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Answering Nature's Call ... (7/04)

Thanks to Pete Antos-Ketcham and his Backcountry Sanitation Manual (a cooperative project of the Green Mountain Club and the Appalachian Trail Conference) and to Keri Foster

Management of human waste is a serious problem in nature areas around the globe. On some heavily-used trails in the western part of the country, as well as in NY and NH, waste has to be carried out several times a month during peak hiking season, by humans, or on donkeys, or in large containers slung under helicopters. There are some western trails that, on hot days, can be smelled from several miles away. Fortunately, the problems in Vermont aren’t of that magnitude – but all hikers have a responsibility to make sure trails and overnight areas remain hygienic and appealing.

Privies on the LT

There’s a privy at every one of the eighty overnight sites maintained by the GMC. You’ll find three different kinds.

Some are old-fashioned pit privies. Wastes sit in anaerobic conditions and decay very slowly. Complete decomposition takes decades after the privy has been abandoned, and during the whole decaying process there’s risk of groundwater contamination. In addition, pit privies tend to smell pretty bad. Little by little, pit privies along the Long Trail are being replaced, starting in areas of highest use.

Some of the privies along the trails use batch-bin composting technology. Waste remains aerated and in contact with organisms that need oxygen so they can do their job of decomposition. This technology involves several steps and is labor-intensive, starting with the job of carting 210-gallon bins, smaller storage containers, and bags of bark mulch up to the site. Privy users add the mulch a handful at a time, and then more mulch is mixed with the waste after it’s removed from the “catchers” under the outhouse seats and put into storage bins. GMC caretakers monitor the composting process and do necessary maintenance such as stirring the bark/sewage mixture. A big negative about this kind of privy is that it requires field personnel to handle raw sewage.

The GMC is a national leader in field-testing moldering privies. Red wiggler worms do a lot of the composting work. They consume waste and disease-causing pathogens and also help keep odor down by tunneling, digging and aerating the pile. Field workers stir the composting pile and add a bit of liquid from time to time. The final product can be spread safely on the forest floor, or dried further and taken out of the backcountry, or burned on site.

All privies on the LT/AT work much more efficiently, and with much less odor, if hikers don’t use them for urinating. Urine makes pit privies fill up more quickly. In the other two types of privies, urine saturates the compost, preventing oxygen from reaching the helpful bacteria, slowing or stopping decomposition, producing chemicals such as ammonia, and resulting in odor. The GMC urges hikers to pee in the woods, at least 200 feet from any water source. (Human urine scattered widely in the wild isn’t a pollution worry. However, hikers should never leave tissues or toilet paper behind. Bring plastic sandwich bags with you and either carry out paper and sanitary products or burn them in a hot fire at approved fire pits.)

Sanitary supplies should never be dropped into privies. Pack out any used napkins, tampons and disposable diapers.

When you’re not near a privy

The best practice is to carry out everything. If you’re not comfortable doing that, carry a small, sharp shovel and dig “cat holes” for waste. These should be at least six inches deep. (In some areas, you might have to search a bit to find that much diggable soil.) Human and dog feces should be buried and covered. You can buy good plastic cat-hole shovels at EMS and other outdoor supply stores.