Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
No one ever feels comfortable talking about it, but I’m going to say it: We need to have a discussion about pooping in the woods.
When you think of a having an ideal wilderness experience, encountering soiled hygiene products left behind by others probably won’t top your wish list. But more often than not, our adventures into the backcountry are being blemished by these unwanted trailside treasures.
Having a genuinely wild experience is a rare commodity in our country. According to Wilderness.net, only 2.7 percent of the continental United States is designated as Federal Wilderness. If you include state and tribal wilderness areas, the value is still well below 3 percent, or a combined land area smaller than the state of Minnesota.
One way that you can help maintain the wildness of these rare, pristine places is by disposing of human waste properly. Proactive education is the solution to poop pollution!
As outdoor recreation continues to gain popularity, so does the consistency of people leaving their trace. The Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report indicates that in the past 12 months, over 10 million people went backpacking and over 37 million people went on a day hike in the United States. As this number continues to climb, the cumulative impact of people using the backcountry as their personal toilet will intensify. Think about hiking five or more miles to a place that is significant to you in the natural world. Now imagine finding used toilet paper and feminine hygiene products discarded at that spot. Would this have an undesired social impact on your visit? Perhaps you’ve already experienced this exact scenario?
No outdoor oasis is impervious to the problems associated with human waste. Even remote sections of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail are experiencing the negative impacts of improper human waste disposal. My thru-hiking comrades Harpo and Groucho wrote a comical, yet informative piece highlighting the consequences of Leaving Trace.
So what can we do about this ubiquitous poop problem?
Educate people. Let’s assume that at least some percentage of people leave their nasty TP out there because they simply don’t know any better. They think it will decompose. There’s also likely some percentage of people who know they shouldn’t leave their TP behind, but they don’t think that their one little pile will really make difference.
These two groups of people want to just quickly do the deed and get back to the business of enjoying their trip. They need to see the light and understand why their actions might seem insignificant, but really matter.
Outdoor Retail shop owners have a great opportunity to educate hikers. Make LNT posters for in your store using the bullet points below, teach clinics (serve local beer and you’ll be sure to get a crowd), push the message through casual conversation any time you sell a trowel.
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics offers a spectrum of options to dispose of human waste properly in the backcountry.
The most common practice, when pit privies/outhouses are not available, is to dig a cathole and bury your waste!
- Use a trowel to dig a 6 to 8-inch hole (shallower in an arid environment) that is 200 feet, or 70 adult steps, away from a water source, trail, or campsite.
- Choose a space that receives a maximum amount of sunlight, has deep organic soil, and is away from an obvious drainage. This will maximize decomposition while keeping feces out of water sources.
Many people often ask “Why should we bury our poop? Animals don’t.” Here are four reasons:
- You can maximize the decomposition of your waste. As disgusting as this might sound, you can even use a nearby stick to stir a “poop soup,” which will speed up the decomposition rate.
- You can minimize the social impacts. Nothing sullies a summit sanctuary or a remote valley like the prevalence of visible human poop and soiled toilet paper.
- You can minimize the contamination of water sources. This will curtail the spreading of diseases and Giardia.
- You can minimize unwanted insect/wildlife contact. These creatures may smell your deposit and dig up the toilet paper, so make sure that you cover your cathole with the surrounding leaf litter and duff.
This cathole strategy does not apply to feminine products and diapers. These items will not decompose as readily as your poop. The only responsible solution: Carry an extra bag and pack these biohazard items out. Even toilet paper should be packed out whenever possible, as it could not have arrived there naturally.
When recreating in alpine zones (areas above tree line), sensitive canyons, and high-use river corridors where the soil isn’t conducive to speedy decomposition of human waste, the Leave No Trace center advocates for human waste to be packed out. Places like Mt. Whitney, Mt. Shasta, Denali, along the Colorado River, and the Virgin River Canyon in Utah all have a Pack-it-Out policy. Using a Go-Anywhere-Toilet-Kit® (formerly known as a WAG Bag) is the ultimate way to leave no trace.
When I returned to my hometown mountains in the Adirondacks after a long thru-hiking adventure, I became motivated to improve the condition of my local trails. The intensive-use areas were in a dire state, with toilet paper “flowers” and used tampons dispersed amongst the leaf litter. We all have a choice. We can either complain about the condition of the trails that we love, or we can do something positive to change them. Please help me spread the word on how to poop responsibly.
Follow Socash’s advocacy efforts on Instagram @tylerhikes.