Day 40: Privies

Mt. Wilcox South Shelter to The Hemlocks Shelter – 20 miles

The Applalachian Trail is heavily used, so disposing of human waste is a huge concern. Thankfully, trail volunteers have built privies at almost every campsite and shelter, which are spaced approximately every 5-10 miles along the entire 2,190 mile trail. This is convenient for hikers because it eliminates the need for digging cat holes and it is a public health service because it reduces the risk that the water supply will become contaminated with fecal organisms like E. coli, giardia, cryptosporidium, or norovirus.

Traditional pit toilets – like those common at trailheads – are what most people are familiar with. They’re stinky and they use anaerobic gut microbes to decompose human waste. They work best in low-use areas because this slow process takes many years.

In more heavily trafficked areas like the Appalachian Trail, privies that use aerobic decomposition are more common. I most frequently see moldering privies, though labor intensive composting privies are more frequently in delicate subalpine ecosystems.

In a moldering privy, users do their business and then sprinkle a handful of wood chips or forest floor duff onto the pile (“one scoop when you poop”). This introduces aerobic bacteria and air spaces. The aerobic bacteria overwhelm the anaerobes from our gut, reducing the smell and eventually eliminating the biohazard. Signs in every privy request that hikers pee in the woods because the liquid fills these air spaces, favoring the anaerobes.

The privies are built on a double wide base. Once a season, highly dedicated volunteers move the shack from one side to the other and rake the pile, introducing more air to the system. This alternating pattern gives the heap a season to decompose before it is used again.

Given how full the privy pits get, I am very thankful that these devoted trail maintainers make the effort to manage human waste and keep it out of the camp water supply.

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