Human Waste Disposal in the Bush and Leave No Trace Education

In a recent post I broached the subject of human waste disposal in the wilderness, as well as in not-so-wilderness locations. I noted how I had found used Wag Bags left in the desert in a couple of different locations last summer. I also noted how I have been finding human waste, along with toilet paper, just left on the ground surface in too many locations in the past couple of summers. I asked the questions: why are people using (and leaving) Wag Bags in locations where a “cat hole” was all that was necessary for waste disposal, and why am I finding more toilet paper and waste on the ground, and a lot of this along the Escalante River no less?

I received a reply to that post from Reina Gallion of Cleanwaste, the company that makes the Wag Bag. She left me- and anyone who cares to comment on the subject-  with a question- what can we do to educate people in the use of Wag Bags, and more broadly, in Leave No Trace principles?

I know that rangers, employees, and volunteers at National Parks, monuments, campgrounds, state parks, and so on are usually tremendously overworked and do the best they can do to accomplish their daily tasks, part of which is checking in with visitors to make sure they understand the “rules” of visiting. I also know that there are many, many visitors to our parks, monuments, and wilderness areas and that there are occasionally those who slip by, for various reasons, without knowing how to properly “conduct” themselves in these locations. By this I mean how and where to go to the bathroom, and also other LNT principles such as packing out trash, not building fires outside of established rings, not chopping down trees, and (my personal favorite) keeping noise and the use of lights to a minimum. So what can we do to educate others about treading lightly, about the fragility of our wild lands, and about the ever-shrinking wilderness? These are big questions.

There are two parts to my discussion- first, some points about the use of Wag Bags in the wilderness and packing out human waste, and second, Leave No Trace principles in general. As I have written elsewhere, I have never hiked anywhere that requires packing out human waste. Of course this does not include river running. Reina brings up a few good points regarding the use of Wag Bags and packing out waste that should be kept in mind:

  • Wag Bags are a solid, functional way to cleanly and safely pack out waste (durability being a concern in a comment by Doug.)
  • Some wilderness areas (Reina notes Mt. Whitney in California) hand out Wag Bags and require their use. In this case there is no place to dig a cat hole even if you wanted to.
  • As Reina also points out, there are places where wilderness campsites are “established”, but are not maintained. Some of the best slot canyons in the world can be found along the Escalante River. They see a lot of use. Some of the staging area campsites for the more popular slots are surrounded by catholes, many with toilet paper sticking out of them or stuck on nearby sagebrush. This I say from personal experience. (The Escalante may be a place that sees a recommendation, if not a requirement, for packing out human waste at some point. I believe Grand Gulch is another place where it has been discussed.)
  • Reina also notes the possibility of the spread of disease in the case of the above-mentioned campsites for example, groundwater contamination, and also the possibility of disturbing the habits of wildlife by creating fields of catholes. Packing out human waste would render all of these issues moot.

Some of my comments to Reina on the subject of education, expounded upon here, were as follows (these go beyond just the use of Wag Bags):

