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Reader Poll: Winter Leave No Trace and Human Waste Disposal

The 5-Sided Penta Privy on the Appalachian Trail
The 5-Sided Penta Privy on the Appalachian Trail

Leave No Trace is just as relevant in winter as it is the rest of the year, but some of the methods that you use have to change because the ground is frozen solid or covered with snow.

For example, take human waste and toilet paper disposal. Without the ability to dig a cat hole, you have a limited set of choices for what you do with number 2’s in winter.

  1. You can crap on top of the snow, which is the least desirable option because your poo and toilet papers will not decompose in the cold and will lay on top of the soil after the thaw for all to see or step in. If this is your choice, at least dig a deep hole in the snow and cover it to hide it. In addition, crap 200 feet off trail and away from natural water sources. This method doesn’t scale very well if you have a group of people who all need to poo and you’d probably be better off with a pack-it-out approach which forces people to think about the consequences of improper poo disposal in winter.
  2. You can crap on the snow and then scoop your waste and used toilet paper into a double-bagged zip loc plastic bag so it doesn’t leak in your pack. In winter, it will freeze solid and can be properly disposed of when you get back to civilization. You can also use a Cleanwaste wag bag like the ones sold at REI for this purpose.
  3. If you’re in a group, everyone can scoop their poop into a group-sized double-bagged zip loc plastic bag and carry it out. Another option is to use a waterproof stuff sack that’s partially filled with kitty litter, which will absorb any excess liquid. Draw straws to determine who gets to carry the stuff sack out and dispose of the contents after the trip.
  4. If you’re with a group, everyone can pack out their own waste, using method number 2 above. That’s what I ask the backpacking and hiking groups I lead in winter to do, because it’s the least embarrassing and easiest to implement.
  5. Finally, if you’re within easy walking distance of a backcountry privy or outhouse and can get the door open (in time) in deep snow, by all means use it!

What do you do with your human waste on winter hiking, backpacking, and camping trips?

Please leave a comment.

19 comments

  1. I’m a number 2 guy myself. I mean, I use option number 2. For going number 2. You get the point. Good post and a good reminder to always practice LNT backpacking, even in the winter.

  2. Something happens to a majority of backpackers in the winter—they get lazy and tend to take dumps as in your example #1. I have seen weekend loads with toilet paper scattered right atop the snow and right in the middle of the trail. But here’s the thing—in the Southeast where I backpack (and your example shows the Appalachian Trail), it’s always possible to scrape out a hole in the duff or next to a tree no matter how cold or how much snow there is on the ground. I use my hiking pole tip as a digging tool.

    Another option at -10F is to take a dump right on the snow right by the tent and wait several hours and by morning hand-carry the frozen rock-solid Turd to a dug cathole or find a large rock and place it underneath (without toilet paper). You can even pre-dig a hole the day before. The last option (your #2) at least here in the mountains of TN, NC and VA is to wag-bag your stool for the duration of a trip. A 20 day trip would result in some crazy weight numbers of stool humpage.

    Finally, a discussion of winter waste is not complete without mentioning the In-Tent Turtlehead—whereby you’re caught in a terrible 3 day blizzard and windstorm at 0F and have no real choice but to squat and release inside the tent atop some paper towels. It’s a common mountaineering ploy and sometimes must be practiced even for us when conditions go south.

    And I learned this technique from old Alaskan sourdoughs when I lived in a tipi with a woodstove in the mountains of North Carolina—to take in-cabin (or in-tipi) dumps on newspaper and wad it up and throw it in the woodstove. This system works.

  3. Assuming you are off trail, etc. couldn’t you clear snow under option 1, sprinkle a little lime on top of it to speed decomp when it does warm up?

    • Animals are still going to poke through the poop and TP and it’s still going to runoff into local water supplies. I think bringing lyme along and introducing it in a higher than natural concentration is a bad idea.

