My friend Jeff, a longtime climber and great storyteller, once told me about a time he needed to take a dump while guiding two people up El Capitan. This was a long time ago, back during that moment in time when big-wall climbers considered it “OK” to take “sky dumps” off El Cap—pooping in brown paper bags and just tossing the whole package off the wall. Jeff went about his business, and tossed the poop bag into the abyss.
Of course you watch it fall, too. That’s the best part. Down and down the poop-bag fell—about 1,000 feet, as legend has it.
Then … the bag stopped in mid-air! It appeared to hover around, no longer losing altitude.
“Hey, y’all, come check this out!” Jeff said to his two clients. The climbers peered over the edge and watched in astonishment as Jeff’s brown bag began to actually rise up the wall, apparently on an updraft.
So it was on this magic wind that the shit-bag rode, rising slowly but surely, until there it was, hovering right in front of Jeff’s slack-jawed face.
Jeff reached out, trepidatiously, and plucked the floating brown bag of dookie right out of the air.
“Holy shit!” Jeff yelled. “Can you believe that?”
He threw the bag off again. This time, it fell straight to the ground and exploded in the talus below.
There are many ways to interpret this crazy story, but the one I choose to go with is that this was a sign from above (or below?) that climbers need to do a better job of managing their waste. Fortunately, this custom of tossing poop-bags off El Cap has become quite taboo, and big-wall climbers are doing a better job of abiding by Yosemite’s rules of packing out waste using PVC pipes called “Poop Tubes.”
However, it only takes a visit to any one of our most popular crags to realize that, by and large, climbers are still not always responsibly managing their feces. Scraps of toilet paper can be found right around the corner from popular walls like the Undertow at the Red River Gorge, and what dog owner hasn’t had to deal with the inevitable smorgasbord of shit that their crag puppy got into?
Human shit, and what we do with it, is a big deal. It spreads disease, impacts water quality, and has social and aesthetic impacts on the crags we love. Yet it’s something that a lot of people prefer not to deal with in a responsible manner. A lot of it just has to do with a lack of education about the topic. What are the rules? When and where is it okay to dig? What’s this “blue bag” business?
As the Education Program’s Coordinator for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, I decided to address this shitty topic for Evening Sends.
The aesthetic issue is obvious: no one wants to hike or climb in an open toilet. Feces contain a cocktail of pathogens, and no one enjoying the backcountry wants to see it, smell it, come in contact with it or, worse, get sick due to its improper disposal.
Here are guidelines for taking care of business in an earth-friendly way when you’re miles from indoor plumbing.
Peeing in the backcountry is a relatively innocuous affair. It’s generally very harmless on the environment. Leave No Trace advocates peeing well away from water sources, trails, and campsites. Based on World Health Organization and CDC [Center for Disease Control] research that has looked at urine, with most healthy people, urine is not a big deal.
Still, good practices involve urinating 200 feet from campsites, water sources, and trails. Avoid peeing on plants that could be defoliated by animals attracted to the salt in urine. Consider diluting the site with extra water to cut down on odor.
Backcountry Bathroom Options for Number Two
Once you’re out of range of that trailhead toilet, your options for dealing with number two are fairly simple:
1) Dig a hole and bury your solid waste, or
2) Pack it out.
Those are the main methods Leave No Trace advocates, and they are the most widely used. Two important things to know before heading out: first, follow the area land manager’s guidelines. If the Forest Service says thou shalt pack out waste, then arm thyself with a WAG Bag or other receptacle and follow the rules. If your state park says to use the cat-hole method, do that.
Leave No Trace outlines four objectives for backcountry waste disposal:
- Minimize the chance of water pollution.
- Minimize the spread of disease.
- Minimize aesthetic impact.
- Maximize decomposition rate.
Dig and Bury
Unless you’re in the arctic, desert or alpine environment, digging a cathole and burying feces will be the best option for human waste disposal in places that don’t have a specific pack-it-out rule. To dig a cathole, you’ll need a small trowel; make this trowel part of your essential gear for any trip to the crag—like a spare headlamp, you’d just leave it in your pack so it’s always there.
To dig a cathole, use your trowel and dig a hole six to eight inches deep and about four inches wide. Take a dump. Now backfill the hole with dirt, taking care not to touch your waste with the trowel. Try to disguise the mound with ground material (rocks/leaves). If you’re spending more than one night in an area with a group, keep your catholes scattered.
In shallow catholes, pathogens can remain a health hazard for a year, according to Leave No Trace: A Guide to the New Wilderness Etiquette by Annette McGivney. So, once you’ve found an appropriate spot, dig the full six to eight inches deep. Avoid digging catholes in areas where the waste is unable to break down, such as arctic, desert, or alpine environments.
What about TP?
Toilet paper, among those passionate about this issue, is a topic as controversial as whether or not to place bolts on lead or rappel. According to Leave No Trace, white, non-perfumed toilet paper is allowed in your cathole. Some hikers disagree.
Depending on the habitat, toilet paper can remain long after feces. Bottom line: no one wants to see a blooming bouquet of butt-wipe on the trail. The most astute amongst us will pack out their toilet paper, in the interest of truly leaving as little trace of his or her presence as possible. If you must bury your toilet paper, use as small an amount as possible and be sure to dig deep enough.
