It’s time for action: taking care of your poop

An already high user rate on the PCT in Southern California, combined with the annual concentration of thru-hikers passing through the area each spring, forces us to examine an issue that has been growing over the years: improper human waste disposal along the trail. Uncovered feces, barely covered feces, and “toilet paper blooms” (loose TP) have become common sights. We all poop. It’s up to each of us to do so in a responsible manner that respects our fellow hikers and the trail. Examining this issue in greater depth will help to ensure improved ecological health and a better user experience.

The implications

Human waste seems to be concentrated in and around areas of easy access: these primarily include drainages and established tent pads. Hikers should assume that others will be using those same areas to sleep and prepare meals. The proximity of human waste poses a health risk.

Additionally, depositing waste in drainage areas is ecologically unsound. Rain sends water rushing down these drainages, picking up whatever is in its path and potentially contaminating freshwater downstream.

Another consideration is that trail crews maintaining and improving the PCT often spend concentrated time on sections of the trail. Uncovering human waste while overturning rocks for trail projects is not especially enlightening; neither is discovering a pile of barely-covered human waste 10 feet from the trail while sitting down for lunch. Both of these scenarios are all too common.

In the dry, sandy soils of the sensitive Southern California desert, decomposition rates are especially slow and therefore require particularly thoughtful waste disposal. If users continue to improperly dispose of waste, agencies may require users pack out their own solid waste in “wag bags.”

Moving forward

Proper waste disposal is imperative to the ecological health and user experience along the trail. Referencing Leave No Trace principals, users are reminded to:

Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet (approximately 70 steps for the average adult) from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished. Digging a proper hole helps to introduce soil microbes that begin to break down the solid waste. Take it a step further and make “poo stew” by using a stick to break up your waste in the cathole, therefore increasing the rate of decomposition. if you don’t have time to dig a hole, know that you can always dig a hole after the fact and bury your waste properly at that time.

If you carried in toilet paper or feminine products, you can pack it out. Many wildfires have been caused by hikers attempting to burn toilet paper. Feminine products and toilet paper both have slow decomposition rates and can remain intact for a long time. A long hike may be a good time to invest in alternative options in feminine hygiene, such as the Diva Cup or the Keeper – both reusable and waste-free alternatives. Wet wipes, though they may indicate that they are bio-degradable, take an especially long time to decompose. Please pack them out.

Lets move forward together and take responsibility for our waste in the natural environment by respecting the land and our fellow trail users.

Trail crews depend upon rocks like these to reinforce the trail. This is disgusting.

Trail crews depend upon rocks like these to reinforce the trail. This is disgusting.

Author: Heidi Brill

As a PCTA Technical Advisor, Heidi brings her expert skill set up and down the trail to educate and oversee trail maintenance and reconstruction. She spends most the year inserted into the corps crews that work on the trail. Heidi is also a seasoned long-distance hiker.