“Bowels are not exactly a polite subject for conversation, but they are certainly a common problem… Please think of me again as the urologists’ daughter…  It may disgust you that I have brought it up at all, but who knows?  Life has some problems which are basic for all of us – and about which we have a natural reticence.”  -Katharine Hepburn, The Making of the African Queen

-Kathleen Meyer, How to S#!^ in the Woods

waste shovel
Following this introduction to her first chapter, Kathleen Meyer goes on to say:
 “In the mid 1800’s in the Royal Borough of Chelsea, London, an industrious young English plumber named Thomas Crapper grabbed Progress in his pipe wrench and with a number of sophisticated inventions leapfrogged ahead one hundred years.  T.J. Crapper found himself challenged by problems we wrestle with yet today; water quality and water conservation.  Faced with London’s diminishing reservoirs drained almost dry by the valve leakage and “continuous flush systems” of early water closets, Crapper developed the water waste preventer – the very siphonic cistern with uphill flow and automatic shut-off found in modern toilet tanks.”

And so the changes began and one sort of progression led to another type of regression; the long devolution to modern times where some people have lost the knowledge, ability, and/or desire to properly dispose of their human waste when there is not a toilet present.  It is a very real problem, especially where people congregate in large numbers in the outdoors.  The Eastern High Peaks Wilderness Area contains approximately 77,000 acres and sees an estimated 150,000 visitors per year.  The overwhelming majority stay on trails so this adds up to large amounts of waste being left in a minute percentage of the total area.

While some visitors are using privies and others are digging cat holes, there’s evidence that many aren’t using these recommended methods.  There’s a lot of toilet paper and the stuff that goes with it out there on your public lands.  On one hand, it’s understandable that an inexperienced person may not be aware that human waste in the backcountry is a problem, but on the other, most of us know better than to poop wherever we please in the frontcountry.  Why would some assume it’s okay to do it on public lands that are clearly being used by others?  There’s a lot of information available about how to deal with our human waste, but many people just aren’t getting the message.  For those that have but still choose a less desirable method, there seem to be other obstacles keeping them from doing the right thing…lack of knowledge or experience, fear, sometimes downright laziness or they just don’t care.

Our partners at The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics have some great information about what to do and why:

“Where there is no bathroom per se, a little bit of planning, some initiative, and a bit of creativity will help you meet the four objectives of proper human waste disposal.
•    Avoid polluting water sources
•    Eliminate contact with insects and animals
•    Maximize decomposition
•    Minimize the chances of social impacts

Improper disposal of human waste can lead to water pollution, the spread of illness, and unpleasant experiences for those who follow.  Wherever soils are thin or sparse, such as above treeline or along rocky ledges or ridgetops, rainstorms can flush waste and other pollutants from campsites directly into water sources.  Humans, wildlife and domestic animals (including packstock and dogs) all contribute to the presence of harmful bacteria in wildland areas.”

We like to think of a spectrum of good options for disposing of waste:

1)    Facilities – Whenever possible, these should be your first choice.  Outhouses, box privies, and composting toilets are there for a reason.  They concentrate waste and successfully meet most of the aforementioned objectives.  Pay special attention to directions for using various types of composting toilets so they work properly.

2)    Cat holes – This is the next most effective method of reducing the spread of pathogens and social impacts (coming into contact, sight or smell of someone else’s waste).  A cat hole dug with a garden trowel (or a stick) should be about 6-8” deep in rich, organic soil and (in the Adirondacks) at least 150’ from water, camp, trails, and drainages.  Other areas require 200’ away, so “Plan Ahead & Prepare.”  Microbes in the soil decompose waste slowly so the location of the cat hole is important.  Also, try to choose a spot others are unlikely to discover it and remote enough to minimize the concentration of cumulative visitor deposits along trails or near campsites.  Once finished, return the soil to the cat hole and disguise with leaf litter.  Defecating on the ground and putting a rock over isn’t a good idea because the four objectives won’t be met.

Options for disposing of toilet paper include burying it deep in the cat hole or packing it out.  Many folks are using blue ziplock bags for concealment and as a sure sign of the bags contents.  Do not attempt to burn toilet paper as it rarely burns completely and has caused wildfires.  Also, for those back-to-nature types, there are natural options (leaves, etc).  Since they decompose slowly and are animal attractants, always pack out feminine hygiene products.

barrel of human waster
Johns Brook Lodge barrel of human waste

3)    Carrying waste out – For the uninitiated, this may sound absurd and impractical, mainly due to the fear of leakage.  When one understands the far reaching implications and cumulative effects of improper disposal of human waste, it doesn’t sound so outrageous.  There are actually places where land managers have made ‘packing it out’ a requirement (Mt. Rainier, for one).  Some managers and organizations actually airlift waste from the backcountry (ex: ADK’s Johns Brook Lodge).  For individuals, there are a number of products and devices that can make carrying out waste feasible (Biffy Bags, ReStop, Cleanwaste® GO Anywhere, a homemade “poop tube”).  If you’ve ever been rafting on some western rivers, you’re likely familiar with the use of commodes and the infamous “groover.”  Besides using an existing facility, carrying out waste is a great option for winter since the ground is often frozen making cat-holing impossible and spring snowmelt and runoff will leave it in the ground and possibly into water sources.  Dispose of the contents as recommended by the manufacturer or local land management agency.

Finally, urine is generally not a health concern.  Social impacts are, however, like the odor behind a frequently used lean-to or campsite or yellow snow in winter.  Animals are known to dig up plants and strip vegetation to get the salts in urine (ever had your boots or pack straps chewed?), so urinating on bare ground or rocks away from water, camps and trails is still recommended.  Going in a different location each time and staying well hydrated helps prevent odors, and in a sunny spot helps dissipation.

With all of this in mind, let all of us leapfrog ahead one hundred years and do the right things to protect the quality of our public resources, our experiences, and those of future generations.  T.J. Crapper would be proud.