It starts with an S and it ends with a T. It comes out of you and it comes out of me. Yes! I know what you’re thinking, but don’t call it that. Let’s be scientific and all call it scat.
A warning…. This article deals with scat, a normal bi-product of our bodies that some parents may not want their underage children to read about. In order to assure in-depth understanding and communication, the article utilizes various synonyms for feces and urine. Any such parents reading this are advised to consider shielding your kids. Any adolescents or children younger than 18 years of age who have any question as to suitability should consult with their parent(s) before reading any farther.
By the time this article hits the street, summer will be upon us. If there’s any water, an appreciable proportion of GCAers will be planning short (or epic) boat-supported camping trips. By this, I mean between overnight and a month of sleeping on the ground and living out of whatever you were able to stuff into your boat. Knowledgeable campers always take one last dump before shoving off, but the urge will come again at some time during the trip, and I don’t recall ever reading an Eddy Line article on human waste disposal.
So, with my infectious disease medical background and four decades experience leading short and epic wilderness trips, I decided to tackle the subject. It’s a dirty and thankless task, but someone has to step up to the potty and wrestle with it.
By human waste, I mean scat (feces, poo, BM) and urine (pee, #1, micturation). Pee is easy and more common, so we’ll deal with it first.
Cutting to the quick, you can pee virtually anywhere (within reason). Why? Urine is produced by the kidneys, which are paired retroperitoneal organs that filter metabolic waste products from the blood and help to maintain the body’s acid/base balance. Factoid, the reason people pee excessively when at high altitude is to correct the respiratory alkalosis that occurs when CO2 is blown-off by hyperventilation. That fact not withstanding, urine in the kidneys is sterile (it contains no bacteria or other germs). Yes, there are exceptions, but anyone who has a severe kidney infection ain’t gonna be campin’.
In general, the lower urinary tract (ureters, bladder, and urethra) is also pretty much pathogen free (remember my Devaux Island article, pathogens are microscopic germs that make you sick). In the Grand Canyon, the National Park Service instructs boaters to pee directly into the main flow of the river. The volume of urine that would result if every single boater simultaneously peed into the Colorado is miniscule compared to the 20,000 cubic feet of water passing a given pissing point every second.
Be warned, however, even though it makes imminent sense, this is not a universal NPS recommendation, and some otherwise reasonable folks find the idea abhorrent. The primary reason for peeing directly into the Colorado derives from the fragile nature of the desert ecosystem. Urine contains metabolic waste products, which when many people empty their bladders in the same general area (e.g., around camp sites) can kill moss, lichen, and other fragile plants.
In addition to becoming a biologic kill zone, common pee sites quickly acquire a characteristic stench. However, one critter’s stench is another’s ambrosia. Urine factoid #2, many animals are attracted to urine and will go out of their way to munch on leaves and small plants that have been doused with the substance. So the area becomes a de-facto buffer, which in its own right damages the ecosystem. So, if you can’t bring yourself to pee in the river, use common sense, do it away from camp, and try not to saturate the plants.
Scat is not so simple. Again cutting to the quick, youcan’t take a dump virtually anywhere because scat is filthy, smelly, awful stuff that has tremendous staying power (it doesn’t just go away). By filthy, I mean scat is infested with some really nasty germs and even the not so nasty ones will make you sicker than a dog. Fecal-orally transmitted diseases are arguably the leading cause of death and disability in the world. “Eat scat and die” is not an idle expression.
Even the most benign turd teems with Escherichia coli, a bacteria that at minimum causes diarrhea. By teeming, I mean a gram of feces (about the size of a pencil eraser) may contain a million or so E. coli and the average adult produces about 2 pounds of excreta every day. By comparison, this article contains around 10,000 characters.
Now, picture 100 times as many bacteria wriggling around in an eraser-sized piece of feces, then magnify this by the two pounds (about half a gallon) or so of feces produced daily by each person on a trip. And, E. coli isn’t the only bad thing in stool. You’ll also find Salmonella (causes typhoid fever), Giardia (causes a nasty slimy/fatty diarrhea and other problems), amoeba, and all kinds of viruses in the feces of your friends (not to mention strangers).
Presumably, if you’re still reading, I have gotten your attention. There are four basic methods of scat disposal, and taking a dump in the river ain’t one of them. Crapping in the river is not an option because each bowel movement contains too many infectious agents. Hepatitis A, cholera, typhoid fever and turista all result from fecally contaminated drinking water.
The first, preferable, and least complicated method of feces management is to utilize the outhouses provided in many camping areas (even in many wilderness locations). These privies may stink to high heaven and be infested with mosquitoes, flies, and spiders. But you should always use a formal outhouse when available because all the poo is well contained in one place.
The second, equally preferable, but considerably more complicated method is to pack it out. That’s right. You produced it, so take it with you. Traditionally, this is accomplished by means of a groover (hence the title of this article). In some areas, such as the Grand Canyon, groovers are mandatory.
What’s a groover? The classic groover is a military surplus 20mm canon shell container or rocket box. You use it just like your home bathroom throne. Purists use it as is and arise with grooved buttocks. Softies bring a toilet seat and place it on the rocket box. Yuppies buy an expensive wilderness personal waste disposal system (WPWDS) over the net or at Galyeans.
