When we are at home in the urban setting our waste seemingly disappears:

Go to the bathroom, flush the toilet and your worries are gone.

Just remember to take your trash to the curb once a week and everyone is happy.

But, in the wilderness our waste becomes something that we must take more of a conscious effort to dispose of because, of course, there is no sewer system or a trash service. In fact, the Wilderness Act defines a wilderness, in part, as a place that is undeveloped and is to be preserved as a place that is free from the work of mankind.

Lately, I’ve been noticing an issue with human waste disposal. That is to say, I’ve been finding exposed human and dog turds near campsites, creeks and trails. This is extremely disgusting, has the potential to be a public health issue and is completely unnecessary.

For example, the picture below is where I found an exposed turd the other week. Notice it’s proximity to the camping areas and creek? This is NOT acceptable.

Or check out these turds – on the trail:

The 4 goals with human waste disposal in the backcountry where there are no toilets available (i.e. all of the King Range wilderness) are:

1. Maximize decomposition

2. Minimize contact with animals/insects

3. Eliminate contact with drinking water sources

4. Minimize social impacts

So, how do we accomplish these goals?

BURY YOUR WASTE at least 200 feet (70 paces) from campsites, trails, and drinking water sources (creeks, lakes, etc).

However, when you are on the Lost Coast Trail in the King Range NCA you will not find a place to accomplish this on about 90% + of the trail because of the steep terrain that hugs the coast: 

For this reason we ask that you dispose of your solid human waste in the wet sand near the ocean (intertidal zone) or as close to the wet sand as you can safely get. Dig a hole at least 6-8 inches, make your deposit, and cover it up. (The ocean is not a drinking water source). 

Upon the next high tide your waste will be obliterated. Problem solved.

Now, many folks may be a bit bashful about squatting “out in the open” on the beach. But, in my years of doing just that I have found that privacy has not been an issue. If I’m camped near a creek all I need is a few minutes to walk north or south on the beach to find a corner I can go around and usually a rock, log, or a dip in the sand to crouch behind.

You can put your toilet paper in the hole too but if you can manage to pack it out then that is even better. ALL feminine hygiene products (e.g. tampons, etc.) must ALWAYS be packed out.

Wherever you are – on the coast or inland – you must dig a hole for your waste. Putting a rock on top is not burying it! Think about it this way: you should feel comfortable sitting on top of where you just made your deposit – it should be that well buried. Also, there is no need to leave toilet paper exposed (I’m not sure what the reasoning with this trend is). If it’s a warning you’d be much better off just BURYING your waste – all of it. No warning required.

Please keep in mind that you are not the only person visiting these remote areas. In fact, on the Lost Coast Trail, there will be people camping at many of the established sites nearly every night throughout the summer.

So please, respect the wilderness and respect everyone else that will be visiting after you.

There were people here before you and there will be people here after you.

If you have any questions send me an e-mail or give me a call:


Your Wilderness Ranger,

Paul Sever

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate that you have written so thoroughly on this topic! I actually looked into this recently and confirmed that toilet paper should not be buried with our waste within the King Range Conservation Area. It should be packed out instead. This is stated on the King Range website and I confirmed with a BLM ranger for the area on the phone. Maybe the policy has changed since 2014 with the increased popularity of this trail, but please update this page to reflect this. Thank you again for creating awareness of the issue!