How to deal with waste when hiking

As a hiker the chances are reasonable that you are a passionate nature lover. Undoubtedly, just like me, you get very mad by seeing the trash others sometimes leave behind in nature. But without wanting to point the finger to what others are doing wrong, I would particularly like to take a look at what we can change about our behavior ourselves, to deal in a more environmentally conscious way with waste when hiking. With these five tips, I want to take a first step with you in the direction of clean hiking trails.

1. Take your trash with you

Most of the food that you take with you on your journey is packed in a plastic, glass or metal container, to keep it fresh for a longer period of time. As a result, we as hikers create a considerable amount of waste on our trips. It is very important that you take all this waste with you and in no case leave it lying around or bury it in nature.

Photo by Joe Murphy

Not only will materials such as plastic, glass and metal take a particularly long time until they are completely gone, it is also very dangerous for wild animals. Due to the tasty smells on the packaging material, animals will be inclined to eat the packaging, with disastrous consequences. A tip is to burn the food remains of empty cans. This way you can avoid unpleasant odors in your backpack.

“You can just toss the remains of fruit and vegetables outside.

The birds will eat them, right?”

Wrong! The birds will be perfectly fine even without your intervention. And although organic waste such as a banana peel or apple core causes a lot less damage to nature than dumping an empty can of ravioli or a cigarette butt, it does have a certain impact on the environment. Different plant species grow in every area of ​​the world, depending on the nature of the soil. For example, certain orchids thrive best on very nutrient-poor soil. When you want to feed the birds with good intentions by throwing fruit remains on the ground, you will disrupt the plant growth in that area. Besides that, long spirals of orange peel on the path do not exactly make the view any better for other hikers.

Here is an overview of how long it takes for certain types of waste to be completely decomposed:

  • Paper: 2.5 months
  • Orange peel: 6 months
  • Milk carton: 5 years
  • Cigarette butt: 10 – 12 years
  • Plastic bag: 10 – 20 years
  • Disposable diaper: 75 years
  • Food can: 100 years
  • Beer can: 200 – 500 years
  • Styrofoam: never
  • Glass bottle: never

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2. Buy a reusable drinking bottle

Nothing is more important than to drink enough water during a hike. Instead of buying plastic bottles of water in the supermarket, you can choose to buy a reusable drinking bottle to reduce the waste mountain. Did you know that every year just about ten million tons of plastic ends up in our seas and oceans? So it is most definitely worth it, to consider the purchase of a new drinking bottle!

Nowadays you can find reusable drinking bottles on the market in all possible shapes and sizes. You have the choice between metal bottles or bottles made of sturdy plastic. The plastic version is slightly lighter, while a metal bottle is a bit more durable. In addition, the metal bottles are also made as thermos flasks, which can keep your drinks cold or hot. Are you planning to go hiking in a mild climate, a thermos is probably not necessary and you can go for the lightweight plastic bottle, which is often also slightly cheaper.

If you use a water filter of the type Sawyer, which you screw directly to your drinking bottle, you will notice that both the plastic and the metal reusable drinking bottles don’t work. By every sip you take with the water filter, you suck the air from the bottle. Since these bottles are made of sturdy material, the bottle can not compress when it is being drunk, as a result of which the system fails with this types of bottles. Fortunately some drinking bottle brands have created their own water filters in the meantime to solve this problem.

But even when you are head over heels with your Sawyer filter, you can still drink in an ecologically responsible way. You can opt for a reusable water bag instead of a reusable drinking bottle. Water bags have the advantage of being very light. Moreover, they are available in different sizes, so you can also transport large amounts of water with a minimum of backpack space. Most backpacks are also adapted to the use of a water bag system.

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3. Smart peeing and pooping

When nature calls, you can not help but respond. But when you need to use the toilet, it is important that you try to respect a number of criteria as good as possible:

  • Avoid the contamination of water sources
  • Prevent that someone else can find your excrement
  • Maximize the decomposition of organic waste
  • Avoid the spread of diseases

You can simply cover the place where you have done your needs with natural materials. But it is even better to dig a cathole and relieve yourself above it. Afterwards you cover the hole with earth, leaves and other natural materials that you find on the spot. Research has shown that the burial of faeces is detrimental to the speed of its decomposition. Yet the burial of human waste is still the most efficient method to meet all of the above criteria.

