Best practice to pooh in the nature and why...

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Marc Vilaplana Traveria

Apr 28, 2016, 5:18:42 AM4/28/16
to Managing Human Waste in the Wild

Hi everybody,

My name is Marc Vilaplana I'm a rock climbing guide from Catalunya (Spain). In order to finish the third and last degree as a climbing guide I have to do a project. The project I'm doing is the management of human excrement in Catalunya climbing areas.

I've done research but I still have some basic doubts:

  • How bad is pooh for the environment? Especially in climbing areas here in Catalunya where has become the mecca of sport climbing and we receive many climber. As climber stay all day long in a small area the excrements tend to rest in a small area. Do you think this is bad for the nature? Or is just a matter of respect to other and nature.

  • And what about toilet paper? It looks like the best practice to pooh in the nature is the cat hole, but why we have to take the paper with us if it is biodegradable? Is it bad to bury it with the excrement? Again only a leave no trace practice or there's something else?

Thanks and take care!!!

Marc Vilaplana

Segona bauma - tres ponts.JPG
Montserrat - parquing Can Jorba.JPG

Marion, Jeffrey

Apr 28, 2016, 10:22:38 AM4/28/16



Best of luck in your project.  I can suggest some literature that may help.  First, there is a wealth of information available through web searches, the Exit Strategy conferences and subsequent information, and guidance, and from the scientific literature (use Google Scholar searches).  Here’s a few good references – there are many more.  You might also locate the book “Leave No Trace in the Outdoors” (Marion, Jeffrey.  2014. Leave No Trace in the Outdoors.  Stackpole Books).  This contains the current U.S. Leave No Trace program’s most comprehensive description of human waste management practices.


While writing the LNT book I investigated the science behind human waste management and the best single reference addressing your question about toilet paper burial is this one: 

Bridle, Kerry, and Jamie Kirkpatrick. 2005. An analysis of the breakdown of paper products (toilet paper, tissues and tampons) in natural environments, Tasmania, Australia. Journal of Environmental Management 74:21-30.


I also conducted my own one-year study on my property and found that both buried and surface-disposed toilet paper (TP) decomposed completely in one year. Leave No Trace practices are science-based to the extent possible and the Bridle and Kirkpatrick research provides relevant findings to guide Leave No Trace practice for TP disposal. This study examined the decomposition rates of bleached and unbleached TP, tissues, and tampons buried at 2 and 6 inches in 9 different environments across Tasmania. Relevant conclusions were: 1) TP and tissues decomposed almost completely within 2 years in 7 of the 9 locations; tampons would likely require 3 years (Note: some are made of synthetic fibers that would require far longer), 2) decomposition was poor at locations with very high rainfall or acidic peat soils, but was very good at locations with as little as 20 inches of rain per year,  3) of 750 burials, 34 (4.5%) surfaced from animal excavations or frost-heaving (30 of which had been buried only 2 inches deep), and 4) nutrient additions simulating the presence of feces and urine to some samples increased decomposition rates.  More studies like this are needed because soils, environmental conditions, and decomposer organisms in Tasmania may be different in other countries and locations.


It is critical to note the exceptions where TP (and human waste) do not decompose very rapidly.  These include soils that are too cold, dry, or wet (year-round, not just in one or two seasons) to support decomposition, or rocky environments that lack soil. Land managers are increasingly recommending or requiring visitors to carry out their human waste, particularly in environments where it is extremely difficult to operate toilets or allow cat-holes, such as at high elevations, deep river canyons, deserts, or in arctic areas with permafrost. Cliff environments, caves, and slickrock areas represent additional settings where carryout recommendations and regulations are common. In all these special environments, human wastes have a higher probability of polluting water or won’t decay very quickly due to lack of appropriate soils, extreme cold, heat, or lack of moisture. Carrying out human waste and TP is the recommended “best practice” in all these special settings. (Note: the LNT book includes additional guidance for several Special Environment settings).


