When you hike or climb, being in tune with the environment is what’s all about. That being said though, you still need to bring along things to eat and drink. You definitely don’t want to be one of those people that leaves trash behind. And even if you do properly dispose of waste, there’s the matter of food waste.
Take, for example, banana peels. When it comes to food waste, especially if you’re up on an elevation, there’s very little soil to work with to bury it. Plus, decomposition happens much more slowly the higher up you are. Yes, there are animals there that will scavenge your leftover food waste, but then they start associating it with humans. When that happens, they become aggressive.
This is why it’s so important to take everything away that you bring. You might think there’s no harm done on your hike if you’re returning a biodegradable item like actual food into the earth. It’s not so simple though, and because of this, you should take your food waste along with you, especially if you’re high up, until you can find a proper place to bury it in the ground.
If you’re new to hiking or climbing, you might be wondering what the impacts are on the environment when you leave food waste behind. Surely, you wouldn’t leave plastics and other trash around. But food is different, right? Wrong! Keep reading and you’ll know just what to do.
Why is Biodegradable Littering Not Okay?
More often than not, we all get upset when we come upon a natural environment and find obvious signs of human intrusion. Plastics and other non-biodegradables strewn about can really make your blood boil. Annoying and frustrating as it is, you’ll snap up the trash and move it to the garbage can where it belongs.
But the thing is, you need to take the same care even with organic and biodegradable items while you’re out in nature. It’s unsightly to leave a banana peel out, but it will break down. Yet, up in the wilds on hiking trails or when climbing, leaving these things out is poor form.
Littering of any kind isn’t good, even if the stuff you leave behind is returning to the earth and breaking down naturally. As mentioned, even if the animals get to it, they become dependent on these foods that are like special treats in their daily diet. Some species can become incredibly aggressive.
So, when you see an apple core or an orange peel someone left behind, pick it up and put it where it belongs, then wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer like this one by Mountain Falls (Amazon link). These things don’t biodegrade very quickly and leaving them out only causes trouble for everyone. If there’s no good place to bury it, you’ll need to take it along with you.
And if you’ve been guilty of leaving these things behind without properly burying them before, now is the time to make amends and start doing it the right way.
How long does it take for fruit waste to decompose?
If you eat an apple up on your mountain hike or while climbing and you leave it on the ground, that core can take nearly 2 months to decompose. Your banana peel? That takes about 2 years. Of course, this is nothing compared to plastics where plastic straws take 200 years, and plastic bottles take roughly 450 years. Just because what you throw down is natural and biodegrades more quickly doesn’t mean you get to toss your food waste out on the ground. There’s a right way of doing things here.
If everyone brought only natural foods along on their outdoor excursions and then just dropped the remains of it everywhere, our trails and mountains would suffer enormously. Imagine turning up for rock climbing and finding the whole area littered with food. It would make you very sad to see such a sight.
Some people argue that the animals will come and help make short work of the leftovers. There was an experiment conducted by Marjorie Woodruff in the Grand Canyon. In her little experiment she left a banana peel, an apple core, peels of oranges, tissue paper and chewing gum in a chicken wire cage that allowed animals to come in and out of it without harm. After 6 months, she found the orange peels had dried completely, the banana peel was black, the chewing gum was the same as it was 6 months before, and the tissue had turned into a pulpy blob. The animals didn’t eat these things. The organic stuff didn’t rot.
At the same time, she’d buried the same things in sand as well as soil. After 6 months, nothing else had happened. In short, Woodruff urged others to think about these things. Animals don’t eat those peels. We don’t so it’s silly to think the animals would covet these things. Maybe the apple core might get picked up if the animals in the area eat them in their diet, but it’s not worth betting on. The animals are fine without our scraps, and they’ll be even better off if you remove said food stuffs from their environment so they can forage accordingly.
The Decomposition of Different Waste Materials
Not everything decomposes at the same rate either. And when it comes to synthetic things, it’s even more problematic. Food will all rot away into the earth again, but leaving it out everywhere is a horrible idea. Not only that, on a hot summer day, you’ll attract bugs which are no fun for anyone. Even if you’re leaving and heading back home from your hiking and climbing trips, it’s inconsiderate to do to anyone that arrives after you.
Worse than food waste though is the stuff that doesn’t breakdown. If you need more reasons to pick up after yourself, keep reading.
You can’t really go anywhere these days without seeing plastic. Every year, approximately 1.6 million barrels of oil are used just for the purpose of creating plastic water bottles. Plastic waste like plastic bags or plastic bottles can take years upon years to decompose. Small pieces of plastic can take 10 years (we’re talking tiny!) but plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years while plastic bottles can take 450 years, maybe more. For this reason, if you use plastics in your daily life, please cut down on them. While hiking or climbing, it makes more sense to use a refillable bottle. But please don’t leave plastics out in nature. These things can also harm animals. Those plastic rings that hold 6-packs of soda or beer together are horribly dangerous, and plastic bags can suffocate the wildlife.
