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Gotta Go? Protect Water Quality from Human Waste in the Wilds of Utah

Picture of a hiker in Southern Utah.

The pack-it-in pack-it-out philosophy involves more than just packing out the garbage. Proper disposal of human waste is important in ensuring against the pollution of water sources

By Jared Mendenhall

Utah can’t compete with the nightlife in urban centers like Miami, Manhattan or San Francisco. It’s not what we do here. Utah residents are more likely to be tired from getting an “alpine start” than staying out all night. And, that’s the way we like it.

The mountains and deserts of Utah offer unparalleled access to some of the best outdoor recreation in the United States. With great access comes the great responsibility to recreate sustainably. The pack-it-in pack-it-out philosophy is the standard.

Leaving no trace involves more than just packing out the garbage. Proper disposal of human waste is also an important piece of this puzzle and one that ensures against the pollution of water sources, the negative consequences of someone else finding the waste, and minimizes the spread of disease.

To help Utah residents recreate responsibly outdoors, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Division of Water Quality (DWQ), Utah State University Extension Water Quality, the Southeast Utah Health Department, and the Utah Water Quality Task Force launched GottaGoUtah.Org. This online tool provides outdoor enthusiasts with tips and resources about proper outdoor bathroom etiquette in Utah’s public lands.

In most locations, burying human feces is the best and most effective method to protect water and other visitors. In some cases, however, solid human waste must be packed out.

Forests

In the typical forest, digging a cat hole for one-time use is the acceptable method for disposing of human waste. To dig a cat hole, use a trowel, bury your waste and toilet paper in a hole 6-8 inches deep and 70 big steps away from water, trails and campsites. Don’t forget to bury it all when you are done.

Deserts

Pack out your waste and toilet paper in a WAG (Waste Alleviating and Gelling) bag when visiting the desert. WAG bags are EPA-approved, puncture-proof plastic bags used to capture and carry waste. Think of them as dog bags for humans. They are easy-to-use and sanitary for backpacking and hiking. There are also other systems (including reusable, washable toilet systems) that are bulkier and may be better suited for paddling/rafting trips.

Alpine

In the alpine zone—a region that occurs above the tree line and below the snow line on temperate mountains—WAG bags, again, are the best way to deal with human waste. In these fragile, rocky areas, digging an appropriate cat hole is difficult. If your trip is taking you to higher altitudes, come prepared to pack out your waste.

RV Camping

Dump RV waste, including sewage in black water tanks and wastewater in gray water tanks, at a dump station. Use our Utah RV dump station map to find one near you.

Graphic describing how to dispose of human waste in the great outdoors

As more and more people enjoy parks and protected areas around Utah, packing out human waste is likely to become a more common practice. This practice will ensure the long-term sustainability of our public lands. It is important to follow these human-waste disposal guidelines:

1 Know Before You Go

For most recreational activities, you can simply bury human waste in a cat hole, but some locations require special equipment. Use maps to plan out your trip and look online for proper waste disposal methods and equipment. Check out agency websites like the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management  or National Park Service to know before you go.

2 Be Prepared

Before you leave, determine how you will properly dispose of your waste during or after your trip. Bring a small trowel and toilet paper if you are headed to the forest. Bring a WAG bag, or similar equipment, if you are going to a location that requires you to pack out your waste.

3 Go Before You Go

A great first step to protecting other visitors, wildlife and the environment is to just go before you go by using a bathroom or outhouse before you head out on your trip.

To learn more about dealing with human waste in the wilds of Utah, visit gottagoutah.org.

I am a public information officer for Utah DEQ and a former marketer and magazine editor. Follow me on Instagram @Jarv801.