In areas where one or two seasons each year do provide conditions for TP decomposition:  Burying TP deeply, by pushing it to the bottom of the cat-hole with a stick, is now strongly recommended to reduce the chance that it will surface before decomposing. Leave No Trace practices also recommend carrying out feminine hygiene products and disinfectant wipes due to their longer decomposition rates. We/I believe that asking visitors to carry out TP, which some to many visitors view as an “extreme” or at least objectionable and difficult practice, runs the risk of alienating them from considering and applying many other low impact practices. In other words, carrying out TP should be recommended only when truly necessary. Furthermore, visitors who are not digging cat-holes are likely to also ignore requests to carry out their TP – convincing them to dig cat-holes and bury TP deeply is likely an easier option.


Hope this is helpful.





Jeff Marion, Ph.D.                     USDI, U.S. Geological Survey            Virginia Tech

Field Stn. Leader/Adj. Professor    Patuxent Wildlife Research Ctr       304f Cheatham, 310 W. Campus Dr.

Natural Resource Recreation         Virginia Tech Field Station               Blacksburg, VA  24061

Websites:     E-mail:,   W:  540/231-6603

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Geoff Hill

Apr 28, 2016, 10:28:52 AM4/28/16
Burial can work as low use sites. At moderate or high use sites, all the ground will be dug up for poo holes around the popular places.  

Geoff Hill

Roger Robinson

Apr 28, 2016, 2:01:49 PM4/28/16
to Managing Human Waste in the Wild
Hi Marc,

I am glad you are seeking out this input and hopefully the DVDs from Exit Strategies will help. We all have started with limited knowledge at first and then began making the push to educate our friends and fellow backcountry users on the best practices. Here is a brand new master thesis that was just completed by Kristine Route here in Alaska that you can add to the discussion.


Here is a note I received from her advisor, Doug Whittaker, Ph.D.  who spoke at the 2010 Exit Strategies and 2014 Sustainable Summits conferences:

Kristine Route (an intern who you had helping at the last conference) completed her master thesis yesterday on a human waste project down on Kenai Lake.  I was a mentor to her through the process – she documented some serious impacts and conducted a survey that showed that while the anglers and partiers that use the site are generally pro-environment and care about human waste impacts, they are not particularly swayed by educational materials alone to do something about it.  Probably need some regs, eh? 

It'll take good education, pressure from peers, the agony of time (30 years for Denali),  and possible enforcement to get users to change but when it does happen, it is certainly worth it!

Closer to your home, you may want to contact  Sophie Gérard of the UIAA: who has taken over "Respect the Mountains" They may be able to provide additional support.

Keep us posted as you make headway!


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Roger Robinson
Manager: "Managing Human Waste in the Wild"
Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park, Alaska

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Marc Vilaplana Traveria

May 3, 2016, 3:41:06 AM5/3/16
Thank you very much for all the information, every contribution is useful. You give me power to keep on going with all this issue!!

Take care!

Marc Vilaplana

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Charlie Thorpe

May 4, 2016, 4:52:07 PM5/4/16
Hello Marc -

Your latest note reminded me that I had intended to reply to your first email.

First, I want to let you know how much I enjoyed your website.  The pictures were outstanding…I am not a climber, but the beautiful climbing locations you presented definitely make it tempting!

I am not a scientist, either, but I would like to add a little layman’s experience to the good science you have already received.  I have been involved in helping to bring Leave No Trace messaging to Scout Associations in North America, Europe, and Asia for the last couple of decades and have frequently been asked questions like the ones you are raising.  Poop, catholes, and toilet paper always get a lot of discussion.

Excrement in the wild -

Like you, I consider human waste management in the natural outdoors to be a BIG problem.  I will let the scientists speak to how human poop affects the rest of the natural environment, but I personally consider us humans to be a very important part of any natural environment we love to visit.  

There is absolutely no question in my mind that careless cross-contamination with untreated human excrement can present a major health hazard for all human visitors (smells bad, too).  Most of us who recreate in the natural outdoors are used to having wonderful sewage treatment facilities in our home cities, but by definition we are dropping back into third world situations when we visit these remote areas we enjoy.

I have heard catholes described as “the best of a bunch of bad alternatives”, especially when dealing with crowded natural locations being visited by novices.  Scouting tends to visit the natural outdoors in groups and Scouting involves a lot of youth and adults who are novices in the natural outdoors.  I have found that these Scouting groups can present both a group human waste problem and, IMHO, a more useful group solution than catholes for this human waste challenge.

