If you and your family spend any appreciable time outside, be it camping, on long hikes, on bike rides through the country, or on a river paddling adventure, it’s just a matter of time before you hear those fateful few words: “Mom, dad… I need to poop.”
Now, if you’re at a prepared campsite with bathroom amenities or you’re hiking a short drive from home, then the answer is quite simple. If you’re miles out there in the backcountry, then, traditionally, the answer was not so clear cut. What is the best way to poop outdoors? Is it safe and sanitary to go to the bathroom in the woods? What are the best practices when it comes to pooping in nature and… what are the worst?
While this may seem like a laughing matter when you’re lounging about in them comfort of your home, a bathroom but a few paces away, going number two in the woods not the #1 fun thing about being in nature. But nature will call when you’re out there, and it will call on your family, too. So rather than chuckling now while you’re in the civilized world and freaking out later when you’re in the field, let’s prepare for making pooping in the woods as easy as it has ever been thanks to the thoughtfully designed products and thoroughly insightful input from the guys at PACT, a company devoted to helping people fine “The Cleanest Way to Poop Outdoors.”
Dad Gear Review got the chance to check out PACT products and caught up with the company’s co-founders (who happen to be brothers-in-law, which is pretty cool) Noah Schum and Jake Thomas.
We started the conversation by talking more about family and nature in general, then moved onto the products – which made sense, because family and nature is what inspired PACT’s product development in the first place.
Tell us a bit about yourselves?
“Noah and I are both family men,” Jake replied. “Noah has two kids, seven and nine, and they live in Crested Butte, Colorado where PACT is based. I have a two-year-old daughter and another on the way in… four weeks! And I live in Golden, CO. We’re both lifelong outdoor enthusiasts. Noah is a passionate hunter, and I'm a rock climber. But most of our time is spent doing simpler things with our kids – camping, hiking, throwing rocks in rivers. Becoming parents has undoubtedly had a big influence on PACT. Our attention has shifted from: ‘How do I get more days outdoors?’ to: ‘How do we make sure this is still around for my kids?’ It’s less about our own adventures and more about how we help our kids develop the values that outdoor experiences have instilled in us, like moderating our consumption, appreciating our relative insignificance in the world, finding joy in simple things like rocks and flowers and sunsets. All that stuff.”
What was the inspiration for PACT? Was it a “light bulb” sort of moment or more of a slow, methodical development?
“I had a one-month-old and was still getting acquainted with diaper changing,” Jake explained. “I was sleep-deprived and melting down like four weeks into parenthood. Before a quick trip, I called Noah and said something like: ‘Hey, how do you poop outdoors? Seems like there’s no good products out there for making it easier!’ We talked about it and had a good laugh and then went back to life.”
“Over the course of the next year COVID hit,” Noah said. “It created a rapid rise in outdoor recreation, which is amazing that some people could turn to that. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stop hearing about ‘the poop problem.’ Everyone from the New York Times to The Guardian was covering this rise in mis-handled poop and the links to water contamination, disease in wildlife, and even the impending public health consequences.”
“So, you could say it chose us, and we started working on it,” Noah continued. “What we realized was that the standard practice was a ‘home hack.’ People were taking a ziploc bag, a half used roll of TP, and a garden trowel, and using that as their kit. This was a signal to us that there was an opportunity. Plus, if you’ve ever been to the hygiene section in an outdoor products retailer, it’s somewhat lacking in innovation. Most companies are repurposing the same products you’d find in a grocery store, just making them smaller.” (And more expensive, might we add!)
What is the primary problem the brand is trying to solve, and what sets you apart from other products that have the same mission?
“We really focused on two things,” Jake said. “First, making all-in-one kits that makes it easier to always be prepared to follow Leave No Trace best practices. But that wasn’t really enough; we realized that with the growing interest in outdoor recreation, we’re not going to be able to accommodate all these people… and their poop. So, eventually what we’re going to see are more and more regulations that limit access in the interest of protecting these places.”
