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According to leave-no-trace principles, one should bury human waste (poo).

But burying damages plants and roots. Is this really always better than not burying it and pooing on the surface?

(Of course, the only way to truly leave no trace is to not go at all.)

Edit: This assuming a context when I am carrying everything on by back; solutions that require carrying significant additional mass are not preferred.

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Or take it back home with you? Bit smelly though... –  Liam Aug 6 at 16:24
    
@Liam good point, I was told to leave no sign of humanity while being in the wilderness. We should handle this rule strictly ;) –  EverythingRightPlace Aug 6 at 17:36
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I think the burying is mostly for reasons of cleanliness (from human standpoint^^) not lower damage to environment. And burying does not have to damage plants if you do it at a reasonable place. –  imsodin Aug 6 at 18:15
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As an aside, but very much in the spirit of the question, I find it quite interesting that humans encourage each other to go to such great lengths in the wild (leave no trace) when indigenous species leave trace daily. If my (0.2-1KG) human waste contaminates water supplies then why do we not clean up all animal waste (Tonnage of bear waste per year??) in the wilderness to prevent the same? –  Venture2099 Aug 9 at 11:17

6 Answers 6

In more temperate climates (forests, jungles, etc.) burying feces is preferred as it will be broken up by microbes in the soil while being somewhat protected from the environment. Plant growth in these areas is also rapid enough that cut roots are generally a non-issue. (I'm assuming you aren't hacking through larger roots.) In general the warmer the climate the better the decomposition.

Deserts, canyons, and alpine areas above treeline represent special cases; there is generally a lack of organic soil in which to bury waste and vegetation grows very slowly, if at all. In such areas, particularly heavily impacted ones, packing out waste via WAG bags is preferred and sometimes legally mandated.

On rarely-visited routes in the high alpine there are two other options which are sometimes used: the first method is to go on a rock then toss it down a moraine or crevasse. The second is to smear it into a paper-thin layer on a rock facing the sun; the sun and wind will slowly bake and abrade it away. (It's worth noting that the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics found most people don't spread it thin enough.)

Regarding toilet paper, many advocate packing it out. I've heard differing opinions on how well it decomposes in the wild, and often that's climate dependent. Outside of areas with good organic soil I would pack it out. Another option that many use is to skip toilet paper and use snow, rocks, or leaves instead.

In terms of supporting data, one Tasmanian study looked at decay rates of different products (facial tissue, tampons, as well as bleached and unbleached toilet paper) at different sites and with or without added nutrients (i.e. poo). The actual paper appears to be paywalled, but the results suggest unbleached paper is slightly better, tampons decay much slower than the other products (and should probably be carried out), and outside of alpine/subalpine areas decay proceeds at a good pace, particularly when combined with waste:

There was a significant site×time×treatment interaction in the generalised linear model for mean decay rates which included 6 m (a/w), 12 and 24 months (Table 2). At 6 months over autumn and winter mean decay of products was well-advanced at the coastal eucalypt forest and the grassy eucalypt forest, but negligible in the lowland rainforest, the heathy eucalypt forest, the montane moorland and the western alpine sites (Fig. 2). By 24 m decay was almost complete (at least 75% decayed) at all sites except the montane moorland and the western alpine site (Fig. 2). At all sites, except lowland rainforest, there was a significant positive impact of nutrient addition on decay (Fig. 2). The impact of nutrient addition on decay was most marked at six months over autumn–winter (Fig. 2).

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I've heard that burning the toilet paper is also a good way to break it down, and accelerate the decomposition in appropriate climates. –  nhinkle Aug 6 at 19:46
    
Toilet paper is almost completely non-biodegradable. It's composed of long cellulose molecules, and bacteria can only attack the molecules from the ends. Burning, in my experience, only ever gets a certain percentage of the paper. Some of the paper is wet or has poo on it, so it isn't going to burn. I do almost all my wiping with rocks, then at the end I do the last few wipes with toilet paper, and seal the paper in a ziplock bag and pack it out. –  Ben Crowell Aug 6 at 22:54
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Naw, it degrades, and should be mostly gone in 2 years. Best reference I can find so far is a Tasmanian paper that explored this issue: sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479704001781 (I'm hesitant to recommend burning due to the fire risk, especially when roots and sub-surface organic matter is involved, but if you happen to have a fire already going...) –  requiem Aug 7 at 0:18
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As for toilet paper, use the marine/RV version. It degrades very fast. –  Tom Collins Aug 7 at 2:07
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You can also look for toilet paper rated as suitable for septic systems. –  Mark Aug 7 at 4:01

The main reason it's buried is to keep it from washing into water supplies. The ground provides natural filtration, where surface waste is fully exposed to the elements and can flow along the surface until it reaches a stream or pond. Yes, digging holes might be bad for one plant, but it's a whole lot better than polluting a water supply that animals (or even humans) might consume or people might swim in.

