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Does a Climber S**t in the Woods?

This is a guest post by Amber Thornton. The original can be found here
We all know the answer to that. Yes. As do hikers, picnickers, cyclists, trail runners... The remote and wild nature of many climbing sites usually means that there are no toilets. Nature calls, shit happens... Crappy puns aside (ahem) I suppose the real question is, ‘does a climber shit responsibly in the woods?’

Human waste under the boulders in Fontainebleau.

My partner and I have spent a fair bit of the last two years on the road, wandering from crag to crag around Europe. We have done this living in a VW, Golf estate not Transporter, and so a little on the small side (although it’s a tidy upgrade from the Renault Clio). It definitely doesn’t have a toilet. It actually was quite a while before we had to face up to the interesting realities of taking a wild poo, and my first time was pretty funny, but resoundingly, surprisingly, pleasant. There was the odd clencher triggered by noisy wildlife, but on the whole it was a nicer experience than the majority of every day toilet experiences; at one with nature you might say.

​Anyway, it seemed pretty natural to dig a hole and bury everything. Apparently this is not everyone’s go to option. We have seen toilet paper, scattered liberally like skid-marked white and pink confetti behind trees and buildings, under bushes and boulders, and even the odd turd if we’ve been really, really lucky... A big, golden, roughly-walled up cave in Margalef, perhaps a shelter for people and livestock in the past, now houses years of accumulated toilet paper, excrement and a fierce stink, because it doesn’t rain in caves... A surprising rogue poo in a desolate parking area, 2,000m up in the Dolomites... A personal favourite; finally finding an elusive boulder problem in Fontainebleau, only to see a big soggy pile of soiled TP under the sit start.

​Fontainebleau forest seems to suffer particularly from slovenly toilet habits. In a radius out from the car parks there are frequently piles of pastel papers behind, well, anything. On two separate occasions I have topped out a climb to find an actual faeces coiled on top of a boulder. It’s pretty mind-blowing behaviour in a protected natural area that people go to enjoy.

Human waste on top of a boulder in the forest of Fontainebleau.

So, what’s the problem? Well, aside from that it’s totally gross...

  • Aesthetically, human waste and its accompaniments are pretty unappealing.
  • Although toilet paper can biodegrade, it can take years to do so, effectively constituting litter until this point; in extremely cold or dry environments, such as caves or deserts, it may never do so [1].
  • Human faeces can survive in temperate soil for over a year [2]. This means that you could become ill from norovirus, hep A, Giardia parasites or any of over a hundred more bacteria, protozoans and viruses that may be present in someone else’s matured leavings [3]. The more that people use an area, the higher the potential for disease.
  • Urine is considered to have little direct impact on vegetation, soil or people [4], so as long as you pee off the beaten track, and don’t discard any toilet paper, you’re golden!
  • Human waste increases nutrient levels in the environment. This can cause changes in the number and types of species, and generally negatively impact an ecosystem. The greater concentration of waste, the greater the impacts.
  • Like human waste, dog excrement also causes changes within an ecosystem, can spread disease [5], and is generally really grim to find.

Human waste under the boulders in Fontainebleau.

Finally, the solution. This depends to a degree where you are and in what situation, however in all cases it is better to go before you reach the crag - at home or en route. Public toilets, garages, supermarkets often have toilets, shopping centres always seem to - rules that seem to apply to most of Europe, at any rate. Secondly, if you have to go...

  • The recommended method is to dig a ‘cat hole’, a pit of at least 15cm depth at a minimum of 60m from any water source [2; 4]. Take a small trowel. Do the deed, then fill it back in and leave it looking as you found it or better. More detailed information can be found on sites such as ‘Leave No Trace’.
  • If you are using toilet paper, and cannot take it with you, bury it thoroughly. Single ply decomposes quicker than double, unbleached quicker than bleached [1]. Tampons don’t degrade well, so always take them with you, as well as wet wipes, condoms and anything else. No one wants to find any of these breaking their fall on a boulder problem or crowning their child’s sand castle. Burning is not recommended [4].
  • Pick up your dog’s waste too and dispose of it appropriately.

In conclusion, the less you can go in the wild, the better. Nature-poos may be a necessary, and for some, enjoyable evil, but it’s not great for other people or the environment. There is very little research out there on how human waste affects other people in a natural area, and even less on how it affects the environment. Despite this, it is easy enough to see that if a lot of people are defecating irresponsibly in a natural area it is liable to be closed to the public.

This is aimed more at day-tripping climbers rather than alpinists and big wall climbers who are climbing within more specialist situations, and hopefully already know how to manage their waste. If, however, you are struggling to deal with your shit in a more extreme situation, ‘Leave No Trace’ gives a good guide to this too.

​Thanks for reading, and remember: you are not a bear.

[1] Bridle, K. L. & Kirkpatrick, J. B., 2004. An analysis of the breakdown of paper products (toilet paper, tissues and tampons) in natural environments, Tasmania, Australia. Journal of Environmental Management, 74 (2005), 21-30
[2] Cilimburg, A., Monz, C. & Kehoe, S., 2000. Wildlife recreation and human waste: a review of problems, practices, and concerns. Environmental Management, 25 (6), 587-598
[3] Cowgill, P., 1971. Too many people of the Colorado River. The Environmental Journal, 45, 10-14
[4] LNT, 2016. Priniple 3: Dispose of Waste Properly. Leave No Trace. Available online: https://lnt.org/learn/principle-3 [accessed 04/02/2016]
[5] Taylor, K. et al, 2005. Dogs, access and nature conservation. English Nature, Report number: 649