May 28, 1998

Scoop for hikers when they need a pit in the woods


Campfire bans in many wilderness areas and national park backcountry areas are something many backpackers have yet to reconcile with longstanding tradition.

But the next "leave-no-trace" bomb might hit them where it hurts: Some people advocate that backpackers pack out all human waste.

For some time Mount Rainier National Park has required that climbers pack out human waste because it does not decompose at icy altitudes. The U.S. Forest Service is considering such a plan for climbers on Mount Baker as well. At certain spots in the high country of Olympic National Park, hikers are required to bag their waste and leave it in receptacles along the trail.

However, while some wilderness advocates are urging that all hikers pack it out everywhere, that is not likely to be required in the near future in the Northwest.

"I don't see any time soon we'll be requiring people to pack poop out of the Alpine Lakes (Wilderness)," said Gary Paull, trails and wilderness coordinator for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. "There is enough organic soil for us to put in (pit) toilets at heavily used areas, and we encourage people to use those."

So far, disposal of human waste is not a huge problem in the exceedingly popular Alpine Lakes, said Tim Foss, wilderness specialist at the Wenatchee National Forest's Cle Elum Ranger Station.

"Every once in awhile, we'll come along a disgusting pile," Foss said. "A worse problem is people burying their waste and then throwing the toilet paper into the bushes. Toilet paper 'flowers' are fairly common."

So how do you properly do your business in the backcountry?

Use a pit toilet if there is one; in some wilderness areas you are required to use them.

Lacking that, at the very minimum, backcountry rangers and your fellow hikers ask that you find an appropriate spot at least 200 feet from any water source and dig a hole through the forest duff into the soil, at least 6 inches deep.

Bury your waste and the toilet paper completely, using forest floor debris to cover and camouflage the bare spot.

If you want to go a step further, Paull urges that you pack out all toilet paper, putting it in zipping plastic bags, even when using a pit toilet.

"Be sure to throw it away when you get home. It can come as a real surprise three months later when you go back into your pack," he joked.

Some climbing outfitters and hikers are now using a pack-it-out system that involves a 2-foot section of 4-inch diameter plastic pipe, with screw-on ends. They do their business into a paper bag, throw in a handful of cat litter, then toss the bag into the pipe, which is sealed and usually carried on the outside of the pack. Once off-trail, they dump the contents appropriately.

As for urinating, make sure you do it 200 feet from any water source. Where mountain goats are prevalent, such as Enchantment Lakes Basin in the Alpine Lakes, find a rocky area, since the animals are known to chew up soil and vegetation to get at the salt content.

Fire is another burning backcountry issue.

In most wilderness areas and national park high country, campfires are already banned. In the Alpine Lakes, they are not allowed anywhere above 4,000 feet west of the Cascade Crest and above 5,000 feet east of the crest. In addition, they're banned in certain popular destinations at lower elevations.

In many spots where they're allowed, the damage from fire is all too obvious. Some campsites at Waptus Lake north of Cle Elum, 10 miles inside the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, have three, four or five scorched areas each where people have built fires, and trees all over have been hacked for firewood. At Lake Serene in the Skykomish area, just outside the wilderness, campers built a fire a few years ago at the base of a beautiful old-growth fir tree that later toppled.

At the same time, the warm crackle of a campfire is a tradition many love.

"It is getting better, but it is one of those things that is not going to change overnight," Paull said. "There are people who can't go out in the woods without a fire every night. They've been having that experience in the Alpine Lakes for 30 or 40 years."

Where allowed, fires can be built without damage to the environment, particularly in low-elevation areas where wood is plentiful.

If you have to fire up, build it in an existing fire ring. If none exists, find a rocky spot bare of vegetation -- a riverbank, for example. Cover the area with a couple of inches of soil, if you can find it without removing vegetation, and build the fire there. Keep it small, and when extinguished, scatter the ashes and put the soil back.

Some horse packers carry a foil-like ground sheet, cover it with soil and build their fires on that.

Burn only dead and downed wood. Hacked-up trees are ugly, and green wood burns poorly anyway. Don't burn and leave aluminum and/or foil.

It should be noted that environmental damage to the wilderness is much less severe now than 30 or 40 years ago, because hikers are becoming educated in leave-no-trace ethics. They are leaving less litter, cutting fewer limbs, dealing with waste properly and camping in appropriate spots.

But it could be better. Here are tips for protecting that which you seek, the wilderness:

Camp in an existing site. It's rare that you won't be able to find one. If you have to camp in an untrammeled spot, choose hardened areas, such as on rock or snow. Camping on grass is better than on heather meadows and bushy areas.

Wear sneakers or water socks around camp and stick to main trails, avoiding "social trails" that radiate from most sites.

Don't wash your dishes in lakes or rivers. Use a minimal amount of biodegradable soap and rinse your dishes well away from water.

Don't take shortcuts on switchbacks in the trail, which tramples vegetation and hastens erosion. Stay in the middle of the trail whenever possible. Going around mud puddles widens the trail; good boots will keep you dry.

Don't feed wildlife. It creates problems later, such as the raccoons at Ozette that are famous for their thievery and aggressive deer that come to rely on handouts.

For more information, see "Soft Paths" by the National Outdoor Leadership School (Stackpole Books, 270 pages, $14.95).

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