Managing Poop: Groovers and LNT Practices

Many of the permitted western rivers require you to bring a groover — or, waste management system — to pack your poop out from the river corridor. But what about the ones that don’t? This article will cover why we think it’s good to bring a groover whenever possible and how to manage poop on self-supports when you don’t have one.

Bringing a Groover

Grand Canyon groovers are typically pretty cumbersome — the Park Service requires 40 cubic inches of space per person per day, and on a ten day trip, that adds up. Bringing a 2′ long, 4″ diameter PVC pipe on a class V multi-day is an unreasonable ask, especially if there’s portaging or a hike in. That said, there are a few ways to come up with a smaller groover system that’s a bit more manageable. First, you can build one using the same materials and design principles. Just make it smaller. Second, you can use something else. The Grand Canyon NPS has pretty strict requirements about groovers, but other rivers don’t, and, of course, many rivers have none at all. You can use a small pelican box, an old nalgene, even a drybag. If you keep your waste isolated (doggie bags work great for this) and bleach the container afterwards, it typically won’t even retain any smell.

An example of a smaller groover used on a five-day Middle Fork of the Salmon trip. Photo (and groover) courtesy of Erin Savage.
An example of a smaller groover used on a five-day Middle Fork of the Salmon trip. Photo (and groover) courtesy of Erin Savage.

Packing your waste out is pretty much always the best option, but if you can’t, read on.

What to Do If You Can’t Bring a Groover

You’re hiking in, you expect to be portaging a lot, you just don’t want to build one — whatever the reason, that’s fine. Backcountry travelers often don’t pack their poop out and if you take the right approach, that’s ok. On river trips, though, we’re confined to a small corridor, and often to just a few camps. It’s important to consider those factors in addition to following normal LNT procedures.

The Cathole

The standard way to dispose of human waste in the backcountry is to dig a cathole and poop in it. There are a couple key features to a good cathole:

  • at least 200′ away from water (including dry streambeds or washes), camp, or trails
  • 6-8″ deep
  • filled in and covered with organic matter when you’re done

You don’t need to bring a trowel on your river trips, but it certainly helps, and they can be useful for other things, too.

Toilet paper can be buried in the cathole, but it’s also easy to pack out used toilet paper in a ziplock and doing so lowers the risk of the camp area getting trashed. Better yet, in many areas you can use foliage as toilet paper (be sure you know what poison oak and poison ivy look like first…).

Self-Support Specific Tips

Wilderness backpackers have a lot more room to work with than paddlers on river trips. On a standard trip, it’s rare that you’ll be more than 200′ from the river at all, aside from an extended scout or side hike. We’re usually only out of our boats at camp, at lunch, and when scouting or portaging…which really limits the potential spots for relief. Paddlers typically poop near camp or at a scout. When you start thinking about how many people run a given section each year, how many times they poop per trip, and how many camps and scouts there are, you begin to realize there might be a problem.

Because of that, it’s particularly important that we try to minimize the impact we have on high use areas. Here are a couple guidelines to keep in mind when choosing a cathole spot:

  • go more than 200′ from camp
  • when you find what you think looks like the “perfect groover spot” — keep looking. If it looks perfect to you, it looked perfect to the 100s of people who paddled the river before you, and will probably look perfect to those who come after
  • pack out your TP or use natural TP
  • don’t skimp on the burial. 6″ means 6″, and be sure to fill it back in and disguise it

Fun Fact

I encountered a pile of human waste and toilet paper in the middle of a portage route on a river that had been paddled by not more than one or two hundred people — ever. I’ve run into that sort of thing on trails before, but never in a place only kayakers visit — and only very few kayakers, at that.

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