The Evolution Of Poop Management On Treks

Today, I’ve chosen a topic that you probably have been a part of if you have trekked with us — our toilets in the mountains and how they evolved.

Before I start, I want to share an interesting number with you.

Did you know that an average human produces around 500 g of poop everyday? That means in 7 days, one trekker produces around 3.5 kilos of poop. A batch of 18 trekkers, in 7 days, produces 63 kilos of poop.

If you continue multiplying by the number of treks and the number of trekkers going to the Himalayas in a year, the amount of poop rises exponentially!

Why is poop such a problem?

You must know, that there are many villains in the mountains to hamper a simple process such as decomposition of poop — we have thin air at high altitude, dreadfully low temperatures, large volumes of poop, lack of infrastructure, a social stigma attached to human waste management and a disappointing lack of care.

And when poop doesn’t decompose, it could enter water systems at their source. That’s disastrous for the entire country, given the Himalayas has most of the country’s water sources.

Given all of these obstacles, we’ve been working towards better management of poop.

I’m writing to you specifically because we need help to better these systems. We have worked on it endlessly and almost hit a dead end. So your thoughts and ideas will really help. You may have used our toilets, you may have used toilets in other countries and national parks. So after reading this mail, please share your ideas with me!

Right away, I’m going to give you a peek into how our toilets have evolved. Given the long history, I’ve made it as story-like as possible. Take a look.

Open defecation — The system that existed

“Much earlier, before Indiahikes started, open defecation was the norm. There were no toilet tents, no pits,” says Arjun Majumdar, the founder of Indiahikes. “Exposed to the sun, the poop would decompose quickly. It wasn’t a problem because we were just a handful of trekkers.” We’re talking about the late 90’s and the early 2000’s here.

“When we started Indiahikes in around 2009, the first few teams did continue to practice the same norm. Back then, in a given season (2-3 months) there were hardly 60 trekkers on the trail. So it was still manageable. However, with the number of trekkers doubling up to around 120 next year, we knew we would have to innovate,” says Arjun.

The first new system that we tried was catholes

Here trekkers would go away from the campsite, take a shovel, dig up a small hole, poop and cover it up. “I remember, at one point, we were even asking trekkers to bring their own shovels!’ recollects Sandhya, our co-founder.

The poop would decompose naturally, and there was no sight or smell. For the number of trekkers back then, this system worked. But this system had a drawback. Not every campsite had good, soft ground for digging. In many places there was only snow and ice. And in some only very hard ground.

Next came our toilet pits

“We would dig deeper pits that would last around a week or two. There would be mud with a shovel for the trekker to cover it up. This was a pretty efficient system and we stuck to it for a long time,” says Arjun.

At the same time as the pits, we designed toilet tents

They were squarish, tall enough for a person to stand in, with a flat roof and with zippers running from the top to the bottom. The privacy that came with the toilet tent, brought about a huge sense of comfort.

Toilet tents on our Buran Ghati trek. Picture by Gurkirat

But one worry always nagged us. The decomposition process was slow in the mountains. What could we do about it?

It was around 2015 that we had a eureka moment with cocopeat

Cocopeat is a carbon-rich material made of coconut husk. It absorbs the moisture content, contains natural bacteria and speeds up decomposition. It was a wonderful discovery!

“I remember our experiments with cocopeat. It was almost comical. For a month, I made my nieces and nephews poop in a drum everyday, and cover it up with cocopeat. It was a test to see if it would work in the mountains,” says Izzat Yaganagi, who used to head our Green Trails team back then.

As we all know by now, cocopeat worked beautifully, and we stuck to it for good. In the toilet tents, we would provide a heap of cocopeat along with mud. The trekker would poop, cover it up with cocopeat, and add mud over it.

What we have now — deep, long-lasting pits with cocopeat

“Around 2015-16, trekking grew exponentially. There were so many more trekkers. We suddenly began worrying about the number of pits we would have to dig. Our pits didn’t last more than a week or two, and we didn’t want to dig that many pits in the mountains,” says Sandhya.

This is when the Green Trails team decided to have much deeper pits that would last almost a month. “We have 2-3 pits at each campsite between which we cycle. So the load on the environment is much lesser than digging up too many pits,” says Lakshmi Selvakumaran, the head of our Green Trails team.

This is the system we stick to till date. We have found it to be environmentally-friendly and logistically efficient.

 

Over time, our toilet tents have evolved too. The structure of the tent is sturdy enough to not fly in strong winds, there are pockets inside to help trekkers keep their things and also provisions to hang organic air fresheners. There are also planks distanced correctly for trekkers to squat. Some of our toilets even have supporting rods to hold onto for better balance.

