At some point you have to talk about the serious business of going #2 in the woods. Although this is something most of us do every day, to many, it remains a mystery how it’s done in the backcountry. We’ve all wondered it. Now, your questions will be answered!
Proper Waste Management = Preserving Wild Spaces
Outward Bound is hyperaware of its impact in wilderness areas, whether it’s on a river, in a desert or alpine environment. We model responsibility and conscientious practices for our students to preserve wild spaces for generations to come. When it comes to disposing of waste properly, we hold our students to high standards, following local and federal guidelines. We have these conversations and teach waste management lessons at the beginning of each course, not only to ease some unspoken anxiety about bathroom use, but to makes sure that there are no accidents and that expectations are communicated clearly.
What is Leave No Trace?
Leave No Trace, also known as LNT, is comprised of seven principles that are collectively followed in order to promote conservation and sustainable use in the outdoors.
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impact
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
The Leave No Trace principles are “the golden rules of outdoor recreation.” These guidelines help preserve the outdoors and allow us to enjoy the natural world in a sustainable way. By following the LNT framework, we can prevent and minimize human-created impacts in the wilderness. As #3 states, we should take extra care when disposing of waste.
Don’t Do as Bears Do
It’s no mystery, bears DO poop in the woods wherever and whenever suits them. But unlike bears, we have an extra responsibility to do it correctly for a couple of reasons. Our waste does not have a direct advantage or ecological purpose. Bears, for example, tend to have digestive enzymes that break down hulls of tough seeds that are unpalatable to humans. When they go #2, sometimes miles from where they dined, they are completing an important task of germination assistance and seed dispersal. Human waste doesn’t do this. In addition, human deposits being made in high-use areas, paths, trails, camp sites or points of interest tend to pile up, even if buried properly. This leads to a land mine and the potential of our waste polluting water sources of other animals and humans is high and is a huge health hazard.
Pooping in the Wilderness: The 101
Where and how you go #2 really depends on the ecozone you are in, and what activity you are doing. Here are a couple of examples:
Backpacking: This is the classic “cathole” style of pooping in the woods. The delivery is done in a hole dug about 8” deep and 6” wide, also known as a cat hole. This hole is usually dug with a lightweight trowel, similar to a garden trowel. The person making the deposit can use pine cones, smooth rocks, lichen (soft material that grows on trees) or smooth sticks. The used materials are thrown into the hole when finished, then the hole is buried and disguised to blend in. The delivery person may, however, mark the spot with a small stick “X” in order to signal to others that the spot has been filled. Another option for ‘materials’ is using toilet paper, sparingly, and it has to be disposed of properly. LNT specifies to pack it out by using a plastic bag, as this will leave the least impact on the area.
Mountaineering: This alpine environment uses techniques similar to those of backpacking, however, above a certain elevation biodegradable qualities of soils (or lack-thereof) are not able to properly break down waste. In many snowy mountaineering environments there is no access to dirt. In these instances, a WAG bag, also known as a cleanwaste bag, is appropriate. This waste kit is made of puncture resistant material and usually comes with a small amount of TP and a sanitary towelette. The bag is approved to be thrown away in most municipal garbage cans. It is packed out and disposed of later.
Climbing: Climbing areas can be semi-frontcountry with access to pit toilets and porta-potties. For backcountry climbing, similar techniques using catholes or WAG bags are appropriate.
Desert Backpacking: This arid environment has a topsoil that calls for a shallow hole. When defecating in the desert, LNT guidelines recommend digging a 6” hole as compared to an 8” hole in more forested areas. This is because most of the biodegradable action takes place closer to the surface in the desert.
Canyoneering: This environment usually calls for a WAG bag because of the thin corridor of travel directly in a drainage, with high risks of potentially contaminating water. It is very rare to find a spot where you can dig a 6” hole 200′ away from a drainage in a canyon. If you do, look around and make sure there isn’t evidence that water travels through that area. Most likely it does during monsoon season downpours.
Kayaking: This environment can have a hybrid of styles. Sometimes there is access to pit toilets, porta-potties and flushers. Other times in more remote locations, the standard is cat holes or WAG bags. Most kayakers start and end their days onshore, and don’t stray too far throughout the day. Good kayakers will learn to sync their bowel movements to shore-time to avoid the potential for an aqua-deuce emergency. (As you can guess, it is best not to relieve yourself in the ocean).
