No other topic of conversation regarding my recent Mt Whitney trip has elicited more interest than having to poop in a WAG bag. It both fascinates and astonishes people that there could be such a bizarre requirement as to have to carry your own poop out with you and that you get provided with WAG bags to do it. I can't tell you much fun it has been to continually have to talk about this aspect of my trip.
So, consider this your lucky day. Due to a minor case of poop shyness, I managed to save one of the WAG bags that I was given (I had actually asked for a few extra when we picked them up just in case I needed more than the standard two you are issued), so I'm going to use the spare to demonstrate how it works in detail and provide some feedback on what my personal experience was using the WAG bags. Don't worry, I saved a new and unused WAG bag for the purposes of this post! But, before we get into how it works, I'd like to give you a little background in how the WAG bag requirement came about.
Human waste management has been a major problem on Mount Whitney for a very long time. There used to be solar-powered latrines at both the Outpost Camp and at Trail Camp, but in 2006 they were removed by the Inyo National Forest Service and a mandatory "pack-it-out" program was initiated and "WAG Bags" started being issued to all hikers and backpackers at time they picked up their permits at the Lone Pine Ranger Station. In 2007 alone, more than three tons of waste was hauled off mount Whitney and instead issue "WAG Bags" to trail users for human waste. Used bags must be deposited in special dumpsters located at the Whitney Portal trail head.
Surprisingly, carrying out personal waste is not really even a new concept. Hikers and backpackers on Mount Rainier started using the infamous "Blue Bags" in the early 1980s, and mandatory "carry-everything-out" programs later started up at some of the other popular peaks like Shasta and Denali. So if you are planning to hike Whitney get yourself mentally prepared to not only have to use a WAG bag for your waste, but to carry it out with you as well as ALL of your trash and food containers and wrappers. Whatever goes in has to come out!
Using the WAG Bag Waste Kit
The waste alleviation gelling bag or WAG bag works by neutralizing your waste by means of a powdered gelling compound that absorbs moisture (an supposedly the stink) when you do your business inside the bag.
Step 1: Open the WAG bag waste kit. The kit contains the large waste collecting bag that has a small amount of the powdered gelling compound already in it, a small (4 sheets) amount of toilet paper, a single hand sanitizer wipe packet, and a ziplock-style bag to put all of the contents in after you have used them - remember it all has to be carried out with you, even the toilet paper.
Step 2: Find somewhere with a little privacy. In the case of Whitney this is a lot easier at the Outpost camp where you're still surrounded by trees, but once you're up at 12,000ft above the treeline at the Trail Camp you'll have a pretty hard time finding any type of secluded spot to take care of business. It is what it is and everyone else will be feeling your pain. Pick a spot and do what you have to do, no one else really cares to watch trust me.
Step 3: Once you've found your spot, open up the large waste collecting bag on the ground as big as it will go. You'll notice a small amount of the powdered gelling compound in the center of the bag, that's going to be your target. The powder works by being activated with liquid, so you'll need to urinate on the powder in order to activate the gelling process - just don't fill up the bag with pee or you'll have to carry it out or deal with the task of having to drain some of it out afterwards.
For the purpose of this demonstration I'm pouring some perfectly clean tap water into the center of the powdered gelling compound to show you how it instantly begins to form a gel. I was surprised to discover that the powder easily consumed the half a cup of water I poured into it and was still able to absorb more. Of course you don't want to use up all the powder with liquid, you want the gel to adsorb the moisture (and stink) of your other business too.
At this point you're ready to squat and take care of business. Remember that this is the most skilled part of the operation, aim is everything!
Step 4: When you're finished you need to close up the large waste collecting bag and put it inside the smaller zip-close bag that is provided as part of the kit. The instructions on the kit do not mention this but I would recommend tying a really tight knot in the larger bag to prevent as much leakage and stink from getting out as possible.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, you are usually only issued with two WAG bags for your entire trip, the reason for this is that you are encouraged to re-use the kit more than once. I didn't think that was feasible so I asked for a few extra and the ranger was more than happy to provide them - just saying.
Step 5: Seal up the outer zip-close bag making sure to expel as much of the air as possible so that you keep the whole thing as small as you can for packing it out.
Step 6: You can ONLY dispose of the used WAG bags in the designated human waste dumpsters which are located at the trail head. You will see signs everywhere warning you not to dispose of the WAG bags anywhere other than the human waster dumpsters. Be warned, you'll want to open the lids to those dumpster at an arm's length for the obvious reasons. So, that's how to use a WAG bag to carry out your own poop - pretty fascinating right?
Having used the WAG bag kits on Mt. Whitney I'd like to pass along some thoughts and a tip or two. Firstly, be sure to carry an extra plastic bag or strong trash compactor bag with you to store the used WAG bags inside when you're ready to pack them in your backpack. I didn't do this an although I had no issue with leakage, the stink that wafted behind me was quite noticeable and somewhat unbearable for my fellow hikers - sorry Jason!
I already mentioned this but I'll repeat it again, you are expected to use a WAG bag more than once. If that doesn't appeal to you (it didn't to me) simply make a polite face and ask for one or two more at the Ranger Station, they'll gladly provide you with extra.
Finally, I'm all for LNT and doing my part to lessen the impact of human waste on the environment, but having used the WAG bags I was less than impressed with their effectiveness. Putting aside the issue of having to physically carry out your own waste, the bags just don't do the job they were intended for. They certainly don't neutralize the stink even after they have been carefully sealed and double bagged. This leads to people circumventing the process and reverting back to catholes or worse. I can't tell you how many abandoned "used" WAG bags we saw along the trail and hidden behind rocks at trail camp. It's not a part of the experience I like to remember but it is a huge problem and I don't personally think WAG bags are the solution.
Have you had to use WAG bags before and if so, what was your experience with them?
Brian is a Charlotte based backpacker, gear junkie, runner, and CrossFit(er). Originally from Southampton, England, Brian has lived in the US for over 20 years, finally settling in North Carolina. He spends as much time backpacking as his busy work schedule and family life will allow.