Some side experiments

We have also experimented with biodegradable corn starch bags (especially on treks like Chadar where digging pits is difficult), wet Indian toilets where water sources are aplenty, western seated toilets with big blue drums, and even bio digester toilets.

But we have found the deep long-lasting pits to be the best for most campsites.

However, I’d still say it’s a work in progress.

Ideally, we would love to have toilets like these in our mountains.

These are toilets in a remote national park in Canada. Our Green Trails head, Lakshmi who was there last week sent us these photos.

They are dry toilets and function much like our deep pits. They’re not only better aesthetically, but there is also a system to drain out the waste from the pits without disturbing the toilet.

But to have such permanent fixtures with efficient drain systems, we’ll need the forest department’s involvement, and a lot of design thinking.

It is what we’ll aim at for the future. And hopefully, our Indian mountains will have such efficient systems soon.

If you have any thoughts around this, drop in a comment. We’d love to hear of any good, scalable toilet design. 🙂

Swathi Chatrapathy

Swathi Chatrapathy

Swathi Chatrapathy is the Chief Editor at Indiahikes. She also runs a video series, Trek With Swathi. Before joining Indiahikes, she worked as a reporter and sub-editor at Deccan Chronicle. She holds a Masters in Digital Journalism and continues to contribute to publications such as Deccan Herald. Trekking, to her, is a sport that liberates that mind like nothing else can.Read Swathi's other articles. Watch Swathi's video series here.

20 thoughts on “The Evolution Of Poop Management On Treks

  1. Swati you have written beautifully as always. Kudos to pick such an important topic and having to actually research on that. Hats off to India hikes team

  2. Hi,
    Can we have a substitute for Toilet paper?
    We use a large number of tissue papers during our treks.
    I had an idea of using used cotton clothes’ cut pieces (same area as toilet paper).
    Or we can have just a layer of tissue paper on the cotton cloth piece if people are used to “feel” of the paper.
    Everybody sure has lot of used cotton clothes. I suggest we gather them every trek and either IH or someone from outside will cut and make pieces for us for the next trek. Even better, we can have this as an activity for trekkers to make their own toilet cloth .
    Just a suggestion. Open to feedback.

    1. Good thoughts about alternatives — though Cotton cloths will take much longer to decompose than paper, and could block any pipes..
      I have used dry leaves, but these may not be liked by all, owing to their rougher surface.

  3. It will be difficult to implement permanent toilets or dunnies like the one in your picture in some of the remote areas you take hikers. I enjoyed the toilet facilities on my recent hike on the Bibbulmun Track in Australia, but they are able to be maintained easily by their parks department because there is usually 4WD road access to the shelters where the dunnies are found.

    Sanitation on your treks will definitely remain a perennial challenge, and I think the solutions you’ve come up with to deal with the increasing load of trekkers is commendable and has definitely maintained sanitation and managed human waste well on your treks.

  4. It sounds much better until we come up with an instant poop dry machine. Thank you for keep trying to improve. We wanted to visit many other trails but toilet was a huge issue that stopped us from going back.

  5. Human waste/litter and poop is a big challenge as we explore the wilderness , it has become a big issue even on the Everest Route, were permanent snow and low air density aggravates the problem. I am happy to note that Cocopeat is working well, I have never heard of this before. In the US , we mainly use shovels to dig pit and cover it back as wild life is more abundant and smell attracts animals including predators and becomes a safety hazard. There are usually 2 types of wilderness enthusiasts , one who deeply care about the environment and want to leave minimum impact of their visit and other who may not be as sensitive to the long term impact on the ecosystem. It is our duty to explain and win over these group of people so that their children and future generations can enjoy the wilderness in as close to the way nature has nurtured it for millions of years.

  6. As larger numbers of trekkers visit a route, semi-permanent toilets at camping spots and lunch break spots along the lines you describe could be a way. The slow decomp because of low temperatures is an issue, but then the toilet pits can be designed to decrease contamination into the groundwater. As Benjamin points out the issues of them being hard to maintain regularly ( eg. chemical toilets), a dry toilet could work.

  7. Swathi please check “Wag Bag toilet” These have chemicals and gelling agents in a tear resistant bag. This is commonly used in US in backpacking in wilderness. One has to carry their poop out and they can be thrown after that in a regular trash. This helps when in Alpine regions or on snow you can’t dig a pit. Definitely cleaner though people may frown at it.

