‘Pooped out’ at the Grand Canyon: Should hikers have to pack ‘it’ out?

Park staff considers requiring backcountry hikers to pack out their waste

Zack Summit, from Prescott, Ariz., and a couple of his friends went backpacking in the Grand Canyon in early April. Overall they had a pleasant time. But Summit isn’t likely to forget his one early-morning surprise.


Impacts to the national park’s backcountry from human waste and campsites are increasing, threatening the ecosystem, park staffers say. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

“Actually when I went out in the morning at Granite Rapids to dig my hole and do my business, I picked a great spot and, lo and behold, a couple inches down, there was toilet paper,” Summit recalled. “So I had to move on. That’s what you get for going for a toilet with a view in Grand Canyon.”

The scenario is increasingly common, particularly in remote areas where backcountry toilets don’t exist and where sandy soils are less than ideal for human-waste disposal. And so, as Grand Canyon National Park moves through the lengthy process of revamping its backcountry management plan, staffers are considering one proposal that could cause quite a stink: In some remote areas, backpackers could be asked to bag it up, and pack it out.

Disproportionate impacts

Vanya Pryputniewicz is an outdoor-recreation planner at Grand Canyon who has worked most recently on the park’s rivermanagement plan, an effort separate from the backcountry-management plan that has recently gone through the revision process.

As part of her job, Pryputniewicz monitors the impacts of the regulations that govern the behaviors of river runners, mostly, and makes recommendations to tweak them if unwanted impacts show up on the land.

Researchers at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and Prescott College, a little father south, have been analyzing the monitoring data that Pryputniewicz and her team have been collecting. And they’ve noticed an interesting trend.

“The backcountry access sites that are shared between backpackers and river runners are the ones where we see most of the impacts,” Pryputniewicz said. “We see far greater incidences of improperly-disposedof human waste, ground fires, and sometimes … unwanted campsites in sensitive areas.”

On the surface, it looks like visitation in Grand Canyon is comparable between backpackers and river runners. In 2010, for example, there were 37,000 backpackers with overnight permits and 22,500 river runners. But river runners’ trips are generally longer, so by far they spend more “user nights” in the canyon – about 10 times as many as backpackers.

Still, their impacts pale compared to those of backpackers. That’s due partly to the fact that river trips carry toilets with them as they travel through the corridor; they don’t leave their poop, or their toilet paper, behind.

Not so in the backcountry. And the more one gets off the beaten trails, the more it’s likely to be a problem.

“In the corridor we have conceded to a higher level of visitation and have managed appropriately by providing trails, rangers, ranger stations and toilets,” Pryputniewicz said. “At places like Hance, Cardenas, South Canyon and Granite, we don’t have toilets and we don’t have a big ranger presence. And that’s where we see the problems.”

Of all people in the park, Pryputniewicz may well know the most about the issue of human waste. She likes to joke she has an imaginary degree that’s not highly coveted.

“In my widely varied and checkered career past,” she says, “my greatest achievement may be earning a master of fecal arts as a result of nearly a decade of maintaining backcountry toilets at Grand Canyon.”

Pryputniewicz says there are several ways to tackle the waste problem: the park could build more toilets, or backpackers could bag their waste and pack it out.

The former idea has Zack Summit’s vote.

“The idea of adding 10 pounds of fecal matter to my backpack and walking out with it in 70-degree heat really would affect my experience,” he said. “It would really make it less pleasant to be here, and so I think maybe more composting toilets down in the backcountry would be a really excellent solution.”

But Pryputniewicz says adding infrastructure like toilets can impede the wilderness quality of backcountry areas. And then there’s the intrusion and the staggering expense of river trips, hiking trips or helicopter flights to rid those toilets of the accumulated waste.

Besides, if climbing out of the Grand Canyon with a 10-pound bag of your own poop sounds distasteful, imagine being the staffer charged with emptying the backcountry toilets. At the ever-popular Indian Gardens, for example, Pryputniewicz once cleared out 22,000 pounds of human waste.

“You do that one with mules,” she explained. “You get your mules together and ride down the trail … and then you get on your Tyvek suit and booties and a mask and goggles and big rubber gloves, and you open up the bottom of the toilet, get a shovel and start digging out the waste. And there’s a lot of handling involved. And it’s very intimate.”

Time to think

A mandate to pack out your poop in the backcountry isn’t unheard of: Mount Rainier and Denali national parks, Mount Whitney, the U.S. Forest Service’s Mount Shasta and Mount Hood, and even the BLM’s Paria Canyon near the Arizona/Utah border all require people to pack out their poop.

In fact, it’s such a popular requirement that there are three manufacturers of human- waste removal systems, commonly called “WAG bags” after one of the companies. The others are ReStop and Biffy Bags.

Even if the pack-it-out rule does reach Grand Canyon’s backcountry, visitors will have time to warm up to the idea. The park expects to come out with a draft of the backcountry-management plan in spring 2013, and the public will get ample chance to comment on whatever waste-management strategies staffers end up recommending.

Meanwhile, Pryputniewicz hopes Grand Canyon’s backcountry users will consider what they’re willing to do to preserve their wilderness experience – and the beauty of an incomparable area.

From June 2012.