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There’s a crappy situation in Colorado’s backcountry: too many pooping hikers

Outdoor recreation groups hope handing out waste-disposal kits will cut down on the problem piling up on Colorado’s public lands
Noah Schum holds a prototype of PACT Lite, outside his home in Crested Butte, Colorado on Dec. 11, 2022. PACT Lite is a light weight, easy-to-use tool for disposing of human waste in the backcountry. The kit contains a small shovel in which everything is carried, tabs that expand into biodegradable sheets of toilet paper; hand sanitizer and tablets of mycelium that help breakdown waste. PACT Lite was created by Schum and his partner Jake Thomas who founded PACT Outdoors in the fall of 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Hey, backcountry visitors, do Colorado a favor.

With a handy-dandy poop kit, help solve the crappy crisis of waste littering the state’s trails and dispersed campsites.

The concept of taking along a ready-made poop-disposal kit when hitting the outdoors got a boost last week when the Colorado Tourism Office chose the Gunnison Crested Butte Tourism Association’s “Doo” Colorado Right effort as one of 17 recipients of grants designed to promote sustainable tourism.

Amid the other grantee projects that address things like redesigning websites, upping interest in dude ranches and promoting midweek skiing, the Gunnison group’s project stands out for being the only proposal with a focus on defecation.

It’s not really a stretch. Tourism and poop are very intertwined. Where humans go, they do tend to “go,” and that has created a polluting problem on public lands.

The “Doo” Right campaign piggybacks on the statewide Do Right Colorado marketing effort that urges tourists to behave responsibly while enjoying Colorado’s wild lands.

“Doo” Right will distribute about 3,600 free kits around the state to visitors’ centers, trail crews, public lands-focused associations, and other entities that interact with backcountry visitors. The state’s $40,000 grant award to fund the kits is being topped off with a $20,000 investment from the Gunnison backers.

The campaign is the brainchild of a whole lot of folks around Gunnison County – the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership, the Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee, the ICELab business accelerator at Western Colorado University, and PACT Outdoors – the startup firm making the kits.

It should be no surprise that a doo-right campaign is coming from Gunnison County. Besides being the home of a poop-collecting-kit manufacturer, the county also is the location of SheFly Apparel – the maker of pants with a discrete crotch zipper that allows women to relieve themselves in the outdoors without baring it all. Gunnison County also landed in an early- pandemic poop-focused spotlight for being one of the first places in the state to test its sewage for COVID-19.

ICELab director David Assad said the county is a prime place for such efforts because, when it comes to dealing with human waste, its residents are not squeamish.

“We are outdoors people here. We are not bashful,” Assad said. “We are in the outdoors seven days a week. That’s the way we live.”

Trowel, towelette, mycelium, hand sanitizer

The PACT kits that will be handed out beginning next spring will be a slimmed-down version of PACT’s award-winning, grab-and-go kit that is about the size of a wide-mouth Nalgene water bottle.

That kit consists of an ergonomic trowel-like tool, checkers-sized cellulose pellets that morph into towelettes when squirted with a dab of water, tiny wooden plugs inoculated with mycelium fungi and a bottle of hand sanitizer. All that is rolled up in a fabric case.

Kit users dig 6-to-8-inch holes in the dirt, doo their thing, then toss the wipes and mycelium tablets in the hole. The wipes act as “food” for the mycelium, which acts as a bacteria slayer that can breakdown poop 10 times faster than usual. Feces – including the buried specimens – normally fester for a year in the great outdoors and can be harmful to waterways, wildlife, pets and general public health with the E. coli, hepatitis and giardia germs they can contain.

The kits, which are heralded as the first all-in-one bathroom kit for the outdoors, won an Outdoor Retailer Innovation Award and were named the best backpacking accessory for 2022 by Outside magazine’s Gear Guide.

PACT is currently putting the finishing design touches on a new “lite” kit. The trowel has been slimmed down. The wipe and the mycelium tablets fit inside it, and the hand sanitizer has been scrapped. The whole kit is about the size of a sheathed skinning knife.

Noah Schum with his wife, Heidi in the background, poses outside their home in Crested Butte. Schum and his partner Jake Thomas recently won a grant for their design for a light tool kit for burying human waste on the trail . (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The PACT kits are the brainchild of Noah Schum of Crested Butte and Jake Thomas of Denver. In 2019, the two friends had been scheming about how to address the growing problem of human waste on public lands. They considered what they and their hiking, biking and camping friends were taking into the backcountry to deal with their waste – Ziploc bags, garden trowels, half-used rolls of toilet paper. They recognized a gap existed in the outdoor recreation kit market.

“We have kits for everything we do outdoors – cooking, first aid, water purifying – but not for poop,” Thomas said.

Neither Thomas nor Schum is a scientist, but both have had an interest in the part fungi play in decomposition in nature. Thomas characterized the pair as “armchair experts in mycology.” They knew a decomposition accelerant would need to be a part of their kits so that buried BMs wouldn’t be part of a future problem.

Their work on a kit prototype sped up in 2020 when Schum attended a business education class at the ICELab’s Outdoor Industry Accelerator Program. That shove from concept to product development came at a good time.

A tsunami wave of pandemic backcountry visitors was hitting public lands at a time when many public bathrooms were closed. A gross profusion of poop and toilet paper “flowers” littered the landscape.

“We could see that the issue of human waste was going to lead to more restrictions,” Thomas said. “We recognized that we needed to take this on as recreationalists. Now, we are so pleased to play a role in the state’s efforts to do this.”

Hayes Norris, with the Colorado Tourism Office, said the doo-right campaign may be a bit unusual for the state’s tourism grant program, but it fits right into the organization’s increasing marketing focus on responsible tourism.

“To see one of our partners magnify this message in this way is exciting. It’s important,” she said.

For Thomas and Schum, it’s just a beginning to what they hope will be a future of more feces-focused products.

An informational card discussing disposing of human waste in the backcountry is held by Noah Schum. The card is part of a lightweight human waste disposal kit created by Schum and his partner Jake Thomas. – (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There are times and places where burying poop is not advisable – in the snow, in the desert, within 200 feet of waterways. So, they are looking at expanding into pack-out products with improved receptacles and odor eliminators.

Assad said he hopes Gunnison County will continue to reap the benefits of all this focus on poop, both in the creation of jobs and in the attention the area will receive when their kits become part of the welcome-to-Colorado swag for thousands of visitors next year.

He expects the “Doo” Colorado Right campaign will be a boost for the outdoorsy Gunnison area.

“It’s a good campaign to get the word out about Gunnison and Crested Butte,” he said.

Even if that word is “poop.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.