June 2008-Gear Review
Outdoor Waste Systems
By Kristen Greenaway
Wilderness ethics and minimum-impact camping practices have made great headway since the 1970s, and the Leave No Trace (LNT) organization and its message of wilderness stewardship have gained widespread popularity. Many concepts promoted by LNT are now de rigueur, like using camp stoves instead of campfires, staying on the trail and refraining from digging drainage ditches around your tent. Changes in the way we deal with human waste in the wilderness have been progressing at a slower rate. It’s a topic that not everyone wants to talk about it, which could be part of the difficulty when trying to address the problem.
Pack It In, Pack It Out
As more of us discover the joys of kayak camping, the more responsibility we have to protect wilderness areas that are not as easily accessible, and thus more pristine. According to LNT, the use of National Forest System primitive areas and wilderness tripled during the 1960s, and public land visitation continues to increase. Recreation visits to U.S. Forest Service lands have jumped from 4.6 million in 1924 to 205 million in 2006. Similarly, recreation visits to National Park Service areas went from 33 million in 1950 to more than 275 million visits in 2007.
That’s a lot of people relieving themselves in the wild! Because few wilderness visitors voluntarily take on the task of “doing the right thing” by packing out their own waste, many national parks and water trails have had to address the problem by imposing rules about waste disposal. If you’re river-canyon rafting in the U.S., packing out waste has long been compulsory. The pack-it-out policy kicked off in Denali National Park in the late 1970s with a highly successful program that cleaned up campsites along climbing routes. Use of the Clean Mountain Can, a portable and durable toilet system, has been mandatory for climbers using Mt. McKinley’s high camp since 2003. In New Zealand’s Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park, a similar device is now recommended for use in snowfields above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet). Campers at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area are required to have a self-contained “commercial waste bag containment system,” which you can either take with you or buy at the visitors center. The fact that Glen Canyon’s Lake Powell is a reservoir, and the lakeshore moves dramatically in elevation depending on the season, means that when digging a hole and burying your waste on land at one time of the year, you run the risk of having it in a source of drinking water not too long afterward.
To avoid pollution of water sources while keeping the wilderness a desirable place to visit and minimizing the possibility of spreading disease, just what should we do with our human waste?
If you’re near the ocean and weather permits, the best advice in regard to urinating is to do so in the sea to help dilute and disperse your impact. If inland, pour water over your urine to dilute it, or urinate on the sunny side of a rock or in the middle of a trail. And, really, you don’t need to use toilet paper if you’re just urinating.
For solid human waste, a few methods used to be standards: digging a cathole, the most widely accepted method of disposal; smearing your waste over a rock, where the sunlight will aid decomposition; and going directly in the sea or exposed tidelands. All of these methods are now under question, including from LNT and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Catholes slow the rate of decomposition, the rock-smear accelerates decomposition but spoils the landscape for subsequent visitors, and solid waste in the ocean may be washed up on shore.
If you really want to adopt a stewardship ethic and help retain a pristine environment, then packing it out is the only way to go. The waste-removal systems on the market today are not like those used a few years ago, which were invariably bulky and heavy. Back in the early river-running days, most folks were aware of the old “groover,” a military surplus ammunition box that left grooves on your rear end after you’d sat on it.
A good number of today’s waste-removal systems were developed as a result of the climbing community’s effort to address the problem of waste that had accumulated at popular rock climbing sites and alpine routes. Designed by climbers to keep weight and bulk to a minimum, they will work well for cruising kayakers on paddling trips, whether for a day, a weekend or longer.
WAG BAG “Toilet in a Bag” Waste Kits
by Phillips Environmental Products
WAG stands for “Waste Alleviation and Gelling.” WAG BAG waste kits include one large waste bag, a resealable disposal bag, a small fold of toilet paper, a hand sanitizer and a proprietary waste-treatment powder mixture. The powder is made up of an organic decay catalyst, a perfume-free odor neutralizer and a non-toxic polymer-based absorbent (similar to what’s in baby diapers) that gels liquid waste and encapsulates solid waste.
WAG BAGs are designed to work with Phillips’ folding toilet (too bulky to fit in most kayaks), and a variety of other outdoor waste systems (including some reviewed here). They are very easy to use on their own—you just spread the waste bag out and squat. The puncture-resistant bags are large enough to wrap around your rear end, ensuring full privacy and a no-splash zone. Once you have done your business, twist the bag up, pop it inside the smaller disposal bag and stash it away in whatever container you have. WAG BAGs are biodegradable and approved for landfill disposal.
I found the WAG BAG so reliable and simple, I could use it inside my tent. Each bag can take 32 ounces (960 ml) of liquid and solid waste, so there’s plenty of room for multiple use.
WAG BAGs are available online and from most outdoor stores. They are permitted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for use on rivers and in wilderness areas where toilets are required.