If I was trying to find a way to deal with the disgusting (and potentially dangerous as a biohazard) mess shown in your photographs, I would first ask myself a few questions:

•  Is there a land owner or land manager already working the problem? (If yes, I would help them as best I could)

•  Do the majority of the people leaving the waste tend to visit the area as individuals? (I have found that groups can become part of the solution MUCH easier than individuals) 

•  Does the soil type and climate allow a cathole to be an effective solution? (If yes, then I would at least consider catholes)

•  Does the larger natural landscape around the toilet site lend itself to fully dispersing the maximum number of catholes that would be needed during the typical season of use? (If yes, then I would consider trying to find ways to teach visitors to appropriately use personal catholes.  If no, then I would forget catholes as a viable solution).

•  Is the area being used as a toilet a fairly long distance from easy vehicle access? (Many “pack it out” solutions become more disagreeable…and less likely to be used…the longer the distances we have to carry the waste…especially in hot weather…)

You mentioned being a climbing guide, so I am assuming that the area in question is visited by some guided groups.  If the answers to the above questions were all “no”, then I would likely look for a pack-it-out solution (either individual or group).  

Individual pack it out -

I have had the most experience using the “Go Anywhere Kit” (was “ WAG bag") product, but it seems likely that similar products on the market or even “home-built” kits could serve as well:

I have had novice campers willing to pack out their own waste as long as we could control the smell and show how to package the waste to minimize the chances of spillage inside their packs.  Interestingly, some of these novice campers have elected to pack out their waste instead of traveling any great distance to dig a well-dispersed cathole.

These individual waste disposal kits (like modern baby diapers) are legal for disposal outside of the sewage treatment process in most areas of the USA (just throw them into the town garbage cans).  IMHO, before using these kits it might be well worth checking to see if the laws relating to disposal of encapsulated biohazards are similar in your part of the world.

Group pack it out -

Probably the simplest group solution is to use the individual waste disposal kits and then gather the group’s kits into a single container used to carry them out.  Containers can be found (or made) which almost completely eliminate the smell, are reusable, and are fairly comfortable and convenient to carry (a “poop tube” made from PVC pipe is one example).

I have also found that it is sometimes very easy for a group to use a portable toilet of the types used in boats, RV’s, river rafts, etc.:

I don’t know anything about this particular product - I just used it as an example of one way a group can “pack it out”.  These units are usually very easy for complete novices to understand and use.   A group can create a simple privacy area where the portable toilet is used and then pack it out to be emptied at any RV dump station on the way home. 

We have made our own portable group toilet for use in caves and when swamp paddling (no dry land for catholes) by placing garbage bags inside a 5 gal plastic pail.  These pails can then be used as is (becomes a “groover” when you sit on the rim) or the group can carry a special toilet seat to make use more comfortable.  The following is one example of such a seat:

This type of group toilet can be cheap, easy to use, and relatively easy to pack it out.  

Workers at our town’s sewage treatment facility give us small amounts of the liquid odor mask used to help sewage treatment lagoons smell a little better.  My Scouts prefer “tutti-frutti” or “bubblegum”, our adults tend to prefer “citrus” or “wild cherry” <g>.  Be careful, this stuff has a VERY strong smell…use just a few drops in a bucket toilet…and never…EVER…break a glass bottle of it in a cave….

The bad news comes when you try to figure out what to do with a garbage bag full of poop.  It seems common that small towns near remote natural areas will not have sewage treatment systems which can handle plastic bags flushed down the toilet.  We could empty the bags into the toilet, but nobody wants to wash out empty poop bags.  Untreated human poop is generally considered to be a biohazard which is illegal for disposal in most or perhaps even all landfills that I am familiar with.

Fortunately, the city where I live incinerates all garbage, allowing us to just throw the entire bucket toilet into the garbage (we use old buckets obtained from fast food restaurants, construction sites, etc.).  Scouting groups in other areas have been able to dispose of their full bucket toilets at local biohazard waste disposal sites (hospital incinerators, etc.).

Your other question was about toilet paper in the wild.  This message has gotten so long that it is getting difficult to read on a smart phone.  I will add my thought on wild TP in another email.

