As responsible wilderness travellers, we are faced with the task of ensuring that we (and everyone else in our group) know how to  properly dispose of human waste. This may not be a topic of polite conversation, but it is one which has to be addressed. In the past, when wilderness travel was not as common, this issue was not a problem. Now, when we paddle a popular route, we may be one of hundreds of paddlers passing though that area in a summer. What was once a small problem is multiplied by a factor of hundreds, and the consequences are easy to imagine.

Human waste is naturally biodegradable and will break down into harmless organic material in time. Our duty is to assist this process, and to be responsible about the aesthetics of our campsite at the same time.

Human urine is not much of a problem. The urine of a healthy person is basically a sterile liquid that will not transmit disease. The only requirement is that we be smart about where we choose to deposit that urine. Common sense dictates that we choose an area well away from the campsite to prevent odour, and make sure we are not in an area where urine will flow into any natural drainage course and find its way to the lake where we are swimming and drawing our drinking water.

Human feces are another matter entirely. Feces can contain pathogens which  spread disease. It is important to be careful and responsible with our disposal methods. There is nothing worse than arriving at a site to find human waste carelessly disposed of or toilet paper scattered throughout the area. The cleanup job is not a pleasant one.

The only acceptable disposal technique for human waste is to bury it in an area of soil which is biologically active. For larger groups, this may mean digging a small latrine for everyone to use. In small groups, each person is responsible for burying waste in a small "cat hole." The trick to properly disposing of feces is to bury it deep enough that there is no odour, but shallow enough that it is in the layer of soil which has bacterial and microbial action. This generally means a hole 4" to 6" deep. The feces should be placed in this hole, stirred up with a stick to mix in natural organic material (which will help hasten the decomposition) then buried. The area should be covered with loose material from the surrounding area to help disguise the site.

The process of burying waste is not always as simple as it sounds. Many parts of Canada have very sparse soil cover. It can be difficult to find a location with enough soil to properly dispose of waste.  The other problem is that when we travel on a well-used route, if we find a spot that looks suitable for use as an outdoor bathroom, chances are good that someone from a previous group has discovered the spot before us. We have to resist the temptation to take the closest and easiest-to-reach location - to take the time to travel a little further off the beaten path and pick as spot as far as possible from the site. We should realize that everyone will not take the time to do this, so if we all pick the closest and most convenient location, the site will soon be a toxic waste dump.

Toilet paper should not be buried in a latrine or cat hole. The decomposition rate of toilet paper is much slower than that of human waste. Toilet paper tends to pack down into a tight, fibrous mass of wadded material that can take years to break down. It should either be burned or packed out. Burning the toilet paper at the  cat hole location is not a good idea - it is too easy for a little fire to grow into a big one. It would be a shame for us to incinerate a forest as we try to be environmentally responsible. The easiest solution is to burn the toilet paper in the main campfire. We solve the somewhat indelicate problem of how to carry back a handful of used toilet paper by taking along a package of paper lunch bags. The used toilet paper can be put into a paper bag, and the entire package can then be discretely tossed into the fire. It takes a good, hot fire to completely burn toilet paper. If we don't have such a fire burning, we're probably better off to dispose of it in the garbage bag.

Our approach is to bring along on our trips a cloth drawstring bag which contains the "toilet gear." The bag has a couple of rolls of toilet paper in Ziploc bags. a small garden trowel for digging the hole, and the package of paper lunch bags. When someone needs to use the "facilities" they simply grab the bag and head for the bushes. This system has the added bonus of ensuring a degree of privacy. If we see the bag missing from the tree where it usually hangs, we know that someone is probably a couple of hundred feet away in a compromising state of undress, and don't go trekking back there to surprise them.

On routes in developed areas such as Provincial Parks and National Parks, the problem is simplified by the provision of toilet facilities. This is a rustic but efficient type of "outhouse" without walls. It is simply a wood framed box with a hinged lid which faces away from the site, know affectionately as a "treasure chest" or "thunder box." If such a facility is present, we should use it - a concentrated area of human waste is much better than a scattered one. One word of warning - do not dispose of food scraps in this latrine - bears are not very discriminating in their taste, and will think nothing of tearing apart a thunder box to get at the food.

Women have the added problem of sometimes having to dispose of tampons and sanitary napkins while they are out paddling. The same rule applies to these materials as does to toilet paper. They should never be buried - animals will dig them up and scatter them. The only responsible tactic is to burn them completely or to pack them out. Keep in mind that it takes a very hot fire to completely dispose of them. 

Thoughts ...

Without love of the land, conservation lacks meaning or purpose, for only in deep and inherent feeling for the land can there be dedication to preserving it.

Sigurd F. Olson

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Aldo Leopold