by Andy Dappen

‘Downloading’ in the wilds – whether that’s in the woods while hiking, on glaciers while climbing, or along a river while car camping or canoeing – ranks as one of those least-discussed topics. It’s a topic novices are embarrassed asking about and one professionals are none to keen to hop on the soapbox and lecture about. So the whole mess gets swept under the rug.

Despite embarrassment and the neurotic behavior Americans exhibit about all things excremental, human waste in the wilds is a problem—mainly because of the numbers of people now using the outdoors. In 1999, there were 900 million recreational visits to our national forests as compared to 4.6 million visits in 1924. That’s a lot poop potential. Consequently, we’re attacking this topic frankly, unapologetically, and with a little comedy — we’re still juvenile enough around here to enjoy a little potty humor.

For starters, mass wasting is an aesthetic problem. Nothing ruins hikes, river trips, climbs, or car camping holidays faster than arriving at camp and finding it encircled by a lovely necklace of bowel matter and toilet paper. Even in the filthy domain of feculence, the Golden Rule applies: You should never have to deal with the night soils and tainted tissues of previous campers just as they should never have to deal with yours.

More important than the damper human diluvium drops upon your wilderness experience, are the health issues. Human waste can harbor several dozen common pathogens packaged in the forms of viruses, protozoan, and bacteria. Two common ones here in North America are Giardia lamblia (a protozoa) and Cryptosporidium parvum (also a protozoa), both of which are usually contracted through contaminated water and both of which can leave your intestines in dire straits. Studies are finding that our increased use of the outdoors co-relates neatly to the increased contamination of streams, rivers, and lakes. A fairly recent study from the Sierras, for example, found Giardia cysts in a third of the water samples taken–most of the infected samples were drawn from water sources near popular camps.

Improper colon cleansing is a problem affecting all outdoor users on several levels. It’s time we go about our business properly.

First the easy part: urinating outdoors. Where to go depends on the place, the amount of use that place receives, and the climate. On the trail, refrain from going at obvious rest stops or view points–as the age-old proverb professes, “Many little pees, one big stink.” Find an inconspicuous place along the trail, step into the woods 10 or 15 feet, and spell relief…or your name. At campsites receiving regular visitors, the proverb still applies, walk beyond the perimeter of camp and away from water sources to pee – especially in desert climates or during the dry spells of summer.

Along rivers that are well used by rafters, kayakers, and/or car campers, pee in the pit toilets if your campsites have them. If not, the recommendations of the Forest Service, BLM, and Park Service, are counterintuitive: Urinate right into the river or on the wet sands of the river bank. This is especially true of desert rivers and the rivers draining the drier lands of Eastern Washington and Oregon, but also applies to some West-slope rivers like the Rogue. This practice seems uncivilized but urine doesn’t carry pathogens but does carry smelly salts and urea (human repellents but wildlife attractants). Furthermore, many east-side rivers drain ranchlands, farms, and communities that add more contamination to the river than your urine. Check the land agency regulating the rivers you use and adopt their recommendations.

Now the plot thickens. The actual techniques of squatting and dropping are yours to work out, but the recommendations of where to go, what to do with the labors of your love, how to handle your paper work, and equipment you need to keep the landscape clean are all discussed below.

Cat holes:

The standard practice for offloading along the trail or around less-frequented campsites is to dig a “cat hole.” With a garden trowel (an item all parties should carry on outdoor trips) find a location some 200 to 300 feet away from trails, camps, viewpoints, and water sources, and dig a hole six to eight inches deep. Make your deposit and bury your treasure with the dirt you removed. For a good trowel suggestion visit our article on the Deuce of Spades.

Some of the finer points of using cat holes: 1) if you don’t have a trowel dig your hole with a stick or pointed rock 2) if you’ve cut into sod or vegetative matter, set that aside and then re-plant it on top of your hole after completing your work 3) use as little toilet paper as possible – make initial wipes with smooth stones, smooth sticks, or snow and use only a few squares of paper for the final polishing 4) environmental hardcores carry out their TP in Ziploc bags but, if you’re not at that level, use a stick to mix the paper and some dirt into your stools—this accelerates the decomposition of your gifts to nature 5) don’t bury diapers, sanitary napkins, or tampons—carry them out 6) complete the whole process by rubbing your hands with a small dab of hand sanitizer like Purell.