WAG BAG Waste Kits $2.75 each; 12-pack, $38.95 (Pricing at retail outlets may vary, but is often less)
Waste Case Disposal System
by Metolius Climbing
The Waste Case Disposal System from Metolius Climbing, a manufacturer of rock climbing gear, utilizes the WAG BAG waste kits. The case is made from durathane material, which makes it light (10.6 ounces, 300 g), flexible and durable. The top of the case rolls down and clips like a dry bag. The roll-down top is made of coated fabric, but the seams are not sealed to make the bag fully waterproof. An application of seam sealer would do the trick. Two loops of webbing provide a means of hanging the bag up in camp or clipping it into kayak deck lines. The case is small enough to fit through almost any hatch for storage below decks. I had a full Metolius case stored inside my boat for over a week, and you never would have known it—and its precious cargo—was there. In warm climates, I suggest emptying the case earlier to prevent odors from accumulating.
The Metolius cases are a useful size, at 500 cubic inches (8.2 l), with dimensions of 15 inches tall by 6.5 inches in diameter (380 mm–165 mm) and can hold just over a week’s worth of used WAG BAGs.
Metolius Waste Case Disposal System $59.50 (includes six WAG BAG waste kits)
by Eric Bell
You may recognize the Jinker’s plastic pipe construction, as DIYers have been creating these types of portable waste systems for years; although, unlike the Jinker, homemade versions aren’t always airtight. Its construction allows for two methods of waste disposal. You can use the WAG BAG waste kits (or newspaper) and stash them down the tube. If you’re bolder than I am, you can use the Jinker directly as a toilet. With its 3-inch (7.5 cm) inner diameter, you’ll need to be a pretty good shot—and upon your return home afterward, you’ll have to hose it out carefully and sanitize it.
The Jinker’s dimensions are generous: Its overall length is 23 inches (58 cm) with an internal dimension of 3 inches (7.5 cm). It weighs in at 1 pound, 11 ounces (766 g). If you don’t have room to store it inside your boat, it could easily fit under your deck bungees. You certainly don’t have to worry about the Jinker’s airtightness—twist caps on both ends ensure a secure, odor-free lock.
The Jinker $30
by Watchful Eye Designs
The newspaper wrap is one of the most basic methods of waste collection and removal. All you need are sheets of newspaper to collect the waste and plastic bags to contain the rolled up packages. The job of keeping the waste and its odors isolated isn’t one you’d want to trust to any resealable bag.
OPSAK resealable bags from Watchful Eye Designs are airtight, odor-proof and made of a transparent and highly puncture-resistant plastic film. The seal has proven watertight in immersions tests under pressure for as long as two weeks. The company is well known among adventure racers for its ALOKSAK, a resealable air- and watertight bag often used by racers for protecting their maps and charts.
The bags are reusable and recyclable, but they’re not designed as a disposable part of a waste system, as the WAG BAG is. They are well suited for a newspaper wrap waste system, keeping the wraps isolated until they can be disposed of in an outhouse or a flush toilet. The newspaper wrap, easily the cheapest personal waste system, is best suited where your newspaper can be spread out on a dry surface. If you’ve ever worked in a deli or had to wrap up breakables for a household move, you’ll have no problem securely wrapping up a tidy package and popping it inside an OPSAK.
The resealable OPSAK comes in three sizes with three to a pack for the smaller sizes and two to a pack for the bigger one. I tested the midsize (12.5 inches by 20 inches) and found ample room for three or four day’s worth of waste. The bags are easy to fill and close just like a ziplock. Instructions on the bag recommend you squeeze as much air out of the bag as possible and run your fingers along the closed seal twice to ensure a positive closure. Always double-check that the bag has been sealed—sometimes I found it hadn’t. Once sealed, the bags are easy to stow or manipulate into any spare space inside your boat.
OPSAK $7.79 (9 x 10 3-pack); $10.59 (12.5 x 20 3-pack); $13.29 (28 x 20 2-pack)
Restop 1 & Restop 2
by American Innotek, Inc.
These two waste disposal systems come from American Innotek, Inc.: Restop 1 for liquid waste; and Restop 2, for both liquid and solid waste.
Restop 1 is a small, disposable plastic bag containing polymers and enzymes that absorb up to 20 ounces (600 ml) of urine and convert it into a semisolid gel. The bag’s wide opening with its semirigid rim allows for easy use by men or women. An integral funnel acts as a one-way valve to prevent spillage should the used bag accidentally be dropped before the closure is sealed. Deodorants in the bag eliminate unpleasant odors. During my tests, the Restop 1 was very easy to use, seal and stash away safely in my boat.
Restop 2 has a silvery outer bag, which has a ziplock seal, and is made of a three-ply, gas-impervious plastic laminate. Its inner bag extends to wrap over a commode seat or can be spread on the ground to collect waste, which I did in my tests. The gray inner bag has a funnel-like, one-way valve design to seal in odors and waste, and polymers and enzymes deodorize and break down solids and liquid waste. When you’re done, cinch the inner bag closed with the strap built into the opening, stuff it back into the outer bag and secure it with the ziplock closure. Very quick and simple and, like the WAG BAG, can be safely used inside a tent and used multiple times. Both Restop 1 and Restop 2 bags contain some toilet paper and an antiseptic wipe.
