Long-standing rules for how we do our business in the wilderness are changing in a very big way—and it’s about time. For decades we’ve been taught standardized methods to ensure proper disposal of our waste, most notably burying it in a cathole far away from water sources. But now, with exploding numbers of people recreating on public lands, those approaches aren’t viable. Simply put: the land can’t handle all our poop. This has scientists and land managers saying it’s time to take drastic measures that you might not like.
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Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is The Outside Podcast.
Paddy O’Connell: Howdy, Mike! Surprise! It's pop-quiz time. I hope you did your homework.
Mike: You know I always do my homework.
Paddy: Today's subject: How to poop in the woods.
Mike: Oh. That's actually, well, I mean, that's a hard one, because it's all changing. And honestly, I don't think I know the latest protocols.
Paddy: Let's start with what you do know, Sir Crappypants. What are you supposed to do if you have to drop a deuce in the forest?
Mike: Well, it used to be dig a hole at least six inches deep, I think, and it has to be at least 200 feet–200 yards?–from a water source.
Paddy: And what if you're way up in the mountains, above treeline, and it's all rock, so you can't dig?
Mike: Oh this one I know. That would be the high-altitude shmear.
Paddy: And how about at your friend's backyard barbecue when there's a long line for the bathroom?
Mike: Actually that reminds me of a true story. You know, Paddy, I have three boys. So I taught them how to properly poop in the woods when they were pretty young. And one afternoon they were playing outside our house and proudly announced that they had dug a cat hole in our very small yard and taken care of business just cause it’s more fun that way.
Paddy: Now is when I rescind my invite for your family to come visit me.
Mike: They're older now!
Paddy: Look man, I'm sensitive on this topic. A couple summers ago our dogs found the doodoo zone of some not-too-smart campers. Think business poo'casso'd on logs and TP hung from trees. Dogs got into it. It was awful, I mean awful. So so very awful.
Mike: Yeah that is awful. But the sad part is that it's not uncommon. One of the more popular stories we published recently at Outside was about the growing waste problem in wilderness areas, just because there are so many people out there.
Paddy: Which is why those old methods like cat holes and shmears don't cut it anymore.
Mike: So, what are we supposed to do? It's not like we're dogs and can just scoop our stuff into a bag and throw it out.
Paddy: Funny you should say that. Or not so funny. Because dog crap is where this story starts.
Do you think that the county has a, has a poop problem?
Rick Norman: Absolutely.
Paddy: Meet Rick Norman, ranger supervisor for Colorado's Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, which surrounds a little town you might have heard of called Aspen.
Ranger Rick: The worst situations are going to be when it keeps snowing all winter long, and people are not picking up that off their dog waste and the snow keeps piling up. So what's happening is we're getting literally there's layers of dog poop over the winter of building up and up and up. And then in the springtime, it all melts at once. And it's pretty nasty. The impacts of that.
Paddy: Ranger Rick–yes, that is truly what he goes by– is describing the annual crap melt that occurs on Smuggler Mountain, a popular hiking trail next to downtown Aspen.
Ranger Rick: You'll have people who don't pick up their dog waste and they don't put it in a bag. So there's one issue right there. And then you have the folks who will put it in a bag and leave it in the bag for some reason. So you have, um, everything melting out at once and you have like this sludge of dog poop coming down, but then you also have the bags that are coming down with it as well and melting out.
Paddy: Yes, it is as disgusting as it sounds. Ranger Rick says that on a busy day Smuggler can see anywhere from a few hundred hikers to over a thousand. And since this is Colorado and everyone and their uncle has a dog, or maybe two dogs, this is a BIG problem. Even if a fraction of them don't pick up after their pup, you're talking about pounds upon pounds of poop.
And this isn't just a springtime issue. Ranger Rick and I met for a hike at the Smuggler trailhead at the beginning of the summer. It did not take us long to find an orphaned turd.
Paddy: It's been 10 seconds since we started walking and we have seen our first dog crap bag.
Ranger Rick: Yeah. This is a great example. There's a trash can right there, right? There's a trash can right there.
Paddy: What, like 50, 50 feet?
Ranger Rick: Yes. And then there is one just around the corner as well. Got more over here. And then up here.
