By Leif Whittaker
If you spend enough time in wild places, miles away from the nearest bathroom, you’re bound to have a moment when it’s more than a little awkward to answer nature’s call. Whether you’re on a day hike, backpacking trip, or climbing expedition, it’s wise to have a plan in place for how to deal with, and dispose of, those awkward moments.
As a climbing ranger for the Mount Baker National Forest I’ve seen the result of poor planning firsthand and, trust me, it isn’t pretty. There’s nothing worse than reaching a summit you’ve dreamed about standing on for years only to discover that someone else has already been there and left their mark in vivid technicolor. Improper disposal of human waste also leads to water pollution and the spread of illness, so it’s extremely important to follow a few basic sanitation guidelines.
If you’re traveling well below tree line, where soils are thick, digging a “cat hole” is an acceptable option. It’s a good idea to carry a lightweight trowel with you for this purpose. Cat holes should be dug 6 to 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet from water, camp, trails and drainages. Pack toilet paper out in a plastic bag or, even better, do like your ancestors did and use grass, leaves or moss, but be sure to avoid those stinging nettles.
Cat holes are fine in low-lying terrain, but much of the Mt. Baker National Forest lies above tree line (think Yellow Aster Butte and Heliotrope Ridge), where soils are thin and digging is not possible. Similarly, cat holes are not okay on snow or glaciers, where human waste cannot biodegrade and will eventually contaminate water sources. In these cases, the only option is to follow a fundamental Leave No Trace principle: pack it in, pack it out.
The simplest and cheapest method for packing out human waste is a blue bag, which is basically the same product people use to pick up after their dogs. The USFS provides blue bags free of charge at the public service centers in Glacier and Sedro-Woolley. There are also blue bag dispensers at many trailheads throughout the National Forest. Blue bags come in handy for all sorts of things, from packing out garbage and food scraps to creating a three-sided bandage for a sucking chest wound. Personally, I carry at least a couple on every outdoor trip.
If you’re used to a bit more luxury or sensitive to malicious odors, consider purchasing a WAG Bag or Biffy Bag. These two products include large biodegradable bags, deodorizing agents, individual toilet paper and sanitary hand wipes. They can be used more than once, which lowers the cost, and all the contents are securely sealed in a zip-close bag that can be tossed in the normal trash. WAG Bags and Biffy Bags are readily available online and at many outdoor stores.
Whatever method you prefer, it’s absolutely imperative to keep the wilderness pristine. I’ve spent an entire week of work going over every inch of an alpine campsite, bagging up candy bar wrappers, pistachio shells, used toilet paper and the fecal incidents that go with it. In one case, a coworker and I scoured the Easton Glacier and each collected more than 30 pounds of waste, which we carried down in contractor bags tied to the outside of our backpacks. It’s gruesome work, but I feel a powerful sense of pride when a guide or mountaineer tells me how beautiful and unspoiled Mt. Baker is.
Our little corner of the world truly is special and it’s our responsibility to keep it that way. So, for the sake of your children, and your children’s children, please remember to pick up your poop. x