Good luck with your quest to solve your area’s wild human poop problem!

- Charlie Thorpe

On May 3, 2016, at 2:41 AM, Marc Vilaplana Traveria <> wrote:

Thank you very much for all the information, every contribution is useful. You give me power to keep on going with all this issue!!

Take care!

Marc Vilaplana

Charlie Thorpe

May 4, 2016, 9:18:41 PM5/4/16
Hello Marc -

You asked:

> • And what about toilet paper? It looks like the best practice to pooh in the nature is the cat hole, but why we have to take the paper with us if it is biodegradable? Is it bad to bury it with the excrement? Again only a leave no trace practice or there’s something else?

I tried to make the case in my previous email that the cathole is perhaps not the best practice in many situations if any reasonable alternative can be found. The good news is that “pack it out” techniques are becoming easier to find and use as a reasonable alternative.

Disposal of toilet paper in the wild is an interesting issue. I have been puzzled for over 20 years as to why Leave No Trace messaging makes such a big deal out of packing out toilet paper. I have been looking for and have never found any scientific evidence that the potential harm from leaving TP on the surface to decompose is anywhere near the potential harm caused by leaving its associated excrement sitting underneath it.

Exposed human excrement presents a HUGE potential problem as:

• it leaches into the water supply for other humans to drink it

• other humans come into contact with it as they move about the area

• insects, rodents, and other vectors spread the excrement around (even onto our food)

• its stink and knowledge of its potential harm to us spoils the otherwise natural beauty of the area

Exposed TP presents an environmental problem as:

• it introduces some VERY small leaching of non-natural chemicals into the soil as it decomposes (most of TP being made from substances natural to most areas)

Hummmm…which seems worse…the poop or the TP…? If we want to go to all the trouble of packing out bad stuff, why not pack out the really (really, Really, REALLY!) bad stuff and then pack the TP out along with it? If we aren’t up for packing out the feces along with the TP, then my personal take is that novices have absolutely no business trying to contain and carry out a genuine biohazard (especially in bear country, where it is a major smellable).

I have had the opportunity to help present the Leave No Trace messaging to tens of thousands of youth and adults at very large Scout gatherings (National and World Jamborees). My concerns about the “poop problem” have led me to volunteer to do the poop station at these events and this has given me ample opportunities to observe how a LOT of novice users of the natural outdoors can react to discussions about human waste disposal techniques.

I finally gave up trying to convince my audiences of the importance of packing out TP after a few thousand very obvious indications that the associated “YUK!” factor was causing these novices to not even consider this and the other ways I was offering to help us all become more responsible for the ethical (and practical!) disposal of our own human waste in the natural outdoors.

I now use the following scenario when teaching using catholes and TP:

• find a small sturdy stick (thick as a finger, about 25-30 cm long) as we look for the perfect cathole site

• dig the cathole the correct size and depth for the area

• take our dump into the hole

• use as little unscented TP as practical to clean ourselves and drop it into the hole

• hold our urine if possible and add it to wet down the TP (if not possible to hold, just create urine mud at the bottom of the hole)

• take the small stick and stir the TP into the feces, adding some of the nearby rich organic soil during the process (the smell goes WAY down once a little soil is on top of the feces)

• stir until the TP is dissolved into the feces and the rich organic soil is distributed throughout

• once the “poop soup” is finished, close the cathole with at least a couple inches of dirt and leave the stick sticking up at the edge of the cathole (messy end down inside…)

Hopefully, the TP will be so dissolved that any animal digging up the cathole will dispose of the TP as it eats the feces. The low incidence of animals digging up TP in Tasmania was interesting, but land agency contacts I have met have told me that coyotes in North America are MUCH more prone to dig up catholes to be able to eat the contents.

Again hopefully, distributing the rich organic soil throughout the feces slurry will considerably speed up the decomposition process.

I say “hopefully” above because, while it all seems reasonable, I haven’t found any science that covers the pro’s and con’s of this particular technique. I have been trying to talk Dr. Marion into including this technique in with his own TP experiments, but no luck so far <g>.

