Things change all the time on the Appalachian Trail. On my hike last month I noticed one major change since I’d hiked in 2007– the outhouses. In particular, there were a lot more moldering privies. Moldering privies are pretty awesome.
Not long ago, the majority of the outhouses near trail shelters were pit privies. This is the kind you most likely imagine when you think of an outhouse. A rotting wooden box, a seat, and a hole in the ground as deep as the builder could dig. Lots of big flies. A stench so strong, hardened hikers blanch in fear. Looking down when you lift the seat might cause nausea or temporary brain damage.
But that’s the old way. Practically every outhouse in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts has been replaced with a nice, new moldering privy. Many other states, especially Vermont, have made huge progress in the human waste department as well. I learned a lot about this while working at the Green Mountain Club a few years back, since one of my coworkers was the guru of poo for most of the Appalachian Trail. It turns out, poop is a major issue for the AT, Long Trail, and most popular hiking trails.
There are more problems with pit privies than just smelling bad. A deep hole full of dung has no air flow, so the poo doesn’t rot. When the pit fills, the trail maintainers must dig a new hole, move the wooden privy to the new hole, and bury the old hole. This happens every five to ten years, depending on how much use the shelter gets. One trail maintainer told me that they had once accidentally dug where a privy had been previously, a hole that had been filled fifteen years earlier, and “it was as fresh as the day we’d buried it.” Yuck.
Moldering privies are the next step in backcountry waste management. When you see an outhouse on a sort of pedestal, with a semi-open space beneath for the pile to accumulate, you’re basically looking at a compost pile. There is no hole in the ground, and you are instructed to throw a handful of duff, wood shavings, leaves, or other similar material into the privy after you make your deposit (this is usually supplied in a bucket in the privy). Maintainers often throw in a can of worms at the beginning of the season to supplement the bacteria, native worms, and other creepy crawlies that live in the pile of poop. These critters eat the poo over time, and turn it into nice, clean compost.
I find moldering privies to be totally fascinating, and I’m very happy to see so many of them on the AT now. Moldering privies are considerably less disgusting than pits, since the worms and microbes make for speedy decomposition and remarkably little stink. The “flush” with duff, leaves, or wood shavings also helps to keep things looking less like raw sewage and more like a compost pile. In the end, you’re left with something that is more or less indistinguishable from rich soil. Considering that story I’d heard from the shelter maintainer about the fresh pit, I’m happy knowing there are fewer toxic pits out there near my favorite campsites, and a lot more friendly soil.