There are several secrets to successful groover management.
1) One person (Groover Meister) should be assigned permanent groover duty.
2) The groover should be set up in the most magnificent locale possible, away from camp and well traveled trails, easily accessible at night, and down wind from camp.
3) Consider a groover key; something obvious left at the beginning of the trail to the groover (when it’s not in use), carried to groover by each user, and replaced when the job is done.
4) Consider providing the Groover Meister with chemicals to help decompose the scat and cut down odor. She/he sprinkles these lightly on top of the new material each morning before locking down the rocket box.
5) Only use the groover for defecation and toilet paper. Never pee in it. Urine in the groover adds significant unnecessary volume and weight and retards decomposition.
6) How many groovers to take depends on the number of people and duration of the trip. We used 3 rocket boxes for 16 people on an 18-day Grand Canyon trip.
7) Finally, what to do with the groover when the trip is over? More than likely, this will not be a problem. The popular big rivers, like the Grand Canyon, Hells Canyon, Yampa and Salt (which require groovers), have groover stations (automatic closed systems that flush and clean up the accumulated mess). If these are not available, RV waste disposal stations do almost as good a job. But what if at the end of the trip you have a box or two of 10-day old caa caa and nowhere obvious to put it? Being a responsible physician and Eddy Line contributor, I will merely counsel that you’re on your own (just don’t get caught).
The last two methods are similar and straightforward. Both involve digging a hole, defecating into it, and filling it back up when done. If you are in a small group and moving around in a relatively untraveled area, dig a cat hole. What’s a cat hole? A cat hole is a 4 to 8 inches deep, 4 to 6 inch diameter hole, which is most efficaciously dug with a trowel. It is a single person, single use latrine. When you’re done, fill it back up with at least 2 inches of dirt.
If you are in a larger group, in a more highly traveled area, or plan on spending some time in camp, dig a big poop pit (AKA latrine). Latrines should be at least a foot deep and everyone in the group should use the same latrine. Throw a small amount of dirt in it after each use, and when the waste accumulation is within 4 inches of so of the surface, fill it back up.
Latrine placement should follow the same aesthetics as for groovers. However, since your scat is going to stay behind, you need to follow some rules that don’t apply to groovers. To wit, cat holes and latrines must be at least 200 feet from any water sources or drainages (remember the germs).
It should be obvious when to do a latrine rather than a cat hole. Use a latrine to avoid creating a cat hole minefield that someone will step into. Well, no problemo, scat quickly decomposes when buried, so no matter what I do, next week’s group won’t even know I was there.
Not true. Scat doesn’t just go away on its own. The Sierra Club did a study in the 1970s in which they marked the location of latrines on a large group point-to-point trip (i.e., latrines were used for less than a day). Then, a group of intrepid volunteers returned one to three years later and excavated these treasure sites.
Guess what they found? Essentially what was originally dumped there. The excreta pretty much looked and smelled like it had years ago. Worse, pathogenic bacterial concentrations were just as bad as in fresh scat.
Two other issues remain to be discussed. First, those who have worked for the government know that the job ain’t finished ’til the paper work is done. Indeed toilet paper is part of the 21st Century American evacuation ritual. Unfortunately, there’s no where to flush it in the woods.
Groovers are just like our home throne and putting the used TP in the groover is flushing. Cat holes and latrines are not thrones and you should not bury used toilet paper in them because it decomposes extremely slowly and because animals like to dig it up.
Nor should you light it on fire. This is important so I will repeat it, DO NOT BURN YOUR USED TOILET PAPER!!!!! Why? Because, no matter how straightforward this seems, countless wildfires are started every year because some idiot thought it would be simple and complication free to just torch that small piece of used TP. Well then this leaves you with two obvious options. Pack the used TP out (in Ziploc bags brought along just for that purpose) or use something else to wipe off with (like in the old days).
We’re almost done, but one important issue remains to discuss in closing. It’s relatively simple, and anyone who has ever used a lavatory in a McDonalds, Waffle House, or similar establishment knows it. “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.” This is public health 101. Remember that earlier paragraph that really got your attention? Scat is filthy awful stuff that has tremendous staying power and is infested with some really nasty germs, which will make you sicker than a dog.
That’s the final take-home message. Washing your hands every time after you use the groover, a cat hole, or the latrine is not optional. You can go two weeks in the Grand Canyon without bathing and, other than smelling rank, it makes no difference to anyone. Lick your fingers with 10,000 or so E. coli under your nails and you’re going to get sick and your fun filled vacation will be over. Stir the morning oatmeal with 10,000 or so Giardi dripping off your fingers and everyone on the trip could be puking their guts up and crapping their bowels out within two days.
Set up a wash station at the latrine or groover or have something available in a central location if using cat holes. Hand cleaning should occur at least 200 feet from water sources (duh). Wet your hands and lather up with phosphate- free biodegradable soap. Then, rinse well by pouring water over your hands, not by dipping them into a pot of water. We use an old coffee can with holes punched in the bottom. It is hung from a branch, water is poured in the top and comes out the bottom like a shower head.
by William C. Reeves (The Hawk)
From The Eddy Line, June 2004