This column should probably include a caution sticker. Why? It’s about poop on the trail. So, if you’re eating your breakfast as you read this, you might want to put the paper down until after you finish eating.
Let’s say the following scenario happens to you. You’re hiking along a steep trail. You come to a spot that requires you to use your hands to pull yourself up over a rock outcrop. In the process you reach up, and because it’s so steep, you can’t see what’s above you on the rock. You grab the rock only to realize that you’ve put your hand in a pile of human poop, deposited earlier by an irresponsible hiker.
It’s a scenario that occurs more frequently as increasing numbers of people take to trails without the proper knowledge of exactly how to handle their human waste. As the problem has increased, some hiking areas have made efforts to instruct hikers in the correct methods for human waste disposal.
Marcia Williamson, the Leave No Trace educator with Baxter State Park, explained recently about how the park informs the public. “Our Wilderness Educator Interns perform routine mountain patrol on Katahdin, which entails talking with hikers about minimizing their impacts, educating about the fragile alpine zone — Katahdin has the largest collection of rare, threatened and endangered plant and animal species found at any single location in Maine — asking hikers to carry out all trash, litter and leftover food, such as apple cores, banana peels, orange peels, nut shells, etc. and what to do if they have to go to the bathroom either above treeline or below treeline,” she said.
The problem may seem like small one. You might even think that it’s OK to leave human feces anywhere along the trail. If you were the only one out there, it would be less bad. However, with 30,000 visitors hiking Katahdin every year, that adds up to a lot of human waste. And it’s not just on Katahdin.
Some parks across the country require hikers to adopt practices to carry out their feces. “In many areas, hikers are required to get a permit to hike-camp in the backcountry and when they receive their permit, they also receive a carry out bag for human feces. Many parks require visitors to watch a Leave No Trace educational video before embarking on their backcountry trip. Mostly, education is the first line of defense. Mt. Whitney in California initiated a carry-out program because the problem of human feces on trails was so bad,” said Williamson.
Since educating hikers is the best way to inform them about their impact, Williamson shared one way on how the park accomplishes that. ”We do make an effort to educate the public about staying on trail, and explaining the impacts of going off trail. The thought did occur to us that maybe people take that very literally and don’t go off trail to poop. We also know there are some places where it is difficult to get very far off trail,” she said.
The obvious effects of the presence of human waste are the diseases that can be transmitted if, say, you handle feces unprotected, but also the effects on other hikers. “When it rains, it is washed downhill carrying the bacteria and pathogens from the feces into a water source that could be a drinking water source for hikers; hikers could step in the poop, getting it into the treads of boots which is very hard to clean out and can be tracked either up or down the trail, exposing more people to the bacteria and pathogens insects are attracted to the feces — think about having your lunch along the trail and a fly lands on your sandwich or other food possibly carrying bacteria or pathogens; and the visual impact to other hikers. I suspect it isn’t what hikers envision when they think about climbing Katahdin or other peaks,” she said.
So what are hikers supposed to do when nature calls and they’re far from an outhouse? Williamson recommends the following, “We follow the Leave No Trace guidelines, which are actually part of our regulations now, and ask people to go off trail at least 200 feet or as far as possible away from trail, water and campsites to both urinate and poop when there isn’t an outhouse around.
“When having to poop, our recommendations are — below treeline, get off trail 200 feet or as far as possible away from trail, water and campsites, dig a cat hole, just like your cat does, poop into the hole, cover it up and disguise it,” she said. “If you aren’t prepared to carry out the toilet paper in a ziplock bag, [our] recommended method, then it is acceptable to bury it deep in the hole.
“If above treeline, rock hop off trail 200 feet or as far as possible, avoiding stepping on the fragile alpine plants, poop on top of gravel or rock and carry out the toilet paper — not leaving it. We ask people not to dig cat holes above treeline, especially on the plateau of Katahdin, as it will have an impact on the alpine vegetation. When urinating, again get off trail as far as possible or 200 feet away from trail, water and campsites and urinate on rock or gravel, avoiding plants, as animals will strip them or dig them up for the salts in the urine,” she said.
A few principles, ethics and education are all that’s needed for hikers to use the backwoods responsibly, including properly disposing of human waste. Once you learn them you’ll never hear it said that you don’t know how to “go” in the woods.