Everyone poops. So it follows that if you’re out in the wilderness for longer than a day or two, you’ll probably have to relieve yourself in the outdoors. What happens then?
A lot of times people leave their poop in the backcountry in a cathole—a hole you dig, poop in and cover back up. But in other locations, like those that are very rocky or close to water, leaving poop behind isn’t recommended. That’s when wag bags (like the ones made for dogs, only for humans) and pit toilets (holes in the ground with a toilet seat) come in. In all of those cases, real live humans come in, usually in the off-season, and manually have to get the poop out of there.
“On average, most humans produce about one pound of solid human waste per day,” says Ben Lawhon, education director for Leave No Trace. “If we look at that as an average number, that’s a lot of poop. If you look at 300 million visits to our national parks a year, that’s potentially millions of pounds of human waste that’s deposited. All that waste has to go somewhere.”
But where? And how? Conversations with land managers from three popular camping and hiking regions in the U.S. reveal just how complicated it is to remove waste from our parks and forests and along our favorite long-distance trails.
Mount Rainier National Park
- Managed by: National Park Service
- Known for: Glacier climbs and wildflower meadows
- Number of visitors per year: About 2 million
- Challenge: High number of visitors on snow
Mount Rainier National Park is gorgeous. The namesake 14,441-foot volcano rises tall out of the Washington soil, and the glacier-covered peak is ringed by subalpine wildflower meadows that draw in about two million tourists every year. You guessed it: Those people carry within them a whole lot of poop.
Spread across the meadows smeared on Rainier’s slopes is a complex network of backcountry trails—and 58 pit toilets. “If [a toilet is] less than 3 miles from a trailhead, we carry the waste out [of the backcountry],” says Richard Lechleitner, a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park. “If it’s more than 3 miles, we get permission to fly the waste out.”
High-altitude Camp Muir is among a handful of Mount Rainier campsites that require rangers to go to great lengths to remove poop from the park. Climbers who head to this mountaineering camp embark on an 8.8-mile round-trip trek with an elevation gain of 4,594 feet that, even in summer, is almost entirely on snow. In those conditions, Leave No Trace tells climbers to pack poop out. Although there are some solar toilets near Camp Muir, mountaineers headed higher up the mountain pack their waste downhill in little blue wag bags provided by the park. Each kit contains a clear bag, a blue bag and twist ties. Mountaineers simply poop on the snow, use the blue bag like a doggy bag, add on a twist tie, zip it into the clear bag and carry it down the mountain to a special drop-off station.
All that poop—totaling 5 tons of human waste from the solar toilets and drop-off stations at Camp Muir last year alone, according to Rainier wilderness District Ranger Dan van der Elst—has to get off the mountain somehow. Since the camp is more than 4 miles and 4,000 vertical feet away from the closest road, rangers then must fly the poop out in helicopters—and the process is expensive. According to Lechleitner, Rainier National Park spends about $20,000 a year to fly human waste off the mountain.
Here’s how it works: Rangers first shovel the human waste out of the toilets into 55-gallon drums. Next, they transport both the waste from the toilets and the blue bags via helicopter to a road near Paradise Jackson Visitor Center to be processed by one of two on-site sewage treatment plants. An outside waste disposal facility finally takes the blue bags to be incinerated, as it’s impossible to separate the plastic bags from the poop.
Outside of high-altitude locations like Camp Muir, rangers removing human waste is usually a last resort, but it is an option for the nearly 60 backcountry pit toilets—the type of toilet that collects poop in a hole in the ground—in the national park. This process, too, is costly and time-intensive, and people often misuse the toilets, treating them as a repository for trash. To remove the waste, rangers put on impermeable white suits, safety glasses, a paper respirator and double or triple gloves, says Lechleitner. Then they dig the waste out of the toilets, remove the trash, pack it into 5-gallon drums, strap it to a special backpack and pack it out of the backcountry on foot. “It’s definitely a stinky job, but it’s not that bad,” he said.
Still, “not a lot of people want to do it.”
Appalachian Trail Toilets
- Managed by: The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club manages 240 miles in the Mid-Atlantic region.
- Known for: 2,180-mile-long public footpath
- Number of successful thru-hikers in 2018: 1,128
- Challenge: Hard-to-reach pit toilets
The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) is the trail guardian for more than 1,000 miles of trail in Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, including 240 miles of the Appalachian Trail. While most of these trails feature composting toilets or call for hikers to dig catholes, there are a few sites with pit toilets. And those sites, often located along narrow, twisting gravel roads, are impossible to access with traditional septic pumpers, which can be as wide as commercial hauling trucks.
The pit toilets maintained by the PATC are the only ones on the Appalachian Trail. To help keep them in working order, once every couple of years, teams of four to six volunteers known as a “crapper crew,” step in. “We have a chief crapper and a bunch of little crappers,” says John Hedrick, vice president of operations for the PATC. They recruit heavily and, he said, while they don’t have a standing line of people raring to do the job, they have enough.
A crapper crew hitches a “Big Gulp”—their name for their miniature septic pumper—to the back of a truck or SUV and heads out to the pit toilets that are hard to access. The crew members then don protective suits and goggles and suck the raw sewage out of the vault (a fancier word for hole) in the toilet using the Big Gulp.
Even with their mechanized device, all the way across the country, the crapper crews feel some of the same frustration as rangers at Mount Rainier National Park when people use the toilets as a trash bin. “Anything you can name gets thrown in the toilets,” Hedrick says. “Shirts, shorts, plastics of all kinds, bottles, cans, plastic bags—a lot of plastic bags—those things have a tendency of clogging things up.” And once there’s a clog, the crew members need to unstop it. To do that, they have to disconnect the hose and ram a rod down the hose until it’s clear again.
Once the crew sucks up the waste, they deposit it at an RV site, which then disposes of it during regularly scheduled pickups. But that job is a whole other story.
Conundrum Hot Springs
- Managed by: U.S. Forest Service
- Known for: Alpine hot springs
- Number of visitors per year: 6,000 backpackers
- Challenge: High number of visitors in fragile ecosystem
If you’re a Coloradoan, you’ve probably heard of Conundrum Hot Springs. To reach the steaming pool, a 17.4-mile out-and-back trail winds through aspen groves to culminate in a large spring with views all the way down the valley. However, because it’s a high-elevation environment, human waste deposited there can take up to two to three years to decompose, according to Katy Nelson, wilderness and trails manager in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. With 6,000 recreationists visiting on an annual basis, the area began getting a bad rap for unburied human poop.
The rangers had a problem: “Human waste is deposited faster than it can decompose,” Nelson explains. “How do you deal with that?” Their solution was simple, but not so elegant: In 2017, they began asking people to pack their own poop out—and provided the tools necessary.
“To be really candid,” Nelson says, “you’re asking people to poop in a bag and hike it out.”
The rangers provide free wag bags (another name for the aforementioned blue bags). When the program started, the national forest did not have a permit system, and found 69 incidents of unburied poop, according to Nelson. In 2018, the rangers launched the permit system, requiring hikers to watch a video explaining how to use a wag bag when applying for permits online. That year, the incidents of unburied poop decreased to 11.
“Once people have the information, and know it’s a way to steward, we’ve seen a positive response, and people have been receptive,” Nelson says. “It’s been really neat to see how it unfolded in a group that wasn’t using this type of tool in the backcountry.”
What should you know?
- Have a plan. If you’re going into the backcountry, you might have to poop. So what do you do? Read up.
- Don’t put trash in the toilet. Remember: If you wouldn’t throw it in your toilet at home, it doesn’t belong in a toilet in the backcountry.
- Thank your volunteers and rangers. They work hard.