The Scoop on Poop — What to do with Waste
by Andy Dappen and Matthew Tangeman
It’s one of those topics we’d prefer not to think about, speak about, or even look at. We’d rather just sit on the toilet and let the whole mess flush away. In the backcountry, however, there often is no toilet. So when lots of outdoor enthusiasts descend on a particularly popular place – like Boston Basin, Cascade Pass, Heather Pass, or Maple Pass – then human waste becomes a mess we may be forced to look at. It may ooze out from under rocks used to hide it. It may have little flags of toilet paper sticking out of it and drawing attention to itself. It might even be a mine we step in.
So when you’re out in nature, and nature calls, your options for answering the call aren’t always clear if a pit toilet isn’t available. The ‘cat-hole’ has long been the go-to method, but if you’re in the high alpine where soil is sparse, this presents a challenge. Furthermore, burying feces six inches under the surface doesn’t eliminate the problem as soon as you might think. A study conducted by Montana State University in which human feces was buried 2-6” deep in various soil conditions around Bozeman’s Bridger Range concluded that cat-holes do virtually nothing in terms of cleanly disposing of waste other than putting it out of sight and out of mind. One year later, when test sites were dug back up, all the feces was still providing a home for E. coli, salmonella, and other bacteria, which in turn would leak into and pollute the surrounding water and soil.
This is where other options for handling human waste (e.g., blue bags, WAG bags, or Restop bags) come into play. Currently, these bags aren’t required in many places in Washington State outside of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Baker. But scooping your poop is good stewardship and consistent with Leave-No-Trace ethics. There’s only so much cat-hole soil to go around, and it won’t be long before more areas around the state will start requiring you to pack out your waste. Although there’s an initial yuk-factor to carrying out your solid waste, this is an environmentally appropriate place to get ahead of the curve.
Two recent climbing trips, one to the south side of Mt. Adams and the other to the south side of Mt. Baker, demonstrated how the land managers of two particularly popular destinations have dealt with the problem. At these places you’re required to bag your poop, carry it out, and drop your deposit in a collection bin at the trailhead as you leave. Over 200 people were climbing Mt. Adams by our route on the weekend we climbed and most of these climbers, like us, camped in the general vicinity of the Lunch Counter between 8,800 feet and 9,400 feet. Meanwhile, on Baker perhaps 30 people climbed the mountain by our route up the Easton Glacier the weekend we visited and most parties camped in close proximity near the 6,000-foot level before hitting the glaciers.
Our impression of these places where lots and lots of people are pooping on the mountain every summer weekend? Mandatory bagging is working. These areas were remarkably clean. We picked up a few energy bar wrappers but didn’t see a single disgusting pile of poop or toilet paper. Furthermore, while the process of bagging and carrying out your droppings seems disgusting to the uninitiated, after doing it a few times the procedure becomes tolerable. Dog owners who scoop the poop of their pets understand this – it’s initially gross but quickly becomes old hat.
In a previous article, we covered the basics of blue bags and WAG bags, but since the publishing of that article a new competitor in the market has emerged: the Restopbags. Restop’s biggest seller is it’s shamelessly named “Pee and Poo Bag”, which sells for $3.40. Included in this little goodie bag is a double-layer bag design, built to be smell proof and tear proof, with built in enzymes for breaking down solid waste. A moist antiseptic towlette and toilet paper are also included. Restop even offers a “Wilderness Containment Bag” (sold in packs of five, $17) as a means of securely packing out your used bags (a bit of extra insurance much appreciated when carrying that kind of cargo).
The blue bag system used on Mt. Rainier National Park and in parts of North Cascades and Olympic National Parks is a minimalist, but
viable system. This works using a clear bag, a trademark blue bag, and twist ties. The poop is collected in the blue bag, wrapped in the clear bag for extra security, and twist-tied off. Mt. Rainier NP has six locations around the park that serve as receptacles for collecting waste. Climbers are told outright not to put blue bags in trash. Waste collected in the designated areas is transported out via helicopter once a year, treated, and incinerated (the cleanest and most economical option for the National Park Service). Mt. Rainier NP’s methods of handling the issue of human waste have received recognition and been a model for many other areas around the country.
Once the question of how to do your business in the wilderness is answered, a new question arises. What do you do with those bags after the trip has ended? Places like Rainier, Adams, and Baker have provisions for you to drop off your bags at the trailhead as you leave the area, since bagging your poop is required. But what if you’re trying to lessen the burden on an area where this practice is not yet mandatory? What do you do with your deposit then?
Everyone agrees that landfilling blue bags or Wag bags is not an ideal solution. The best practice is to get the waste into the sewage system, but virtually no one is going to unwrap their poop after a trip and and plop it into a toilet. So, here in Chelan County, can you landfill the human waste brought home from a trip in the mountains?
We checked with the Chelan County Solid Waste Department and with Waste Management, the largest company handling trash pickups in the region and both told us that nothing prohibits this kind of limited disposal of human waste (or dog poop) in your own trash. To this we say both ‘Yuk’ and ‘Yea’. While convenient, waste that could be treated properly should not be added to ever-growing landfills. Our recommendation? Whenever possible, make sure those bags from your last mountain adventure make their way to the sewer system or to an official waste disposal receptacle.
The bottom line is that there is no perfect solution and the existing solutions rely on complete compliance by outdoor users. Locally, no place in the Wenatchee National Forest requires bagging and heavily visited areas, like the Enchantments, utilize pit toilets. As more places become crowded, however, we expect that blue bags and Wag bags will become more common. From what we’ve seen at places where these systems are the norm, we think an unsoiled environment is well worth getting over our distaste for cleaning up messes of our own making.
This post was originally published on 7/25/15.