Scenario: You are hiking along a pristine brook in the woods when suddenly you feel it. The undeniable urgency. You start to sweat. You look around. The nearest toilet is 6 km behind you. What do you do?
- Hold it. Forever.
- Poop in the brook. The water will get everything nice and clean.
- Drop a deuce right in the middle of the trail. Animals do it. Why shouldn’t you?
- Find a private spot away from the river and off trail and dig a hole. Do your business and then bury it.
If you chose a: Congratulations! You have earned the title of Poop Camel and you can boast to your friends about your incredible sphincter control. You are constipated and uncomfortable for the rest of the week.
If you chose b. Your bum is squeaky clean, and you are on your merry way. Your friend Betty is a km behind you on trail and stops to collect water from the pristine-looking brook, not realizing it is now infected with your nasty poo. Your trip is cut short as she is evacuated to the nearest hospital to be treated for giardiasis. You learn a valuable lesson about contaminating water sources and Betty learns a valuable lesson about filtering drinking water.
If you chose c. You head down the trail feeling very much relieved. Your friend Betty catches up with you an hour later complaining about the monster pile of dog poo she stepped in. You quietly sympathize and admit nothing. That evening when you are cooking dinner some flies land on the poo shoe and then land on Betty’s instant potatoes. Your trip is cut short as she is evacuated to the nearest hospital to be treated for Salmonella.
If you chose d. Thank you for your proper etiquette! Your poop goes very much unnoticed, and you and your friend Betty have a lovely hiking trip. Microbes enjoy the tasty feast you left them, and songbirds and woodland creatures sing your praises all down the trail.
Poop. It’s gross, it stinks, it’s unsightly and unsanitary, and EVERYBODY does it. Keeping it clean and out of sight in the wilderness is not just a matter of courtesy; it’s a matter of public health. Feces is a major vector for all kinds of pathogens: Salmonella, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and Hepatitus to name a few. They can be transmitted by unwashed hands, contaminated food and water, and by critters moving through your space. Minimize your risk by doing your business far away (at least 60 meters) from any water source, trail, or camping area. Different wilderness areas have different standards for dealing with and disposing of human waste depending on the landscape, ecology, and amount of human traffic. Some environments that are particularly ecologically fragile, particularly high in elevation (where biodegradation happens much slower) or particularly busy may call for the pack-out method. This means you poop in a well-sealed odor-resistant container and carry it out with you. In most wilderness areas it’s ok to bury your scat in a cathole somewhere out of the way.
How to Dig a Cathole
When nature calls, leave yourself enough time to dig a proper hole. Find a good private spot 60 meters (about 70 adult steps) away from any potential source of fresh water, and well away from trails and camps. Find a spot with a good view if you can! Get comfy and make it memorable. Once you have picked your prime poo spot, dig yourself a hole at least 6” deep and 6” wide. A good lightweight spade is an essential piece of back country equipment. Something sturdy and sharp enough to handle hard-packed earth and roots. Squat and relax. If you are lucky you will lock eyes with a majestic deer and feel a deep connection with nature as you do your business. If you are unlucky you will lock eyes with another hiker and realize too late that your perfect secluded spot is actually right next to the trail due to an unanticipated switchback.
When the dirty deed is complete, it’s time to dispose of your TP in an airtight zip-lock bag. Use a stick or your trowel to fill in your cathole. Once the hole is filled in and all traces hidden you are good to pack up and go. If I’m near a popular tent site or one I’m spending multiple days at, I like to plant a stick upright on top of my filled-in hole for decoration and to signal to my future self or fellow hikers that this spot has been used. I once dug a cathole in a discreet, out of the way spot, to find the hole already occupied by someone else’s crap. If there is a nice little clearing with a trampled track leading from a campsite, someone else has probably poo’d there. Be wary.
Scenario: You are camping at a popular backcountry campsite. There is a composting privy adjacent to the site. It kind of stinks and public toilets gross you out, but you have to go. What do you do?
