Human beings create about of one pound of poop per day, and that poop takes upwards of eight months to decompose.
Considering the dramatic increase in outdoor recreationalists over the past decades, that means there's a whole lotta poop stewing in the soil of the places we love to adventure the most.
Sure, burying your waste in a properly selected and properly dug cathole location can help speed up the process, but it's still quite slow and more parks and protected areas are shying away from the controversial cat hole idea.
Which is why the strongly suggested or mandatory use of WAG bags is becoming increasingly common in US National Parks and protected wilderness areas.
In fact, if you plan to trek in places like the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, spend a night at Zion National Park in Utah, or hike Mount Whitney in California, you’re going to need to pack out your poop.
Wait, What Are WAG Bags?
WAG bags are resealable, plastic bags that are designed to carry human fecal matter out of wilderness areas.
WAG, which stands for Waste Alleviating Gel, refers to the NASA-engineered 'poo powder' that comes inside (or is added to) the bag, which gelatinizes human waste and prevents odors from escaping.
WAG bags have long been used on glacial expeditions, in canyons, on beaches, in rocky terrain and when sleeping suspended up in a portaledge while rock climbing. In other words, when there are no responsible places to bury excrement in a cathole.
Why Use a WAG bag?
More humans wandering around in the wilderness means an increase in human waste ending up in the ecosystem.
Since our fecal matter is rife with various viruses and bacteria, improperly disposed of human waste can negatively impact waterways and soil systems and harm plants and animals.
Beyond that, it is unsightly to see human waste — or evidence of it, like toilet paper — along a trail. Too often catholes are improperly dug.
Using a WAG bag eliminates the chance of these human waste problems occurring to the places we love to adventure. If an area is heavily trafficked or an environment is sensitive, it is often necessary to pack out human poop.
How to Use a WAG bag?
WAG bags are pretty straightforward to use, and as a first timer, I found it to be far less weird than I thought it would be.
I didn't have to waste precious time attempting to dig a cathole in rooty, rocky soil; the cleanup was quick and easy; and I didn’t have any second thoughts about whether I buried my feces deep enough to keep critters from consuming it.
It felt like a win all around, though I admit I still feel weird about adding more plastic to the landfill (more on that later . . . )
Most WAG bag bundles come with two bags, one for emptying your bowels into, and the other to seal the used bag in.
Some WAG bags even include a small amount of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and/ or a wet wipe, but I find it best to bring some backup tissue for the job.
Find a place to poop, open both bags — it's easier to have one bag lining the other from the start — and set the bags on the ground.
If you can't get the bags to stand up on their own (some outer bags have a seam on the bottom), set it between two rocks or sticks to prop it upright and do your duty.
Toss your used TP in the bag and seal it up. Options for where to store used WAG bags include a designated ditty bag, or a hard-sided container such as an empty Pringles can, a plastic PVC pipe, or old Nalgene bottle (clearly marked, of course). You may want to consider carrying used WAG bags in an outside mesh pocket on your pack to separate it from the rest of your gear.
WAG bags can then be disposed of in garbage cans bound for the landfill, but not in privies or composting toilets as the plastic bags are not meant to decompose there.
Some WAG bags claim to have enough gelling powder for three or four uses, though I found that opening a WAG bag that had been sealed all day was an act of courage.
It's recommended by some outdoor enthusiasts that your rodent hang your WAG bags in the evening to keep critters from coming to inspect and potentially bite into the bags.
What About the Smell?
While the poo powder combined with the double layer of plastic on the WAG bags is designed to trap the odor inside, I found there was still a hint of scent, even after it was sealed.
Because of this, I found it better to seal my WAG bags yet again, with an empty Pringles container, or a large ditty bag for longer missions.
Anyone who’s cared for a dog has already dealt with poop in a not too different manner. Maybe that helped me get over the mental hurdle.
But doesn't pooping in a giant plastic bag and wrapping it in a second plastic bag to then put into a landfill seem wasteful, too?
According to CleanWaste, self-proclaimed originators of the WAG bag, their biodegradable bags break down in the landfill within a few months and contain waste products to a prescribed area.
While others, like Executive Director of the Ohio Conservation Federation, Matt Misicka (and myself) believe we could develop more effective and environmentally friendly practices than putting human waste in a plastic WAG bag.
But, until we can agree on a better solution, we should all follow the rules laid out by each national park and public land management agency.
It seems like the next item up for debate in the UL backpacking forums will not only be about how much your food weighs going into your trek, but also how much it weighs coming out.
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker.