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Outdoors/Adventure

Everybody does it: What to know before you ‘go’ in the backcountry

  • Author: Vicky Ho
  • Updated: September 6
  • Published July 19

A sign along the Gull Rock Trail out of Hope instructs hikers how to properly dispose of human waste: “Pack it out, or dig a ‘cathole’ at least 200 feet from water, trails and camp. Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep. When finished, cover & disguise. Pack out T.P.” (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.

I lost count of how many times we had to stop.

Heading up the Austin Helmers Pioneer Ridge Trail last fall, it was every man for himself. And it seemed that some in our group had a common foe: gastrointestinal distress.

Originally, we hoped to reach the south summit of Pioneer Peak. About 3 miles along the ridge trail, one group member who kept upchucking called it quits and said he'd wait for us at the car. Another hiking buddy stopped at least five times to ease the pressure percolating inside his bowels.

At the top of the ridge trail, we knew we weren't going any farther. Gaining 5,100 feet of elevation over 4.5 miles is a workout under any circumstance. But with friends doubled over in agony, making the call to turn around is easy.

When nature calls, it's up to backcountry users to minimize our impact on the environment. Sometimes, that means doing a little digging. Other times, you may want to — for lack of a more eloquent description — pack out your poop.

Contrary to that ruinous Pioneer Peak experience, the world is not our personal toilet. I hope we followed Leave No Trace guidelines then, though I was fearful of what I'd find off trail on our way down.

"Proper disposal of human waste is important to avoid pollution of water sources, avoid the negative implications of someone else finding it, minimize the possibility of spreading disease, and maximize the rate of decomposition," according to the Leave No Trace website.

Consider this a refresher on how to "go" outside.

On dirt

Dig a cathole at least 200 feet, or about 70 steps, from any water sources, trails and campsites in an inconspicuous spot. The cathole should be about 4 inches wide and 6 to 8 inches deep.

After you've finished your business, you can bury used toilet paper in the cathole before filling it in with dirt, though packing out toilet paper or using "natural" toilet paper is best. Some examples: rocks, sticks, leaves. (Pro tip from a friend who learned the hard way: If you're using the leaf option, make sure you're not accidentally grabbing devil's club.)

Pre-moistened wipes and menstrual supplies should be packed out. I've seen what happens when they're not.

Leave No Trace guidelines recommend peeing on pine needles, rocks or gravel if you have a choice. While urine has little direct impact on vegetation, some animals are attracted to the salts and may defoliate plants or dig up soil as a result.

If you're a lady looking for a little more freedom, some friends swear by female urination devices. Before you head outside using one for the first time, though, remember: Practice makes perfect.

Not every backcountry campsite comes equipped with a vault toilet, but this one near Lost Lake on the Kenai Peninsula offers seclusion and a great view. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

On rock

Packing out your solid human waste is the preferred method. Many outdoor gear shops sell disposal kits that may include a gel for absorption or simply consist of a sealable plastic bag system. These are often referred to as blue bags or Wag Bags.

A DIY system may consist of coffee filters, paper bags or dog poop disposal bags used to pick up waste and used toilet paper, then heavy-duty sealed plastic bags to contain it all. Adding a bit of kitty litter to that outer bag can help control odor and moisture. (You might not have a cat, but that kitty litter you keep in your car all winter for roadside emergencies can do double duty here.)

After using a waste disposal bag, tie it off and place it into a durable sealed plastic bag to be carried on the rest of your trip. Some prefer to drop a steamer, then pick it up in the bag. Others roll down the top edge of the bag and take aim. A lead guide with International Mountain Guides at Mount Rainier recommended making a "direct deposit" into the bag, held against your body, to take marksmanship out of the equation and minimize the chances of water source contamination and the spread of disease.

Some climbers use a dry bag or a homemade "poop tube," a length of PVC pipe with a screw-on cap at each end, to haul out waste. If you need to improvise, a Pringles can works nicely.

And if you don't have the supplies to pack out your waste, try lifting a rock and replacing it when you're done, or aiming between rocks in a boulder field.

On ice and snow

Pack it out. Your waste won't decompose in the snow, but it will be an unpleasant surprise for some poor soul come spring breakup. Plus, think of the ick factor as backcountry users use melted snow for their drinking water. If you're out of toilet paper and can withstand the cold, snow will do in a pinch.

Fun fact: Climbers on Denali's West Buttress route are required to carry Clean Mountain Cans, a type of portable toilet, to haul out their human waste from high camp at 17,200 feet, though they are allowed to throw human waste contained in biodegradable plastic bags into certain crevasses below 14,200 feet.

According to the National Park Service, "nearly 90% of climbers' waste is still crevassed in an average year. A decade of scientific research has produced conclusive results — human waste left behind by climbers is polluting the streams and rivers that flow out of the Kahiltna Glacier."

Hygiene and other considerations

Must I say this? Clean your hands thoroughly after using nature's facilities and handling human waste. Pay close attention to your fingernails. Before you drop your pants, make sure any loose ends are secured — pack straps, shoelaces, climbing harnesses and helmets, etc. — and adopt a wide stance, especially in winter. Otherwise you may never look at your skis or snowshoes the same way again.

And as always, be respectful of others in the backcountry. Try to find a spot where no one will accidentally run into you, or your waste. This is especially difficult when much of our prime terrain is above tree line, but remember that once you see something, you can't unsee it. Give yourself plenty of distance between your point of relief and the trail, and you'll also help prevent the spread of disease.

We live in an incredible place. Let's keep ourselves from spoiling more than the view.

Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at Alaska Dispatch News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Have a cautionary tale to share? Contact her at vho@alaskadispatch.com, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.

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