Many natural materials can be used in place of toilet paper: fallen leaves (identify first), packed snow, even smooth river rocks. Bury the materials in the cathole after using. Baby wipes are effective for personal cleansing, but must be packed out.
Two definite rules: never bury toilet paper in a desert environment (it’s not wet enough to facilitate decomposition), and never burn it (wildfires).
Packing it Out
Many popular, high-use areas like Mount Rainier, Indian Creek, Grand Canyon and Denali require you to pack out your waste. Some climbers pack out their poo even when they technically don’t have to, in the interest of trying to make as little impact on the environment as possible.
WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) Bag has become the overall term for any pack-it-out bag system. It generally involves one bag with which you glove your hand and grab your business and another sturdier, sealable bag in which you deposit and seal the dump. Wag Bags are sometimes called “Blue Bags,” and packing it out referred to as the “blue bag method” because the bags provided to hikers at Mt. Rainier are blue, and Rainier has had a pack-it-out requirement for many years.
Cleanwaste, the company that coined the actual term “WAG Bag,” has renamed their product the GO Anywhere waste kit. It includes a biodegradable waste pickup bag loaded with Poo Powder, a “transport bag,” toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The Poo Powder works by gelling more liquid waste, breaking down solids and controlling odor. They will send you a free trial kit here.
A poop tube is often a climber’s preference on long, multi-day climbs. You’ll need a length of PVC pipe (around 4 inches in diameter), a cap for one end, and a threaded fitting and plug for the other. (For cleaning, it’s helpful to be able to remove both ends.) What length you cut is dependent on the length of your trip and, frankly, how much you poop. Six to 10 inches is standard, though 12 to 25 inches is recommended for longer climbs. Either secure it to your pack with pack straps, or use duct tape and cord to make a handle and clip it to your haul bag for easy access. Pack standard coffee filters, place those on the ground, and aim. Or poop into brown paper bags. Then wrap up the business, send it down the tube, and seal it up.
Whether you pack it out in a bag, a tube, or Tupperware, waste should be properly disposed of after reaching the trailhead, often that means into a toilet. Some of the commercially available bags are EPA-approved for landfills, but check rules first.
Don’t Do This
Dispose of waste in approved containers or toilets only.
Some waste items you always pack out, no matter where you are, what the climate, is or how small an item it is. Those items include tampons, pads, other feminine hygiene products, and diapers.
“We encourage folks to consider packing out pet waste, even from the backcountry, but realize the practicalities and challenges of this recommendation,” said Lawhon. “Therefore, we feel that catholing pet waste is perfectly acceptable.”
Waste Disposal in Unique Environments
Human waste breaks down very slowly, sometimes not at all, in desert, alpine, and arctic environments. Even when buried the bacteria in feces can survive for years, so alternative disposal methods should be followed in these environments.
Above Tree Line
Alpine environments are far more delicate than the land below tree line. Again, Leave No Trace advocates for the pack-it-out method. The Center recommends digging a cathole as a last resort. If you have to do it, move a big rock and dig under that large rock, rather than plunking your trowel down on delicate vegetation.
If you need to pee above tree line, urinate on rocks or bare ground, not on plants because animals in these regions tend to be sodium deficient and will destroy vegetation seeking urine as a sodium source.
“We advocate shallower catholes, in the two- to six-inch range,” Lawhon said. Keeping the waste higher in the soil horizon maximizes decomposition. Look for organic soil under trees and avoid cryptobiotic soil crust, which is extremely fragile.
Above tree line and in winter, it’s best to pack it out. Otherwise, you’re leaving behind frozen waste for the next visitors.
Leave No Trace outlines three options for solid waste, in order of preference. First, pack it out. This is the preferred option, since poop can remain frozen in winter (which means you won’t have to deal with any odor). Second, attempt to find a snow-free area like a tree-hole where you can actually dig. Third, dig a snow cathole.
“The key is, you’ve got to look at your map and make sure you’re not dumping near a creek,” Lawhon said. And keep in mind that if you choose the third option, you’re throwing LNT objectives three and four (aesthetics and decomposition) out the window. If you’re on solid ice, packing it out is best.
Come spring, no one wants to find your semi-frozen waste on the trail. So, if you do choose the third option, do it off travel ways and away from water sources. Choose a spot with sunshine, make a hole, cover your business, and let the snow melt dilute it. Snow works well as T.P.
As for peeing, cover any spots of yellow snow and pee away from water sources.
Finding Your Comfort Level
In dealing with your waste outdoors, it’s important to remember Leave No Trace’s overarching advice: find someplace along the continuum, in between trailhead toilets and poop tubes, where you feel comfortable. If you’re not willing to pack out your waste, some incredible outdoor spots will be off-limits to you. However, many others are easily within your reach, so long as you dig an appropriate cathole.
Can’t stomach the thought of carrying around your dirty T.P.? Well, you can bury it, so long as you understand it might be there a long while, and really didn’t belong there in the first place.
Ultimately, respect the proper practices, check with area land managers before your trip, and do your part to keep our crags clean and accessible for years to come.
Jason Grubb is an active climber and mountain biker who can be found in the mountains of Colorado each weekend. He works as the Outdoor Education Coordinator for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics based in Boulder, Colorado.