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You’ve Been Pooping Outside All Wrong

by Staff

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Gather ’round children, and let me tell you about my best-ever high-altitude dump. I was climbing the Grand Teton with Exum Mountain Guides and we paused for dinner on the Lower Saddle. Mac n’ cheese has consequences, as do nervous bowels. So I grabbed my TP and headed for the ridge-top latrine, where I dropped trou, admired the view of Idaho to the west, and released my burden. Sweet relief! Soon my crap was out of sight and out of mind, if not out of nose.

Want to take a dump like I did? Forget it. The Park Service removed that toilet in 2001, citing the high cost of hauling out waste by helicopter. Ever since, hikers have been responsible for their own Tetonic piles of crap. Which they should be: Even when waste leaves your body, it’s still yours. (That goes double for your dog, who really can’t be expected to take care of his own turds, now can he?)

What’s a responsible hiker to do-do?

I called Jeffrey Marion to discuss this shitty situation. Marion teaches recreation ecology at Virginia Tech, and he wrote the book, literally, on Leave No Trace. It turned out, to my surprise and bowel relief, that there is some good news where #1 and #2 are concerned.

“In the grand scheme of things, human waste isn’t a huge problem in the backcountry,” says Marion. “It can be a problem in localized areas that get a lot of use, like on Mt. Whitney. Also in extremely cold places, or dry places, or anywhere you can’t dig a cathole. Otherwise it isn’t usually a big deal, because it’ll decompose within a year.”

Not that he’s letting you off the fecal hook, entirely. Here’s everything Marion would like you to know about dropping your load responsibly in the woods.

Catholes Rule

Marion is a firm believer in digging our way out of the human waste problem. Just grab your trowel, hurry 200 feet away from your campsite or a trail, dig a 6- to 8-inch hole, do your business, and then backfill. That much you knew, right? According to Marion, about 80 percent of backcountry visitors comply with those guidelines. But the tricky bit comes with the toilet paper, which seems to erupt from catholes like tulips from warm soil in springtime.

“We find a lot of toilet paper around popular campsites,” Marion notes, “either because people don’t care, or because toilet paper is the last thing into the hole, and it’s only covered by leaf litter.” His trick: After you wipe, use a stick to push the TP to the bottom of the pile, then refill the hole. In the right climate, it’ll all decompose in about a year.

Crap and Leak Creatively

When you emerge from your tent with elimination on your agenda, take a fresh look at the landscape. “People tend to spot the same big bush or a rock near the campsite and think, ‘I’ll go there,’” says Marion. “It leads to a concentration of waste that can smell bad and be dangerous.”

All those #1s and #2s add up to big numbers, and attract flies. “That’s how diseases are transmitted,” says Marion. “They land on your waste and your dinner.” The 200-foot-rule will probably force you out of the flies’ flight path. Better yet, plan on taking a nice crap break en route to your next destination, away from campsites and drinking water.

Urinalysis

Urine is in fact sterile, so spraying it around won’t harm the environment. “It’s an aesthetic concern,” says Mr. LNT, “not a health hazard.” He advises aiming at (or squatting over) a rock, rather than peeing all over the underbrush, which large ungulates will mow down for the salts and nutrients you piss away.

Pack out menstrual products, period.

Backpackers who menstruate can’t always plan their adventures around their cycles, so they have two choices: learn to use (and clean) a menstrual cup, or pack out used pads or tampons. Most menstrual hygiene products contain perfumes and plastic liners, which attract critters and resist decomposition. So you’ll need to pack them out in a sealable baggie or water bottle (cover it with duct tape, if you don’t want to see red). Dropping crushed aspirin or a tea bag into the menses will cut the smell. Of course, users of The Pill can skip their placebo doses to put off their flow until they return to civilization.

Up high, and down low, it’s gotta go.

In the desert, waste won’t decompose. In frigid temperatures and on rocky peaks, there’s no diggable soil, so no catholes. You’ll have to pack waste and TP out.

Which brings us back to the summits of the Grand Teton and Mt. Whitney. Marion misses their high-altitude johns.

“In a high-use area, that’s really the way to go,” he says. “After they removed the latrines on Mt. Whitney, rangers gave out toilet kits to hikers, but animals would get into the bags and they would leak and smell. People said ‘I’m not packing that out,’ so we found them near the campsites.”

With the zeal of a poop prophet, he extols the seven above-ground “moldering privies” Vermont’s Green Mountain Club installed along the Long and Appalachian Trails in Vermont, and dozens of other locales along the rest of AT. Those loos are sweet-smelling because the waste decomposes aerobically, becoming fertilizer that maintenance crews can scatter in the woods. Just the way bears do it.

For high-use, high-altitude areas, latrines and helicopter evacuations of honey buckets are the way to go, says Marion. “It’s expensive, but that can be built into the cost of wilderness permits.”

And as my Grand memories tell me, paying for a scenic latrine is anything but money down the drain.

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