“So, we decided we wanted to try and create a higher sustainability standard, and that’s when we looked into mycelium and how we could use it to rapidly decompose poop and the PACT Wipe, while also killing the bacteria like E coli that is harming waterways, wildlife, and even people.”
“We believe that if you give people better tools, they’ll happily use them for their benefit and the environment’s benefit,” Noah said. “Unfortunately, right now, if you’re a trail runner, there’s nothing out there that allows you to follow LNT practices if you have to go on your run. We want to design tools that make it a no-brainer for any outdoor enthusiast to be prepared to ‘go.’”
Tell us about what’s included in your flagship all-in-one kit?
“Our first kit is really designed to make going outdoors as easy and environmentally-friendly as possible,” said Jake. “It comes with an aluminum, ergonomic trowel that makes digging a six-inch hole easier and faster. The hand sanitizer is made from the waste in the gin distillation process from a local distiller in Colorado. It comes with PACT Tabs which, when added to the cat-hole, use a native, non-invasive species of mycelium to decompose poop 10 times faster while also killing bacteria that can persist in the soil for years and contaminate the larger ecosystem. It also comes with PACT Wipes which are dehydrated and compressed – they are smaller and lighter than TP, and they also get you cleaner with a fraction of the paper use. Just add a squirt of water and they unfold into a thick, nine-inch towel. The kit also comes with a washable trash bag for packing out feminine hygiene products or the PACT Wipes if required. And it comes with an info card that explains Leave No Trace best practices. We want you to be able to hand this to a friend that’s never done this before and have them feel really confident. Lastly, everything is stored in a waterproof TPU case that’s washable and super durable.”
How did you develop the PACT wipes?
“Toilet paper wasn’t made for the outdoors,” Noah answered. “It’s bulky. It gets wet and smashed. It’s terrible! So we knew we needed something better. Compressed wipes are used in other countries, but we wanted to make one that was designed to, one, help people feel clean, but two, actually support the decomposition process. So that meant making it with as little additives as possible. Our Wipe is made entirely of plant matter. It’s free of fragrances, additives, and chemicals like the ones found in conventional wet wipes – all substances that would hinder the growth of the mycelium and just be unhealthy for the soil. But, if you think about it, the wipe is plant material. It’s wet and fibrous. So, it acts as this initial food for the mycelium when you bury it. The mycelium consumes it, converts it into nutrients, and is then better prepared to decompose the poop. So the wipe, when buried with PACT Tabs, actually accelerates decomposition. We wanted to make a really minimalistic wipe, but one that’s big enough to fold and use for multiple ‘swipes.’ But, ultimately, it was about creating a Wipe that helps to break down your poop.”
How did you come up with the idea for the mycelium tablets?
“The emerging field of mycoremediation led us down this path,” Jake said. “The field involves using fungi to improve soil quality. Mycelium is like the root system for fungi. It consists of these branching threads that search for organic and inorganic materials to decompose and convert into nutrients. Scientists have found species that break down heavy metals, plastics, concrete, even toxic radiation. So, various species are being used to repair the soil after wildfires destroy homes, and to prevent hazardous run-off from agricultural and livestock waste. They’ve even found a species of mycelium at Chernobyl that’s actually converting the toxic radiation into energy. It’s a remarkable field that holds a lot of potential for the health of our planet.”
“After some research and testing,” Jake went on, “we found a species that is native throughout the U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii, is non-invasive and non-aggressive, that decomposes human poop on average ten times faster, and that kills the harmful bacteria that are in poop, like E. coli, for example. It’s this bacteria that can be a big part of the problem for our environment because scientists are finding that they persist and can make their way into waterways, and can infect wildlife, pets, and even people. There’s a lot of research showing elevated E. coli levels linked to human waste in public lands all over the U.S.”
So… how does one make proper use of the whole kit when nature calls?
