It has been a while since I have broached one of my favorite subjects: poop. I want to take the opportunity to talk about it today in order to bring everybody up to date on a very integral part of mountaineering, a part that you might not be familiar with if you haven’t undertaken the sport yourself. The subject I want to talk about today is blue bags or wag bags as they are also known. These are the bags that mountaineers use to defecate in when high on the mountain, surrounded by snow and ice, unable to dispose of their feces in a sustainable way. In high alpine environments, where human waste breaks down very slowly over time, a person’s only option is to carry their waste out with them.
The idea of pooping in a bag or putting one’s poop into a bag can be intimidating for some people. Kyle and I first encountered the technique when we backpacked in Canyonlands, an environment that, although bearing very little resemblance to the top of a mountain, has much in common with a high alpine zone. However, we got lucky on that trip and avoided the urge to poop until we were out of the backcountry. We actually kept our wag bags from that trip, stored away with our other camping gear, until this year when we finally had a reason to call upon them.
Before our first overnight for Boealps we had an in class lecture about the ins and outs of camping in the mountains. We talked about gear, food, water, camp set up, and finally made our way around to poop. Much giggling ensued. The lecturer discussed blue bags at length. She pointed out that they could be purchased at your local outdoor store but that you can also make your own, just grab a roll of the doggie poop bags, thrown some toilet paper and kitty litter inside and presto, homemade wag bag. They covered blue bags, being the widely accepted approach, and then moved onto the highly controversial smear and toss techniques. Both are pretty self-explanatory. The smear technique requires you to smear your feces very thinly on a rocky surface that gets direct sunlight, thereby allowing the UV rays to kill bacteria as the dung dries out and eventually flakes off the rock. The toss technique involves defecating on a rock and then tossing said rock into a crevasse or a ravine. These techniques are only to be used in places where digging a hole would be impossible to do. Both methods are not actually approved by Leave No Trace (see this website for more information). In the class it was made clear to us that these were techniques only to be used in the most extreme remote cases, in the driest climes, far away from civilization.
Armed with all this new knowledge we went on our first overnight prepared to poop. And after a hearty dinner of Mountain House lasagna all of our insides were ready to go. This is when it became apparent that different wag bags require very different handling instructions. So for future users, beware! If you spend the money and buy one from the store you are going to discover that inside the outer bag is either another much bigger bag or an extendable plastic bag that stays attached within. I believe that the idea here is to squat with your butt inside these bags, pulling them up around your body, making for a nice private pooping situation. This does get tricky though if you also have to pee, because you don’t want to carry that down the mountain. If you have fashioned your own blue bag then the technique is drastically different. Instead of trying to aim into the tiny bag you have brought it is best to just poop on the snow and, using the bag as a protective mitt, pick up the poop. Anyone who owns a dog and lives in a city will be quite comfortable with this method. All in all pooping in a blue bag is actually quite enjoyable once you get the hang of it. It feels good to be taking everything with you when you leave the mountains, knowing you left them clean and unsullied for the next hiker.
Another hurdle for blue bag users: storage. Once you have utilized your blue bag what do you do with it? For around camp time I suggest half burying the bag outside your tent in the snow. This keeps the poop cold and stops it from smelling so much (yes, some of the smell does escape the blue bag. Actually quite a lot of the smell escapes, you tend to waft it on everyone behind you as you hike). The really difficult part comes when figuring out where to place it in your pack or on your person when getting ready to descend. My first tip to you is that when you are sealing up your blue bag make sure you have squeezed out all the air inside, leaving it looking vacuum sealed. This will be immensely helpful if you end up with multiple blue bags because if they are full of air they can take up a lot of room; image trying to pack a bunch of poop filled balloons into your backpack, ready to pop at any moment… terrifying right? My next tip is to pack them on the outermost layer of your pack if possible. Many packs have large mesh pockets on the front of the pack, this is a great place for your blue bags, just make sure they are well positioned and safe from your ice ax. We heard horror story after horror story of people having to carry them inside their coats, only to take a nasty fall and discover the inside of their coats covered in… well, you get the picture. The best piece of advice was given to us by one of our junior instructors. He punches a hole through the plastic above the seal and hangs them off the back of his pack using a carabiner. Using homemade bags not sturdy enough to put a hole in? Not a problem, stuff them into your empty mountain house pouch and put a hole through that instead.
After this we were blue bag pros… for the most part. There was the incident on Mt Baker when one of our instructors came back from allegedly taking a poop with no blue bag in tow. Her husband piped up and asked her where her blue bag was. She retorted, “Well I just used the smear technique so I didn’t need one.” We all stared at her, appalled. On the same trip Kyle faced the dilemma of not having brought enough blue bags. No one was really sure what to do in this situation so he improvised and took the only path available to him, reopening an old bag and reusing it. This isn’t actually so bad and kind of makes a lot of sense, if you can stand the stench. Luckily for Kyle there were privies at Camp Muir when we climbed Mt Rainier because I think he would have had a hard time fitting six poops into one blue bag. That’s right, Kyle pooped six times in one night at Muir. We were all a little worried but apparently that is just how Kyle’s stomach reacts to Backpacker Pantry’s Chicken Vindaloo. Instead of running out of blue bags on Rainier he ran out of toilet paper. No one thinks to prepare for six poops.
Last but not least, remember to dispose of your blue bag and all that goes along with it when you return to civilization. Cleaning up some gear that had been shoved into the gear closet I discovered a bag full of what looked to be tissues. Straightening up I turned to Kyle and said, “What’s this? Who was the last person to use this pack? Was it Phil on the Glacier Peak climb?” Comprehension dawned on both of our faces and we looked at the bag with horror. Friends don’t make other friends throw out their used toilet paper. And don’t you forget it. Good luck out there comrades.