How the AT Works: What Happens AFTER You Poop in the Woods

There’s plenty of information out there about the process of getting what’s inside to the outside: from Everyone Poops to How to Shit in the Woods.  There is also detailed information on the web for you libra-phobes.

But you might not know as much about what happens after you’ve done your business.  Why should you care?   Because waste disposal on our busy Trail can consume a lot a Trail Club’s operational resources.  It’s a significant issue for us; that’s why whenever you have more than three A.T. volunteers gathered together, within 15 minutes the conversation will turn to shit.  So to get you up to speed on backwoods sanitation, here’s another of our backstage tours of the Trail: This post will introduce you to the “World Beyond the Porcelain”.

 Go/No Go

In caves, and high elevation areas out west, hikers are expected to pack out their waste. The ‘wag bag” (WAG=Waste Alleviating and Gelling) is a commercial method widely available, but in the temperate A.T. forestlands we don’t have to go that far–yet. I will predict, however, that if current visitor trends on the A.T. continue, there will be efforts to encourage (if not actually mandate) packing out our solid waste at some locations. But for now, let’s see what happens to the stuff after you drop it off–and how we hikers can help that process along.

At most A.T. overnight sites (and even at some trailheads) there is some sort of structure (privy, outhouse, chum, etc) that is intended for the deposition and (at least partial) containment of human waste. Why do we need to isolate waste? The esthetics of sight and smell aside, poop can contain microorganisms that can make you very sick if it gets into your food and/or water (urine from healthy people is sterile). We are conditioned from childhood to avoid our own waste. We expect the waste disposal process to be well-ordered and carefully hidden behind walls and in underground pipes and tanks. What happens when it can’t be?

Cool Cats

cathole-Ben Lawhorn,

Photo: Ben Lawhorn,

In places where there is low use (known as “dispersed” in the jargon), you can dig a cathole in the top 6 inches of the soil, drop in your business, cover it up and keep on truckin’ (this does take practice, by the way). If you’ve hiked in Tennessee, however, you’ll notice that at many overnight sites (i.e not dispersed) there are no outhouses.  It can be pretty difficult to walk around in some areas without stepping on someone’s shit. I’m not certain of the chain of management decisions that have led up to this–and personally, it grosses me out. But maybe that’s just because I’m an uptight New Englander (those Puritan roots run deep).

On the other hand if you compare a bathroom at the local 7-11 that sees at least a regular (if somewhat cursory) cleaning, to a backcountry privy that hasn’t been cleaned since the day it was hauled up the mountain and assembled, you may understand why some hikers avoid privies altogether and prefer to do their business in the woods.  If done correctly, in an appropriate location, a cathole is a very sustainable way to dispose of your deposits–the problem is, few people seem to be able (or want) to get it right.


Further, if you do a bit of research on various state sanitation codes (local codes apply on much of the A.T.), you’ll find that legally, anything you would call a toilet needs to empty into a waterproof tank (like a Porta Potty) or be connected to an approved septic or sewer system. Put more directly, in most jurisdictions, dumping untreated human waste in or on the ground is not permitted. Perhaps in most backcountry settings, the amount of waste is assumed not to be enough to warrant the attention of the local health board–but we know better. The stuff needs to be kept away from eating and sleeping areas in a manner that prevents it from being dispersed back into those areas by people or animals. Even more importantly, it needs to be kept out of the water supply.

 How Big a Problem Is It?

Cat holes and wag bags aside, let’s assume most of us prefer to sit down in a reasonably private setting to take care of most our our personal waste disposal business. If this activity takes place at a fairly popular location where you are spending the night (say 6 people are there pretty much every night for 4-5 months) that comes to about 900 dumps over the course of a season. An approximate average is 0.7 lbs (you can look it up) per dump: 630lbs. Per season.  While that sounds like a pretty big pile of shit, it’s probably not even enough to fill a pickup truck.  However, it doesn’t just evaporate–keep reading…

What are the options for a Trail Club with an inventory of privies? You can bury it. Or treat it in some way to render it non-pathogenic, then burn, disperse, or carry the remainder out. Back during relatively low use, less regulated days, we simply dug a pit as deep as possible, and put an outhouse on top. When the pit got full, we dug another one and moved the outhouse to the new hole. Dirt from the new hole was used to cover the top of the old one. Waste, sitting in a hole under the ground, decays very, very slowly.  The relatively cold and minimally oxygenated underground environment means there are only very slow natural processes available to break down the waste and consume or deactivate harmful bacteria or viruses. To put it bluntly, we were creating not very effective “holding tanks” for waste that could make us sick and contaminate water supplies–sometimes many of them at a single campsite.

Sherman Brook Campsite, MA

Sherman Brook Campsite, MA

Long term environmental responsibility aside, busy campsites also began to run out of flat places to site a privy. In most of the northern areas of the Trail, digging new pits on a regular basis in what passes for soil at Trail elevations was becoming extremely time consuming.