A great way to spend time as a family is to go hiking. You can start doing this even when the kids are still in diapers, but if you do, please remember to take those soiled diapers back with you and dispose of them properly. Disposable diapers take anywhere from 250 to 500 years to decompose. The best way to deal with diapers is to go with cloth diapering, but not every parent does this. If you’re among them, do your part and don’t leave your children’s diapers behind in the wild.
Cans make for convenient ways to consume beverages. And while they are often recycled, there are enough aluminum cans in the US alone that are thrown away in a period of 3 months that could rebuild the entire fleet of commercial aircraft. That number is staggering, and when you see an empty can of soda or beer on the trail, it’s going to take 80 to 200 years to decompose.
Glass is made of sand so it’s easy to recycle. But so many people just toss it on the ground and when left out in nature, it will take a million years for a glass bottle to decompose, if it does so at all. If you can avoid it at all, don’t bring glass with you on your hikes or climbs and if you do, take it out with you when you leave to recycle it.
Paper takes 2 to 6 weeks to decompose but it’s definitely an eyesore. Who wants to see trash strewn about when they come out in nature? It’s sad and it’s laziness on the part of every human that leaves it behind. Take it with you and you’ll find ways to repurpose it on your trip until you can throw it away properly.
Other Waste Items
Below, you’ll find a table of other waste items that are often left behind. It’s shocking to think about how much time some of these things take. If you’re going fishing on your hike too for example, that fishing line can take 600 years to decompose. Hopefully you’re not a smoker for the sake of your health, but if you are, please collect all your cigarette butts and take them away when you leave. They take 10 to 12 years to decompose. The bottoms of the crags, mountains, and our beautiful forests are ruined when we have cigarette butts all over the ground.
Other things like tinfoil and Styrofoam don’t biodegrade. When you’re camping out on your outdoor excursion, a foil is great for helping you cook up your meals, but remember to take all of it with you or it will be there forever when you come back to these places for your adventures.
|Waste Item||Decomposition Time|
|Cigarette butts||10-12 years|
|Monofilament fishing line||600 years|
|Rubber boot soles||50-80 years|
|Foamed plastic cups||50 years|
|Leather shoes||25-40 years|
|Milk cartons||5 years|
|Painted board||13 years|
|Cotton gloves||3 months|
|Paper bag||1 month|
|Apple core||2 months|
|Nylon fabric||30-40 years|
|Orange peel||2 years|
|Banana peel||2 years|
|Tin can||50 years|
|Aluminum cans||200-250 years|
|Train tickets||2 weeks|
|Canvas products||1 year|
|Sanitary pads||500-800 years|
|Wool clothing||1-5 years|
|Chewing gum||1 million years|
|Tinfoil||Does not biodegrade|
|Styrofoam||Does not biodegrade|
Other reasons why you shouldn’t be littering on a mountain or trail
If the length of time to decompose on natural and unnatural items doesn’t make you want to clean up your act immediately, then you should keep reading. There are other good reasons to clean up after yourself and leave the land better than you found it.
It might be a danger to animals
Maybe the animals don’t want your banana peels, but if you toss out leftover food on the ground and others do too, the animals will grow accustomed to finding freebies. Your fire-cooked meal is a feast to them and if everyone leaves leftovers around, the animals stop looking for their own foods. According to the Leave No Trace organization, animals need their own natural diets so they get the right nutrients.
If you leave your chips or fruits for them, they’ll gorge themselves on it until they’re full. Then they’re not hungry to eat the other things they should be eating for well-rounded nutrition. It might seem cute when you find a fawn that approaches you and eats out of your hand, but you’re endangering that creature by giving it food that isn’t in its natural diet.
On top of that, food waste attracts animals to areas where people are trying to enjoy nature. One of the big ones: bears. Bears are very beautiful creatures and they love rummaging through campsites and through the trash for food. If you live anywhere that has bears, you likely have very strict trash laws in your neighborhood to cut down on the rummaging from bears. The more they find easy food through humans, the more they associate us with food. They’re smart animals but their simplistic way of thinking when it comes to food and survival means a big danger for us.
Leaving food around endangers your own kids or others that bring their kids along for good family memories on a hiking excursion. Bears aren’t the only ones that can get aggressive. Plenty of other critters live deep in the forests and woods and they stop being shy when food is involved.
In the south, alligators are very common. They usually shy away from humans until people start feeding them their scraps or leaving them around. Then the alligators don’t fear us anymore and that’s how problems arise. The animals were here first, so please leave no trace behind when you go into their habitat.
You May be Breaking the Law
Hopefully the love of the outdoors and the animals in it is enough to stop you from leaving waste behind. If not, you might find out the hard way when you get slapped with a huge fine. Every single state has litter laws in place. And many of them have specific definitions of what they consider litter.
