When his first daughter was in diapers, Jake Thomas began thinking about the problem of poop, never imagining it would become his life’s work.
But it has. Thomas and his brother-in-law, Noah Schum, knew poop was proliferating in popular outdoor recreation destinations across the state, a problem that became magnified during the pandemic when stir-crazy Coloradans overwhelmed recreation resources. Thomas and Schum wanted to eliminate the problem by developing a product that would use nature to decompose buried human waste.
The Pact Outdoors bathroom kit, introduced in fall 2021, came with a small shovel to dig holes for burying waste, pellets inoculated with fungi to break it down, biodegradable tissues and a spritzer with sanitary hand spray. The tissues are compressed into tablets slightly larger than breath mints, but when they are squirted with water, they expand into square wipes that measure 9 by 9 inches. Outside magazine named it the best backpacking accessory in its 2022 gear guide.
Their second product, which debuted on Memorial Day weekend, is a streamlined version called Pact Lite that has a shovel, fungi pellets and tissues but is only 8 inches long and less than 2 inches wide. Through a grant from the Colorado Tourism Office, the Gunnison Crested Butte Tourism and Prosperity Partnership purchased 3,500 of the kits for free distribution around the state at 10 welcome centers and by more than a dozen trails organizations including the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition.
Pact Outdoors is a family business based in Crested Butte, where Schum lives, while Thomas lives in Golden. The Tourism and Prosperity Partnership helped them get the business off the ground two years ago. TAPP marketing director Andrew Sandstrom said the Colorado Tourism Office “loved the idea” when he sought the grant for this year’s giveaway program.
“I saw a really interesting opportunity to tell our story, to help a local brand, to help not only our backcountry but all of Colorado’s backcountry and get people talking about the problem of poop, all at the same time,” Sandstrom said. “Not only are we hopefully helping this company that is bringing money and jobs into our local economy, helping to stabilize us and diversify us beyond tourism, but we’re also helping to steward lands around the state.”
That program is called Doo Colorado Right, which neatly dovetails with a separate CTO program called Do Colorado Right which provides educational tips for responsible outdoors recreation. The Pact Outdoors products are useful tools for that mission.
“We’re really excited to see more products like this becoming available to visitors and residents and anyone who is visiting our public lands,” said Hayes Norris, spokeswoman for the Colorado Tourism Office, which is a division of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. “We’re excited for visitors to start understanding and practicing appropriate outdoor recreation, including waste disposal, as a part of a well-rounded experience through Colorado and the outdoors.”
Some of the places that have been distributing the free kits have run out of their allotment, but they were still available this week at the visitor center in Golden Gate Canyon State Park.
“We were able to get some,” park manager Todd Farrow said, “and are happily sharing them with our visitors.”
Kits can be purchased on the Pact Outdoors website — $50 for the 2021 version, $35 for this year’s — and the older versions also are sold in REI stores. Thomas expects the $35 version to be in REI stores next year.
There are other products for handling human waste in the backcountry, but typically they are bags designed for packing it out. The fungi pellets and compressed tissues in the Pact Outdoors products are ingenious, though. The fungi pellets, made of wood “inoculated” with mycelium, break down buried waste in a month or two, a fraction of the time it would take without the mycelium.
Fungi has two life stages, as mycelium and mushrooms, according to expert Lauren Czaplicki of Durango, who owns a company called Fungal Solutions and serves as the unofficial chief science officer of Pact Outdoors. Mycelium is a thread-like organism that lives underground. Mushrooms are the reproductive structures of fungi. There are thousands of species.
“We needed to find a species of mycelium that did a lot of things,” Thomas said. “Not only did it need to decompose human poop, we wanted something that killed harmful bacteria in poop — e.coli and things like that — and it had to be tolerant of a wide range of ecosystems. It had to be non-invasive, not aggressive. We could not create something that runs wild.”
Czaplicki said the mycelium uses the Pact wipes and human waste as food sources, breaking them down into smaller particles that it turns into food for itself and other microbes in the soil.
The tissue tablets are designed to be an improvement over toilet paper, which has additives that make it unsuited for a waste decomposition product.
“Toilet paper has wet-strength additives,” Thomas said. “They’ve recently found that a lot of brands have forever chemicals in them. We wanted to make something that was free of all those additives so it decomposed more rapidly. It’s plant based, made of a cellulose. The wipe jumpstarts the whole decomposition process, so your wipe actually decomposes your poop faster. It was this pleasant little thing that we weren’t necessarily expecting. We were just trying to make a better paper product.”
The problem of poop hits close to home for folks who live in the Crested Butte area and outdoors enthusiasts who love to visit. Two years ago, areas near town that previously allowed dispersed camping were converted into campgrounds with designated camping spots because of adverse impacts from overcrowding including resource degradation. Sandstrom salutes Thomas and Schum for helping spread the word about the problem of poop improperly left behind, as well as offering a solution.
“I like to believe that people are generally good, and they aren’t doing it to destroy,” Sandstrom said. “They don’t know any better. We have first aid kits, we have backcountry ski kits, you have cooking kits. Everything you need is packaged, but we didn’t have poop kits. Not only is Pact giving visitors a tool that is needed in the backcountry, but it’s also such a great icebreaker for us to start talking about a taboo topic. It’s getting people talking about the problem.”
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