Op/Ed Opinion

Clippings: What happens in the woods…

What happens in the woods stays in the woods. And that can be a problem.


When I was young (many decades ago), if somebody asked a question that had a seemingly obvious answer, a common wisecrack reply was to ask the rhetorical question, “Does a bear poop in the woods?”

It turns out the answer to that reply is not as obvious as it might seem. Years of hiking in Alaska bear territory as well as years of living in the Vermont woods has taught me that bears defecate pretty much everywhere. Not only that, but they seem to have a particular preference for leaving their largest piles right in the middle of hiking trails. In the fall in Vermont when the corn is ripe, they also do it right in the middle of our driveway.

Humans, on the other hand, are pooping in the woods in record numbers. And that is a problem (even if they are polite enough to leave the trail before losing the load).

To be clear, it’s not a completely new problem. When I was young (which you may remember from the second paragraph was many decades ago), even the more conscientious of us who practiced a “leave no trace” etiquette — who packed out our trash, didn’t cut tree limbs or build fire rings, and who worked to minimize our impact — still felt justified digging a ditch when nature called and burying our human waste, toilet paper and all. It was called a “cat hole” and we were told that as long as it was six inches deep, we were fine.

At some of the more popular “wilderness” camping spots, that practice lost even the illusion of sustainability years ago. Hikers who wanted a backcountry experience had to begin packing out their own excrement as well as their trash. I first encountered the need for this practice more than a decade ago on an island-hopping sea kayak trip in Casco Bay. Small islands can be very quickly inundated when enough people use them as potties. More recently, on a four-day float down the Snake River through Hell’s Canyon, our guides brought portable outhouses with us and saved everything along the way for later disposal.

Now with the dramatic upsurge in outdoor adventures brought on by the pandemic, the problems of humans pooping in the woods has surged across the country. Places that even a few years ago saw only a handful of campers in a month are now experiencing real traffic. I suspect readers of this column don’t need any help imagining the result when large numbers of humans answer the call of nature along popular backcountry hiking trails and camping spots.

The problem is not just the stink and the mess (although those alone have become significant problems). And it is more than just the disruption to the soil from folks digging through fragile roots and mosses (although that, too, is a problem). Studies have shown that what happens in the woods, stays in the woods. To be more specific, our human waste does not merely compost itself and disappear. Once buried, our waste can persist for more than a year. And human waste carries all sorts of pathogens ranging from salmonella and E. coli to pharmaceuticals, hormones and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A recent article in Outside magazine cites a study that shows these pathogens are still present in the soil more than a year later, no matter how deep of a hole they are planted in. And again, to press home a point and contrast the impact of what we (humans) do in the woods with what bears do, remember the high levels of synthetic chemicals and drugs and non-native bacteria in human systems that are not only not naturally present in the backcountry soil, but which can be harmful to many creatures — upsetting, for example, their reproductive cycles. All that waste can (and does) easily contaminate water sources, as well.

So what’s the solution? While some backcountry areas have begun adding more composting toilet structures, in many places those are neither feasible nor desirable. A more feasible option — though one admittedly less appealing for the user — is WAG bags. These are, as you might already have guessed, doggy bags for humans. Except unlike most doggy bags, which are designed just to drop into a trash can 50 yards down the road, the WAG bags are chemically treated to make your waste inert so you can pack it with you as you continue your hike.

I can’t say that the solution to the problem is one that excites me as a backcountry enthusiast. But then neither did learning to carry around doggy bags when walking my dog around Middlebury. I got used to it. It might not be fun, but it’s necessary to preserve the very places I want to continue to be able to visit. Like doggy bags, it’s something we will need to get used to.

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