Let’s take Florida for example, a place known for such immeasurable beauty with beaches and the Everglades, not to mention countless state parks that will take your breath away. They might not have mountains for climbing, but Florida is a paradise for hiking.
Florida takes littering very seriously. So seriously in fact that if you throw it from a car, even if it’s something biodegradable like an apple core, you’ll be hit with a big fine. Florida doesn’t tolerate it and if you spend any time there, you will almost certainly see the police pull over an inconsiderate jerk that tossed out a Big Gulp on the highway. Florida will slap you with a $180 fine for littering, even if you throw something organic.
Fines vary in every state. Regardless, the least amount you can expect to pay is $100. In other places, the first offense of littering can cost you $6,000. And what’s more…those laws on littering can change from county to county too. So, keep your trash with you and wait to dispose of it properly. You definitely don’t want to pay $100 or more for your trash, do you? I didn’t think so.
What if you don’t see bins when you’re somewhere and have trash? Hold it. Always hold it. This isn’t just something you should follow when hiking, camping, or climbing. This is what you should do whether you’re having a beach barbecue, at the local park down the street from your house, or even at a place like a mall. Separate your trash in your holdings so that you have things you can compost, things that can be recycled, and things that would just be thrown away. Then when you get somewhere that accepts trash, you can dispose of everything with a clean conscience.
Leave no trace principle: Pack It In, Pack It Out
Then there’s the matter of, well, undesirable matter. That byproduct of all the things we eat and drink in a day. What do hikers and climbers do with that when there’s no bathroom in sight?
Many experienced outdoorsy folks will get up early, tuck into breakfast, and then go for a poop. Coffee also helps. The sooner it comes out, the sooner they can get a move on, pardon the pun.
Of course, poops don’t always happen on your timeline. You could be well on your way when the urge starts in your stomach and you feel that familiar churning. That’s why taking along waste bags are ideal for these scenarios. We all have to poop, but with waste bags, it makes clean up and proper disposal a whole lot easier.
Restop has a Pack-It-Out Bag (Amazon link) that features a bag within a bag, a patented design that will totally save the day when you have to go, whether it’s number one or number two. It is fully absorbent and can contain 20 ounces of urine with the RS1 bag. The RS2 bag, as the numbering might suggest, can actually hold both forms of waste, solid or liquid. They not only contain it but they neutralize the odor so you will forget you’ve even got a bag of poop along with you.
The bags open wide so you can create a bit of a basin on the go. Simply squat over it and do your thing. They also come with all the essentials like toilet paper and those antibacterial wipes. You simply close the inner bag like a garbage bag and then tuck it into the outer bag. Squeezing out excess air helps take up less space. The special material also keeps it from breaking so you can roll them up to make them compact in your supplies without having a very unhappy birthday party of sorts with feces and urine raining all over you and your things. They’ll stay intact and odor-free so you can keep on doing what you love until you find a proper garbage can, to throw them out in.
Zero Waste Tricks
The best way to go hiking, camping, climbing, or just enjoy your time in the great outdoors without having to worry about carting a whole ton of waste along with you is to go as zero waste as you can. These zero waste tricks and tips will help you on your next outdoor adventure!
– Use reusable packaging
Take all your meals in durable, reusable boxes or bags. You’ll cut down on waste from packaging.
– Compost your food scraps
You can take your food scraps to a dry toilet or package them to drop in your compost bin on your return.
– Burn clean paper waste
One way to get rid of paper waste and keep the fire going at your campsite is to burn any clean paper and cardboard. Never do this for foil or plastic though. The fumes are toxic and it creates non-biodegradable waste. If there is a forest fire warning enforced though, pack these things to dispose of properly at home or use the fireplaces in wilderness huts or cabins with chimneys only.
– Take all the waste with you
As mentioned above, you can use those bags to dispose of urine and fecal matter. They suppress the odor and you can safely throw them away when you get back. Waste bins for mixed waste aren’t the right place to throw it out, plus animals will be attracted to it. If you’re lower down on an elevation and there is enough soil, you can take along a foldable spade like this one by Gerber (Amazon) to give it a proper burial. Just take along biodegradable wipes (Amazon link) to clean yourself up. And for the ladies, you can use a female urination device like the one by Pitch and Trek (Amazon link) when duty calls. If you really want to leave zero waste behind, use it over one of those waste bags to take it out with you.
– Never throw out hazardous waste in the wild
Batteries in particular need to be thrown away with care. You should take them to a home improvement or electronics store upon your return. Many of them are happy to recycle them for you.
– Collect your butts
Again, if you smoke, please collect all your cigarette butts in an empty container and take them to be thrown away properly.