  8. Hi Swathy,
    Am I correct to assume that the toilets you have mentioned are dry ones or can one use water to clean?
    I have seen toilets like the one in the picture in the US and I think the one you have mentioned (deep long lasting ones with coco-peat) is any day better because
    1. The US toilets have no provision to put cocopeat/mud and so they emit a strong foul smell and due to rain / low water table etc. gets waterlogged.
    2. Squatting in Indian type toilets is more hygienic than western toilet seats.
    So we must not get carried away & emulate the west blindly. The research your team have done & arrived at this model now is commendable.

  9. Firstly great article, you opened our eyes to a different type of problem that was missed (atleast by me) when thinking about effects of mass trekking on the ecosystem. Steps that you all have taken till now to make it sustainable is commendable.

    What we have right now is much better than the photos you have shown from west because of following reasons:
    1) Hygene in indian style toilets is much better than western style toilets. (We just need to work on better decomposition)
    2) Squatting position is better for bowel moments
    3) We don’t want treks to feel like tour holidays, that we get sheltered toilets which in my opinion take away from the experience of trekking.

  10. Hi Swathy,

    I have an Idea. It might help you to a good extent.

    In Dry toilet tent after adding coco peat a small amount of bio enzyme can speed up the process of composting.
    It’s very easy to make. And its made out of waste. 100% Eco friendly.
    In recent days I have found this topic very interesting. You will need to little bit experiment on this.

    To know what Bio Enzyme is and how it is made, please go through this article.
    http://kaustubam.blogspot.com/2017/02/how-to-make-bio-enzyme-or-garbage.html

    Search for this guy in youtube:
    Shrekanth RG (He is from bangalore)
    He has been working a lot on such things and very nice guy. He might be able to guide you in right direction.

    Thanks

  11. Thanks a lot SWATHI for detailing out such an important topic of mountain trekking. Love the way you’ve gone into details and covered POOP to greater extend. I’m going to join Indiahikes for the first time on Jun 22nd 2019 for “Beas Kund Trek” and I’ll take these information to do my bit towards environment.

  12. I am tracking all your reports and really fond of all. However latest reports on Everest has made me sad and concerned towards nature. 11000 Kg of trash and human waste is collected. I believed now mountaineering should be left to true mountaineers and all psedu people should just leave them. Mountains don’t have municipal corporation to clean them. Nature cleans itself. Let’s leave mountains alone, that will be true tribute to mother earth.

  13. Hi Swathi,
    Very well thought and researched arrival. Recently I was trekked to Goecha La. I was a solo trekker, so had to use toilets installed at camp site. The wet toilets were usable till the Dozongir, but beyond that all dry toilets, were not usable at all. So unhealthy. It is really a concern how to docompose the human waste generated by the thousands of trekkers in session. I had thought, why not use the chemical used by Indian Railways in the biodegradable toilets. Just have a thought, if it can have some solution.

  14. A very important issue….. Thanks for bringing it up.
    But my suggestion is better we make Indian Style Toilets, as English one is very difficult to maintain clean.

  15. Hi Swathi
    This is an important topic and to be honest, I found the sanitation facilities along the Goecha La trek pretty challenging. The toilet tents were often preferable. The problem with permanent facilities (apart from drainage etc as you suggest) is they need to be maintained and cleaned – something that was not always evident to me.
    That being said I have two suggestions. One is installation of composting toilets – which do not need drainage or water (I think), although the problem of cold weather and slow decomposition of waste may arise with these.
    The other is to contact the organisation
    ‘Who Gives a Crap’ (I buy their products but otherwise am not affiliated. They are an organisation that partners with organisations around the world to provide toilets for those who do not have access to them. Yours is a slightly different project but they might be interested to help out, especially as their other concern is environmental sustainability. Their website is https://au.whogivesacrap.org/pages/about-us

    Well done Indiahikes for your ongoing consideration of these types of issues.

  16. I condemn the use of Canadian style toilets simply because they do not serve the purpose in the Hiamalayan region. First thing that comes to my mind considering poop management is not aesthetics rather its decomposition. Lets assume you have created such structures in the Himalayan treks but now how will you be managing the poop collected from drains. That will again require some mechanism for decomposition because that apporx 63kgs poop (a seven day trek having approx 18people) either needs to be taken in wag bags back to the starting location for muncipality waste management or has to be decomposed there itself to prevent it from harming the environment.
    Btw please mention any other specific use better than your current deep pit system because I feel only the aesthetics point to be valid in that section.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *