Nature Calls: How To Poop Outside on Your Next Thru-Hike
Pooping. We all do it. We all hate it. And, boy, do we hikers all love to talk about it. From the most comfortable outdoor pooping positions to necessary gear in a backcountry poop kit, this article will delve deep into the awkward details of how to poop outside so you can unlock your full pootential.
Leave No Trace: Know How To Poop Outside Responsibly
But first: As human waste is one of the most common forms of pollution in the backcountry, we need to incorporate Leave No Trace principles into these conversations.
Why should you care?
To put it simply, improper disposal of human waste contributes to the rise of disease and bacteria in the backcountry, as well as increasing the chances that the next hiker will stumble across your poorly buried poo.
We need to be judicious about our waste for the same reason we ask dog owners to pick up their dog’s poop: Our processed diet consists of things not found in the environments in which we hike. Traces of these unnatural ingredients — everything from heavy metals to pharmaceuticals — damage the ecosystem and attract curious animals unfamiliar with the smell.
Additionally, water flow (from snowmelt, rain, etc.) can wash feces into nearby drinking water sources, potentially contaminating them with disease-causing microbes like giardia, E. coli, and C. diff.
When you’re mid-squat, tired, and considering slacking on your outdoor-pooping best practices, let your mind drift back to this article. Leave No Trace is talked about a lot for a reason: it’s genuinely important for each person to limit their impact and reduce ecological damage.
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I like toilets for two reasons: Number One and Number Two.
Some trails, like the AT and hiking paths in many national parks, provide semi-regular access to backcountry privies: primitive outhouses often located near campsites and shelters. Using privies or other provided bathroom facilities is pretty much always the most sustainable way to poop on the trail, but they’re not always available when you need them.
Someday — hopefully soon — someone will invent portable, ultralight plumbing for the outdoors. Until then, we are forced to use what we have in our packs to poop outside while staying as sanitary and comfortable as possible.
This starts with preparedness. You must bring a few key pieces of gear — and know how to use them — for taking care of backcountry business.
If you don’t want to bring a trowel, have something with you capable of digging a cathole (like a snow stake).
It helps to be familiar with the ground you’ll be hiking on — is it soft and pliable, or rocky and hard packed? Knowing this helps determine what type of tool you’ll need. When the digging is tough, having an actual, dedicated trowel makes a difference.
Toilet Paper, Etc.
Toilet paper, a leaf, a smooth stone, wet wipes, a bidet, some grass, or a snowball. How you clean up is a personal choice — it’s none of my business how you do yours. However, whatever you pack in, be prepared to pack out. The pervasive myth that toilet paper can be buried along with your waste ends with this article! But, we’ll get into that more later.
TP: Some outdoor brands sell “backcountry toilet paper,” but any old TP will do. The biggest advantage of the outdoor brands is that they’re sold without the cardboard tube.
Bidet: Ultralight bidets cost and weigh almost nothing these days. The most popular design for backcountry use is essentially a modified plug that fits in the mouth of Smartwater-style disposable water bottles. Insert the bidet, hold the bottle upside-down, and squeeze.
You may want to follow up by wiping with a square or two of TP, just in case, but the whole process still feels a lot cleaner and leaves you with less stuff to pack in and out.
Natural materials: Yes, some people do wipe with snowballs, handfuls of grass (for the best user experience, fold the grass in half and wipe with the bent end), etc. It’s ultralight! It’s OK to not pack this stuff out after using it, but you still need to bury it along with your poop.
Some environments sensitive to human waste require hikers to use solid waste bags. In simple terms: yes, you have to poop into a bag and carry that poop out with you.
Human waste bags, often called WAG bags, are specialized disposable bags for containing and carrying human waste. Typically, they are made of puncture-resistant, odor-proof materials to ensure hygienic waste disposal. After use, hikers seal the bags securely and pack them out to be properly disposed of according to Leave No Trace principles.
Not all locations require WAG bags; it’s up to you to know the rules of the pool before dropping off your kids. Even if you don’t need to have a WAG bag, you will still need a waste bag with you for packing out your used toilet paper. Personally, I use an opaque bag. No one needs to see what goes on in there.