– Use the correct bins
When you do get to a legitimate place to throw out your waste, make sure you sort everything properly. Recycle the right way by rinsing containers and putting them in the appropriate sections.
– Find other ways to save the world from waste
One thing that comes to mind is water. If you recall from above how long it takes water bottles to decompose, even if you do take all your water bottles back to recycle, you’re still adding to those staggering statistics. It’s ideal if you bring a refillable water bottle on your hikes and climbing excursions. Vacuum-insulated mugs like this one by YETI (Amazon link) are great for hot beverages, and in a pinch, they can store your food waste until you get to a place to compost, there’s a reason why so many of us take them along when climbing or hiking.
Refillable stainless-steel water bottles like these by Healthy Human (Amazon link) are also a great addition to your gear, especially on shorter trips, they’re also free from BPA and won’t sweat as much as other models. But for longer outings, every bit of space you have counts. That’s why collapsible water bottles are a great idea the best ones in my opinion are made by Kupton (Amazon link). They can be easily folded and tucked away and if you prefer one that’s small enough to put in your pocket when empty you can go for Platypus’ 2-Liter collapsible water bottle (Amazon link).
Many people wonder about how to bring more water with them. A fantastic option is to make your own with a filtration kit. A mini filtration kit like the one by Sawyer is good for up to 100,000 gallons of water before the filter needs to be changed!
Again, you will do the planet and yourself more good if you can cut down on as much waste as possible. Let’s say you want to take those ramen noodles for easy meals. Leave the packaging behind and store the noodles in a reusable baggie. You can then boil water on the fire and pour it into your awaiting insulated mug.
Even as careful as you might be, you’ll still have some remains of trash that need to be taken out. Always bring a trash bag or two to ensure you contain it all. Separate recyclable items while you’re at it to make things easier.
Food-related trash can be a nuisance, especially when bears are concerned. They will come from far and wide to investigate. You can try hanging your food and food waste to keep them away, though one of the best things you can do is get a bear canister. The ones made by BearVault (Amazon link) even double as a seat and are clear so you can see which container holds the food you want. Take along an extra to stash food waste and you’ll have no trouble with bears or leaving unwanted waste behind.
Some people forget about the food waste that comes from your dishes when you’re done eating. You’ll want to dispose of that properly too and use something safe for the environment to wash it with. Campsuds makes a biodegradable soap (Amazon link) you can use for your dishes and for bathing. Sea to Summit does too, though the smaller size is TSA-approved should you be traveling by plane to your outdoor destination. A quick-drying towel is great for you and your dishes too. Get one for cleaning and one for you. Rainleaf’s is made from microfiber, is lightweight, and dries quickly.
You might be living the rustic life outdoors, but you should still take care of your teeth. But that sweet-smelling toothpaste will attract unwanted visitors. Make sure you spit it into your trash bag to avoid that problem.
When you don’t have access to a bathroom and you have to go, containing that waste can be made easier with a few handy products. Men have an easier time of urinating, but for women, it’s not as easy. Plus, you really have to watch out for poisonous plants or that’s sure to ruin your trip.
Pitch and Trek makes a female urination device (Amazon link) so you can go anywhere. Again, you can fully contain it in those waste bags by Restop mentioned earlier. Wiping can be done with any non-poisonous leaves you find around, or you can take toilet paper with you. But remember, that is waste you’ll need to take away, plus the cardboard tube takes up space. It’s best to remove that tube prior to heading outdoors.
If you feel a bit unclean down there, taking some Surviveware biodegradable wipes along will surely do the trick. And even though they are capable of decomposing, be sure to pack them out.
Please don’t forget that when you need to go to the bathroom, you should stay away from paths so others don’t step in it or happen along as you’re going. You also need to stay away from water sources to keep nature as you found it.
When it comes to pooping though, you will either need to pack it or bury it. Gerber’s folding is ideal for burying your waste. But if you’re high up on a multi-pitch, there’s not enough soil to bury your business. So you’ll want to take those bags mentioned earlier. If you’re burying waste, make sure it’s far from water and off the path. The hole should be about 6 to 8 inches deep.
Women additionally have another problem to deal with. If it’s that time of month, you’ll need to bag up all your feminine products. You can’t bury them or burn them. Use something that will suppress the odor so as not to attract bears.
Sanitation really counts too when you’re miles from a sink. Be sure that whether you pee or poo, you’re cleaning your hands. You certainly don’t want to make yourself ill miles from home. Hand sanitizer is always a good idea but you can use your biodegradable soap too.
When you spend time in the outdoors, why do you do it? Likely, it’s to get away from the chaos of your life and appreciate the natural beauty of the world. If you want it to stay this way for future generations, please clean up after yourself. Dispose of all waste properly and anything you can’t throw away when you’re up on the mountain, take it with you to throw away later. Every little bit each of us does to keep things clean is a step in the right direction for making our world a better place.