Human poop in the woods: Weekend conference in Golden aims to wipe out growing problem

You know what's gross? Poop. You know what's even grosser? Poop in your water.

How to prevent that from happening will be the subject of an outdoorsy conference at the American Alpine Club in Golden this weekend. The conference is cleverly titled Exit Strategies -- as in, the poop exits your... nevermind.

The Boulder-based outdoor ethics organization Leave No Trace is one of the conference's sponsors. Ben Lawhon, LNT's education director, says mitigating human poop in the woods is "front burner" for them.

"A lot of people associate us with, 'pack it in, pack it out,'" he says. "You walking down a trail and seeing a couple of cigarette butts might detract from your experience, but you catching an illness from fecal matter in your water source is a whole different animal."

A whole different, super-gross, super-important animal.

Lawhon says the problem of poop in the wilderness is growing as more and more people recreate outdoors. Though there have been no comprehensive poop-counting surveys or studies of how many people get sick from drinking poop-water, Lawhon says common sense and anecdotal evidence point to an increasing issue.

"Just look at the population growth," he says. "There are more people, and more people outside -- and knowing all those people are going to poop at some point, we need effective ways to deal with it."

So what does Lawhon suggest? "Go before you go," he says.

If that's not an option, or if you're planning to be in the wilderness for days at a time, Lawhon suggests you bring a shovel and, when nature calls, dig a six-to-eight-inch "cathole," which Wikipedia delicately defines as "a pit for human feces." Squat over said cathole and do your bid-nass. If you have a Ziploc bag handy, put your used toilet paper in that, carry it back to civilization and then flush it down the first toilet you can find. If you don't, bury it in the cathole with your poo. But be sure to bury it deep; animals like to dig that shit stuff up, Lawhon says.

If the whole Ziploc-bag thing grosses you out, there are several handy-dandy poop bags on the market, such as the RESTOP, that claim to reduce bad smells and spillage.

Of course, the biggest problem isn't getting poop all over your expensive REI backpack. It's getting it all up in a water source -- which can happen when humans poop on the ground and leave it there to be washed into a nearby stream or river. "If somebody poops in or near a water source and the next day, another group comes in and that's where they get their water, that can lead to all kinds of disease," Lawhon says.

If you're thinking, "But animals poop in the woods!" -- stop right there. Human poop and animal poop couldn't be more different, Lawhon says. "Animals poop in the woods all the time, but they don't eat McDonald's and they don't take antibiotics," he says. "They're pooping out stuff from the natural environment. We're pooping out stuff from 7-Eleven."

The goal of the conference -- which is also sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, among others -- is to look at current best practices and start a dialogue about whether those practices really are effective, Lawhon says. After all, somebody has to talk about it or the problem will never be solved.

"If it's human waste, if it's brown and warm and yours, I don't want anything to with it," Lawhon says. "But it's a perennial growing problem."