Rafting: Similar to canyoneering, it is very difficult to find areas that fall within the LNT guidelines in a river corridor. On top of that, these corridors are usually traveled repeatedly, and the favorable camping spots are visited hundreds (if not thousands) of times a year. Rafting is most often done in large groups to add to the difficulty of disposing of waste properly. The solution? A groover! A groover is usually an old ammo box, retired from the military, with a detachable toilet seat. On most rafting trips, it’s unloaded from the raft and placed onshore in a discreet location, or “bathroom.” The groover has a small amount of biodegradable agent that breaks down the waste and mitigates smell. For a group of 12, each groover lasts about a week before it’s time to start a new one. These have water tight lids and are emptied out at specific facilities after each river trip. Rule #1 of groovers: don’t pee in the groover! Check out this handy article for more information on a groover. Bonus: The name ‘groover’ originates from trips in previous years when people used ammo boxes for their toilet that had no ‘seat’ when you sat down on the can, so it left grooves on the backs of your thighs.
Sailing: Similar to kayaking, sailors on small crafts end up on shore every night to cook their food, and therefore have access to facilities or catholes. On longer expeditions without access to land, sailors have a bucket similar to a groover with a water-tight lid and removable toilet seat. Historically, sailors would hang over the edge and aqua-deuce, however that practice has terminated due to obvious health and LNT reasons. On small crafts, when using the poop bucket, fellow sailors hold up a privacy sheet and do a “courtesy turn.”
Dog Sledding: Similar to mountaineering, sometimes there is a severe lack of access to soil in this terrain. If that’s the case, WAG bags are used. The nice thing about dog sledding is that most supplies stay either frozen or very cold, reducing smells and assisting in easy transport. In some instances, when traveling in very remote locations, holes are dug in the snow using a camp shovel and deposits are made directly in the snow. Used TP is brought back to camp and burned.
Important Pro Tips:
- Don’t try to hold it. Fecal impaction is a real thing. If you forcibly hold your bowel movements for more than a few days, the waste buildup in your colon can cause serious constipation, dehydration, pain and vomiting. It’s a sure fire way to end your trip early and invite things like enemas and laxatives into your life.
- Collect wiping materials throughout the day. On most Outward Bound courses you are tasked with traveling from point A to point B. Throughout the day, start collecting wiping materials and stuff them into your pack. It’s not only a fun game, but can be used as a commodity to later barter with crewmates.
- Raining? Go under your tarp! This trick can only be used in special conditions. One example would be that you are packing up to leave your Solo spot if you are on an Outward Bound course. If the LNT requirements are met, why not? Nothing like a little shelter from the rain!
- Build yourself a throne out of rocks. You can fashion your own backcountry toilet bowl. Just remember to dig your hole to correct depth and make sure you are not disturbing microorganisms that are living on the rocks.
- Lean against a tree, or hang onto a branch.This disperses some of your weight and offers more balance, leaving you focused and relaxed for the real business.
- Is it buggy out? Pre-dig your hole and have your wiping materials collected. Take off unnecessary layers for easy access away from your desired spot. Wait until the urge is strong and you are very, very ready. Run to your spot, do your business and wrap up before tender areas are eaten alive. Areas with a breeze helps thin out mosquitoes and flies.
- Scope out “your spot” when you get to camp instead of in unfavorable lighting or in a morning daze. Make sure you pay attention to how you got there so you don’t get lost on the way back to camp!
- Worried about getting your clothing dirty? Perhaps you’re in a dire state. If this is the case, and the bugs aren’t bad, take off your pants and underwear, set them aside, and go for it knowing that nothing is in the way. Just make sure your shoes are tied.
Potty mouth – Good Vocab to Know
- F.O.P.O.: Fear of packing out toilet paper
- Surface Turd: The horrific action of eliminating onto the ground with no intention to bury it
- P. Flowers: Toilet paper stuck in bushes and under rocks due to LNT failure
- Poop Soup: The action of stirring up your poop with some dirt before burying it in order to assist in breaking it down.
About the Author
Trevor McKee embodies and models the spirit of Outward Bound every day. As a three-time alumni, Instructor since 2009, and Course Advisor for the Northwest Outward Bound School, Trevor has served many sides of the school. He can often be found volunteering and says he doesn’t feel fulfilled without incorporating service into his life. Trevor also believes in making inclusion and diversity a reality in his community. He co-produces the Queer Adventure Storytelling series in Portland, Oregon. Trevor credits his pivotal experiences as a student for giving him the tenacity to pursue his dream of hiking from Mexico to Canada twice. He believes every person should have the opportunity to challenge themselves on an Outward Bound course to realize they are capable of more than they ever thought possible.
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