An interesting byproduct of this technique is that it can give us an indication of how many catholes are being dug in an area…just count the little sticks sticking up and notice how close they are to each other and to the water supply. It also lets us know that digging our cathole next to a little stick sticking up can lead to a BIG surprise…

We used to teach burning the TP in the cathole so that only ashes from the TP would be exposed if the cathole contents were surfaced. We were asked by land managers to quit teaching this TP disposal technique because wildfires have been started when the wind blows the burning TP out of the cathole (it’s hard to chase the burning TP to stamp it out when your pants are down around your ankles…).

I have found that many novices to the outdoors will react to this “poop soup” technique MUCH better than to packing out the TP…teaching to pack it out at first then allows “poop soup” to be more acceptable as the lesser of two evils <g>.

Good luck in your search to find solutions to the poop problem that work well where you enjoy the natural outdoors - it is definitely a search worth making!

- Charlie

Geoff Hill

May 4, 2016, 10:52:54 PM5/4/16
Just to flog this point to death:

Front country Euro climbing areas are substantially different from back country USA sites.

Cliff makes a barrier. Concentrates use.

Few climbs are hugely popular making for high concentration in key areas.

Temperate cliffs usually have thin and poor soils under them.

Ground under cliffs is usually steep compared to flat camp sites where use can concentrate at USA back country sites.

If I were to get involved in supporting cat hole use at steep sites, high use, poor soils, I would look seriously at PeePoople. Critical is killing of pathogens to prevent disease spread. Urea can do this. Consequence will be some exposed bags till they decompose.

Portable toilet and pack out not likely to work at concentrated site (optics). Maybe someone provides a screen for privacy. But surely it will collect Poo or bags of Poo.

Beyond low concentrations or extreme conditions (Denali) I'm convinced toilets are key. This is where TTS focuses our products. makes these seats in France.

Geoff Hill

Charlie Thorpe

May 6, 2016, 2:21:11 PM5/6/16
Hello Geoff -

Thanks for the information. PeePoo bags look to have excellent potential as a low cost and practical solution in situations where initial distribution and final disposal challenges can be reasonably solved.

I particularly like the potential for being able to easily use the used PeePoo bags as fertilizer to help with revegetation efforts in the areas which tend to get pounded while the concentrated waste problem is being created in the first place. It would be fairly easy to handle distribution within a group of users (guided group, climbing club, customers of the local climbing outfitter, Scouts, etc.), but distribution to climbers arriving individually to the area would seem to require placing somebody somewhere nearby to hand the bags out.

I became involved in trying to solve concentrated careless poop disposal problems as part of a climbing program for older Scouting youth (coed) where I live in the USA south. Our novice climbers used cliffs and bouldering fields that typically were on private property less than an hour’s walk from the nearest road.

Local government in these rural areas was not interested in placing toilets (or any other facilities) at the roadsides where climbers usually parked. Land owners were even less interested (to the point of threatening to block access) due to concerns about them ultimately getting stuck with the cost and their possible legal liability associated with the chance of an added facility turning a natural area into an attractive nuisance.

We received donation of a small portable RV toilet that could easily handle a couple dozen potty breaks. This toilet came in/out each visit and was emptied at a RV dump station on the way home. We set 5 trimmed saplings as posts in an area a short walk from where most of the climbing/bouldering tended to take place. We carried in a light tarp to wrap around the posts to make a potty privacy screen each time we visited (typically 2 or 3 times a week during the summer, every now and then during the winter).

The portable toilet was oversized for the usual groups we brought in to climb, but we had no problem with allowing other climbers to use the toilet until it became full (happened occasionally). We also carried in a shovel every few trips which we used to bury the well-fertilized TP blossoms left behind by other climbers when the toilet wasn’t there.

AFAIK, we were the only organized group using the area - other local climbers didn’t seem to clump up and the climbing wasn’t sufficiently exotic to allow anybody to figure out how to make money off of it (no guides, no nearby outfitters, no property owner charging admission, etc.).

We ran our climbing program for three years and the place stayed pretty nice - we buried the small number of reoccurring TP blossoms and recycled the many Bud Light beer cans we picked up. The place went to pot (more like “potty”) after we moved our climbing program onto our own property.

Sometimes we have to come up with a solution with no more support from the land owner/manager than just getting permission.

- Charlie
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