By Courtney King
Another hike, another piece of toilet paper found flowing in the breeze. A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but it’s hard not to get frustrated (really, disgusted) by waste in the backcountry, especially on certain well-trafficked trails.
This summer, on the trail approaching Mt. Harvard, I was pleasantly surprised when I only spotted a single piece of toilet paper. The hike was a bit more difficult than I expected — perhaps someone else had felt the same, and that’s why they hadn’t been prepared, the long hike making it more difficult to retreat to the trailhead porta potties in time.
I suppose it could have been worse – the offending evidence was spotted towards the start of the trail, a section enclosed by forest, as opposed to the higher elevation, more fragile meadows and alpine summit.
I do question why, if someone packed out toilet paper, they wouldn’t also have brought a trowel to bury it or a bag to carry it out…but I’ll stop picking on a stranger for now. Besides, I’ve seen much more harrowing sights — including toilet paper bouquets, if you will — on previous hikes.
The worst offense was a collection of toilet paper and diapers not fifty feet from a hot spring in which I was about to take a dip. If the fear of brain-eating amoebas wasn’t enough to make me avoid going underwater, a fear of what was in those bushes surely was.
Despite my disgust, I’ve tried to cut others just a little slack as I’ve known what it’s like for the thought of using the bathroom in the backcountry to slip my mind. This has been especially true when I’m just planning a daytrip, rather than a longer backpacking trip, and assume I’ll be home in time to take care of my…business.
While my granola sensibilities often preclude me from thinking that consumer products could ever prove a real solution, in recent years a few innovative companies have arisen with the goal of providing recreationists with the tools they need to “go” outside, and not damage their surroundings (or their fellow recreationists’ sensibilities) in doing so.
Innovation that excites
An exciting emergence has been the local company PACT Outdoors, with their clever motto “nature is calling.” The company has developed backcountry bathroom kits designed to be all-encompassing, something you can clip onto your pack and forget about, until the fateful moment arrives.
Top editor Brian Wagenaar previously had the chance to speak with the co-founders. The article explores the decision-making behind each component — including unique wipes and mycelium tablets activated by water — of the company’s Outdoor Bathroom Kit, which they call the “first all-in-one bathroom kit for your outdoor adventures, and the cleanest way to poop outdoors.”
Since that article was published, PACT has made quite a splash. The company recently partnered with Gunnison Crested Butte’s Tourism & Prosperity Partnership (TAPP), and the Colorado Tourism Office (CTO) to launch the “Doo” Colorado Right campaign.
TAPP received a grant to purchase 3,500 kits to dole out for free, doling out the packs to visitor centers and public lands nonprofits, which will provide accompanying lessons about public lands stewardship and responsible recreation.
“Locally, we had a number of distribution points to distribute around 600 kits, impacting 12,000 poops in our backcountry,” says Andrew Sandstrom, who handles marketing for TAPP.
Those distribution points included the visitor centers for the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, Mt. Crested Butte, the town of Crested Butte, and the city of Gunnison. Additionally, user groups and nonprofits were able to distribute kits during volunteer workdays and other events; those groups included the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, Crested Butte Conservation Corps, and Gunnison Trails.
A total of 3,500 kits were distributed around the State of Colorado, with the help of 32 distribution partners. If you weren’t able to pick one up, you may be in luck, as TAPP has re-applied to a grant through the Colorado Tourism Office with the hopes of continuing and growing the program.
PACT encourages recreationists to pack-it-out (Well…sometimes)
Over the summer, I also saw PACT kits auctioned off at a fundraiser for The Nature Connection, a Hotchkiss-based organization that aims to expose kids to nature — especially those whose families lack the time, resources, or expertise to bring them into the outdoors. Along the way, the kids and the broader community learn lessons about Leave No Trace principles.
Indeed, just seeing a PACT kit up for auction at the fundraiser sparked a discussion about the product and how the organization and its government partners are schooling the public about backcountry bathroom habits. Working with kids, these individuals certainly don’t need to shy away from potty talk, unless it leads to too many giggles in the midst of a lesson.
Such aims fit well with the mission of PACT’s co-founder Noah Schum, who I had the opportunity to meet soon after the fundraiser. Raised in Hotchkiss, and now with children of his own, Schum is excited to partner with organizations promoting outdoor opportunities and ethics among locals and tourists recreating across the Western Slope.
I also had the opportunity to speak with Tanner Whiteford, a Western alum who works for PACT as the Director of Sales and Operations.
In our conversation, I mentioned having recently picked up a book titled, “How to Shit in the Woods,” scavenged for free at Six Points and now surely the headlining work within my lending library.
I’ve been on the lookout for the book for quite a few years; I had first learned of it prior to my thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, uninformed and terrified about the prospect of using the bathroom outdoors for multiple months straight.
Having shitty conversations
Bathroom humor and the ensuing conversations turned out to be a large part of long-distance hiking, with folks carrying all they own (including their toilet paper) on their backs and therefore trying to carry the least amount of supplies (again, including toilet paper) they can, which can lead to some tricky situations when you exhaust your supply. The final chapter in my new book is aptly titled, “What? No T.P.? or Doing Without.”
When speaking to Whiteford about the mission of PACT, he highlighted the importance of bringing such conversations to the forefront.
“People are afraid to ask questions,” he says.
Whiteford says that in places like Gunnison, many people may be new to backcountry recreation but afraid to show their lack of expertise. If you’re eighteen and just starting college —or moving to a new place and trying out a new form of fun (or one in a more extreme environment) for the first time, it’s humbling to ask down and dirty questions like: “Do I need to bring a shovel?”
