Editor’s Note: With apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (A Study in Scarlet) and gratitude to my son Nick Wantz who came up with our title we bring you a discussion of poop in the wilderness. As more and more people adventure farther afield the subject of how to handle the growing quantity of human waste that ends up in wild places is a hot topic. This is the Tsunami Rangers’ take on waste in the wilderness.
Lt. JG Nancy: Coincidentally, just before I started putting this post together, I read Tim Cahill’s book Pecked to Death by Ducks. Apart from being another of Cahill’s brilliant, witty, and hilarious travel books, this particular one contains a chapter aptly titled “The Throne of Terror”. Here’s Cahill: “Around home, bad bowels are an embarrassment best kept hidden… But oh, develop the most minor irregularities on a trip, and everyone gets to hear about your symptoms. In nauseous detail. The more remote the campsite – the greater the perceived distance from home – the more clinical these descriptions become. This is Cahill’s first law of bowel babble.” (p. 22.)
It’s true. Last year the Baja expedition was the furthest afield I’ve traveled with the Rangers and boy, did we talk about poop. We talked about poop before the retreat and after the retreat. During the retreat we literally drove a couple of our team mates away from the Batwing because some of us couldn’t leave the topic alone. And so, under the Batwing, a blog post was born.
It’s always fun to start with a story, so here’s Captain Deb “Tortuga” Volturno with her contribution:
Capt. Deb: Human waste in the wilderness is always a consideration, and it’s always worth having an action plan for the speciﬁc environment we’re in. There are diﬀerent methods of handling human waste in diﬀerent environments. Kayaking in Baja demands a human waste action plan that is suitable for the uniquely fragile desert environment. Poop that’s simply buried on land doesn’t decompose since the ground biome doesn’t host what it takes for decomposition. Burying poop in the intertidal zone is an acceptable solution in little use areas, but often that zone is not easily accessible except at the pristine beach where we’re camped – yuck! So hiking or paddling around the corner in the rocks is required to be able to bury human waste in the intertidal zone. That can be challenging in some places. Arguably the best way to deal with poop in parts of Baja is to have a system to carry it out – and there are many reliable, sanitary systems available.
My all time favorite way of dealing with my own poop is the ‘Fling with a View’ method. Remote coastlines in Baja oﬀer excellent opportunities for this method. (Only recommended in remote areas!) Especially along the isolated coastlines in the Sea of Cortez, we tend to camp in sublime, protected coves with hills, bluﬀs, or headlands that wrap around the cove. That oﬀers favorable topography for the above mentioned poop process method.
In Baja, my preferred morning walk is up from camp to a high point overlooking the sea, and obviously away from the camping cove. Coﬀee in hand! The view will be predictably stunning, and especially so with the ﬁrst light of the day on the Sea of Cortez! With my vista above the sea selected, success follows in the details! I need to ﬁnd the perfect rock, which is rarely diﬃcult with the Baja geology. A ﬂat rock is essential, and it must have an ample surface area to hold the the amount of waste that will be deposited upon it. This will be diﬀerent depending on the individual, so the perfect ﬂat rock is an individual decision. The chosen rock must be able to be lifted in order to ﬁnish the project.
So to begin, take good aim, deposit your poop onto the rock, and when all is ready, my favorite part follows – ﬂing it con mucho gusto out from the bluﬀ into the sea! Keeerrshplasssshshh – and voila, the poop is broken down into very small parts! Quite satisfying! And the cycle of processing the organic waste continues – in the environment that has the wherewithal to decompose it. As mentioned above, this method is only suggested in remote areas. Other details? Before you ﬂing, be sure that nothing can be hurt or damaged in the water below you. Make your toss from a safe spot not too close to the edge. And toilet paper? Do not leave TP anywhere, or think it will go away if you stick it under a rock – super disgusting! It will not just go away on it’s own! Either carry TP out in a sealed zip-lock bag, or at some point, have a safe and legal burn below the tideline. And ﬁnally, never forget to wash/clean your hands – everytime!
