Let's talk trash. No, seriously. I want to talk to you about trash. Specifically, I want to talk about toilet paper.
It's amazing (and very upsetting) how much trash I find along the trail on any given hike. On one hike in the Great Smoky Mountains I stopped at a very popular waterfall, admired the scenery along with all the other day hikers, then continued on the trail. I came around a corner and there in front of me, ON THE TRAIL, were several piles of used toilet paper. It was clear from what I saw that many, many people thought it appropriate to just walk a few yards up the trail past their destination, pop a squat, then leave their used TP behind.
This scene, while a bit extreme in that instance, has played out on just about every single hike I've taken. Inevitably I'll find myself in need of a potty break, so I walk off the trail into the woods and find a good "hiding" spot, only to discover the popularity of that spot based on the piles of used TP left behind.
Perhaps people think toilet paper will decompose more quickly than it actually does. Perhaps they didn't plan for how to pack out used toilet paper. Or perhaps they just don't give a damn. That's where you come in. It's my great hope that by talking to you about this issue it'll help clear up some misconceptions, bad habits, or gaps in knowledge you may have. And that the next time you take a hike you'll practice basic Leave No Trace principles. And even better, maybe you'll teach your kids, your friends, and your hiking buddies the same principles. Eventually we'll live in a world where no one has to come around a corner on a lovely scenic trail and discover the reckless abandon of used toilet paper! Ok, so maybe that's a stretch, but big change starts with small actions, right?
Let's start with what Leave No Trace (LNT) is.
Leave No Trace refers to a set of outdoor ethics promoting conservation in the outdoors. It is built on seven principles:
1. Plan ahead and prepare,
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces,
3. Dispose of waste properly,
4. Leave what you find,
5. Minimize campfire impacts,
6. Respect wildlife,
7. Be considerate of other visitors.
Doesn't that all sound pretty reasonable? And honestly, with a little time spent on the first one - plan ahead and prepare - the whole toilet paper issue doesn't have to be a big deal. There are lots of discussion points here, but first, let me assure you, your used toilet paper does not magically decompose the moment you walk away from it. According to (what I'm sure is a very reliable scientific) data I found online, it can take over a month for that TP to decompose. Think burying it is the solution? Ok, that's better than just leaving it on the ground, but the best practice is to a) not use TP at all (wait, what?) or b) if you must use it, pack it out (what?!!!).
So you can't live without your toilet paper. That's fair, not everyone is comfortable wiping with leaves or a rock (yes, that's a thing). If you are absolutely unwilling to pack it out (or if you failed at that first principle of planning and preparing), at the very least bury it 6" in the ground. But if you want to be a LNT champ then just pack it out. Yes, I know it seems gross, but as they say, everyone poops. So get over it. Make yourself a little kit before you head out: put a dark plastic bag inside a ziploc bag, grab some TP, and voila! You're literally ready to go! Do your business, shove that used TP in the dark bag, zip up your ziploc, and you're done. You have now earned a LNT gold star and can skip down the trail feeling very proud of yourself!
I realize that just leaving it behind is easy, but we all know that sometimes, things that take more effort have greater rewards. I hope that putting a little effort into following Leave No Trace principles will reward us all with a clean, toilet paper free experience on our next outdoor adventure.
P.s. To earn extra good human points, try packing out trash you find along the way. No, I'm not expecting you to pack out other people's used TP. That's nasty.
Here are some things I found and packed out on a recent hike along the Appalachian Trail: a torn Sephora shopping bag discarded on the side of the trail, a single glove, a plastic jug that critters had obviously been nibbling, a Tennessee Volunteers bandanna, and countless tiny pieces of food wrappers. I *may* have muttered a few choice words under my breath each time I bent over under the weight of my 40lb pack to pick up a careless hiker's trash.
Last year on my first hike into the Linville Gorge Wilderness I came across an empty liquor bottle. Who carries a bottle of liquor up a mountain and then just leaves it behind? Drunk people, I guess.
I wish you all safe, happy, and trash-free hiking!