It’s one of Leave No Trace’s more intimidating rules: “Consider packing your used toilet paper out in doubled plastic bags.” Who actually wants to pick up a pile of feces-smeared tissues and carry them for a week, tucked in among clothes and other precious belongings?
Now, there’s good news for the squeamish. According to Jeffrey Marion, a recreational ecologist at Virginia Tech who helped develop Leave No Trace guidelines on toilet paper, you don’t always have to carry out TP. In an informal study, Marion buried wads of toilet paper in deep cat-holes in the warm moist, soil of the Virginia Appalachians and found it disappeared completely.
“Studies show that buried toilet paper decomposes within 1-3 years except in areas with particularly cold, wet, or dry soils (e.g., alpine areas, wetlands, and deserts),” wrote Marion. That covers some of America’s most popular terrain, including the Central and Southern Appalachians.
But in those alpine areas, wetlands, and deserts where TP doesn’t decompose so readily, hikers often need some convincing to carry it out. Even appeals from non-profit and government agencies like the National Park Service don’t always work. Here are four easy ways to make packing out your toilet paper less gross.
Carry it better.
A double ziplock filled with used toilet tissue looks and smells disgusting, so long-distance backpacker Christy Rosander bleaches her used TP. At home, she puts a 1/2 teaspoon of powdered bleach in a sandwich-sized ziplock. As she hikes, she adds her used toilet paper to the bag, squeezing out the air every time she opens it. She carries the small ziplock in a quart ziplock.
The bleach takes care of both the stains on the paper and the odor. “It makes it so that when you need to add additional TP to the used TP bag, it is tolerable, not so disgusting,” Rosander says. One 1/2 teaspoon of bleach—or borax, or baking soda—is enough to cover a five day trip. For longer trips with resupplies, Rosander mails herself new small ziplocks of bleach.
You can further disguise that outer ziplock bag by decorating it with colorful duct tape, using a colored ziplock instead of a clear one, or throwing a few handfuls of pine needles in it to surround the inner bag. If you use wet wipes instead of TP, try drying them in your food dehydrator before you go and rewetting as needed.
Don't push yourself too hard.
It's basic backcountry safety advice: "Know and respect your limits." But keeping within your capabilities also makes you a better backcountry steward. Our self-control is finite, says psychologist Roy Baumeister: If we use it to, say, push ourselves to make it to mile 20 when we really wanted to stop at mile 15, we will be less inclined to do anything else that requires a little bit of willpower. This is the moment when we will drop our used TP behind us and not look back instead of carrying it with us.
Pay attention to your bowel health.
“A well-formed, hydrated stool should leave little stool behind on the tissue paper,” says Dr. William O. Roberts, a backpacker and professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota. Maintain good bowel function by drinking enough water and eating backpacking-friendly fiber, such as dried fruit and nuts. Roberts even brings packets of Metamucil on his trips. The smooth texture orange flavor doesn’t taste any worse than Tang, he says, and at about 90 calories for two tablespoons, it’s got the same calorie load.
Bonus: Ditch the TP altogether.
You can use smooth rocks, snow, and leaves. But for bonus points, try a homemade bidet. Allison Cohn, who hiked over 2,100 miles of the PCT in 2015, said her most prized possession on the trail was her bidet. Here is how it works: Fill a small plastic squeeze tube from REI with water and add a few drops of Dr. Bronner’s soap. After using the bathroom, squirt this mixture liberally while using your free hand to wash the area. Repeat until everything is clean. Use the remaining soapy water to wash your hand, then sanitize it with antibacterial hand sanitizer.
Caroline Benner has written for Slate and Foreign Policy, and has backpacked about 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.