the Sierra Nevada
I gotta go
The 99 switchbacks ahead take you to Trail Crest where you cross over to the west side of Mount Whitney, the west side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In the distance to our left, way down there is, like everything else here, a lake that is a striking spectacle, a lake that defines the color blue. Consultation Lake. No snow today. Rare.
Before we begin the many-switchbacks leg of this journey, we stop for the day. We have reached our temporary home, the creatively named Trail Camp. This mostly barren flat, rocky area in the shadow of Wotan’s Throne is a popular camping area, roughly halfway between trailhead and the summit. There are a number of low rock walls, built by hikers, no doubt, to serve as windbreaks and also to afford some privacy. We’re in the wilderness. No outhouses, no plumbing of any kind.
So what do you expect? Your bowels don’t stop working just because there’s no bathroom, right? I mean, think about it. We were pooping long before we made appliances to poop in.
This would be a good time to talk about WAG bags. WAG stands for “Waste Alleviation and Gelling.” Does that help you know what it is?
You probably don’t think about it too much but your body is digesting all the time, and thereby creating waste all the time. In the city, eliminating that waste is easy. You go into the smallest room in the house, sit a spell, spend a moment cleaning up and pull a handle. Gone. Done.
In the wilderness, like I’ve said, there are no such little rooms. There are no handles and no places to sit. It’s a whole ‘nother beast.
We’ve got it easy in the woods of the eastern United States. We just do what cats do, those savvy creatures. First they find a choice spot, a place for them to take care of business, preferably with a magazine rack. If they are outdoors, they will choose a location where they won’t be attacked. Indoors it’s the litter box.
Be like the cat. To wit…
step 1 Dig a hole.
step 2 Position yourself over the hole. Unless you are using a cat box in which case, dig the hole in the litter and then position your butt hanging over the outside of the box.
step 3 Discharge.
step 4 Cover the hole and its contents. Unless you are using the cat box in which case, look around the litter, fail to find your product and walk away as if you don’t know that you just crapped on the floor next to the box.
For us humans visiting the wilderness, it is essentially the same process. We are not so worried about getting attacked while in that compromising, squatting position. But we want to get some distance from camp and away from water sources. It only makes sense.
We find a good spot, preferably with a view, we dig a hole, we squat over the hole, we get surprised at how bad our aim is, we use some toilet paper, burn the paper and fill the hole up with the original soil. Smooth out the area so no one can tell we were here. Sweet.
Purists use leaves and sticks to clean themselves which usually works quite well, unless you don’t know what poison ivy looks like.
For us tree-huggers, this is all good. What we leave behind will eventually decompose and possibly enrich the soil. Not a lot, but more than if we had not been there.
Why do we bury it? Two good reasons. First, if you are spending time in the woods, there is very little in the world less attractive than communing with nature and coming upon a turd. Especially someone else’s. Seriously.
Secondly, we don’t want the forest residents, the animals, to come upon the feces, fuss with it a bit and possibly carry it to a water source.
Doing this procedure is actually not all as embarrassing, uncomfortable and humiliating as it may seem. Novices go out on their first extended trip praying not to have to take a dump. But the experience of one of my beginner backpackers is typical. This is a true story.
The first morning, the urge was there. She really didn’t want to yield but we still had all of today and tomorrow before us before we would be back to a flush toilet. There was no way she was going to be able to pull that one off. She had to go and she couldn’t talk herself out of it.
I handed her the plastic bag containing all the supplies she would need: trowel, toilet paper, matches and a small vial of waterless soap. She asked, just one more time, for an explanation of the process. Then she hesitantly walked off into the woods.
When she came back — I swear — she was smiling and skipping. “Hey, that wasn’t bad. That wasn’t bad at all!” Yep, that’s what I’m sayin’.
The coda to this story is a hike we took a few months later in a park. She had need of an outhouse. When she came out, she complained about how disgusting it was and how she would rather go in the woods. “It’s cleaner,” she claimed.
