Wednesday, April 18, 2012

BLOG 7. Dealing With Number Two, by Cliff Jacobson

By Cliff Jacobson

Many western national parks and wilderness areas require hikers and paddlers (but often, not those who use off-road vehicles!) to bag and pack out their human waste. There are a number of chemical toilets (the PETT system is popular) and waste bag systems that are federally approved for this purpose.

Packing out human waste sounds like a good idea, at least until you have to do it for more than a few days. At issue is that there is no chemical toilet or waste bag system that’s light and compact enough to fit in a small canoe or kayak and will smell kissing-sweet after a week or more in the bush. Ironically, many “pack out your waste areas” are commonly populated by domestic animals which leave their mark everywhere. For example, under the Taylor Grazing Act, the Missouri River (Lewis and Clark route) is open to grazing most of the year. Cows graze right up to the river. Some of the most popular campsites, which are nicely shaded by cottonwoods, are so packed with cow-pies that there is no space for a tent. I am not exaggerating!

Along the Rio Grande River (Big Bend National Park) you’ll see Mexican cows, horses and mules grazing by the river. In places where the water is low, these animals may cross to the American side and leave their mark there—often, where you intend to camp.

When we canoed the Rio Grande in 2011, we carried WAG™ Bags, which are approved by federal authorities. The WAG™ bag system consists of two large, seal-able plastic bags, some toilet paper and a chemical that is supposed to eliminate odors. For the first three days we were impressed—the bags were easy to use, very light and compact and there was no smell. We followed the directions on the label, and as a further precaution, stored the used/sealed bags inside a heavy-duty waterproof dry bag that had a positive roll-down closure. After a week, the stench became unbearable and we gave up on the grand idea, even though a “ranger check” would mean a fine. Given that horse and cow dung were everywhere, we questioned the wisdom of the “pack it out” rule. We agreed that chemical waste systems work fine for a few days, but are seriously problematic over the long haul. One short range solution may be to insert the used WAG bags into an O.P.SAK (odor-proof plastic barrier bag). We don't know; we didn't have O.P.SAK's along on this trip so we couldn't try it.

Note: You may be able to reduce odors by inserting the used WAG bag inside an O.P.SAK odor-proof barrier bag (

Here’s how I would re-write the federal “pack-out human waste” rule:

RULE: “Where public latrines are not available, go well out of camp and away from water and dig an approximate six inch deep hole in the ground. Bury human waste—but not toilet paper—in this hole. Cover the hole with dirt and vegetation so as to leave no trace. Place used toilet paper in a zip-lock bag and burn it in your campfire or pack it out. Do not bury the toilet paper!

Note that the culprit here is the toilet paper which is an eye-sore and may take years to decompose. Buried human waste decomposes rather quickly.

Why not define the distance the burial hole must be from camp and water? For example, in the Boundary Waters, the rule is to bury it “150 feet from water”. Give me a break! Typical campers may get lost in the woods if they wander that far from camp. Besides, do the feds really think that campers carry a measuring tape?

Question? Why does the pack it out rule on the Green River, Utah apply only to paddlers but not to those who drive ORV’s into the area? When we canoed the lower Green, we saw Jeeps and four-wheelers cruising along a trail that was barely 25 yards from the river. These motorized vehicles were immune from the regulation; we were not!

There are some whisperings that the “pack out your number two” rule may be coming to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I hope not. If so, I may have to put on a ski mask and become an outlaw.

Cliff Jacobson

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