Canyonlands National Park adds backcountry poop restrictions

 

Starting Sept. 22, the phrase “Pack it in, pack it out” will have a new meaning to visitors at Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah. When nature calls, backcountry campers will no longer be able to simply dig a hole to leave their organic deposit. The park’s remote southeastern Needles District is joining a growing number of Western public lands that require visitors to haul out their own poop.

Chesler Park is one of the areas in Canyonlands Nation Park's Needles District where overnight campers will be asked to pack it all out.

Human waste, as the literature so gently calls it, has long been a problem at some of the country’s more popular public lands. On the trail, hours or even days from a toilet, what’s a functioning human to do? Leave No Trace, the popular guidelines to minimize backcountry travelers’ impact, suggests digging a hole far from any water source and well off the trail. After defecating in this “cathole,” cover it up so animals or your fellow hikers won’t find it. Another method that has largely fallen out of favor, but once preferred for arid climates, is the smear technique. Spread thin like paint, the feces dry up in the sun and blow away. These techniques can work well over a landscape but in high-traffic areas, things can start to get gross.

Multi-day backcountry hikers in Canyonlands' Needles District are required to camp in designated areas and many don’t wander far to relieve themselves. Over the years, given the approximately 5,000 backcountry permits issued annually, the improvised toilets around the backcountry campsites have built up. “You can’t dig a cathole without hitting (another) cathole,” says Paul Henderson, assistant superintendent at Canyonlands. 

In a wet landscape where organic matter decays quickly, such as the forests of the Pacific Northwest, poop from a few thousand people deposited throughout the year might not be such a big deal. But in the desert, with very little rain and limited organic matter in the soil, those brown piles take a long time to decompose.

Like desert environments, alpine ecosystems also have a difficult time digesting piles of human waste. Climbers ascending Mt. Whitney in California and Mt. Rainier in Washington must pack out their poop. Other popular areas, like the Conundrum Hot Springs in the Maroon Bells Wilderness in Colorado, don’t have a poop mandate, but strongly urge hikers to use waste bags that are available at the trailhead.

wagbag.jpg
The WAG Bag has been a popular option for back country waste hauling.

The technology for dealing with backcountry excrement ranges from cheap, do-it-yourself receptacles to multi-part systems available for purchase. A popular method for rock climbers on long, multi-day routes is a PVC pipe glued shut at the bottom and a screw-top closure. Some hikers have taken to strapping this device to their backpacks. They are cheap and easy to make at home, and the sturdy tube means no accidental punctures. WAG Bags, a two-bag system, which come pre-loaded with powders to congeal and deodorize, are a glorified version of the black or green bags that many parks make available for clearing doggy doo. You can use one bag as a glove to scoop up what you’ve left behind and seal it all up in the second. And finally, if squatting and scooping isn’t for you, you can bring the comforts of home on your travels with a fold-up potty.  The basic technology is like the WAG Bags but also provides a foldable chair to sit on.

While day hikers in the Needles District aren’t subject to the new "pack it out" rule, the visitor’s center will have waste bags available for any conservation-minded guests who want to voluntarily participate. The park won’t have a ranger standing at every trailhead to distribute the bags, but still, Henderson says, “we would be thrilled if day hikers would use them as well."

Katie Mast is an editorial intern at High Country News. Image of Chesler Park courtesy the National Park Service via Flickr. WAG Bag image courtesy Patrick Maloney via Flickr.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.