Paddy: There's the same yellow bags. What's that? What's the deal?
Ranger Rick: So we provide bags for folks next to these trap trash receptacles.
Paddy: In fact, the country purchases 90,000 yellow compostable dog waste bags every year. And county open space maintenance crews keep 15 trailhead stations flush with bags and empty waste cans. But it's up to dog owners to put those bags in those trash cans. And they're not so great at doing that.
Ranger Rick: Put it in a bag and then throw it over the trail to hang in a tree next to the trail. Uh, I always find that really interesting.
Paddy: Yellow bag. Dude, It is unreal. It's like every, I don't know, every 20 feet.
Ranger Rick: Yep. And then here in this ditch too. Yeah. After everything melted out, you might have bags buried in there.
A yellow bag. We found another yellow bag,
Ranger Rick: another yellow bag, and we are once again,
Paddy: We're so close to the trash can.
Ranger Rick: And then we'll be close to one more trashcan here around this next bend.
Paddy: So when you see stuff like that, are you just like, do you get immediately just like pissed?
Ranger Rick: If we got mad every time I saw that I'd be mad every day of my life. So you gotta pick and choose your battles.
Paddy: What about the folks who say, you know, like, ‘oh, well I shouldn't have to bag it because, um, you know, it's just going to end up in a landfill?’
Ranger Rick: If everyone did that, everyone would be walking on dog turds right now. Um, that is kind of a selfish train of thought in my opinion.
Paddy: What do you think the poundage of turd is in this area?
Ranger Rick: Unfortunately, I don't have that answer for you. It's a lot.
Paddy: Do you even want to know that?
Ranger Rick: Uh, no, I don't. That's a bad one.
Paddy: Unfortunately for Ranger Rick, and for you listening, I have found that answer. Open Space and Trails says that on average 400 waste bags are used per week at Smuggler. And if your average dog doody weighs in at about 4 ounces–a number they arrived at by actually weighing a sample, eewie–that means that every week at the very least 100 pounds of dookie pile up at Smuggler trailhead, assuming the deuce made it into the trash cans.
But it's the turds left out on the trail that are the major issue. In April of 2015, volunteers collected 100 pounds of abandoned dog crap at Smuggler. Only a few weeks later, it looked as if the volunteers were never there.
Fun fact, this story was so surprising and so gross that it actually made The Washington Post.
Anyway, as Ranger Rick points out, this makes for a really crappy situation, in many ways.
Ranger Rick: Think of the aesthetics you're ruining for other folks as they're coming up behind you and your dog bag full of dog crap is on the trail.
So, you're ruining somebody else's experiences by doing that. And if you forget where it's at, which happens, or just don't pick it up, then it's, they're being preserved in that bag. So all this water goes straight to the river. You get the environmental impacts of the river to humans and to, and to human health and to dog health as well.
Paddy: Improperly mitigated waste can lead to tons of health issues from the spread of bacteria and pathogens. Feces can also cause over-fertilizatilize, degrade soil, and spike phosphorus, all of which damage ecosystems and threaten biodiversity. As Ranger Rick will tell you, dog poop is a major issue in outdoor recreation areas all over Colorado.
Ranger Rick: Generally at the beginning of most popular trails, there is a waste problem. .
Paddy: But the problem that's grossing us out even more right now is human poop. And, it's spurring a big change in how we relieve ourselves in the woods because we don't want our favorite wilderness areas to go to crap.
Hiking, camping, and other forms of outdoor recreation have surged in popularity in recent years, and, you know, nature calls on all of us. The result is that beautiful places are being ruined by waste. Which is why a growing number of scientists and land managers are saying it's time for us to go doo-doo like doggies do: in WAG bags so we can pack it out. In fact, some popular locales have been mandating WAG bags for a while now, including California's Mount Whitney, Utah's Bears Ears, and Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. But now, there's a push to make this the standard practice just about everywhere.
Not surprisingly, Ranger Rick supports this idea 100-percent.
Ranger Rick: We have an extreme amount of users. And, it's only growing and growing. And, there's so many people using all of our trails and doing our backpacking loops. And it just makes sense to not have human waste buried everywhere.
Paddy: Do you think that there's a need for a shift in like the outdoor community’s approach to pooping outside.