That’s a major reason why PACT’s kits are designed to be all-encompassing, with everything one would need wrapped up in one convenient package. Of course, the company is mindful to spread the knowledge that their wipes and mycelium tablets don’t work everywhere, that they (despite promoting decomposition) shouldn’t be used in any place where you wouldn’t bury your toilet paper, and definitely shouldn’t be used where you wouldn’t (or simply can’t) dig a cathole to begin with.
Doing your “business” in the backcountry
These conversations can be fun to a particular type of person – i.e., hiker trash – but disgusting to others. That’s part of the problem, though, as lack of discussion about a problem precludes the awareness of its solutions.
As a new thru-hiker, for example, I encountered others who were even more new to the backcountry. One acquaintance was vehement that he would not pack out his toilet paper, for example, with fears it would potentially contaminate his food. In fragile, high alpine or desert ecosystems, however, simply burying toilet paper and feminine hygiene products is not an option.
In such environments, these materials can’t decompose (or do so very slowly), even if mycelium was added to the soil – but adding fungi not adapted to a certain system isn’t advisable, either.
Addressing long thru-hikes through pristine wilderness is why PACT has partnered up with the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and supplies many Mexico-to-Canada hikers with their products.
Case in point, friends hiking on the Colorado Trail sent over a photo of one of PACT’s kits spotted in a “hiker box,” typically found at common meeting grounds for long-distance hikers (hostels, post offices, etc.) for them to share extra food and supplies.
While many thru hikers certainly do benefit from lessons in LNT, there’s a major barrier to using PACT’s flagship kits: their weight. The all-encompassing factor of these kits is great for newer and more casual recreationists, but “ultralight jerks” wanting to keep their base pack weight under 10 pounds are unlikely to carry a bathroom kit that includes thick packaging or a carrying case weighing more than a few ounces.
Fortunately, the kits distributed over the past year were a newer model, the “PACT lite.” This version comes in an ultralight, compact package that could be more appealing to thru-hikers.
Restocking could still present a challenge as hikers as hikers often re-supply their food and bathroom supplies at typical grocery stores. Indeed, long-distance hikers often spend time packaging toilet paper, baby wipes, and anything else they need for days at a time into lightweight Ziplocs.
Some have aimed to completely decrease their use of wipes through using “backcountry bidets,” including cheap, 3D-printed options that can attach to water bottles. Regardless, those curious about the products PACT offers — or scared about the prospect of a bidet — could find ways to incorporate the PACT lite into their gear lists.
“All-in-one” kits may not serve all bodies
For many of us, there are components of our backcountry bathroom set-ups that can’t be found in otherwise “all-encompassing” kits. Written by the author Kathleen Meyer, my new book also includes the chapter “For Women Only: How Not to Pee in Your Boots.”
Perhaps even more humbling than a ski bro asking his buddies what to bring for a day in the backcountry, I’ve had to speak with coworkers who identify as women about what they do while spending full days, or weeks, in the outdoors. This challenge is of course relevant to those of us who menstruate, having to either pack out extra supplies or struggle to keep reusable products like menstrual cups clean.
Supposed “all-in-one” kits just aren’t that for the recreationists who menstruate, complicated with ongoing stigma. Without delving into that further, even the topic of where and how to pee outside isn’t straightforward for many of us. Also, beyond outdoor recreation, these concerns can be serious for those who work outside.
Even the choice of where to pee can be an important consideration for those who don’t have access to a bathroom, and beyond that might be in an uncomfortable or unsafe environment where pulling their pants down and squatting is not a viable option
The ”she-wee” or pee funnel has become a joke, but the contraption can actually prove a useful and important product for women in such situations. So can another product with local relevance, Gnara (previously known as SheFly), pants with a zipper that allows wearers to “go” without having to take their pants all the way off.
Other products have been designed to address another problem many of us face in the outdoors — we don’t want to go through all the effort of packing out toilet paper just to pee, but don’t want to be sitting in wet pants all day. That’s quite a common occurrence for many who work outside and can be dangerous to one’s health when on a multi-day trip with no access to clean clothes or a shower.
While some friends new to nature were horrified, I was delighted to tell them about the most exciting component of my hiking kit — a pee cloth! Previously, those identifying as women have tended to use bandanas exposed to the sun to supposedly be sanitized.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that, after a giant pile of toilet paper interrupted a scenic hike, Anastasia Allison created a new, low-tech device. As a woman’s backpacking instructor, she started using a microfiber cloth — sketched out by the idea of using a bandana as a “pee rag”, open and carabiner-ed on her pack. She encouraged others to do so and started taking pictures of her cloth in the wilderness but realized — “I wish that looked cooler.”
Allison came up with the Kula cloth, an “intentionally designed” pee cloth with the goal of encouraging Leave No Trace principles, cultivating a community of stewards, and normalizing conversations about hygiene.
Using antimicrobial fabric, the Kula cloth has a “usable” interior and a fun exterior — in fact, funny designs and memes have likely been part of why the cottage company has gained so much traction in the hiking community. Kula cloths also feature art that, in many cases, promote non-profits and efforts to diversity the outdoors.
And, with perhaps it’s most innovative feature, the cloth can be snapped shut so that the “used” side doesn’t touch anything else – important, as whether it’s an old-school pee rag or a newfangled Kula cloth, men can’t seem to avoid reaching out to touch as they ask, “What’s that?”
If one’s bag is an extension of oneself, this seems more indicative of a larger issue of handsy men (even in the middle of nowhere), but I digress.