Human Waste in the Central Wasatch
When we seek adventure and solace in the mountains, taking care of our waste, our poop in particular, is an important responsibility. With more visitation annually than some of Utah’s National Parks, the Central Wasatch is vulnerable to the impacts of high volumes of human waste. Improperly disposed human waste can degrade water quality and ruin the pristine visitor experience that many come to the area to enjoy.
Currently, there are only 16 public toilets between Big Cottonwood, Little Cottonwood and Millcreek Canyons that serve the high number of visitors in the area. While four more toilets are scheduled to be installed near Guardsman’s Pass in the coming year, many people recreate miles from these facilities.
The Central Wasatch contains both world-class recreation and a critical watershed that supplies 360,000 people with drinking water. E-coli has been found to be increasing in concentration in the creeks in the tri-canyon area, which suggests that human waste has not been properly disposed of in these canyons.1 This makes proper waste disposal, or preferably removal, important to limit water treatment costs.
You may have noticed that we just mentioned removal, as opposed to disposal. While there is a protocol to properly bury waste, large quantities of even properly buried waste can become problematic, unsightly, and dangerous to both the health of visitors and the wildlife in the area.
Keep reading to learn how you can do your part to protect the visitor experience and health of the mountains, canyons, and watershed that we depend on.
Tips to Pack It Out:
- There are several products on the market, such as Restop bags or Cleanwaste GO bags, that help recreationists pack out their poop. These products are usually sealable and have enzymes that begin to break down the waste inside, all while masking the smell. These bags are a great alternative to burying your waste and help maintain a clean, pristine environment. Once you are finished with your adventure, you can simply toss it into a garbage can.
- Some people have made their own systems to carry out their waste, which can look like using plastic bags filled with cat litter. If you decide to make your own method, please be careful to follow best practice guidelines to prevent the spread of disease. You can learn more about these methods here.
- While visiting public lands across the country, you might notice toilet paper caught in vegetation or littered along the landscape. No one wants to see this, do your part by packing out your toilet paper in a plastic bag or burying it using the practices outlined below.
- Hand sanitizer is something that everyone should carry with them into the backcountry to help mitigate the spread of disease. Be sure to always carry it with you, even when your adventure may be in close proximity to a toilet in case the facility is out of hand sanitizer.
High Alpine Poop Protocol:
- Our incredible high-alpine terrain attracts people from across the world to access adventure in the Central Wasatch, however, the soils at higher elevations aren’t always capable of breaking down human waste. Due to long periods of time where high elevation soils are frozen, nutrient cycling processes can be slower or nonexistent, depending on the variables at play.2 It is recommended to pack out your poop at higher elevations following the guidance above.
Winter Backcountry Poop Protocol:
- With a snow depth that doesn’t allow you to reach soil easily, packing out your poop is your best option in the winter. When someone relieves themselves on the snow surface or buries their waste in the snow, it will melt to the surface of the soil when the snow recedes and can be both unsightly, unsanitary and could cause damage to sensitive vegetation.
If You Can’t Pack It Out:
To mitigate the contamination and degradation of water quality in the canyons, standard Leave No Trace protocol and Salt Lake City Public Utilities recommends that solid human waste must be at least 6” deep and 200’ away from any water source, trails, or campsites. This image shows a 4-6” wide, 6-8” deep “cat hole” to bury your waste. While toilet paper should be used sparingly in the outdoors, it should be buried at this depth or packed out in a plastic bag. The soil removed to dig the “cat hole” should then be replaced and disguised to look like the surface has been minimally disturbed. To make the breakdown of the waste more expeditious, you can attempt to mix the dirt into the waste; however, you still need to make sure that there are no feces left on the surface.
What should you do if you don’t have a shovel to dig an adequate “cat hole?” Make use of your surroundings, find a rock or stick to dig. Don’t have TP? You can make use of vegetation to help wipe, if you are in a desperate situation. If you result to this behavior, please make sure to bury whatever you used with your waste to prevent the spread of any disease. And remember to carry hand sanitizer with you to ensure sanitation, even on the trail, at the crag, or on the skin-track.
It should be noted that urination is also encouraged to be at least 200’ away from any water sources, trails, or campsites. While urine doesn’t have a large direct impact on vegetation or soil, Leave No Trace practices suggest that people should urinate on rocks, pine needles, or gravel because it is less likely to attract wildlife on these surfaces.
Written by Carly Lansche
Edited by Lindsey Nielsen