Outdoor Poop Etiquette Is Changing (You’re Probably Not Going to Like It)
A growing body of research suggests that it’s no longer sustainable to bury our waste in the wilderness
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I love pooping outside. One morning in Alaska, a humpback whale breached offshore just as I squatted with my pants around my ankles. Another morning, in Idaho, I watched hummingbirds sip nectar from wildflowers as I crouched at the edge of a meadow. And at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I sat on a groover as the sun painted the canyon walls a glowing red.
Each time, I dutifully followed Leave No Trace principles, which maintain that except in especially sensitive ecosystems like deserts or river corridors, the best practice for disposing of human waste in the wilderness is to bury it in a cat hole that is six inches deep and at least 200 feet from any water. Generations of outdoor enthusiasts have been taught that doing so avoids polluting water, minimizes the risk of spreading disease, and maximizes the rate of fecal decomposition.
Yet as the number of people using public lands has exploded in recent decades, scientists and land managers are pushing back against this time-honored wisdom. With so many more people playing—and pooping—outside, they say, it’s time to update our backcountry poop etiquette for the 21st century.
We’ve known for a long time that cat holes are not particularly good at breaking down poop. In the early 1980s, microbiologists from the University of Montana inoculated human feces with salmonella and E. coli, buried the waste at different depths and elevations in the Bridger Mountains, then measured bacteria levels in the surrounding soil over several seasons. They found that regardless of how deep the feces were buried or what kind of soil they were buried in, high levels of pathogens persisted for more than a year. More recently, wilderness crews digging holes for new backcountry pit toilets in Rocky Mountain National Park have been uncovering previously buried pits that are at least a decade old and still brimming with shit.
When pathogens from buried poop leach into the soil, they can then spread into waterways and even become naturalized into an ecosystem, reproducing and living on after the feces have decomposed. This is a problem particularly because modern-day human feces are likely to contain chemicals, hormones (from birth control), and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Laura Scott, a geneticist with the U.S. Geological Survey, found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in soil and water at all ten national parks she sampled in 2016, with the abundance of such bacteria increasing along with human activity. Or as the authors of the Montana study concluded some 40 years ago: “The idea that shallow burial renders feces harmless in a short time is fallacious.”
So why have many outdoor educators continued instructing people to dig cat holes? Lara Jacobs, a recreation ecologist and PhD candidate at Oregon State University who studies the impact of human waste on the outdoors, says that in the 1980s and ’90s, the number of people in the backcountry was so comparatively low that simply getting the poop out of sight was sufficient. “One or two feces here and there is not a problem,” Jacobs says. “But a whole trail lined with them is.”
This tsunami of turds isn’t just unsightly—it has repercussions for human and environmental health.
Today, shit-lined trails are not uncommon. A ranger in Zion National Park packed out nine pounds of human feces from a popular canyon in 2021. The U.S. Forest Service banned camping by Oregon’s No Name Lake in 2019 after it started to “smell like a sewer,” according to one employee. A recent study of the San Juan River, which flows through several Western states and is popular among river runners, found that levels of E. coli specifically associated with human feces were nearly 12 times higher than the EPA standard in some places.
The pandemic only exacerbated the problem by bringing greater numbers of less experienced people into the backcountry. Many longtime enthusiasts—myself included—have reported seeing more littered toilet paper and unburied waste (a.k.a. surface turds) in the last two years than ever before.
This tsunami of turds isn’t just unsightly—it has repercussions for human and environmental health. For one thing, human feces contains dozens of different bacteria, protozoa, and viruses that can cause illness if we accidentally ingest them. One study of 55 California beaches published in 2007 found that 91 percent had sand contaminated with fecal indicator bacteria; another from around the same time showed that beachgoers in Alabama and Rhode Island who played in the sand were more likely to suffer subsequent gastrointestinal illness than those who didn’t. And Jacobs, who is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is concerned that human waste could be contaminating the food sources of Indigenous people, who often use the land and water near popular recreation areas for fishing, shellfish gathering, and other subsistence activities.
