I designed a 9-week experiment to determine how well waste would decompose in a 6-inch cathole versus a 12-inch cathole.
I used kitchen compost, Kirkland brand wipes, toilet paper, an egg, and half a banana in each hole.
The primary purpose of this article is to raise awareness about Leave No Trace principles. The secondary purpose of this article is to encourage you to not make a big mess in the woods by burying your waste deeper than 6 inches.
This article is not to criticize Leave No Trace. No other outdoor organization does as much good as they do.
Discussion Points For Your Class or Your Outdoor Partners
- How good are you at leaving no trace when you poop outdoors?
- Can you do better? How?
- Based solely on your current opinion, how deep should you dig your cathole?
- Have you ever come across someone else’s mess in the woods? Is that a big deal to you?
- Kitchen scraps are not human waste – this isn’t science.
- What other areas of leaving no trace can you improve?
- Is music at the climbing crag a leave no trace issue?
- Is carving your initial or love notes on trees or picnic benches part of leaving no trace?
- How can you encourage your hiking, climbing, and camping partners to do better at leaving no trace?
Conclusions Derived From The 9 Week Experiment:
- Rate of decomposition of buried waste materials at 6 and 12 inches is clearly identical.
- A 6 and 12 inch cathole is indistinguishable from the surface.
- Kirkland wipes will completely decompose when buried at either 6 and 12 inches.
- Unburied wipes / paper decomposes at a significantly slower rate.
- Your cathole should, more than likely, be deeper than 6 inches.
- Dig your catholes to a depth of 10 to 12 inches. That will allow for plenty of top cover (the soil that you place back over your used cathole) so that another hiker, climber, or camper will not disturb your used cathole if they happen upon it.
- Design you own experiments.
- Begin a discussion.
- Raise awareness.
The Reason Behind The Video “Correct Cathole Depth is 10 to 12 Inches: Bury Your Waste”
After having come across many shallow catholes on my climbing trips, I made a short video demonstrating that the Leave No Trace recommended cathole depth of 6 inches may not be deep enough for most hikers, climbers, and campers. I posted the video throughout social media, and giggled to myself that I used my kids colored chalk to represent human waste.
I Received A Comment From Ben At Leave No Trace
I Read The Material And Found It Lacking
Ben and I communicated via email and he provided me with addition information, which apparently, Leave No Trace and 5 of the largest Federal Land Management Agencies have read and then based their support of the 6-inch cathole.
Point Number 1: “…best available scientific information…”
Ben emailed me 2 supporting documents. “The consequences of backcountry surface disposal of human waste in an alpine, temperate forest and arid environment” by Ells and Monz, which was a smear method experiment (yeah, gross). And that study concludes that “Surface disposal is likely only to be effective when practiced by highly trained minimum-impact campers in remote settings where the possibility of visitor contact is minimal.”
The second supporting document “Wildland Recreation and Human Waste: A Review of Problems, Practices, and Concerns” by Cilimburg, Monz and Kehoe merely reviews and discusses decades old studies on said topic.
Point Number 2: “…decomposition actually slows…” My intuition told me that this is not the case when looking at depths of 6 vs. 12 inches. I’ve gardened and composted for years – that statement did not line up with my experiences; and I proved the opposite in this 9-week experiment.
Point Number 3: “…empirical scientific data…” Who is offering randomized, crossover, double-blind, peer-reviewed, placebo-controlled SCIENTIFIC data on burying your waste? Where are the scientists who support LTN? Where is updated data? Isn’t that your job, Ben?
Point Number 4: “…land managers likely have concerns…” If you are leaving no trace, then how does the land manager know if he is looking at a 6-inch or 12-inch cathole?
I designed my own experiment
- I dug 6 total holes: 3 were 6 inches deep and 3 were 12 inches deep.
- In each of the 6 holes, I placed kitchen compost, Kirkland wipes, toilet paper, an egg, and half a banana.
- I planned to check 1 6-inch hole and 1 12-inch hole at 2, 4, and 8 weeks and note the appearance and decomposition rates. (Intervals were finalized at 2, 5, and 9 weeks.)
- RAW VIDEO LNT Experiment Set Up
- RAW VIDEO LNT Experiment Dig and Explain
- Kitchen compost is not the same as human waste
- My garden soil is well tilled
Results from the experiment
At 2 weeks, I dug up 2 catholes (1 of the 6-inch and 1 of the 12-inch) and observed both catholes with the beginning stages of decomposition. The Kirkland wipe was still intact. The egg was still intact. There toilet paper was beginning to decompose. There was no discernible difference in the rate of decomposition between the 6 / 12.
- RAW VIDEO LNT Experiment 2 weeks Intro
- RAW VIDEO LNT Experiment 2 weeks 6 Inch Hole Dig
- RAW VIDEO LNT Experiment 2 weeks 6 Inch Hole Observations
- RAW VIDEO LNT Experiment 2 weeks 12 Inch Hole Dig
- RAW VIDEO LNT Experiment 2 weeks COMPARE 6 to 12
At 5 weeks, I dug up the next 2 catholes (1 of the 6-inch and 1 of the 12-inch) and observed both catholes with mid-stage decomposition. The Kirkland wipe was in mid-stage decomposition. There was virtually no clear signs of any remaining toilet papter. The egg shell was still clearly visible. The majority of the compost and food matter was in end-stage decomposition. There was no discernible difference in the rate of decomposition between the 6 / 12.
- RAW VIDEO LNT Week 5 Intro
- RAW VIDEO LNT Week 5 12 Inch Dig
- RAW VIDEO LNT Week 5 12 Inch Observations
- RAW VIDEO LNT Week 5 6 Inch Dig
- RAW VIDEO LNT Week 5 Compare 6 to 12 Discussion
At 9 weeks, I dug up the last 2 catholes (1 of the 6-inch and 1 of the 12-inch) and observed both catholes with near-complete decomposition of the waste materials. The only clearly remaining waste was the egg shell. There were a few small signs of end-stage vegetable/compost matter. There were no signs of toilet paper. There were no signs of the Kirkland wipe. There was no discernible difference in the rate of decomposition between the 6 / 12.
- RAW VIDEO LNT Week 9 Intro
- RAW VIDEO LNT Week 9 Digging Both 12 and 6
- RAW VIDEO LNT Week 9 FINAL OBSERVATIONS
Leave No Trace is an excellent organization that teaches old and young, new and veteran, climber and camper, how to Take Care Of Our Earth.
Not burying your waste is one of the grossest, worst, rudest, and most despicable things that someone can do in the outdoors.
Allow this article to be a reminder to bury your waste, pack it out, leave no trace.
Read more about going to the bathroom outdoors in HCRBeta’s Poop / Pee Outside Category
Jason Clements is the founder of and writer for HCRBeta, Hike Climb Relax: How to… Jason has served as the President of the Kansas City Climbing Club. He lives in Shawnee, Kansas and also runs the cell phone recycling company, Cells for Cells, which recycles cell phones to raise money for families battling cancer. You can follow Jason on Facebook or on Twitter @jasonclements.
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