“This is going to be uncomfortable.”
When Baxter State Park rangers have stopped people at trailheads recently, that’s been a common opening line. Why? Because in addition to discussing with hikers the importance of carrying sufficient water and flashlights, park rangers need to raise the awkward topic of — let’s not sugar coat it — poop.
Human poop, to be specific.
In the past dozen or so years, Baxter staff have noticed an unpleasant trend. Hikers are “going to the bathroom” directly on the park’s backcountry trails — or very close to the trails — and leaving all the evidence behind.
“I’m pretty sure they’re not dog poops,” Jean Hoekwater, Baxter State Park naturalist, said. “Dogs aren’t allowed in Baxter.”
Hoekwater and other park staff have puzzled over the phenomena and come up with a few explanations. People may be taking the “stay on trail” rule too literally. Maybe hikers are worried about becoming disoriented if they walk too far off trail? There’s also the possibility that the current generation finds outhouses — with their inevitable flies and stench — simply too repulsive to use.
“We’re getting a group of new [trail] users, and we’re realizing that it’s not something that people know,” Hoekwater said. “It’s an education effort. We’ve taken it right by the horns.”
Baxter State Park Authority, the governing party of the park, has long worked to educate park visitors about proper disposal of waste and other Leave No Trace practices. However, when referring to this topic in park literature, the park authority used to use more delicate terms, such as “excrement,” “waste” and “defecation.”
“That confused people,” Hoekwater said. “We had people ask if that meant people were dying.”
“So now we’ve gotten very blunt,” she continued. “We’re saying ‘poop,’ and it is paying off.”
Park rangers stationed at busy trailheads address the topic with hikers, suggesting they use outhouses before starting their hike. They also educate hikers on the proper techniques for pooping in the woods. Signs about the topic are posted throughout the park, and on the Baxter State Park authority website is a rundown on the subject — as well as a video.
As a result, in the past few years, Baxter rangers have noticed a drastic improvement in how hikers take care of their waste.
“It got quite bad there for a while,” Hoekwater said. “But it’s been much better in the past three or four years that we’ve just become very direct and spoken to every hiking group. It’s a very serious effort on our part.”
So how do you poop in the woods?
The vast majority of visitors to Baxter State Park attempt to climb Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain. The hike to the summit of the mountain and back down takes an average of eight to 12 hours. For many people who attempt the hike, it’s one of the most strenuous things they’ll do all year. It stresses their bodies, and often their stomachs will become upset from the exertion and the dietary change of eating trail food.
During this time, it’s not uncommon to develop a new appreciation for outhouses. But outhouses on Katahdin are few and far between, and Baxter State Park Authority has no intentions of building any outhouses in the alpine zone, Hoekwater said.
Which leaves only one option.
If you’re below treeline in the park, choose a private spot at least 200 feet off trail and at least 200 feet away from a water source. If you’re nervous about getting lost, ask a hiking companion wait for you on the trail to guide you back. Then dig a “cat hole” about 6 inches deep. Poop in the hole, and cover it up with dirt.
When it comes to toilet paper, Hoekwater said it’s best if people carry it out in a sealable bag instead of bury it. Or, instead of paper, you could use leaves, taken from multiple plants, she suggested.
“There’s not that much poison ivy in the park,” Hoekwater said.
Above treeline, the protocol is different. But the first step is the same: get as far off trail as possible.
“There are a lot of people hiking on these trails, and they have to go hand over hand sometimes,” Hoekwater said.
Above treeline in Maine, the rocky terrain is often inhabited by delicate and rare alpine plants. The best way to move off trail without damaging these plants is by hopping from rock to rock, Hoekwater said. Then look for a private place. But do not dig a cathole. Simply do your business on top of the soil.
“There are too many fragile plants,” Hoekwater explained.
Avoid urinating on plants above tree line, and “pack out” toilet paper — meaning, roll it in clean toilet paper, put it in a sealable bag and take it with you to dispose of later.
It would be ideal, Hoekwater said, if people also packed out their waste, but it isn’t required in Baxter State Park.
A broader look at the problem
Poop isn’t just a problem at Baxter State Park; it’s an issue being tackled at recreational areas all over the world.
On California’s Mount Whitney in 2006, human waste became such a problem that Inyo National Forest instituted a mandatory pack-it-out program. Now, “pack-out kits are the only acceptable method for disposal of human waste, year-round,” according to a trail brochure provided by the US Forest Service.
Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming also has a human waste pack-out program.
These recreational areas have a few things in common: They see a lot of visitors each year, they contain long, backcountry trails and the outhouses are miles apart.
On the other hand, at Maine state parks where restrooms are easily accessible and the trails are relatively short, human waste isn’t a problem, according to John Bott, director of communications for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The only poop park managers tend to find on trails belong to moose, bear and dogs, he said.
However, on Maine’s public islands — where boaters explore and camp — improper disposal of human waste has been a recent issue. In fact, it’s so common that stewards and volunteers with the Maine Island Trail Association have a nickname for wads of toilet paper left on the islands. They call them “white roses.”
However, like Baxter State Park, the Maine Island Trail Association has noticed an improvement in recent years.
“There aren’t as many white roses as there used to be, that’s for sure,” Doug Welch, executive director of the Maine Island Trail Association, said. “People have learned that even a little piece of toilet paper takes a couple of months to degrade.”
On the MITA website, mita.org, is an extensive article on techniques for dealing with human waste while boating and visiting islands. As the article states, it’s illegal to discharge human waste into U.S. waters. While on islands, digging cat holes can cause erosion of the thin, unstable soil. Therefore, responsible island users pack their waste out. You can do this in any variety of homemade containers or commercialized products, such as Wag Bag, a bag and chemical system often used by paddlers and sailors.
In the article, MITA member Jim Shaffer provides his own tried-and-true homemade waste pack-out kit called a “crap wrap,” which requires newspaper and a few freezer-grade Zip Lock bags.
“He had his whole family experiment with different ways of dealing with this,” Welch said.
“It’s the basic Leave No Trace approach,” Hoekwater said. “And once we tell people about it, we see a big difference.”
To learn more about Leave No Trace, the most widely accepted outdoor ethics program used on public lands, visit lnt.org.