Ranger Rick: Yeah, absolutely. I think, I think there is a shift. Everyone needs to do their part with their doo-doo. Uh, you know, otherwise you get the, in situations like up on, you know, everyone knows about what happened up on Conundrum.
NARRATION: You probably don't know what happened up at Conundrum, a geothermal hot spring in a remote section of Colorado's Maroon Bells Wilderness. It's a super popular destination for Aspen day hikers and multi-day backpacks. But because it's a highly traveled narrow drainage, there isn't a ton of space for cat holes. And a few years ago, everything turned to, well, you know.
Ranger Rick: It pretty much led to a massive shitstorm between dog feces and human, and they had to do something about it. So they banned dogs from that location and then made it a permitted section.
Paddy: Which is great for the area, but also like ultimately like impacts kind of the user experience. Right?
Ranger Rick: Exactly. So who knows what could have happened if people would've gotten on it sooner, whether that permit system would be in place or not?
Paddy: By requiring permits to hike to Conundrum and banning dogs entirely, the Forest Service was able to put a cap on the crap there. But limiting access like this is an unfortunate last resort. A better way to ensure that a popular destination stays yuck free is for land-based adventurers to follow the lead of rafters and kayakers.
Ranger Rick: The river community, they've got it dialed when it comes to human waste. And I'd say, you know, they're the leaders in poo right now in outdoor recreation. All their multi night sections, everyone has a groover. Everyone has a way to get their waste packed out. Maybe that's something that hikers need to go to as well.
Paddy: What exactly are river runners doing with their doo doo that works so well? To find out, I spoke with a Grand Canyon dory captain who has been dealing with crap for half his life. That story after the break.
Paddy: When you imagine the ultimate outdoor job, I'm betting that rowing an 18 foot raft in the Grand Canyon filled to the brim with human plop doesn't top your list. But it does for a friend of mine.
Ryan ‘Howdy’ Howe: I probably did maybe eight trips where I was rowing the, proudly rowing the, uh, shit boat. And that would be, that's probably that's over 1500 pounds of, of poop for sure.
Paddy: I have done some math around this. And, that is the equivalent to 26 golden retrievers. Or 4915.2 baseball's worth of crap.
Howdy: That. That's a lot of fly balls. Wow.
Paddy: That is my pal Ryan Howe, but everybody calls him Howdy. And he is the quintessential outdoorsy dude. He began ski patrolling and river guiding before he could legally buy beer. Almost 25 years later, today he's an avalanche worker for Telluride Ski Patrol, a faculty member at Silverton Avalanche School, the co-owner of Telluride Mountain Guides, a heli ski guide, and boat captain for OARS Grand Canyon Dories. Suffice to say, when he speaks about outdoor protocols, everything from backcountry travel to backcountry squattin', he knows his shit.
Sorry. I had to.
Anywho, Howdy has been at the helm for more than 80 Grand Canyon river trips, an annual adventure that has come to shape who he is as an outdoorsy human. And it all started in the poo boat.
Howdy: I think I was 19 or 20. I wasn't paid, this was back when they didn't pay baggage boaters. So I was rowing for free and rowing poop down the river, my very first trip in Grand Canyon. And, uh, it was incredible. I fell in love. I think That's a Testament to the landscape for sure that, you know, even rowing a boat full of shit, is still enjoyable because it's such a beautiful place. Now, I, you know, at this stage in my life as a parent, I've come full circle. I'm changing diapers and managing poop once again. So I think it's my calling.
Paddy: Whether or not Howdy was born to deal with the great ka-ka, being willing to do so got him a gig that has allowed him to routinely enjoy a trip that is on almost everyone's adventure bucket list.
Howdy: In general, commercial trips are right around 16 days. It's right around 277 miles of river canyon from lease ferry to the grand wash cliffs. It's essentially Glen Canyon all the way down to the Mojave desert outside of Las Vegas. There's several lifetimes of exploration down there, rock climbing, canyoneering, hiking. It's really pretty incredible.
