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Shit happens. The average person generates just more than one pound of poop every day, according to the World Health Organization. As the number of people visiting crags grows, so do the pounds of poo left behind. This requires some strategic practices. Few things are as foul as seeing a pile of feces topped with toilet paper hiding behind a rock—plus, poor crag etiquette can endanger access and pose public health concerns. Human feces contains more than 100 types of bacteria, protozoans, and viruses that cause illness, including giardia and cryptosporidium. Still, when you gotta go, you gotta go. Here are the definitive tips for responsible defecating.
Take Advantage of the Toilet
The best method (especially for the most regular among us) is the domestic drop. Start planning for the deed before you leave home. Prior to hitting the road, get up and start moving around, eat breakfast, relax, drink coffee, and… wait for it. Having a cup of java can relax and stimulate the colon, which moves everything along in the digestive system, including that excess baggage. Go ahead, have a second cup—and make it extra strong.
Pit Toilet If the domestic drop was a failure and you missed a flushable toilet en route, then the second-best choice is a pit toilet. Thanks to the generosity of local climbing groups, hard-working volunteers, and the Access Fund (AF), there are pit toilets at hundreds of crag parking lots across the country. They’re the most effective way to manage the waste from a large number of land users. The AF has helped finance the construction of toilets at climbing areas all over, including Arkansas, California, New York, Oregon, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Utah. There are several different types; some compost the waste while others must have it removed and taken elsewhere. No matter the type, if your crag has a pit toilet, use it, even if it means taking a 20-minute hike back to the trailhead.
Dig a Cathole
If there isn’t an accessible pit toilet, if there’s soil on the ground, and if the area isn’t heavily used (like near a trail or picnic area), it’s time to start digging a cathole. Ideally, the hole should be six to eight inches deep, four to six inches across, and 200 feet from any water source, trail, or camp. (It helps to buy an inexpensive trowel; we like the GSI Outdoors Cathole Sanitation Trowel for $5.) Burying your toilet paper with your waste is acceptable—according to Leave No Trace (lnt.org)—but you get extra green points for carrying it out (pack an extra zip-top bag with your TP). An environmental impact study of how quickly toilet paper broke down after being buried in catholes in Tasmania showed that, after six months, toilet paper decay was “well advanced” in most environments. Areas that were driest, warmest, and least acidic allowed for the most decay. Also, unbleached toilet paper breaks down more quickly than bleached toilet paper. Tampons and other feminine hygiene products don’t break down as quickly and should be packed out no matter what.
However, the microorganisms and bacteria that live in your feces may not disappear as quickly as the toilet paper. Some studies have shown that certain pathogens associated with feces were found near the cathole a year later. That’s why it’s important to thoroughly cover the cathole when you’re finished, minimizing the possibility that another human—or animal—will come into contact with your waste and spread it.
Pack it Out
If there isn’t enough soil to dig a cathole—or if the crag is heavily used—you should pack out your waste. This goes for snow and sensitive alpine environments, too. Poop that is left in the snow will either show up again during the spring melt, or it will live on for decades—or longer—if the snow is permanent and meltwater doesn’t carry it to your nearest alpine water source. Heavily used crags have bag systems—such as Restop, Biffy Bag, and WAG bags—available at the trailhead, or you can pick some up online (whennaturecalls. com or biffybag.com) or at your local gear shop. Stash one in your pack and leave it there in case of emergencies. Waste bags are also necessary for big wall climbing, but be sure to throw them away in an appropriate trash receptacle. Busy areas might have trash cans in the parking lot, but don’t overflow the can with dozens of poop bags. If you can wait, take it home and throw it away there.
Build your own wag bag. While the convenience and ease of grabbing a commercially made waste bag is a strong selling point, the price can really add up if you’re a prolific outdoor deuce dropper. You’ll need an interior bag or surface that can be pooped on directly—or used to pick the waste up after going on the ground—and an outer container that is durable and seals off completely. Options for an inner bag include coffee filters, butcher paper, and brown paper bags. Place it on the ground and aim, or go first and use it to pick up the poo, just like you would with a dog.
For the outer receptacle, the options need to be lightweight, durable, and tightly sealed. Think old Tupperware containers, freezer-weight, gallon-sized Ziploc bags, the infamous poop tube, or dry bags used for kayaking. The poop tube and dry bags are preferred methods for many big wallers and alpinists who need to pack out their poop over the period of several days or even weeks. A poop tube is made with a chosen length (eight to 10 inches is usually good for one person for a few days) of fourinch- wide PVC pipe, a glued-on permanent cap at one end, and a threaded fitting and removable cap for the other end. Dry bags can be found at any outdoor store; 20 to 25 liters is plenty for a few days. This method is less bulky to pack and sometimes easier to manage than the tube as you put more deposits in there. With both, don’t forget to have a cord or tether on the bag or tube so you can clip it to the outside of your haul bag. Don’t let the finished product come in contact with your food!
Do your business on the inner parts, wrap everything up tight (including toilet paper) and place it in the outer receptacle. Adding a bit of kitty litter to the bottom of the outer container will help control odor and absorb moisture. When you’re done, throw away all the innards and rinse the outer can/tube/bag thoroughly.
No waste bag? Too rocky? No pit toilet? It’s time to improvise. We’ve all found ourselves in a not-ideal pooping position when we’re out for a climb. But don’t just go under a rock and call it good. Instead, do your best to follow as many of these four principles outlined by Leave No Trace as you can.
(1) Minimize the spread of disease by lowering the chance that an animal, insect, or person might come into contact with your waste.
(2) Go far, far away from water sources to prevent pollution.
(3) Hide your waste to avoid aesthetic issues—no one wants to see evidence of feces.
(4) Encourage decomposition by covering it with any available dirt or plant matter.
A decade or so ago, the smear method of backcountry pooping was recommended when digging a cathole wasn’t plausible. It was especially recommended in alpine and desert environments, where the harsh, dry, windy weather was thought to speed decomposition. But since the early 2000s, the smear has largely been abandoned by organizations such as Leave No Trace as a preferred method of meadow-muffin disposal. It wasn’t practical to expect people to follow the proper smearing protocol, which required spreading feces into a thin veneer on a rock or the ground. (Think icing on a cake, according to Ben Lawhon, LNT’s education director.) Scientific studies have now shown that it takes about four months for this “icing” to break down.