“Our kit is designed to help users follow Leave No Trace best practices for burying their poop,” explained Noah. “There are areas that require users to pack out their poop, and while we’re working on better solutions for that approach as well, it’s important that people understand the regulations for the area they are in. But, generally if you can get 200’ feet from water sources, and aren’t in the alpine or an arid desert environment, you’re safe to bury. “
“Step one is to pick a spot 200 feet from water, trails, and campsites. Then use our shovel to dig a six- to eight-inch hole – it’s really important that you dig a hole and bury your waste as it’s key for minimizing the spread of bacteria. You go in the hole. Then you put a little squirt of water on our PACT Wipe then use it to clean yourself up. Drop the Wipe in the hole with three PACT Tabs, then re-fill the hole with dirt. Then sanitize your hands! Germs from going to the bathroom are the number one cause of stomach illness in the backcountry. Finally, pat yourself on the back and let nature do the rest.”
What are some tips and tricks for, well, pooping outdoors? Especially for helping kids do so.
“Based on what we’ve heard from customers,” Jake said, “part of the magic of the PACT Kit is that it gets people talking about how to poop responsibly, a topic that’s otherwise been taboo. And this is interesting, because teaching and learning is so inherent to outdoor experiences regardless of your level of experience. So, solving our ‘poop problem’ is, in many ways, about helping people feel more comfortable talking about it. When we designed the PACT Kit we wanted to make it worthy of sharing or talking about with your friends. We even brought a little bit of science into the whole process with the mycelium.”
“But based on our research, the hardest things for people are: feeling clean, finding a comfortable position, and finding privacy. Our Wipes really help with the cleanliness piece because they’re wet and nice and thick. But for comfort and privacy, we really recommend planning in advance if you can. For example, if you generally go first thing in the morning, go find your spot the night before and dig your cat-hole, that way there’s less of a frantic scramble to find a private, comfortable spot the next morning. This is especially helpful with kids who have a little less bowel control.
Why is it so important to be responsible when doing one’s business in the wilderness?
“160 million people participate in outdoor activities according to the Outdoor Industry Association,” Jake said. “That’s a huge increase from a few decades ago. And that’s a lot more people pooping outdoors. As a result, we need to develop better, more sophisticated practices to cope with this growing participation. Otherwise – and we’re already seeing this – the response from land managers and those whose job it is to ensure the preservation of our public lands will begin implementing more and more restrictions on access. While public lands belong to everyone to enjoy, the first priority is ensuring their long-term health and preservation for future generations and for wildlife.”
What are some things too many people do wrong when doing their business out there?
“The biggest is not burying your waste,” Noah answered. “Going on the surface of the ground and throwing some toilet paper on top? This is really bad. Because wildlife, pets, and people can come in contact with it. We’ve heard countless stories about this. Some people like to demonize these folks, but David Ochs, the Executive Director of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, the oldest mountain biking club in the world, and a world-class trail maintenance and preservation organization reminded us: ‘People don’t poop on the surface of the ground and leave it because they’re mean or bad. They do it because they’re naive and unprepared.’ We have to continue to empathize with people and that’s at the core of our design process.”
“Going near water sources is another mistake,” Jake added. “Once it’s in a water source, it’s really hard to understand the full impact. As an example, Colorado has over 100 water sources with higher than the EPA-approved levels of E. Coli. Many of these water sources are what you would otherwise consider to be pristine rivers and lakes that just happen to be near high concentrations of recreation.”
Who is the primary customer of PACT products?
“We’re seeing really widespread interest, honestly,” Jake said. “People adopt the PACT System for different reasons. Families like it because it simplifies things for the parents and kids. Ultralight backpackers and runners love the Wipes because they save so much space and weight and get you a lot cleaner. The PACT Tabs appeal to people who are really focused on minimizing their impact. Our PACT Kit is great for car camping, backpacking, overlanding, adventure moto, fly fishing, and hunting. Anyone who is venturing out in a place without facilities loves it.”
You can count us here at DGR among that number! But now, if you’ll excuse us…