Writers on the Range: How You Know What in the Woods

Molly Absolon
Molly Absolon

The poo makes everyone fidget and giggle uncomfortably. We love that our poop disappears. We want shiny white porcelain toilets and privacy.

But how do you cope when you’re in the woods behind a tree?

When I took my first class at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming years ago, my favorite method of trash disposal was to bring a trowel to dig a six-inch spade hole, a practice that remains the norm for many backcountry travelers today. There was even a practical guide by Kathleen Meyer, published in 1992, bluntly titled, How to shit in the woods.

We thought the floor would break down nasty stuff pretty quickly. In fact, we were taught to stir up the dirt in our depot to speed things up. But our faith in the speed of nature has been shattered.

Studies by a research team from the University of Montana found that since the early 1980s, high levels of pathogens remained in feces even after being properly buried.. Maybe a few piles of poop in millions of acres of wilderness weren’t so bad when there were just a few piles of poop. But if you visit the backcountry or beaches on public land these days, you know a lot of people go outside and leave their trash behind.

In 2020, 7.1 million more Americans participated in some form of outdoor recreation than the previous year, for a total of about 200 million people, according to the Participation Trends report in outdoor 2021 of the Outdoor Foundation.

Fifty-three percent of Americans ages 6 and older recreated outdoors at least once in 2020, which is the highest participation rate on record. The Bridger-Teton National Forest near my home has seen a 44% increase in the number of people camping between 2016 and 2020. Outdoor recreation is, if you can call it that, a boom.

Each human being, on average, produces about a pound of poop every day. It adds up quickly. Anyone who has taken a 21-day Grand Canyon river trip has probably noticed the piles of canisters that fill up during a trip. By the time you got to takeout the cargo in an 18ft raft was mostly crap.

Outside Magazine recently published an article on the evolution of outdoor poo etiquette, citing a startling 2007 study that found 91% of the sand at 55 California beaches was contaminated with fecal indicator bacteria. Poo wrapping therefore became a necessity in this state if people wanted to avoid the disease.

But that’s true even in a forest where people dig their perfect cat holes 200 feet from trails and water. If thousands of people hike the same trails every day of the season, it’s a minefield of trash festering beneath the surface. Over time, the pathogens in that poop will seep into the soil.

What are we supposed to do then? While we may not like it, just like river guides and other outfitters, it’s high time for all of us to put away our poo. But good news: there are a number of commercially available products to make it as light and odor-free as possible.

Trevor Deighton, of Victor, Idaho, an Exum mountain guide in the Tetons, recommends WAG bags, WAG being short for Waste Alleviation and Gelling. Since more and more people are wearing them, he says, “There’s so much less poo on the Grand. The (bags) do not smell and never break. It’s worse thinking about it than in practice.

He adds: “You see a lot of plastic bags with dog feces left along the paths around here. People don’t want to put them in their bag because the bags are so flimsy, but then they forget about them. The beauty of WAGs, he adds, is that your rugged portable toilet never breaks down and is easy to use.

But there’s no getting around the problem, packing the poop is always an inconvenience, especially for those of us who look forward to a rather light pack at the end of a hike. But for our health and for the health of the forest or wherever we recreate, it is our responsibility to leave no waste behind. That’s what you should do.

Molly Absolon contributes to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating lively conversation about the West. She writes and often travels across the West.