It's one of those contact points on planet earth where you feel both insignificant and part of a greater, you know, organic being that is planet Earth. It's just magical. It's beautiful. And it's a visual spectacle as well. It's, you know, the colors, the, landscape itself, the fact that you're encapsulated in the geologic story of our planet. It's just, it's really, it's a pretty powerful place. It's kind of a maternal figure in some ways. It's welcoming, but also not afraid to paddle your ass if you get outta line.
Paddy: There is evidence of human inhabitation inside the Grand Canyon dating back 10,000 years. Spanish soldiers became the first non-native explorers of the canyon in 1540. John Wesley Powell's mapping mission occured in 1869. By the mid-20th century both personal and commercial trips were a regular occurence. And according to Visit Arizona, today roughly 27,000 people travel the Colorado River through Grand Canyon every year.
In all that time, with all those inhabitants and visitors, there has never been a major doody issue.
Howdy: You will not find dinosaur sized poop piles in Grand Canyon when you're going on a trip
Paddy: But why? It's not like folks have been pulling over at an outhouse or a 7-11 to do their business. In fact, as Howdy tells it, river runners used to crap there all over.
Howdy: There was a wide variety of just going high and far, uh, dispersing your poop with a broadcast, doing the old shit on a shingle where you poop on a piece of tallis and then fling it off a cliff into a God awful chasm where surely no one would travel.
Paddy: Eventually, though, the river community decided to get its shit together
Howdy: As the grand canyon river trip became more popular in the seventies, you know, there was an obvious situation that they needed to do something. So carrying it out was the answer.
A lot of river guides who took solace in Grand Canyon after fighting and surviving Vietnam. They brought back the technology of the ammo can, which was really revolutionary. And the idea became well, let's, uh, poop inside this ammo can, but maybe we shouldn't try to clean 'em so let's have a liner. So they put a pretty hefty garbage bag inside the can. You can imagine some of the complications there, but that was probably the first attempt at, you know, an L and T you know, pack it in, pack it out type of ethic.
Paddy: Howdy estimates that at the end of a standard 16 day commercial trip, with roughly 20 some odd people, you could be dealing with around one ton of human waste. And the obvious question, for me at least, is what the hell do you do with all that shit. Well, that too has developed over time.
Howdy: There's the old Seligman sling where you would get to Seligman, Arizona on route 66 there and open up the cans and get yourself in a very good position and sling the garbage bag into the dumpster. And of course the municipal works in Seligman quickly caught wind of this and did not really, they weren't on board. They didn't see the advantage, the, the, you know, mutualistic benefit in that relationship. So that was kind of kiboshed.
In terms of Dory tradition, Grand Canyon Dories, you would put on what they called the shit shoes, which were just a terrible pair of shoes that I'm sure they threw away often. And you would get yourself ready. You'd have a big long run in front of you, of empty barren Mojave desert. And they would turn the bag right side up and run across the desert and broadcast the poop across the desert.
And this is appalling think of this, but that, that at the time was the, the best method. So that, that went on for not very long.
And they realize like, ‘Hey, this isn't working, you know, throwing it away, doesn't work. So we need to get rid of the garbage bag and this needs to go into a municipal sewer system.’ And of course that job initially was not a very fun job. You fast forward to today's environment and, and there's actually a company, they are number one in the number two business in Flagstaff, Arizona. A college friend of mine started, but he has a great system he's modified, kind of attachments for all the, the grand canyon toilets. So that it's a pretty well kind of something you could almost do in your flip flops. And you could be, you know, eating a breakfast burrito if you will, or drinking coffee.
Not that that's advised ever, you know,
And so every turd that comes outta grand canyon ends up in the municipal sewer system. So it's a completely leave no trace system. And, and it really shows, you know, you go down there on a trip and, you know, if it's your first trip, you would almost expect to see some human impact, but actually, you know, other than noticing, you know, footprints and, and hand prints, the, the by and large, the grand canyon experience is really preserved and protected by, you know, just an honest effort from people to get poop out of there notably, but also to get garbage and recycling and any other aesthetic impacts that that, uh, could potentially be left behind.
Paddy: This refined waste management process means that a trip down the Grand Canyon today is not all that different from a trip in 1950. But that doesn't mean everyone got on board right away with the idea of packing out your poop.
