PCT toilet paper disposal survey

Cloudwalker, a wilderness ranger, long distance hiker and Leave No Trace trainer, conducted a survey of toilet paper (TP) disposal practices on April 25, 2013, between Campo and Hauser Mountain. He encountered 90 hikers heading north that day, and interviewed the last 42 of them. His notes and conclusions are below.

Please pack it out

The soils of much of the PCT are very thin, dry and lacking sufficient bacteria to promote decomposition. Please pack out your toilet paper, double-bagged, and dispose of it in a trash can or dumpster. It’s certainly no worse than disposing of a dirty diaper.

Burning paper can be dangerous. Wind can quickly carry pieces of it away before you have a chance to douse it with water. It is always illegal to burn TP when campfires are not allowed. Burying TP can work if it is buried very deeply, like 6 inches down, and water is added to promote decomposition. Animals can still be attracted to the odor of a manufactured product (paper) and dig it up. Also, freeze-thaw cycles may bring paper to the surface, turning it into litter. [PCTA strongly requests that you pack it out.]

Toilet paper left near the surface is a real downer. Photo via kukkurovaca

Toilet paper left near the surface is a real downer. Photo via kukkurovaca

The survey

  1. Nearly two-thirds (10 of 17) of those surveyed who had a moderate amount of experience (with previous longest backpacking experiences lasting 8 to 15 days) plan to use no TP or carry it out. This is fantastic.
  2. Survey participants with a lot of experience (with previous backpacking trips lasting up to several months) included numerous former thru-hikers. They honestly revealed that they do not have the best habits (2 of 17 hide it under a rock), with only 3 of 17 carrying it out. Most (7 of 17) bury it. Placing a rock on top of TP or a pile of poop simply hides it until someone turns it over; it’s a poor idea because it does not promote decomposition; please avoid this practice!
  3. Encouragingly, the most common answer to the question of TP overall was (17 of 42) to “Use no TP or carry it out.” This is impressive. The second most common plan was to bury it (12 of 42). Thirdly, 5 of 42 plan multiple techniques (usually bury or burn, or bury or carry it out). Three of 42 plan to burn the TP, 3 of 42 don’t know or didn’t answer and only 2 of 42 plan to simply place a rock on top of their TP (both of them, former thru-hikers).

Download the survey results.

For the past several years, I have also conducted informal interviews with PCT thru-hikers I encountered at Carson Pass (approximately mile 1,088) where I patrol and maintain the PCT. I have been impressed that approximately 50 percent of the hikers reported they were not using TP or carrying it out. The other 50 percent either burn or bury their TP. This contrasts with practices on the A.T., where less than 10 percent of thru-hikers carry out their TP. It is not as critical on most parts of the A.T., where the soils are much thicker and wetter than the PCT.

Summary impressions

With ever-increasing use, packing out TP is the preferred method of Leave No Trace camping.

I am impressed with the overall ethic of PCT hikers. PCT managers need to stay ahead of the “bulge” in visitor use that is coming, and proactively educate hikers on the value of packing out their TP, particularly from arid and alpine environments.

Incidentally, practicing what I preach, I carried out 95% of my TP during my April 9 to April 25 trip from Interstate 10 to the Mexican Border. It wasn’t difficult to double-bag and carry it out. I always reassure people that they don’t have to carry it ALL out (there are certain circumstances that make this problematic; no explanation necessary). But every bit helps.


Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Manager, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.