However, we are not in the forgiving eastern United States. In the west, the story is entirely different. In many places, Mount Whitney included, a lot of territory is above tree line. It is rocky above tree line and there is very little soil. Lay down some human detritus here and it will stay here a long time. Microbes necessary for decomposition are absent. Your product will stay in its solid, stinky hot dog state for too long. In addition, there is so much human traffic that the hillsides would become a field of refuse. Our finest and most beautiful land would become fields of shit.
Hark. In the early 2000s, there were solar-powered latrines at both Outpost Camp and Trail Camp. They required so much maintenance that they were removed by the Inyo National Forest Service and the WAG bag policy was instituted. Whatever it is, you bring it in, you carry it out, and that includes anything you manufacture during your stay. Like poop. In one year, 2007, more than three tons of waste was hauled off mount Whitney. Every hiker must now carry WAG bags with them.
Like an impatient spouse, Mount Whitney was not the first place that didn’t want to deal with your shit. Mount Rainier in Washington has had this requirement since the early 1980s. Many other high wilderness zones now do the same. Before this policy, there was one year when the Forest Service removed 5000 pounds of poop from just one campsite on Rainier.
I heard one story, unconfirmed, that on one of the western mountains, there was so much human waste that they would pick up the large collection containers and fly them off the mountain by helicopter. The forestry division decided to go with the carry-out philosophy when the noise from the helicopters became too disruptive!
This presents a dilemma. You’ve got to poop, but there’s no way to do that here. N’wait, yes there is. The solution, becoming more and more the rule, is to carry it out. Yes, you can take it with you. This is where the WAG bag, sometimes called a “clean waste disposal bag,” comes in. Almost everything you need is in the package. You didn’t ask, but I’m gonna tell you how it works.
Start by finding the perfect private spot. Here at Trail Camp, that is not an easy task. The area is open, the rock walls are knee-high. One thing you’ve got going for you though is that this what all hikers must do. So, we get it.
step 1 Open up the bag, take out all the items that are inside and spread them around within reach.
step 2 Unfold the plastic sheet with the powder in the center.
step 3 (the fun part) Pee. But just a very little onto the powder and then harmlessly empty the rest of what’s in your bladder on the ground. Don’t pee on the plastic sheet because then you’ll be carrying around a load of urine that just adds to the yuck factor, and also adds weight to your pack
Your pee activates the “Poo Powder.” It instantly reacts by forming a gel which absorbs moisture and theoretically also absorbs smell, or as everyone calls it, “stink.”
step 4 Position yourself over your target and go for it.
step 5 Use the toilet paper that came with the kit. It’s a good four sheets so use it judiciously, whatever that means. Better yet, before you leave civilization, pack a little extra with you. Not to get too personal, but four sheets is insulting to me. Who do they think I am! A little bird?
step 6 Gather up and fold together the sheet. By the third time you do this, you’ve gotten step 4 down but there is still a remaining step requiring finesse. Tie a very tight knot in the bag, but not so tight that you can’t undue it for next time. Yes, you can use this assembly two or even three times.
step 7 Put this bag in the outer plastic bag for more protection. Affix this bag to the outside of your pack. Some hikers advise that it’s better to carry the WAG bag on your pack than to be hiking behind the guy who is carrying the WAG bag on his pack, stink-wise.
Also some hikers just have a hard time with the whole WAG bag business and revert to digging cat holes. In my opinion, get over yourself and carry it out. You need to respect the rest of us. Otherwise, I’m going to come over to your house and take a crap on your living room rug.
I mean, if you’re tough enough to climb Whitney, you’re tough enough to poop in a bag, and carrying your waste out will not make you barf. Unless you already are. Eh?
step 8 After you have left the hiking trail, toss the WAG bag into the designated WAG bag human waste refuse container at trailhead. Be cautious opening up the container. It’s not like in the bad horror movies where some vomitous shit-creature will jump out at you, but the smell will. Now you are done with it. You don’t have to think of what happens to your poop next.