Lt. JG Nancy: Awesome advice. As always, Capt. Deb is so on point. Now here’s Vice Admiral Jim Kakuk with his tale about waste in the wilderness:
Admiral Kuk: We arrived in Loreto a few months ago to kayak around Carmen Island for the Tsunami Ranger Retreat. One of the first logistical discussions we had was on the topic of pooping. Carmen, now a National Park, has restrictions on how to poo. Of the several options mentioned the method I decided on was to “paddle and poo”.
I remember a time many years ago in Pohnpei, Micronesia, when swimming through the giant coral heads with schools of colorful fish schooling around I dropped my drawers and delivered a plume of yellow and brown mixed with bits and pieces. I recall several fish swimming in to take a look and one in particular that took a bite and then ejected it with a sideways glance, took another taste and then spit it out before swimming reject-fully away. Most of the other fish were curious but kept their distance from the brown plume.
On Carmen one morning, with coffee cup stowed in my crotch, I dutifully headed out to a place down the coast a short ways to a private spot to toss my chunky monkey (several days of consuming all sorts of mixed camp food makes for some interesting excrement).
About half way to my destination I realized I needed to “flatten the curve” and started looking for another rest stop right away. Along the blank rocky cliff, I spotted a small ledge just above the low tide line that looked like a miniature Rivendell. I seal landed and quickly dropped my togs while a covey of crustaceans scampered into the crevices. The buildup was intense and after the ass blast I turned around to see the scattered brown chunks on the landing, then noticed the crabs hiding in the rocks with wide eyes looking at the seismic event that had just landed in their front yard. But then they are crabs that live on dead things so maybe, I was thinking, “not a problem”.
After jumping into the salt water bath and washing up real good (no toilet paper needed) I hopped back into my kayak. Paddling away, I could see the crab colony emerging and shouted out, “Uber eats, Baja Fresh”. Thinking that maybe they had a good breakfast, I returned to camp to make mine.
Lt. JG Nancy: Prior to departure on the Baja trip, Capt. Deb informed us that our destination, Isla Carmen, is a National Park and therefore off-limits to pooping. My enthusiasm waned. No pooping on the island? Wtf??? But Capt. Deb was taking it all in stride and told us she and Paula were bringing Wag Bags, and that keeping the Park pristine for others was the Right Thing To Do. Still, I found the constraint depressing.
But then I remembered a backpacking trip I took with my son up the Lost Coast of Northern California in 2014. All went well until the last campground, just before we hit the Mattole River. It was nearly impossible to find a place to poop even though the campground was quite large. The place was a zoo. Normally I would have pooped some place below the tide line, but when I walked over to the beach there were what seemed like fifty people hanging out, watching the waves. Nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. I went back to camp and scouted around. In the first likely spot I began to dig I promptly encountered fresh poo. Ugh. Same at the second spot. I don’t remember where I ended up, but by the time the ordeal was over I was totally grossed out. I came away from the trip A. never wanting to go there again and B. recognizing that the Lost Coast has been officially found. It sucks because I remember backpacking that coastline in the 70’s and not meeting a single soul.
Thinking about that experience I understood the need to protect wild places. Times change. Till now it’s never occurred to me that I can’t just dig a hole, drop my pants, and poo when I’m out in the wilderness. But there it is. What to do? Emails went back and forth, and when I understood that while pooping on land is a no-no, pooping in the ocean is ok, I started to see light. With that, here are a few methods for disposing of poop in the wilderness, from the most basic to the most high tech.
The Swim and Poo Method Once we were on the island I started implementing a variety of waste management methods. First I tried swimming out a good way from the beach and pooping in the water. Easy peasy and the water acts as a natural bidet. By the time I swam back to the beach I was all clean. The only problem was the surge pushed the bits around and it was initially bit of a challenge to avoid them. If you try this method I recommend swimming further out to sea after elimination and giving your dispersing poop a wide berth as you swim back in.
The Poop and Scoop Method The next method I tried was pooping on land and scooping it up with a plastic bag. You put the bag over your hand, pick up the poo, turn the bag inside out, and knot the bag, just like you’d do for your dog. Each morning when we put in for our next destination I’d place the bag in the small hatch in front of me. When an opportune moment arose, I’d pull the bag out, dump the poop in the ocean, rinse the bag, and put it back in the hatch. This method worked pretty well but it wasn’t always opportune, and sometimes I had to wait till we made camp for the night and then take a special poop drop paddle.