Given what we know about how poorly cat holes work and how many people are pooping outside, Jacobs is part of a growing chorus of scientists and land managers who think it’s time for the outdoor community to stop promoting cat holes. Instead, she says, we ought to begin teaching backcountry users in nearly every location to pack out their poop with WAG bags (the acronym is for “waste alleviation and gelling”) or similar waste-disposal kits. Such kits usually include toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and special, double-layered bags you can poop directly into, complete with chemical crystals that render human waste inert and minimize the smell. (See below for tips on how to use these kits in the backcountry.)
Many public lands are already moving in this direction. A Forest Service website claims that “waste kits are becoming standard…throughout the West.” Visitors to Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument can now pick up free WAG bags at the visitor center. California’s Mount Whitney has required WAG bags since 2006, and it reports that users pack out 8,000 pounds of poop per year. And Rocky Mountain National Park provides WAG bags not just on climbing routes or above treeline but also at its backcountry permit office and trailheads throughout the park.
Rocky Mountain also recently installed new types of backcountry toilets at Longs Peak and other popular alpine areas where cat holes and pit toilets are impractical because of the lack of soil. These toilets separate urine from solid waste, making it easier for rangers to pack that waste out with llamas and mules. Still, the new toilets fill up so quickly that rangers have to empty them once or twice a week during the summer. And adding more backcountry toilets—whether in Rocky Mountain or other public lands—is complicated because of the expense, the maintenance, and the Wilderness Act, which makes it difficult to put manmade structures in designated wilderness areas.
“Adding structures is not something we do lightly in the wilderness,” says Daniel Lawson, a deputy facility manager at Rocky Mountain. “But in the case of Longs Peak, it was the minimum we could do to limit degradation of the wilderness environment.”
Or as Rocky Mountain management specialist Kyle Patterson put it: “Facilities can’t be the only answer. We’re going to have to have park visitors be part of the solution when it comes to packing their waste out.”
When I asked Patterson, Jacobs, and other WAG bag proponents whether they thought that people who can’t even be bothered to dig a cat hole will truly be willing to shit into a plastic bag and carry it out, everyone gave me a variation of the same optimistic answer. “Years ago, people really didn’t want to pick up after their dogs,” Patterson says. “They said, ‘No way will I ever do that.’ And now it’s part of our culture to clean up after our dogs. Some people are still irresponsible, of course, but there was a switch at some point that made most people change their behavior. Many of us are now saying that that same switch needs to occur in how we deal with human waste.”
Honestly, bringing WAG bags on every backcountry excursion and carrying days’ worth of your own poop out of the wilderness on a multiday trip is not appealing. But ultimately, it’s less gross than eating, sleeping, and playing on poop-filled public lands.
Tips and Tricks for Doggie-Bagging It
What to use:
Double-layered bags with chemical powder to render feces inert are commonly known as WAG bags. There are a variety of brands available—the most common is the Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Toilet Kit Waste Bag ($2.95 each). Other backcountry waste kits, such as Pact Outdoors, include tablets with mycelium (fungi) that promise to more effectively break down buried human waste, but some scientists and land managers worry that such products could introduce nonnative fungi to an environment.
If you’re paddling a canoe, raft, or kayak, you can also use a groover, which is an ammo can or other hard-sided container, sometimes with a toilet seat on top. Such options are too bulky and heavy for hiking or biking, however, and have to be emptied and cleaned after your trip, unlike WAG bags, which can be tossed in the trash.
How to use a WAG bag:
Open the outer bag, remove the toilet paper and sanitizing wipe, unroll the interior bag, and prop it up on the ground. Then squat over it and do your business directly into the bag. Although the bags come with TP, it’s a good idea to have extra on hand, just in case (and you can’t have too much hand sanitizer, either).
When you’re done, drop your toilet paper right into the bag and seal it up. Even though the chemical crystals in the bag render your poop inert, it’s still a good idea to keep it away from any food in your backpack—tying it to the outside of the pack will also prevent an explosion on all your stuff if you drop it or sit on it. Another tip, if you collect multiple WAG bags on your trip, is to bring a lightweight dry bag and stick them all in there. When you return to civilization, simply throw your WAG bags into the trash.