There is a simple principle that applies to garbage. Whatever we bring in with us, goes out with us. If we bring any material into a wilderness area, it ends up in one of three places:

  • It gets eaten
  • It gets completely burned
  • It gets packed out in a garbage bag

Garbage cleaned up from a camp site.

The first approach to handling garbage begins before we leave on our trip. If we don't bring something in with us, we don't have to worry about hauling it back out, so we leave as much as possible back in the city. Most food items come with piles of excess packaging, so we get rid of that packaging before we head out. We take the Kraft Dinner out of the boxes and put it into a Ziploc bag. Cup-A-Soup comes in nice sealed foil pouches. Why bring along the cardboard box too?


No garbage gets buried. Even if the item we bury is "biodegradable" it is going to be around for years before it is completely gone (and that's if the animals don't dig it up and scatter it). Leaving food scraps around because "the animals will eat it anyway" is not a responsible option. Wild animals do not need our leftover stew or spaghetti to sustain themselves. Easy access to human garbage turns wild animals into scavengers. Sites that are continually used by sloppy campers quickly become overrun by pests.


For the fishing enthusiasts among us, this includes the remains of the fish that were just cleaned. If there happens to be a small stone "seagull island" with obvious bird activity on the lake, paddling out and leaving the remains on that rock is a possibility. The same option is not appropriate at the campsite. Leaving fish remains is a surefire way of attracting all kinds of scavengers and hordes of flies. If we leave this kind of mess on the shoreline for other paddlers to clean up, we can be sure that they will be cursing our memory for years to come.


Most of the garbage we produce on a trip can be easily burned. Anything we toss into the fire that does not burn completely should be removed from the fire pit and packed out. This includes foil pouches, bottle caps and scraps of aluminum foil. At the end of a three or four day trip, we usually find that we are carrying only a half-full garbage bag - not an unbearable hardship to haul along.


Our last activity before vacating a campsite should be the walk-around to make sure nothing is left behind. This is the opportunity to find that misplaced tent peg or pair of socks, or those pieces of duct tape or aluminum foil. There should be nothing left behind to indicate that we have stayed at the site.