The article previously appeared in the Fall 2013 Long Trail News.
To Pee or Not to Pee
The Long Trail and Appalachian Trail in Vermont are well known for the large number and varied design of their overnight facilities. Fortunately, the Green Mountain Club can never be accused of using a cookie-cutter design for anything, so where there are shelters and tenting sites, there are always diverse and unique outhouses. However, my relationship with outhouses began long before I ever set foot on the Long Trail.
As a young child in the late 1950s, I visited my paternal grandparents in Horry County, South Carolina. My grandparents lived in a much more rural section of the county than Myrtle Beach, in a house without indoor plumbing. Hence my first early morning visit to an outhouse took place with my father in tow. It was pretty scary. Snakes, spiders, and who knows what else lurked under the seat. I really didn’t want to fall in.
Thru-hiking the Long Trail in 1972 considerably broadened my experience with outhouses. But it wasn’t until Preston Bristow (later to become president of the GMC) and I were caretakers at Stratton Pond during the summer of 1973 that I really got up close and personal with outhouses. The 1970s backpacking boom was on, at times there were several hundred people camped at that the pond, and every outhouse there was overfull. Preston and I augmented our college educations learning just how explosively offensive a mound of excrement rising above the ground could be once an outhouse was lifted from it for relocation. Some structures were beyond re-use, so we also built our share of new ones.
So for me outhouses became, and continue to be, a significant focus of interest. Yes, I am one of those grown-ups who never outgrew their juvenile fascination with everything related to poop.
One factor that has increased the variety of outhouse designs is advances in backcountry waste management in recent years. Although outhouses have always come in many sizes and shapes, outhouse technology on the Long and Appalachian Trails remained essentially unchanged for decades—a small box, sometimes enclosed by a structure, sometimes not, placed over a hole in the ground where all manners of waste were to be deposited. With the advent of the surge in backpacking during the 1970s, hordes of hikers and campers began to overtax the existing outhouse infrastructure. Outhouse holes were filling faster than new ones could be dug. Decaying white paper flagging became an all too common sight at many shelters. Shallow soils at higher elevation sites further compounded the problem, because all suitable outhouse sites were soon used, if in fact suitable sites actually ever existed.
Enter the U.S. Forest Service and Dr. Ray Leonard (yes, the skipper of the Satori, the 32-foot sailboat that rode out the “perfect storm” in 1991). Working for the Forest Service, Leonard experimented with Clivus Multrum composting toilets at Butler and Taft Lodges on the Long Trail in the summer of 1977. It did not take long (actually, less than one summer!) to realize that the Clivus Multrum, designed for sheltered and heated indoor spaces, would not work.
Fortunately, the concept of composting was promising enough that further experimentation led to the development of the first batch bin composting outhouses in 1970. Especially suitable for high-use sites, these now compost waste at nineteen sites in Vermont.
Later, GMC’s Dick Andrews designed the comparatively low-cost and low-tech moldering privy. The first one was installed in 1997 at the former Little Rock Pond Shelter at the north end of the pond (now replaced by a larger shelter at the south end of the pond). Moldering privies are now in use at seven sites on the Long and Appalachian trails in Vermont today. Moldering privies are also in use at dozens of sites on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, at other sites in the White Mountain National Forest.
Composting outhouses are not without challenges. They need to be fed. Composting bin outhouses require lots of coarse bark mulch as a bulking agent to be mixed with human waste; moldering privies need a supply of lighter wood shavings. Consequently, GMC volunteers, caretakers and other seasonal field staff backpack tons (literally tons) of bark and wood shavings into our backcountry sites each year. In addition, composting bin outhouses typically need to be serviced (you really don’t want the details here!) at least twice a year.
Composting has several effects on outhouse design that affect appearance. Moldering privies are elevated a foot to three feet above ground on ventilated wood cribbing composting chambers. Bin composting outhouses are lower, but they sit next to several plastic containers for waste storage, a large tub for composting runs, an assortment of shovels and other tools, and a covered platform where compost rests a year or so before being spread on the forest floor or buried.
As an aside, these comparatively new technologies mean the hiker is faced with the challenge of knowing whether to pee or not to pee in the outhouse. Urine increases the stench from an old fashioned pit privy, so users are asked to pee in the woods. They are asked to do the same at bin composting outhouses for a different reason: urine vastly increases the amount of bark mulch needed to absorb liquid, creating much more work for volunteers and staff. Moldering privies actually need the moisture provided by urine, so peeing is welcomed there. Thankfully, GMC has posted helpful signs at most outhouse locations indicating where peeing is encouraged (moldering privies) and discouraged (pit privies and bin composters).
So outhouse technology can affect how a privy looks as well as how it works, but never fear: ingenuity and creativity in designing outhouses will never fade in the Green Mountain Club.
Batch Bin/Beyond the Bin (BTB) Composting Privies
In high-use areas hikers may find batch-bin composting privies, or an upgraded version called a beyond-the-bin (BTB) composting privy. This technology has been used in northern New England since the hiking boom of the 1970s. Each privy site has steel or plastic collecting bins and wooden drying racks. Hikers are asked not to urinate in these privies, because it creates unpleasant odors and hampers the composting process by making it too wet. Users also are asked to drop a handful of the provided hardwood bark mulch into the toilet after each use.
The batch-bin system requires a caretaker to empty a collector under the seat into storage cans. When the cans are full, the waste is mixed with more bark mulch. The mulch absorbs water, reduces odors, and provides carbon for composting at high temperatures. After four to six weeks, with periodic turning by the caretaker, the compost is moved to a drying rack, where it cures for up to a year. Then it can be used to help absorb water in future composting runs, or be added to the forest floor.
BTB systems have been placed at sites with many day hikers, who use a toilet primarily as a urinal. The modification adds a strainer in the collector under the seat to separate liquid, which flows through a hose to a filter barrel, substantially reducing the amount of bark mulch required.
Moldering is the slow decomposition of organic material in the presence of air. There is no significant temperature increase, so disease organisms are not killed by heat during the moldering of human waste. Nevertheless, worms and micro-organisms consume and compete with pathogens, reducing their prevalence to levels commonly found in topsoil.
In a moldering privy, waste accumulates in a screened, ventilated chamber below the toilet seat. Users are asked to add a handful of wood shavings after each use. Adding wood shavings prevents the pile from compacting into an airtight mass. It also supplies carbon, necessary because human waste has too little carbon to compost properly. The pile needs water, too, which urine supplies. It percolates slowly down through the pile, some evaporating and the rest being treated before soaking into soil.
When the chamber is full, which may take years if use is low, the privy shelter is moved to another chamber, usually next to the first. The full chamber is topped by a layer of shavings, screened to keep rodents out, and partially covered to let rain moisten but not drown it. When the second chamber fills, compost in the first one is ready to spread or bury.
—Dick Andrews, moldering privy inventor
To learn more about backcountry sanitation, check out the Backcountry Sanitation Manual, created by the Green Mountain Club and Appalachian Trail Conservancy.