Have you ever sat in a public restroom and listened to the number of people who walk straight out without washing their hands? Gross, right? Don’t be that person. Staying sanitary in the backcountry is hard enough without adding “cooking dinner with poopy hands” to the list. (You know how norovirus is rampant on crowded trails like the AT? Yeah. This is the reason.)
Bring a small bottle of hand sanitizer — or, even better, biodegradable soap! — and use it before heading back to your pack and the trail.
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Getting Down and Dirty: How To Poop Outside (Step by Step!)
What do you call someone who doesn’t bury their shit so that you step in it later? A party pooper. Before you ruin someone else’s day, you need to be familiar with Leave No Trace principles when poopin’.
1. Choose Your Own Bathroom
First, find a private spot. The only thing worse than walking up on someone taking a dump is being walked up on. Ensure this spot is 200 feet (about 70 large steps) away from the trail, a water source, or a campsite to avoid contaminating the area. A sunny spot will aid in quick waste decomposition, while also potentially providing a poo with a view.
Watch out for things like poison ivy and anthills when choosing a spot.
2. Dig a Cathole
Before you enter an area, do your doo diligence and look up local regulations. If you need to use a WAG bag, pull it out now. Otherwise, use your trowel (or whatever!) to dig a hole 6 – 8 inches deep and about 4 inches wide. This depth is necessary for faster decomposition as well as masking the scent from animals in the area.*
One good reason to bring a real trowel: many have measurements on the side to ensure proper cathole size.
*In desert environments, the hole should only be 4 inches deep. There’s not much microbial activity going on in desert soils, but a shallower hole allows percolating rain and the warmth of the sun to speed decomposition.
3. Offload Some Weight
The average bowel movement weighs a quarter pound to a pound. Congratulations, ounce-counters! You’ve just lowered your carried weight.
4. Clean Up
Use as little toilet paper as possible by wiping with something within arm’s reach or using a portable backpacking bidet. If you use a bidet, I recommend practicing at home to find the angle that minimizes splashing and makes you the most comfortable.
Now, I’m going to repeat something that will upset many of you: you have to pack out your toilet paper. The only argument in favor of burying your toilet paper is people just don’t want to carry it out. Butt doing so is vital to preserve the ecosystem and beauty of the trails.
5. Pack Out Your Toilet Paper!
There’s this all-too-common idea that toilet paper decomposes with your waste inside your cathole — and this is simply not the case. In even the most perfect conditions (I’m looking at you, Appalachian Trail), toilet paper takes 1 – 3 years to decompose. This timeframe increases greatly in alpine, desert, and wetland environments.
Let’s say you’ve done everything perfectly and buried your toilet paper in a regulation-sized cathole. Even then, animals, rainfall, and snowmelt can shift dirt and reveal your previously hidden toilet paper. As our hiking trails become more popular and more crowded, toilet paper blooms become a more frequent occurrence. Few things at a campsite are less welcoming than stray pieces of used toilet paper. Additionally, used toilet paper in the backcountry exposes wildlife to bleach, PFAS, and disease-carrying pathogens.
While packing out your TP isn’t the most fun, it’s certainly more fun than walking down a trail littered with dirty toilet paper. Plus, Leave No Trace is sexy!
Perhaps the only thing worse than burying your toilet paper is burning it, which can start wildfires. Nothing explosive in the backcountry — your bowel movements or otherwise — is ever a good idea.
6. Hide Your Shame
Fill in your cathole completely. If possible, place a rock over the area to discourage curious animals. At a minimum, flag the filled-in hole with a stick for other hikers. No one wants to dig a cathole only to uncover someone else’s poop.
READ NEXT – LNT Principle Three: Dispose of Waste Properly
Pooping Comfortably Outside
Many people reading this probably already know how to adhere to Leave No Trace when pooping in the woods. But do you know how to do it comfortably?
