Shit takes longer to decompose in the desert than it does in more humid places. Studies show that there can still be harmful bacteria present in the human fecal matter even after a year in the desert soil. Because of this, there are special considerations for shitting in the desert. However, rules about human waste disposal vary from place to place. Check the local regulations before you leave and plan accordingly. Be prepared with some combination of human waste disposal bags, a second waterproof storage bag or container to carry used disposal bags, toilet paper, and a trowel.
The cat hole digging protocol recommended by Leave No Trace is what I follow in the desert. As per their guidelines: Dig cat holes 200 feet away from water, camp, and trails. Holes should be 6”-8” deep. When you’re finished pooping, cover your hole with soil and disguise it. I usually carry The Tent Lab Deuce #2 Trowel to dig my cat holes. It weighs only 0.6 oz and is very durable.
For many years I tried to dig holes with sticks and rocks, and I would like to dissuade you from this practice; it is less effective than you might expect. Just take a trowel. A cheaper option—bulkier but hardly much heavier—is the Coghlan’s Backpacker’s Trowel. It weighs 1.8 oz and only costs only $5. Always pack out toilet paper. I carry two Ziploc plastic bags for this purpose.
Human Waste Disposal Bags
Wag bags, poop bags, human waste containment systems, and human waste disposal bags contain enzymes and polymers that treat human solid waste and keep it securely sealed so that it can be disposed of in ordinary trash receptacles. These are required in many National Parks and backcountry areas. Bear in mind, however, that not all poop bags are created equal.
The most popular WAG bags used by backpackers, climbers, and rafters are the:
- The Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Toilet Kit, that weighs 2.5 oz each, and comes with a sanitizing wipe and a little bit of toilet paper.
- ReStop 2 Disposable Toilet Bags, which weigh 3.1 oz each, have a more durable zipping outer bag, come with a sanitizing wipe and a little bit of toilet paper.
For smell containment and durability, I would choose the Restop 2 bags, but to save 0.6 oz per bag, you can also use the Cleanwaste bags. Check the amount of toilet paper to see if it’s enough for your particular needs. As an alternative to toilet paper, look into the CuloClean Backcountry Bidet system many people are using these days.
Because the enzymes and polymers are activated by liquid, it is recommended to urinate a little bit in these bags to get them going. Not too much though! It is also possible to get more than one bowel movement in each bag, but I usually don’t. It’s not particularly pleasant unrolling an already-pooped-in bag for reuse. It’s ultimately up to you, but I’d recommend carrying more bags than you think you’ll need.
I also recommend sacrificing a roll-top dry bag for use carrying used wag-bags. Write ‘POOP’ on the outside so you don’t accidentally use it for food later, wondering why your jerky smells a little different on this trip. Any cheap silnylon roll-top dry bag will do. Just make sure it’s big enough to accommodate ever-growing wag bags for the duration of the trip. I prefer a roll-top dry bag because it keeps the smell inside a little better than a drawstring style bag. Carry this bag on the outside of your pack away from consumables.
Shitting and Peeing Along River Corridors
Human waste disposal bags or hard-sided poop containers are often required along river corridors. On the Green River and the Colorado River, poop bags are just fine. If packrafting in Canyonlands National Park, I carry a few of these and keep them in a roll-top dry bag. On the San Juan you need to have a hard-sided container such as a PVC pipe with a screw top or a large, plastic peanut butter jar.
Many rivers are large enough that it is recommended that you pee in them rather than on the shore. The solution to pollution is dilution, as they say. The Green and Colorado, for example, are so large that urine is easily diluted. People often camp in the same spots over and over, so peeing in camp could result in exceptionally stinky camps. Urine also attracts animals and can have adverse effects on some plants. Again, check guidelines if you will be walking along a river, and see if you should be peeing in it or not.
Use a pee bottle if you’re in one of these areas and know that you will have to pee in the middle of the night and don’t want to walk all the way to the river. Something like the Nalgene Wide Mouth Canteen seems like a good option, although I haven’t tried it. I always just make the nighttime walk to the water.
Knowing why poop bags are required in so many places in canyon country has encouraged me to carry them even when they aren’t required, simply to reduce impact. As visitation to desert areas continues to increase, so will the amount of poop in the ground. Do the desert a favor and consider using human waste disposal bags even if they’re not required.