Blue Bags:

Cat holes should be part of everyone’s relief repertoire but they’re not the be-all or end-all of BMs. They don’t work for snow camping–burying stools in the snow leaves a mess when the thaw comes. They don’t work on glaciers—this, too, leaves a mess as snow and ice melt. And they’re not appropriate where there’s frequent traffic– popular campsites lacking pit toilets will quickly become a mine field and health hazard if a hundred people a year are burying their waste.

The National Park Service regulating climbers on Mt. Rainier, Mt. Olympus, and the above-timberline domains of North Cascade National Park are now requiring climbers, mountaineers, glacier travelers, and winter campers to carry out their human waste in blue bags (unless a pit toilet can be used along their route). At first blush, it sounds repugnant to carry your byproducts in a backpack crammed with food, clothing, and sleeping bags. After you’ve done it, however, you’ll discover it beats walking barefooted through a roomful of spiders.

Using the blue bag system is very similar to using a plastic bag to pick up after your dog. After making your deposit on the ground or snow, use the inner blue bag of this two-bag system like a glove to pickup and seal your chocolate egg. Next, the blue bag is nestled in the thicker clear bag which seals with a twist closure. On multi-day trips, you may want to safeguard your pack by storing all of your blue fruits in a poke-resistant, waterproof bag –like the plastic liner of a large cereal box or waterproof stuff sacks with a roll-and-clip closure Outdoor Research’s Dry Sacks. If you’re visiting popular places where the managing agency doesn’t distribute blue bags, make your own system with different-sized Ziploc bags.

Once used, a blue bag becomes your personal property for the duration of your trip. At the aforementioned national parks, you can post your parcels in special barrels provided by the park at trip’s end. If you don’t use these barrels, don’t throw the blue bags in the trash – it’s illegal to dispose of untreated human waste this way. Instead, the bags will need to be unpackaged and plopped into a pit toilet sans plastic. This is an unappetizing task, but it’s the responsible way to visit popular places without loving them to death.

Blue-bag Alternative:

Here’s another option for popular destinations, snow camps, and glacier camps where there will be no special barrel for blue-bag disposal: Use one of the newer bags with polymers and enzymes that immediately start breaking down feces and which are approved for disposal with normal trash headed for the landfill.

One such product is the WAG (Waste Alleviation Gel) Bag made by PETT. This, too, is a double-bag system made of a puncture resistant material and has enough gelling powder per bag to treat three or four bowel movements. Once you’re home, toss the sealed bag into the trash. Here is another location you can buy bags for poop.

Portable Toilets:

Canoeists, car campers, and rafters visiting popular campsites without pit toilets have the luxury of carrying considerably more weight than backpackers. For these folks, a portable toilet or a ‘groover’ (to use the vernacular of river runners) should become part of the modern-day camping kit. The regulating agencies of many rivers (John Day, Deschutes, Rogue, Illinois, Salmon, Snake, Green, Colorado, and many others) require river runners to pack out their solid waste. Frankly, once you’ve used a portable toilet and grown accustomed to their convenience, you’ll not only feel good about packing them, you might actually like using them. Men, who are known to idle away hours at home on the John, can enjoy the same pleasures in the woods.

A cheap portable toilet can be made from a plastic, five-gallon, food-service bucket with a 12-wide (outside diameter) opening and a watertight lid. Ask at a local restaurant whether you can take one of their empties. Such a bucket will handle 40-person-days of use. The lids accompanying these buckets are often waterproof but a much better solution (for ease of entry and for bomber waterproofness) is to retrofit your bucket with a Gamma Seal Lid.

A few tips about using such toilets: 1) make your groover easier to clean by spraying the inside with non-stick cooking spray before each trip 2) add an inch or two of water to the bottom of the toilet and an ounce of a bacteria- or enzyme-based product to control odors before each trip 3) add only toilet paper to the solid waste in the bucket – feminine-hygiene products should be packed out with ordinary trash 4) include a small bottle of hand sanitizer as part of your toilet kit 5) dispose of your sewage at either a SCAT machine – found in communities near the common exit points of popular river runs — or at an RV dump stations 6) rinse your bucket well after use, then add bleach water and let the bucket soak for several days.

Kayakers who need a smaller portable toilet system that can be carried in their cockpit can click here for a description of a groovy little groover.

In places where a steady stream of people impact the wilderness, there isn’t an easy, painless solution for handling human waste. Some systems (cat holes) leave a mess for future visitors. Other systems (blue bags) make you deal with a messy part of life you’d rather ignore with a flush. But, hey, if you spend a fair amount of time outdoors, this is an inevitable part of the experience. Time to clean up your love children in the way that you want others to clean up theirs.
This post was originally published 10/15/2007.

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