Home MBE Articles Advice Bag It Up: Help keep the backcountry permit-free with responsible poop disposal

Bag It Up: Help keep the backcountry permit-free with responsible poop disposal

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Mt. Baker from the High Divide. Oliver Lazenby photo.

By Jason D. Martin

Poop.

Yep. That’s right. Poop. That’s what all the cool kids are talking about these days. Or perhaps, more specifically, the cool kids are talking about pooping in the backcountry and the impact it has on the environment and other people.

The average person unloads approximately 14 ounces (a little less than a pound) of poop every day or about 320 pounds of fecal waste every year, according to LiveScience. That’s gross, but also a part of life.

And here’s another part of life: Bacteria make up approximately 30 percent of dry fecal-weight. Fecal matter and the bacteria associated with it are often responsible for contaminating drinking water. This usually happens where there are a lot of people who are not effectively dealing with their waste in the mountains. The most common contaminants are cryptosporidium and giardia, both of which may lead to serious illness.

It also should go without saying that drinking water that has been contaminated by poop is disgusting.

So, what are we to do?

Backcountry travelers have used several techniques over the years to deal with their waste. The most common technique is to bury it in a cat hole – a 6-inch-deep hole in the soil below tree line. The traveler squats over the hole and leaves a little present. Once finished, the hole is filled in and the toilet paper packed out. Cat holes should be at least 200 feet from any water source and should be well hidden after use.

The problem with the cat hole technique is that for it to work effectively the hole must be made in organic soil, which is generally only found below the tree line. Above tree line, the soil is more likely to be sandy and devoid of the decomposers and organisms required to break down human waste.

Historically, hikers and climbers above tree line have relied on techniques designed for remote areas. These include the smear technique (smearing fecal matter thinly on sunny rock faces so that solar radiation kills bacteria and dries out the waste), “crevassing” the waste (literally throwing it in a crevasse), and the flying poo bird technique (defecating on a flat rock and throwing it off a moraine so that it scatters widely).

If there isn’t a cultural change around human waste on Mt. Baker and in the surrounding area, the Forest Service could implement a permit program

But these techniques were designed for truly remote areas. The reality is that Mt. Baker isn’t really remote anymore, nor are the Twin Sisters, Mt. Shuksan or any part of the Mt. Baker backcountry – there are people everywhere. As a result, these “remote techniques” are not effective and people could easily be exposed to pathogens in human waste that aren’t appropriately dealt with.

The best way to deal with your poop in the mountains is to bring it back down with you. Yep. You heard that right.

For years, the U.S. Forest Service has required guides and their guests in the Mt. Baker Ranger District to carry out their human waste above tree line. This has helped decrease waste on Mt. Baker and in the Baker backcountry, but it hasn’t eliminated it. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find poop and toilet paper in the snow or on the rocks in the local backcountry. The US Forest Service is acutely aware of the problem and will be asking all above tree-line visitors to Mt. Baker to pack out their poo in 2019.

If there isn’t a cultural change around human waste on Mt. Baker and in the surrounding area, the Forest Service could implement a permit program. Such a program would allow the organization to manage the number of people on the mountain, would enable them to speak to every visitor about packing out waste, and would ultimately decrease the amount of waste left on the mountain.

Nobody wants more regulations, so the best way to avoid that is to begin the cultural shift around human waste removal. Climbers, skiers and hikers that travel above tree line should plan to carry everything out. And we should all work to normalize this as part of our responsibility, both as locals and as responsible backcountry users.

The primary technique for removing poop from the backcountry is to use a waste bag. Many trailheads and ranger stations provide “blue bags.” These are an inexpensive version of a waste bag that uses combination of plastic bags and twist ties. Commercial waste bag are more secure. The most popular brand is the WAG bag, but there are several other brands out there. It’s not uncommon to hear all commercial waste bags referred to as WAG bags regardless of the brand.

Commercial waste bags employ a double bag system. Usually there is an inner bag and an outer bag. The inner bag tends to look like a large garbage bag and includes some sort of chemical smell reduction. The traveler should go to the bathroom in this bag, put any toilet paper or wet wipes in the bag, squeeze all the air out of the bag and then tie it shut. This bag may then be placed in the outer bag. It’s important to get all the air out of the outer bag as well; this will make it easier to pack.

Waste bags should never be left where animals can get to them. Don’t bury them in the snow or put them under rocks. The best place to store a used waste bag on a multi-day trip is under your tent. This will keep the cargo from being ripped open and scattered about by curious or hungry critters, and it will also keep you from having to clean that up later.

Using and storing a waste bag is only part of the process. Once the trip is over, a backcountry traveler must carry the bag out. One way to do this is to place the bag at the top of all your gear, under the brain of the pack. Another way is to store it in a pouch on the outside of the pack. Many packs have a “shove it” pouch on the main body. These are often tight, but will usually accommodate a waste bag.

Many trailheads in the Mt. Baker Ranger District have garbage receptacles. Waste bags can be deposited in these. If a receptacle isn’t available, Whatcom County allows these bags to be placed in the regular trash.

While it may sound unpleasant at first, packing out human waste is really not that bad. As people flock to the backcountry, packing it out can go a long way toward preserving the wilderness experience and limiting regulations in the backcountry.

Jason D. Martin is a mountain guide, general manager at American Alpine Institute and a widely published outdoor writer. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and two young children.