Among river runners, Martin Litton is a legend. After returning from World War II, Litton first ran the rapids of the Colorado River in 1955. He was already an impactful member of America's burgeoning environmental movement, and that initial trip inspired Litton's lifelong fight to preserve the Grand Canyon. He founded Grand Canyon Dories, the company Howdy works for, in 1971. Howdy describes him as a larger than life character and a true American hero. Which made it all the more difficult to talk to Litton about his crappy habits during a trip when he was 87 and Howdy was 26.
Howdy: We had been noticing that every morning, you know, Martin would get up and have a nice conversation with, you know, folks who were the early risers. Might have a sip of coffee And then he would wander up into the most God awful pile of rocks, you know, far from camp. And then we would notice a little poof of smoke would come up. And I was kind of thinking like, ‘is this guy smoking a J. Like, I think he might be, you know, medicating.’ It's like, I would imagine he needs some kind of anti-inflammatory, you know? I was kind of like right on, you know, whatever, whatever, you know, it works.
Eventually we realized that, you know, he was doing the old school method of high and far. He would go to, where no one would travel and enjoy the view and kind of commune with Mother Earth and dig a nice hole, take a poop. And then he was burning his toilet paper.
And so we're in a tough spot, you know arguably. All the crew on this trip, right. There's eight of us who are part of the crew and you know, how do you tell somebody who survived two missions in world war II? That alone, right? He should be able to shit wherever he wants and we'll just we'll deal with it. But it was kind of one of those things, you know, like we're trying to obviously be good stewards.
And we just told him, you know, we got, you know, we got, we have the, the can now.
And we, we have to shit in the can. And Martin said, ‘well, I shit in the rocks. That's just what I do. It's what I've always done. And it's what I do’.
And to his credit, you know, like, I feel like his answer was completely appropriate. Cuz if anybody can do whatever the hell they want in Grand Canyon, I would say it's him. But he swallowed his pride and, you know, the rest of the trip he got in line for the toilet, just like, uh, everybody else.
And I don't want, I mean, I mean, this should not be, I can feel my mentors just cringing right now. Cuz there are just a million inspiring Martin Litten stories. But certainly I, I think there's inspiration in that. That, you know, as hardened as that habit was, he was willing to be like, you know, all right. I'll adapt.
Paddy: This, says Howdy, is what we all now need to do. Because, just like the great Martin Litton, our old poop habits–on rivers, in the woods, on a mountain–are no longer the right way to treat the land. Or each other.
Howdy: At a fundamental level. That's what landscapes teach us is that adaptation is the way. It's how things work. We are part of a system. And then we also have to adapt our own behavior. To function in a more synergistic fashion.
If we increase our use, then we have to increase the complexity or at least the, you know, the nuanced fashion of our systems. And, ultimately, it's kind of for our own good. So even if you're super selfish, like even if you could give two rips about a Southwest Willow flight catcher or a, you know, grand canyon tree frog, uh, even if you eat them for breakfast, you could still have good waste management because you want to preserve the quality of your own experience, but it would be nice if we actually cared about other critters as well.
Paddy: Regarding poopy protocol, what is your advice to the outdoor community at large?
Howdy: Oh boy. I would say, get it done early. That's the best move I'm trying to get my kids on the morning pooping program.
All joking aside. I think, you know, knowing the, the public land that you're planning on recreating in and knowing the level of human use in that chunk of public land, and then use a system that reduces your impact.
And almost always, it's real simple, just bring a wag bag. Those things are kind of brilliant.
Have a plan and just make sure that, you know, you're aware of the rules and regulations of places you're going, and those exist not to trample our freedoms, but really to preserve the human experience in these places. It's just plain and simple adaptation and then personal awareness and personal responsibility.
Paddy: Howdy. This has been great. This has just been awesome, dude. I wish I would, I could continue to talk to you for
Howdy: You know, we can talk shit forever.
Paddy: There it is. There it is.
That was producer Paddy O'Connell, reporting on the state of poop in the outdoors. To find out more about the beautiful, poop-free zones of Colorado's Pitkin County, check out @pitkinost on Instagram–that's p-i-t-k-i-n-p-o-s-t. And if you're interested in expanding your mind and pushing your body with Howdy, and hearing some great dad jokes, check out Telluride Mountain Guides on Instagram @tmg_telluridemountainguides.
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