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Proper backcountry bathroom etiquette

November 7, 2009
An opinion article by MIKE LYNCH, Enterprise Outdoors Writer

If you've visited any high-use camping areas such as the High Peaks Wilderness, St. Regis Canoe Area or Bog River, you may have encountered, just off the trail, a minefield of toilet paper off a side trail - or worse, human waste.

Unfortunately, in high-traffic areas of the Adirondacks, inexperienced and/or inconsiderate backcountry users sometimes don't take care of their waste properly, leaving it on the surface for the next people who come along to use the trail or campsite. This can create a health issue for people who want to use nearby water sources, and plus, it's unpleasant to walk off that trail from your campsite and see the toilet paper blooms and waste on nearby tree stumps.

"It's definitely one of the big impacts that we see, and I think everyone can agree that there are better ways of dealing with your waste than just leaving it on the surface of the ground in the close vicinity of where other folks are going to be trying to enjoy the outdoors," said Ryan Doyle, the outdoor leadership coordinator in the Adirondack Mountain Club's education department. "It seems like it would be an easy one to deal with, but there's constantly new users, and we all need to kind of share what we know with how to deal with this stuff with the new folks as well we do with the hard-core hikers and backpackers. "

Article Photos

When available, it’s best to use the facilities provided in the backcountry.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)

High Peaks Forest Ranger Jim Giglinto says that in his territory, this type of unsanitary behavior can be a health issue.

"People have stepped in it. Dogs have eaten, dogs have come out with toilet paper stuck to their noses. So, yeah, it is a health issue," Giglinto said. "It's mostly a function of (hikers and campers) not being aware what they are doing to the resource, and then also not taking responsibility for what they are doing with the resource."

Giardia and other pathogens can be transmitted though fecal matter. If they are relatively close to water and on the surface, those parasites can wash into streams and ponds, where they can ultimately end up in people's water bottles.

The High Peaks, the most visited area in the Adirondacks, can see as many as 100,000 visitors in a year. Popular hiking or camping spots such as Marcy Dam, Slant Rock and Bushnell Falls can have problems with this type of unsanitary behavior.

"There's so much of it, and why do you think you need to treat the water," Giglinto said. "Right now, there's giardia - that we know for sure - but we see people from all 50 states. We see people from Europe, Asia, South America, who travel a lot, and you can think of the pathogens that they might bring - but people don't think of it in those terms."


Proper etiquette

A good place to start, if you want to learn more about being sanitary with your waste in the backcountry, is the Leave No Trace Web site,

It is always recommended that people use outhouse and box toilets first, but Leave No Trace recommends that, if no facilities are available, people deposit solid waste in 6- to 8-inch inch deep "cat holes." The organization recommends that the holes be at least 200 feet from water, camp, trails and drainages, but the general rule in the Adirondacks is at least 150 feet from the same places.

In the West, some places like the Grand Canyon National Park require that backcountry visitors pack out their toilet paper because there's not enough organic matter in the soil to break it down efficiency. In the Adirondacks, Giglinto said it isn't necessary to take your toilet paper out with you if it is properly buried during the warmer months.

In the winter when the ground is frozen or when there is a lot of snow, Doyle recommends packing at least toilet paper out with you. And if you have to go, especially in highly trafficked areas, get as far off the trail as possible so fellow hikers don't encounter it in the spring after the snow melts. "If you can pack it out, that's probably the ideal thing," Doyle said. "Actually, it's easier to do in the winter, if you're looking to take that first step toward packing out your solid waste, because you can take care of your business and let it freeze."

Many people don't pack out their waste, and it can appear once the snow melts away.

"What happens, the use of the pit privy isn't great in the summertime, but wintertime it's even worse, and they usually do their business right behind the campsites, right behind the lean-tos. And the little blooms of toilet paper start popping up when the snow melts," Giglinto said. "As soon as spring comes, you have to watch where you're tiptoeing through the tulips there."

Doyle suggests that winter backcountry users bring bags or take one of those wide-mouth water bottles that many people aren't using anymore, because of carcinogenic chemicals in the plastic, and use it to pack out human waste.

"That makes a little vault for your waste, if you are worried about something like that opening up in your backpack," Doyle said. "Of course, you want to mark it with a skull and crossbones or something like that."

If may seem counterintuitive to bring waste out of the woods in the winter, but it may save that next person coming down the path or walking through the woods from an unpleasant experience.

"My feeling is, if you enjoy recreating in the outdoors and being in the outdoors, you don't go out in the wilderness areas to see yellow snow and piles of human waste along the trails," Doyle said.

At the very least - get as far away from trails and water as possible.


Contact Mike Lynch at (518) 891-2600 ext. 28 or



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