Photo by Robert Smith

In some places it is even better to take solid human waste with you, instead of leaving it behind and burying it. In narrow river canyons for example, this could be the case, since it is almost impossible to avoid water contamination at such locations.

Because human organic waste breaks down so slowly, it is important to choose the right place to do your needs and bury it. In order to prevent bacteriological contamination of the water, you should never do your needs near water (such as a river, a lake or a spring). After all, do not forget that human faeces is one of the most important spreaders of diseases! Take about 30 meters distance from water sources. However, if you are doing your needs on a higher location than where the water is at, the distance should be a bit larger. Rain could spread the waste further downwards and ultimately cause contamination.

Also the nearby area of trails should be avoided. Here, an average distance of 20 meters is taken into account as an unwritten rule. In addition, it is also advisable to squat down as far away from bivouac places as possible.

In terms of surface, you are best looking for a place with a rich organic soil. For example, a damp forest is better than a desert-like subsurface. This will accelerate the breakdown of faeces. A sunny place will also have a positive influence on the decomposition rate of your poo.

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4. Consider toilet paper alternatives

Not only the peeing and pooping itself, but especially the toilet paper is a major source of contamination during hiking. Do not make a large public toilet of the footpath as a hiker by spreading used toilet paper around. Bury the toilet paper together with your faeces in the cathole. You can also choose to burn the toilet paper, but of course I don not want you to cause a forest fire. In times of extreme drought, the burning of toilet paper should be avoided. It is still best to carry the used toilet paper with you in a plastic bag in your backpack, so you can dispose of it in a rubbish bin when you return to the civilized world again.

But of course you can also opt for something other than toilet paper. If you know that every day no less than 27,000 trees are cut for the production of toilet paper alone, it is definitely worthwile to look at what is available on the peeing and pooping market today. For example, the so-called Kula-cloth has been introduced to the market recently. This Kula-cloth is an antimicrobial wipe that absorbs women’s urine. Thanks to the Kula-cloth, as a woman you no longer have to carry tons of toilet paper with you on a multi-day trek. The cloth is odorless and you can easily wash it out. Use the black dimpled side of the cloth to absorb any residual moisture. The other printed side stays clean and is also waterproof, so your hands will not get dirty. Tests have shown that the Kula-cloth remains completely odorless, even if it is used for several days without cleaning.

The Kula-cloth hanging on a backpack

Besides a Kula-cloth, you could also use natural materials instead of toilet paper. Things like natural vegetation, snow or stones can do the job. Of course it takes some adjustment (and perhaps training), but it is certainly worth a try.

Is wiping your butt with fresh oak leaves a bridge too far for you, please do try to reduce the use of regular toilet paper to a minimum. Use it as sparingly as possible and use just as many sheets as you really need.

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5. Use biodegradable detergents

Besides your needs, you will also have to do your laundry on your trip. On a trek, it is recommended to use a biodegradable detergent. The problem with other laundry products is that they contain harmful substances. In Europe alone, some 3,100 kilograms of these harmful products enter the wastewater every year. The non-degradable constituents of the product accumulate in the surface water, the soil and even in living organisms such as fish. Once they end up in nature, they will stay there forever.

Of course you will be able to make the biggest difference at home, by using an environmentally friendly product for your washing machine. But because on a trip, you often wash yourself and your clothes in a river, it is even more important to opt for an ecological laundry product while hiking.

Wim doing the dishes in a river during our hike on the Via Alpina trail

Today there are so many products on the market that you can even purchase biodegradable all-in-one products. This means that you can clean your hands, your skin, your hair, your clothes and your pots and pans with one and the same product. This will save you a lot of storage space in your backpack. Also, the products are often so concentrated that you only need very little of them. A wet dream, for the ultralight backpackers amongst us.

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