The Modern Era

In the 80’s some trail clubs began to experiment with ways to encourage the growth of “friendly” microorganisms, worms and insects to consume poop-dwelling pathogens–making the pile safer to disperse in the natural environment. Other clubs worked out ways to naturally heat the waste (by bulking, drying and composting) to a temperature that would kill most microorganisms. The remaining material could be dispersed or packed out.

By the early 2000’s, most clubs in New England had installed or adapted their more heavily used existing privies to either a moderate temperature “mouldering” process or a high temperature (+90°F) “batch bin” process that allows the remaining product to be safely returned to the environment, burnt on site, or packed out.

The sweet spot for enhancing these processes is a range of temperature, humidity, and available oxygen that does not exist in a typical pit privy. Waste needs to be on the ground (or in a bin), relatively warm, not compacted into a solid mass and relatively dry.

 How to Do Your Doodo

Many privies now come with instructions. Read and follow them. For some, reducing the amount of urine in the pile is preferred (it also reduces the smell considerably). Some moisture is OK, but too much can pack things together and slow the process. Peeing in the woods a reasonable distance from the campsite is generally the best option (Note–getting up at night and peeing from the front of the shelter is not considered “a reasonable distance”). The minor amount of urine added to the bin when pooping is not usually a problem.

To reduce compaction, allow air circulation, and add carbon to the process, most mouldering privies use some sort of “bulking agent” added to the pile. This can be duff from the forest floor or bark chips, or wood shavings brought in by volunteers. Rather than having to try and mix this material into a big gloppy pile of shit with a shovel, it’s much easier if a hiker tosses in a handful when they are done with their dump. There will be a bucket in the outhouse to hold the bulking–it’s not for trash.

Laurel Ridge, MA

Laurel Ridge, MA

Mouldering–The Slow Boat

Mouldering or composting privies can be identified by a bin or crib upon which they sit. This holds the waste on or above the ground so it can be treated either by slower natural processes or by (slightly) faster, higher temperature, human-managed composting. There are usually multiple bins or compartments. The “active’ bin is under the outhouse receiving new waste, while old waste is decomposing in the “resting” bin(s). This resting period can be anywhere from several months to more than a year, depending on the local environment and the process used. For mouldering privies, using natural temperatures and extend time periods (6-12 months), the resting waste is fully decomposed, free of pathogens, relatively dry and is reduced considerably in volume. It can be spread thinly nearby, buried or packed out–then the now empty bin is used for active deposition, while the formerly active (now full) one rests.

Faster and Hotter–Then Dry it Out

In other locations (particularly in the Green and White Mountains, where the season is short and use is high) active composting at high temperatures (90°F and above) is used. This involves a mixing of the waste with bark chips or other high volume carbon source, allowing it to sit in a removable bin–stirring every 4-5 days for about a month–after which the bin is emptied onto a drying rack for 6 more moths to a year. In some systems, urine is diverted, filtered and leached into the soil–shortening drying time. The bark is sifted out and re-used. Because multiple bins are used, this method can handle some fairly high use–as long as there is someone to do all the stirring and shoveling.

Special Places

In some jurisdictions like Smoky Mountain National Park, bringing in material from outside the Park is not permitted for fear of introducing non-native organisms to this World Heritage site. This makes managing a mouldering/composting privy more challenging, as the bulking agent must come only from within the Park. High altitude or particularly cool/damp/shady overnight sites can also make managing the mouldering/composting process tricky. So check the directions at each privy before using it.

What NOT to Dump

Speaking of trash, for some incomprehensible reason, some hikers seem to be of the “out of sight, out of mind” persuasion, and use the privy to dispose of all kinds of things. I even found a sleeping bag stuffed into a moulding privy once (fortunately it apparently had not been there long, and we were able to remove it without the gross factor becoming impossible). ANYTHING in the bin other than bulking material, paper (like TP), and shit will not decompose well (if at all); and when it’s time to remove the composted waste, all of that “undigested” stuff (typically plastic/foil, baby wipes or clothing) needs to be picked out–by hand–before the material is disposed of.  Which frankly is kind of icky.

You will find that A.T. privies have as many variations as shelters do–they can be a tangible expression of a Trail Club’s personality. If you really want to know more about what happens to shit in the woods, check out ATC’s Backcountry Sanitation Manual. It’s a great cookbook, with lots of information, successful methods and case studies.

Happy hiking (and pooping).


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Comments 5

  • JenAR : Feb 9th

    This was a great article, thanks!

  • George : Mar 23rd

    Great information, Very appreciate for everyone!
    Many thanks

  • Patricia Brecht : Nov 28th

    I read that feces decomposes best in the sun…???

  • Cosmo Catalano : Nov 29th

    Hi Patricia,

    Precious little sun at AT campsites. You may be referring to a practice in dry western states where hikers in remote areas are encouraged to spread their feces out in a thin layer on an exposed rock. In this case, sun exposure does quickly dry out the poop and UV light can help reduce the bacteria and virus count.

    Definitely not a practice I recommend on eastern trails. “Go” with a well-constructed cat hole if you want to avoid the privy scene.



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