You could bag it and take it out with you if you really want to, but you aren't doing much harm if you dig appropriately sized holes. Besides, plastic bags are worse for the environment than holes in the long run.

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...and, you know, to avoid having exposed piles of human poo sitting next to the campsite when the next visitors arrive. But, yeah, +1. Also, once the stuff has started to decompose, the plant whose roots you cut to bury it will gain a nice and convenient supply of nutrients in exchange. –  Ilmari Karonen Aug 7 at 9:21

If you were the only visitor to the area, the lowest impact would be to defecate on the surface and leave it. Few animals bury their waste, so natural disposal has evolved around dealing with surface waste.

However, you aren't the only visitor. Burial slows decomposition and disrupts the soil, but it reduces the ability of microorganisms to reach water supplies, and it keeps the area looking cleaner. Packing out eliminates the impact to the local area, but increases the net impact because now you need to deal with whatever you packed the waste in.

Waste-disposal techniques are about reducing the collective impact of many people in an area, rather than the impact of the individual.

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In some heavily used areas, especially where there's little chance for natural decomposition to occur (such as at high altitudes where there is poor soil), you're required to pack out all human waste. For example, climbers on Mt. Rainier in Washington are required to carry specific bags to pack out their waste. This is not the most desirable configuration for the climber, but is the most effective way to leave no human waste behind.

Other than packing it out, there's not much you can do besides bury it. Burying the waste is preferable to leaving it exposed because buried waste is less likely to be carried into nearby water sources by rain runoff.

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My thought was whether the impact of damaging vegetation by burying may or may not be worse than the impact of leaving poo unburied at the surface. –  gerrit Aug 6 at 17:44
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@gerrit I would say that under no circumstances should you leave solid waste exposed. An animal might eat it, somebody might step in it, etc. It might or might not be better for the vegetation, but it's never OK to just leave fecal matter on the ground exposed. –  nhinkle Aug 6 at 18:20
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Many animals leave their feces unexposed though. –  gerrit Aug 6 at 20:16
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Not only is it just in areas where stuff doesn't decompose naturally -- in highly trafficked areas like the Mt. Whitney zone in California, nature just can't keep up with the number of people 'passing through' while passing through - meaning 'stuff' gets deposited faster than nature can break it down. I agree with nhinkle - LNT talks about how to dig catholes, etc, but I'd say the truest way to literally "leave no trace" is to pack it out. –  Mark S Aug 6 at 22:17
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@BenCrowell it's some of both. At higher elevations, especially if there isn't much plant growth, there just isn't much of anything to decompose the waste. –  nhinkle Aug 7 at 0:06

It is not. The lowest-impact solution is to use a poo-pot.

These are compulsory in alpine areas here in New Zealand. http://www.doc.govt.nz/documents/parks-and-recreation/places-to-visit/wellington/poo-pot-brochure-sm.pdf

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Excellent, using biodegradable cornstarch bag, which can be safely deposited in normal toilets. Clean way to pack it out. –  Peter Masiar Aug 8 at 0:08
    
I like the idea, but from the pictures in the brochure, the amount of poo seems grossly underestimated! –  requiem Aug 8 at 21:34

Actually it's looking like Bio-charing the waste is going to be the best option. Biocharing stores the carbon in the soil for over a thousand years, and there is a growing body of research on the climate mitigating effects of soil supplementation with biochar. You can also produce energy in this process which can be harvested electrically or as a fuel called syngas (which can power common lawn/farm equipment).

Biocharing leaves just the carbon in a sequestered form so that nutrients can be reclaimed. Once in the soil, biochar provides a robust environment for soil microbes that help to store nutrients reducing the need for fertilizer. It also absorbs water helping the soil to weather drought better.

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You may want to explain what biocharing is exactly. –  imsodin Aug 8 at 20:11

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