- Use the privy. It’s not that bad. Close the lid and sanitize when you are done.
- Use the privy. While you are at it you have all this plastic trash leftover from dinner. Throw it in the hole too.
- Just go dig a cathole in the woods by your site. The privy seems far too unsanitary.
- Go into the privy and poop next to the toilet. Close enough amirite?
If you chose a: Congratulations! Your bowels are free and clean and so is your conscience.
If you chose b: Future visitors shake their heads sadly at your disrespect. Betty the new seasonal park volunteer has to rake through the shite pile and remove your trash a month later. She curses your name into the wind and a seagull hears her oath and avenges her by pooing on your tuna sandwich.
If you chose c: You step off on a convenient little side trail adjacent to your tent site to do your business and find yourself standing in a small clearing surrounded by used toilet paper. You realize you were not the first to have this idea and rethink your choices.
If you chose d: No. You are not right. You disgust me.
(This might be a good time to mention none of these answers are hypotheticals. I’m not making this shit up! I’ve seen them ALL.)
If a backcountry site gets a lot of traffic, there is a tipping point at which the area can’t sustain everybody using the woods as a toilet without turning it into a cesspool. At this point privies are often installed. If a privy is available, please use it, and use it according to the instructions of the fabulous people who built it for you. TOILETS ARE NOT TRASH CANS. Composting toilets are designed to handle organic waste only. Any trash you add to the pile only disrupts the decomposition process. People are not hiking into these sites every day to pick trash out of the john. It’s up to all of us to keep them in good condition.
Regardless of privy access on your adventure, you should always be ready with a poo kit. After all, the need can strike at any time. Don’t be caught unprepared!
To pack your poo kit you’ll need:
A small ziplock bag for dirty TP and a small ziplock bag for clean TP. These can both be kept in a larger ziplock bag that contains your trowel, hand sanitizer and any other hygiene products you need. Double bagged and clean, these can be stowed in your pack until you return to civilization. As a matter of principal, I like to keep it in a separate pocket from my snacks.
Things like wet wipes and menstrual products should ALWAYS be packed out. It doesn’t matter if the package says biodegradable or flushable. These products will break down much slower than organic matter, and critters tend to find them even if they are buried. You should pack out your toilet paper too. though it will biodegrade eventually, it can last years under some conditions. Along popular trails, the blossoms of soggy white toilet paper accumulate much faster than nature can break them down and they are extremely visible.
Are you equipped with lady parts? Have you ever caught a dude nonchalantly taking a piss in the woods and felt equal parts disgust and envy? Unlock the power of peeing standing! You’ll feel totally liberated and your friends will be very impressed. The Go Girl pee funnel is a great option if you need an assist. The standard squat technique and the tree-assisted layback are good options too if you don’t want to carry the extra hardware. I cannot recommend the hiking dress enough if you really want to squat with ease. It’s light, cool, cute as hell, and crazy convenient when you’ve been chugging water by the liter. All the dudes are jealous of my hiking dress on hot days. (Dudes you can wear one too. I’m not judging.) But it’s time to address the elephant in the room. Some ladies are good to go with a quick shake off, but many of us require a bit of clean up. Several UTIs in the wilderness have taught me not to skip this step. Some folks only feel comfortable using toilet paper. That’s perfectly fine if you are prepared to pack it out. A reusable cloth is a great option too. A bandana clipped to your pack works fine. A clip on Yanky is soft, convenient, and cleans and dries quickly. Some like to carry a squeeze bottle or wilderness bidet to get things rinsed off too. Feel free to experiment and find what works for you.
Peeing outside should not have to be a source of anxiety or embarrassment. We’ve been doing it since long before toilets and stalls were invented. Do it cleanly and respectfully and we’ll all be better off. As with everything in the great outdoors, adhere to Leave No Trace principals. When you leave a place, it should be exactly as you found it. That means carry-in, carry-out, protect our shared water sources, and don’t leave steaming piles of poop.