Nobody wants to discuss our turdly calling cards—not me, not you, perhaps not even the people who specialize in human waste disposal. But with public land use booming, so, too, are growing mountains of excrement and the blooms of toilet paper that mark their passing with a tattered little wave from a catch-branch. Shit is piling up everywhere in popular sites and it’s past time for us to take care of our own.
The time-tested protocol of natural waste management is to dig a cat hole, make deposit in said hole, and refill with the dirt you dug out. But not everyone follows this religiously (guilty) and even when they do, heavy visitation can leave fragile areas looking like a gopher convention (parts of Cedar Mesa, sadly, I’m talking to you). Cat-holing can still be an option—I’ll cover a tidy new kit from PACT Outdoors below—but in many dispersed camping spots, it’s time we pack out our own poop. In some places, it’s required; in others (the desert), it’s the only responsible choice. Remember, ohana means family and family means no poo gets left behind.
Do I want to be an exporter of personal solid waste? No. Hell, no. But having followed the WAG-bag rules on numerous peaks and obeyed federal “you import it, you export it” regulations in fragile areas, I’ve become accustomed to getting past the ick response. And dealing with shit properly feels better.
So, what does responsible excrement management look like?
Well, for starters, let’s assume that most people will prefer sitting over squatting and take a look at portable throne. When I took my 70-something mom for a weeklong desert road trip in my camper van, we carried a small commode with a waste holding tank. It was fine, but these days I prefer a simple drop-through seat with a space for a catch bag. It’s more compact and portable and you can toss your (solidified) waste bags in the trash instead searching for a black water dump site.
Specifically, I’m using the Cleanwaste GO Anywhere portable toilet. It’s reasonably small, securely holds your waste bag, and has a mesh “safety net” under the hole to prevent runaway trains. The folding legs are quite secure—perhaps a bit too secure given how much I wrestle to close them—and the weight capacity is 500 pounds. It also mates well with Cleanwaste’s own GO Anywhere toilet kit bags. These contain a waste bag with a solidifying agent, Poo Powder, already loaded in the bag, a zip-locked disposal bag, hand sanitizer, and some toilet paper. The waste bag is big enough that you could use it without the potty, so consider it for backpacking.
A seat, a bag, some solidifying agent let you poop well, poop cleanly, and poop responsibly. And what about pooping privately? I recommend you consider the NEMO Equipment Heliopolis, a pop-up tent, shower stall, rain room, and, if you can sleep standing up, tiny house. Until recently, privacy shelters weren’t on my radar, let alone my gear list, but last summer my family and I were camping in Los Padres National Forest and the public pit toilets were the worst I’ve experienced. I’m not squeamish but these were beyond the pale—fetid, gag-inducing, blood-curdling. A neighboring campsite had a privacy tent, the light went on, and the first thing I did when I got home was to order the NEMO.
So far, I’ve only used it once, on a late-fall overnight in Joshua Tree National Park. JTNP’s pit toilets are clean as these things go, but private rules over public every time. Set up behind a juniper tree downwind from my sleeping tent, the Heliopolis was unobtrusive, even with the bright orange walls. Every time it caught my eye, I smiled a little smugly, like I knew something that other people didn’t. (Let’s ignore how late I was to this party.) In the evening, I stepped inside, zipped up the tall door, and enjoyed being out of the breeze. Without a doubt, it was the most pleasant, least gross public campground constitutional I’ve had. And the downwind location didn’t really matter, because I walked the solidified bag directly to the dumpster. Thanks, Cleanwaste. Thanks, NEMO.
The Heliopolis likely will see more use on group trips than solo missions, serving as a changing room, shower, etc., when privacy is hard to find, and I suspect that others will see it as enchanting as I do. The floor is waterproof and the bottom of the walls are mesh so gray water drains out. There are hooks for threading the hose of a NEMO Helio shower and attaching the nozzle above. There’s a toilet paper holder with a waterproof cover. A large mesh window aids ventilation, an included ceiling light reduces midnight fumbling, and a mesh side pocket holds your phone. There’s even a mesh stash pocket in the roof for your towel. I don’t think I’ll ever stay in a public campground with the NEMO or the porta-potty again.
But what of cat-holing? That’s where a new Crested Butte, Colorado, company called PACT Outdoors comes in. These are the kind of folks who don’t mind talking about human waste, and, indeed, they’ve built their brand around making pooping more responsible. Their $50 PACT kit comes with a shovel, spray sanitizer, biodegradable wipes, and mycelium tablets that help the poop decompose faster. The small shovel is the best I’ve ever used for this purpose. It moves soil quickly and the serrated side cuts easily through hardpack. The TP wipes are shipped as pellets, which open into nine-inch-square towels when sprinkled with a bit of water. They’re thicker than TP, which means you need fewer of them. And while I’m not sticking around to watch the decomposition, I have no doubt that faster breakdown thanks to the mycelium is a good thing.
Obviously, you can make do with a digging stick and a handful of leaves or a rock or snowball, but the PACT kit is neat and tidy and keeps everything in one place, including an export bag should you level up and pack it out. It goes everywhere my truck does and I’ve even stashed a couple of the compressed wipes in my daypack and bike saddlebags. Cause at some point you’re gonna do it, so you might as well do it right.
For more on proper numbing twoing, check out PACT’s guide here.