  4. Packing out waste is standard procedure year round in some places. I climbed Mt Whiney, and the amount of people combined with the lack of soil makes it the only way to go :). Once you get over the initial yuck factor its no big deal. Here is an excerpt from their brochure – On Mt. Whitney, pack-out kits are the only acceptable
    method for the disposal of human waste, year-round.
    Please do not bury your waste in the snow. Once the
    snow melts, your waste is an unhealthy and unsightly
    affront to everyone’s wilderness experience.

    • What do you do with you do-do when you’re not on Mt Whitney?

    • Move a rock and/or dig a hole. I am trying to think of conditions in the east when that’s been a problem. I have crossed country skied all day when it never cleared 0 Fahrenheit, but in all seriousness I can’t remember any problems. I do remember taking a can of soda and the moment I opened it and released the pressure the contents froze solid.

  5. At least the options are better than what the astronauts have to deal with. There’s a hilarious YouTube video of one explaining the physics of the state of the art toilet on the ISS and why going up there is such a challenge.

    Far worse is what the Apollo astronauts dealt with on lunar missions ranging from eight days to two weeks. There was a plastic bag with flypaper that had to be adhered. Then, they stuck their hand through a glove insert to try to clean everything up and the bag was detached, closed and stowed. The whole process was arduous, messy, and prone to errors. It was so onerous that one astronaut set the out-of-this-world record by travelling eight days to the moon and back without going #2. I’ll bet he was glad to get to a real toilet once he returned to Earth. Not stated in NASA’s report is whether or not the earthbound commode in the Mobile Quarantine Laboratory had to be rebuilt after he was finished.

    • Probably why they drink most of their meals rather than eating high fiber cereal. Makes you wonder about farts in outer space, or worse, in a space suit.

      • Astronaut food was a “low residue” diet to try to help things along… The Apollo command module smelled like a locker room with a sewage leak upon return.

  6. Toss the WAG bags in a screw-top PVC poop tube or use the classic “Groover” (re-purpose an ammo can). Ready-made units are a bit bulky, like Eco-Safe, but could be a solution for certain situations.

    • Seems like a plastic bag would be a lot easier than carrying an ammo can while snowshoeing. Haven’t you guys every changed a baby’s diaper? Shit is not radioactive and freezes solid in the cold.

  7. Simple: WAG (“Go Anywhere”) bags. Pack it out. More-and-more a requirement for many areas year-around anyway. Really doesn’t smell, especially in winter, and easy disposal once off trail. Most people just have to get over the psychological barrier, but it shouldn’t be a problem if they’ve gotten over pooping in a hole in the ground. Don’t poop in/on the snow, even if you’re planning to eventually pack it out. Just don’t.

  8. I don’t poop. Ever.

  9. Possible stupid question—Are wag bags required anywhere East of the Mississippi??

  10. Method #2. Like any urban/suburban dog owner, I know how to bag a poo, and where to obtain poo-proof bags. Easy enough to pick it up off the snow, tie the bag closed, toss it into a large ziploc, and let it freeze.

  11. What a crappy question. If in a Pine or Fir or Spruce Forest you usually can find an unfrozen dirt area underneath the trees. So I dig a cat hole, place dirt over it and then a rock. Frozen Desert Hardpan is another challenge and why I carry one of those very small entrenching tools with a Pick on the back of the Shovel blade, which I use to dig holes for crap and for fires. Again after doing it I fill the dirt back in and place a rock over it. Above timberline, I usually can find and move a good size rock where the ground is not frozen under it, and then replace the dirt and the rock.The rock if big enough usually deter’s any critters from digging it up. In Deep snow, I dig a hole and then bury it again with snow as far off the main trail as possible and never within 200 feet of a stream or water source. Human poo is biodegradable and has less nasties in it then one might think. The worst poo, Your Cats!

  12. When our Boy Scout troop goes snow camping, we pack in (and out) a plastic tub. We line that with a trashbag.

    Outhouses are usually not accessible. This photo shows a typical USFS outhouse. The roof is just barely visible.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/walter_underwood/6772313281/in/set-72157629058001851

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