This is an important question that helps you to determine what type of supplies you’re bringing on your trip. When we say “bury,” we mean digging a hole (sometimes called a cathole) 6-8” deep, squatting over it, pooping, wiping and refilling the hole with dirt when you’re done.
When we say “pack out,” we mean using a waste disposal bag like a WAG Bag or Restop 2. These systems involve pooping in a large bag, where a powder gelatinizes the poop, before sealing it and carrying it out with you to dispose of in the trash. Yes, they come with (a little bit) of toilet paper.
Where you are going to be is the most important factor in determining whether you should bury your poop or pack it out. If you’re going to bury, it’s important that you’re in an environment where the poop will decompose. The specific regulations are also important. Some places get so much traffic that there’s just too many people visiting the area to handle all the waste if everyone is burying it.
Here’s a few simple questions to ask to determine the best approach for any trip.
Question #1: Am I in a Forest?
Bacteria, fungi and water are key to breaking down poop in the ground. In forested areas there’s a lot more going on in the soil, making it a more suitable place to bury. In the desert, however, there’s very little water, so buried poop tends to break down really slowly, if at all. If you’re in a forest you’re probably good to bury. If you’re in arid desert environments in popular areas of Utah, Arizona and Nevada plan on packing out your poop and toilet paper.
Question #2: Can I Get 75 Adult Paces From Water, Trails and Campsites?
If you can find a spot to go that’s private, that others are not likely to come in contact with and that isn’t at risk of contaminating a body of water then burying is likely okay. 75 adult paces or 200 feet is the rule of thumb for how far you should be from these things. However, in places like Canyonlands or parts of the Grand Canyon, it’s difficult to get the required distance from a water source. In places like these a pack-it-out system is the best approach.
Question #3: Am I Below Tree Line?
Similar to the above, if you’re below tree line (i.e. an elevation where trees are growing) – you’re in an ecosystem with a lot more micro-organisms and moisture in the soil that can break down poop. If you’re above tree line, also known as “the alpine,” you’re in an area that’s likely a lot rockier, and that’s so cold for much of the year that trees don’t grow there. Areas above tree line are really fragile and your poop isn’t likely to decompose very well. Similar to desert environments, alpine areas have a lot less organic material in the soil to break down poop, so it’s best to pack out all waste when you’re above tree line.
Question #4: Am I Going to a National Park?
Check the parks’ specific rules when determining whether you should bury or pack out as the rules vary widely. Just Google the park name and “Leave No Trace” and you’ll find a page dedicated to outlining their policies. Many parks outside of desert environments allow you to bury your poop. Parks like Zion, for example, require you to pack out because the topography makes it too easy for harmful bacteria to find their way into a water source.
Question #5: What Kind of Activity Am I Doing?
Your activity can also help to inform best practice. Activities like hunting are about getting off the trail and venturing as far away from others as possible. So, burying your poop is acceptable practice. Whereas with rock climbing, people are always gathering around the same rock formations. Burying your waste in these places could lead to a build-up in the most popular areas, so when climbing you should ideally pack out. With activities like hiking, dispersed camping, backpacking, fishing and mountain biking burying is generally acceptable pending all the questions above.
Preparation Is Key
Do a little bit of searching on the web about the place you’re going to visit. If you’re going out with a group, have a conversation about what everyone’s planning to do with their poop. Don’t hesitate to make a recommendation based on what you’ve found. Your group will thank you for bringing up a topic they may have been hesitant to discuss. If burying your waste is the move, our PACT Kit is a great way to make it easy and sustainable.
The PACT kit is also a nice companion for pack-it-out situations. You can store your WAG Bag in the Kit and use the hand sanitizer and compressed wipes as the pack-it-out bags are lacking in adequate toilet paper and hand sanitizer.