  • Some National Parks, National Monuments, and wilderness areas require hikers and backpackers to attend orientations. This usually means watching a short video before being issued a backcountry permit. Grand Gulch in southeast Utah is one such location with this requirement (for backpackers only, not day hikers). I feel they did an unusually good job with their video. It covers digging a “cat hole” for solid human waste, packing out used toilet paper as well as all trash, and also discusses the fragility of rock art and ruins. It does this in a matter of about 10 minutes and manages to keep your attention throughout. I think that this is an indispensable method of educating backpackers and I would like to see it as a requirement at other monuments and parks, the Escalante being one place that I think really needs it. (Disclaimer: while adding “requirements”, and thus more governance, to our already controlled lives goes flatly against my own personal libertarian (small L) “political” (in quotes) views, the wilderness and especially the southwest desert, is one of the most important things in my life and I want it to be there, and be as pristine and unspoiled as possible for all of us to enjoy.)
  • Most visitor’s centers now have a television or computer, or both, which plays videos about the area- history, wildlife, and so on. Adding short videos about protecting the wilderness, either on demand, or in a continuous loop- or perhaps as part of the general videos- is another way to convey the same information.
  • Focusing on younger hikers, junior ranger programs do a good job of engaging children, of teaching them about the location they are visiting. Many of these programs- the ones that my son Nico and I have done together- do include Leave No Trace principles in their requirements for gaining the junior ranger badge. At Canyon de Chelly, for example, one of the requirements was that Nico show up for his “test” and “swearing in” with a bag of trash he picked up in the park or campground. Most parks and monuments, at least in southeast Utah where it is a necessary topic, discuss the importance of not touching rock art, and of staying off of and out of ruins to help preserve them. Adding more Leave No Trace principles into the workbooks could only help. Also, “campfire talks” with a ranger (these are still done aren’t they?) is another avenue for educating young people. Parents are often part of both of these- the junior ranger badge and campfire talks- and are also being exposed to the principles.
  • In my opinion, nothing is more effective than face to face communication. The ranger or volunteer at Grand Gulch that hands you a Ziplock bag and says “this is for packing out your used toilet paper” is making a very clear statement that sticks. As I noted above, rangers and volunteers are often overworked or not available, and obviously they are not going to be at every self-pay station you might find. Face to face contact is not always possible.

I fully realise that making changes  to National Park Service or BLM policies, re-creating brochures, and creating new interactive media and videos is not something that happens over night. But I think teaching Leave No Trace ethics is something that must be continued, and expanded, if we are to continue to enjoy the wilderness areas as we like them to be. If you have any comments or suggestions of your own, please post them here. I will see that Reina gets them.  

For more on our adventures in the Utah desert, visit the Desert Explorer website. For specific information on kids in the wilderness see our Wilderness Kids pages. For more information on Leave No Trace principles, visit the LNT website.

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2 Responses to Human Waste Disposal in the Bush and Leave No Trace Education

  1. Great post. Thanks for continuing the conversation.

    I like your comments about focusing on young hikers and junior rangers. I think if we instill good LNT principles in our youth these will carry on with them to adulthood and they will instill these values in their kids, nephews, nieces, friends, etc. I think fireside talks are a great practice. I still remember going to camp as a preteen and sitting around the campfire with our camp leaders giving instructions, tell stories and teaching life-lessons. These were memorable moments for me and I think an excellent venue for sharing info. Great idea.

    I agree that face to face communication is best when possible. It’s true that rangers are busy and may not always have the time to share information. Is there a delicate way to “help” educate other hikers we might pass a long the way? Or if I see someone dump their wag bag on the side of the trail…can I politely say “hey buddy, you dropped your wag bag?” Or is that too confrontation?

    • Hi Reina, Thanks for the comments. As for teaching kids early- I agree absolutely. My son has a tremendous understanding of the bush and how to act in it, what is appropriate, and what is not. I am hiking with his class (7 kids total) once a week and doing my best to introduce them all to some of the principles that I live by in the bush- walking softly, quietly, speaking in a whisper, respecting the surroundings, and so on. I hope that that kids will remember it all and that it will stay with them.

      As for helping to educate people we might meet by making suggestions, it is a touchy subject. If the situation allows, I will often mention my website, even give people a card, mention some of the topics I cover. But more often than not, these are people who have a thorough understanding of LNT and are not the ones who might need a little help understanding how to tread lightly. When I am in more populous places, Moab for example, It is hard to want to even try to talk to people about treading lightly when they are running down a trail chatting like they’re at a party, or zooming through my camp on a dirtbike and tearing off into the brush. I have to say I see a lot of flat out illegal activity. And I definitely avoid any type of confrontation in those situations. But I do make it a point to talk to people and make subtle suggestions if I meet them along a trail, or at a ruin for example. It is a tough call to make though, how and when to talk to people about wilderness practices.

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