A five-pack of Restop 2 bags comes with a Wilderness Waste Containment Pouch—a mesh bag that will hold up to five used Restop 2 bags. I also had no trouble fitting used Restop 2 bags inside the Metolius Waste Case and could fit two or three inside the Jinker. Restop bags are not biodegradable, but their treatment of waste meets requirements for disposal in landfills. Both Restop bags are available from most outdoor -retailers.
Restop 1 $3.99 (2-pack); $7.99 (4-pack)
Restop 2 $2.95 (1 bag); $14.95 (5-pack and pouch)
Porta Potty Lite
by Porta Potty Lite
If you’re setting up a base camp for an extended stay, or paddling in a group and a communal loo makes good sense, then the Porta Potty Lite may be a good option. The system consists of a rolled corrugated plastic sheet that serves as a 14-inch (36 cm) pedestal, and two 12-inch (30 cm) circular plastic seats that store tucked one inside the other.
Overall, the Porta Potty Lite takes up more room than any of the other systems tested here; however, it’s easy to set up and is surprisingly sturdy. Place one of the rings upside down on the ground, unroll the plastic sheet and set it inside the ring’s outer lip. Place one of the supplied 2.5 ml polymer bags inside the pedestal with six inches or so of the bag hanging over the pedestal’s lip, and set the second ring right side up on the top of the pedestal. Presto—you have a very comfortable seated toilet system.
When you have finished using the Potty, drop in an effervescent sanitizing tablet. To store the used bags away inside your boat, if you can’t dispose of them same day, you will need to ensure that you have a very good tie or knot around the mouth of the polymer bag, as they do not have a watertight closure system. The bag is too large to fit in a Jinker, but it could be stored inside an OPSAK or Metolius Waste Case.
When testing the Porta Potty Lite, it made sense to use the same polymer bag for a full day, especially if I didn’t break up camp for a day or two. The seat doesn’t have a lid, so placing a bit of driftwood across the seat or a second bag stretched over the top would close the Potty between uses.
This is also the only system tested where you don’t have to squat, so it was definitely the most comfortable waste system reviewed and could be a boon to paddlers with a few aches and pains.
The polymer waste bags supplied with the Porta Potty Lite are very tough, but unfortunately, they are not biodegradable. The WAG BAGs do fit the Porta Potty Lite pedestal, however, which would be the most environmentally sensitive way to take advantage of the comfort of the Potty.
Porta Potty Lite $24.95 (contact the company for quantity pricing for the polymer bags)
Porta Potty Lite
Wrapping It Up
All in all, you have a variety of systems here to choose from, suitable to a variety of usages and depending upon how much extra gear you wish to carry. Overall, I would have to recommend the WAG BAG system—with any of the storage cases, the Porta Potty Lite or by itself—as it is biodegradable and the magic waste-treatment powder minimizes the smell and spill factor.
The growing awareness of environmental sensitivity in relation to human waste and what to do with it, is helping ensure that the wilderness we enjoy retains the qualities that draw us to it. Paddling trails that are making an effort to address or prevent the damage done by human waste are now specifying that some form of waste-removal system be used. The Roanoke River Partners Trail, a local paddling trail in North Carolina, offers 12 camping platforms along its beautifully scenic winding river trails, and packing a personal human waste system with you is compulsory. As a result of the trail regulations, the camping platforms and surrounding waters are pristine. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail, an historic 740-mile water trail through New York, Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire and Maine, is considering some sort of packing-out system, particularly for its campsites located in flood zones. Just as trail organizations are recognizing the value of removing human waste from the trail, we can personally take the initiative to adopt a similar practice even where the removal is not required.
I have always been a cathole person myself. Now, having accumulated some firsthand experience with what is out there on the market in terms of waste disposal systems, I feel no need or excuse to ever dig a hole in the wild again. If you can afford the gear you need to go paddling, there is no excuse not to pack something as cheap as newspaper and a ziplock bag. Any waste system, such as those reviewed here, should be a standard piece of equipment to add to your trip’s gear list. With these very cost-effective systems readily available on the market, we have the means to protect not only the wilderness but also the health of those paddling and camping with us and after us. It’s the right thing to do.
Kristen Greenaway has been relieving herself in the great outdoors for 46 years and now packs a personal waste system in her kayak. She would like to thank her one-year-old for all his help in contributing to this article.
Afterword: Kristen recently competed in the 2008 WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, the 300-plus-mile kayak race from Tampa Bay to Key Largo, Florida. She made a personal pledge to pack everything out. In the interest of weight reduction, Kristen took five WAG BAGs and a mid-sized OPSAK resealable bag. She managed to dispose of her used WAG BAGs at each racecourse checkpoint. Kristen came in first in her class (for both men and women) and beat the women’s record (which she previously held) by 22 hours, finishing the 320-mile race in five days, 10 hours and 15 minutes.