Especially on a thru-hike, you’ll be squatting in the woods 10, 50, 100 times (unless you’re this guy). Knowing some tricks for having the most pleasant — or, least unpleasant — experience can be the difference between a good day and a crappy one.
First, gone are the days of spending an hour on the toilet while you scroll on your phone. It’ll be easier if you just let that idea go now. Pooping in the backcountry requires leg strength and balance, and will probably never be as relaxing as it is at home.
Here are some detailed descriptions of the most comfortable pooping positions. I’ve also added some diagrams, as I’m sure my editor (and you) would not appreciate actual photos of this from the trail. Please excuse any liberties I’ve taken with realistic human anatomy; No one has ever accused me of being an artist.
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- 5 Ways To Poop in the Woods: An Illustration
- Pooping on the Appalachian Trail: Important Statistics From My Thru-Hike
The tried-and-true maneuver for those with good balance and strong quads. Place your feet on either side of your cathole and move into a low squat. Lean forward slightly for balance, and brace your hands on your knees for support. Get as low to the ground as you can so you can aim properly. No one wants this to turn into a game of cornhole.
Pros: Anatomically, this is the most ergonomic and efficient pooping position, and it keeps your hands clean.
Cons: May be uncomfortable for individuals with knee or hip issues.
This is a modified squat position, and is perfect for those who want a little less strain on their knees. Get in the squat position, but use one hand in front of or behind you for extra stability. This will demand less from your quads and give you better balance, but you’ll have to touch the ground.
Pros: Increased balance and stability, as well as less strain on your lower body.
Cons: Requires some core strength and gets one of your hands dirty.
Yet another modifier on the Squat, the Crab is the same as the Tripod but with both hands behind you instead of one. You gain some stability and spread the effort across four limbs at the tradeoff of dirt on both hands.
Pros: Total balance and stability!
Cons: Both hands covered in dirt.
For those who prefer arm day to leg day, the Assist method utilizes a sturdy tree branch to take most of the strain off your quads. Grab hold of a strong branch or tree trunk and lean back as close to your cathole as possible. Your feet should be close to the base of the tree, with most of the strength and balance coming from your hands and arms.
Pros: Less effort required from your lower body.
Cons: Must find a suitably strong tree; potential for tree sap on hands.
The Wall Sit
The Wall Sit, much like in gym class, will have you in a squat position while bracing your back against a tree trunk. While it certainly is not the position for those with weak quads and poor aim, those with subpar balance and stability may appreciate the extra support provided by the tree.
Pros: Supported back and head.
Cons: Hard to dig a good cathole in the roots of a tree.
If you really need to capture the feeling of a flush toilet, the Throne may be the position for you. Find a fallen log or flat boulder and dig your cathole just on the other side. Sit off the edge with your rear end over your cathole and use your hands on the ground to stabilize yourself. While a tree trunk doesn’t feel as good on your skin as porcelain, sitting down to poop is a luxury few will pass up on a thru-hike.
Pros: Allows you to sit down to poop.
Cons: Must focus on not tilting backwards off the log.
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Bend your knees slightly, then squat down and place your hands shoulder-width apart on the ground, fingers spread wide. Bend your elbows and shift your weight forward onto your hands, engaging your core.
Lift your feet off the ground, bringing your knees to rest on the backs of your upper arms. Keep your gaze forward and your core engaged as you balance. Hold the pose for a few breaths, then gently lower your feet back down to the ground and return to a squatting position.
… Wait. Maybe that’s just yoga.
Pros: Strengthens arms and wrists, tones core muscles, improves balance, relieves stress and anxiety.
Cons: Is just a yoga pose, not a pooping position.
The Final Wipe
The rules and regulations for pooping in the backcountry aren’t hard to implement, but they can be annoying to adhere to. I empathize with you — trust me, I do. Backpacking can be taxing enough that the additional mental burden of having to bushwack off trail, dig a deep hole, and pack out your toilet paper feels like a lot.
However, existing in the backcountry means doing your doody to respect and preserve the ecosystem to the best of your knowledge and ability.
Fortunately or unfortunately for you, you now have this knowledge. Don’t be an ass — keep the trail clean.
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