The Poop Flinging Method This became my favorite method of poop disposal, but I had to do it a little differently than the Captain described above. This method works great if you have leisure to take a stroll before go time, but the first time I tried this method it didn’t go as planned. When nature calls me, it’s urgent. It comes on quickly and demands instant action. So I pooped in the sand behind my tent and then found a flat rock and used my U-Dig It shovel to cover the poop with sand and then scoop it onto the rock. Then I picked up the rock and began trekking to the top of the bluff. It was a good 20 minutes up the rough, rocky slope while evading thorny shrubs and saguaro-like cardons. Along the way I got into this weird mindset that I was like some kind of Mayan priestess carrying a scatalogical offering to the gods. It was sublime yet ridiculous. Here I was, with both hands holding my excrement on a large, heavy rock like a platter carrying it up and up into the sky…
When I finally reached the bluff top, I found I couldn’t just fling. The act seemed to require more gravitas. The point at the end of the bluff beckoned, and tired as I was, I hiked on for another couple hundred yards till I got to land’s end. Standing there I said a silent prayer for the benefit of our expedition and then flung as hard as I could. The rock sailed into space and plummeted out of sight. Three…two…one…foom! I heard the rock hit the water with a healthy splash. It was strangely satisfying. I walked back to camp feeling lighter both physically and spiritually, and highly entertained.
“Kevin” This method is a share from TRs Cate Hawthorne and Jeff Laxier. It’s also used by the Boy Scouts, but I bet they don’t give their PVC pipes names. “Kevin” is a section of PVC capped at both ends. Cate and her lovely husband Jeff carry it with them on wilderness trips. They use it to pack their poop out, and dump it at an RV station when they return to civilization. For more info on Kevin, here is a link to Cate and Jeff’s video on How To Pack Out Poo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2PODtBeCfQ&feature=youtu.be
TR Jeff Laxier: Here [is] Kevin II the poop tube. This was checked during permit process with BLM prior to getting on the Rogue, and fulfills BLM standards, and guidelines. I will modify again with a 4” main pipe. This makes it less messy for dropping and cleaning. The use of doggy bags (corn starch) is no longer best practice. Burrito Wrap poop in sturdy napkin(s) and drop into Kevin.
The Wag Bag Some of us used Wag Bags on Isla Carmen. Wag Bags are high tech bags to pack your poo. Each bag is puncture-resistant and contains a hand sanitizer packet, NASA-developed solidifying agent, “poo powder” to de-stink your poop, and some TP. Rather than repeat what others have done so well, here’s a link to a great article on Wag Bags, where to use them, how to use them, and why to use them. Check it out at https://thedyrt.com/magazine/gear/wag-bag-camping-waste/ You can get Wag Bags from a variety of sources in a variety of prices. Just google “wag bag”.
All kidding aside, this is a serious issue. Human waste is everywhere, and I don’t mean litter. Think about Mt. Everest. Pristine, sacred Qomolangma, the Holy Mother, now polluted with tons of human excrement. Humans leave an estimated 26,500 pounds of feces on the mountain each season. Leave No Trace ethics regarding human waste are as follows:
- Minimize social and esthetic impact
- Minimize water contamination
- Minimize the spread of disease
- Maximize decomposition
This last is important because it’s estimated that human poo can take up to a year to decompose, especially in desert and high alpine environments. Coprolites, or fossilized fecal matter, stick around for a Very Long Time. Dried human excrement from Oregon’s Paisley Caves has been dated to 14,300 years old. And with the coronavirus ravaging the globe, disease should be on everyone’s mind. Our water sources are already contaminated by giardia. I remember the days when hikers could drink water in the wild without having to think about it. No one does that now without taking a risk of infection. We don’t need to exacerbate the problem. Lastly, if all other reasons don’t move you, consider this. You get to a seemingly pristine place, set up camp, and look around for a potential latrine site. You find the perfect spot, dig down a few inches, and encounter a big fresh turd. This happened to me on the Lost Coast. I’ll never see wilderness the same.
What are your methods for pooping in the wilderness? Let us know by clicking below!