In my free time, I enjoy hiking in wild and remote places. Countless times have I come across a beautiful view or popular trail only to look down and see stashes of toilet paper or, heaven forbid, actual human waste on the ground. No matter where you hike, you've likely experienced this, too. To me, leaving your mess behind is not only inconsiderate, it's gross. Unfortunately, the trails near my home in Colorado are notorious for this.
One solution to conveniently concealing and packing out your waste is using a wag bag. Simply put, these are bags you poop in so you don't leave your poop outside. Wag bags are an easy item to add to your hiking bag or bathroom kit and are essential when bathrooms aren't available, especially in sensitive and highly-trafficked areas.
Wag bags are kind of fun, too. How many times can you say you used a private bathroom outdoors while overlooking a breathtaking mountain vista? When you use a wag bag, you'll have plenty of opportunities to find exclusive, beautiful potty spots outdoors. Maybe you'll even see an elk or two from your non-porcelain throne!
Why You Should Use a Wag Bag
Human poop takes about one year to completely break down. Not only is human waste unsightly, but it is also harmful to our natural environments. Desert, alpine, snowy, and rocky areas are especially sensitive when it comes to leaving your waste outdoors. Water, including streams, lakes, and oceans, should also be avoided.
There are four guidelines you can follow when deciding whether or not you should use a wag bag:
- Minimize the contamination of water
- Minimize social and aesthetic impacts
- Minimize the spread of disease
- Maximize decomposition
When one of these rules can't be met by your natural conditions, it's recommended to use a wag bag. For example, if you're within 200 feet of a water source, you should use a wag bag. If you're more than 200 feet away from water, there's no way anyone will ever find your waste in the next year, its location avoids the spread of disease, and the environment you're in will maximize its decomposition, you can dig a cathole and bury your waste instead of using your wag bag.
Steps for Properly Using a Wag Bag
Wag bags are quite easy to use. Usually, they have instructions on how to use them printed on the bag. Here's a quick rundown on how to utilize your bag in the backcountry.
First, open up the puncture-resistant package. Most wag bags will include a small amount of toilet paper, a packet of hand sanitizer, beads that will gel your waste inside the bag, and a smell-capturing powder. Remove the paper and sanitizer from the interior of the bag and set them aside. Open up the bag completely; you may want to use some rocks to keep the edges of the bag down or set it up so that it sits open on its own. You can also hold the edges of your bag against your hips.
I don't think I need to tell you what the next step is...
When you're done, use the toilet paper. Sanitize your hands. Stick your toilet paper and spent hand sanitizer packet into the bag along with your waste. Seal up the bag, removing any extra air while you close it up. Lastly, stash it in your backpack and toss it in the garbage when you leave the trailhead.
Different Types of Wag Bags
Many companies produce their own version of a wag bag. You can find a variety of options at REI, Backcountry, Cabela's, and your local outdoor gear shop. Although the brands may differ, the product, in general, doesn't. However, I recommend shopping around and finding the brand you feel the most comfortable using out in nature.
If a regular wag bag isn't really your style, most outdoor stores also offer a portable toilet seat. These foldable, travel-friendly seats hold a wag bag underneath them so it's still easy to pack out waste. If you're planning on camping for a while, you can check out compostable toilets, too.
Other Leave No Trace Bathroom Strategies
The most common and accepted practice for ethically pooping outdoors is digging a cathole. I mentioned this strategy earlier when I mentioned it's appropriate when you're more than 200 feet away from a water source. It's also important to dig catholes the same distance away from your campsite and the trail.
Catholes should be inconspicuous. If you're camping in the same place for multiple nights or with a group, catholes should also be spread widely apart. Dig catholes in deep, rich soil in the sunlight if possible to aid with decomposition.
Digging a cathole is simple to do and rather self-explanatory. Using a small trowel, dig a hole in the soil 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter. However, if you're in the desert, dig your cathole 4-6 inches deep. Do your business in the cathole. When you're done, cover the waste with soil and disguise the top with natural materials.
When using toilet paper, it's recommended to use unscented, plain, white brands. You can either bury it in your cathole or pack it out. "Natural" toilet paper is an option, too. Smooth sticks, rocks, large leaves, and snow are effective options.
It's important to mention that tampons, pads, and other personal sanitary products should always be packed out.
PACT makes an incredible all-in-one outdoor poop kit. Inside you'll find a trowel, a small tablet that when wet with a few drops of water expands into a wipe, a mushroom mycelium tablet that aids with decomposition, a storage pocket with a trash bag, hand sanitizer, and a guide to how to use it. I love my grab-and-go kit and use it on all my guided trips and outdoor adventures.
Most importantly, if your trailhead or campsite offers a pit toilet, use it! That is the most effective way to ethically keep waste out of our environment when your local toilet is unlocked, open for the season, and readily available to use.
More Leave No Trace Practices You Should Try
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly (what this article is all about)
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Others
Ethical outdoorspeople tend to follow these principles every time they recreate outdoors. You can take Leave No Trace educational courses both in person and on their website. These certificates can be useful if you work professionally outside or are considering applying to outdoor industry jobs.
Now when it's time to go in the outdoors, you'll be prepared to whip out your wag bag, discretely pack out your waste, and leave our natural environments the way you found them. Your fellow hikers will thank you for practicing Leave No Trace principles and Mother Nature will, too.
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