To Trowel or Not To Trowel?

When don’t you need a trowel?

You won’t be digging a cat hole in slot canyons or above tree line because you pack out your own poop like in the trip I’ll be doing at the end of June. We’ll backpack Buckskin Gulch and the Paria Canyon out to Lee’s Ferry. On that trip it’s required to pack out all our poop (four days worth!) and I admit to dreading that part. I’d much rather dig a hole, but since I don’t get a choice, I’ll suck it up (not literally, gross you guys!) and carry my own poop out in these RESTOP 2 bags. Or maybe I’ll eat only rice and take so much Imodium that I won’t poop for at least a couple days.

When you have to pack it out.

When you have to pack it out.

Trowels are good Leave No Trace.

In most situations a digging tool is the only way to dig a proper 6-8 inch, Leave No Trace approved, cat hole. Many backpackers, especially online, say they can dig a good enough cat hole with the heel of their boot, or their trekking pole, or a stick they find nearby, but that’s not always true. Unless you have some ultra special technique or attachment on your trekking pole, you’re probably leaving a trace at least some of the time if you don’t carry a trowel.

Not all online advice is good.

As a new backpacker I read online not to take a trowel so I went without on the Appalachian Trail for the first few hundred miles and though occasionally the ground was soft enough to get deep enough, most of the time roots, dry soil, and rocks in the soil kept my holes too shallow. We should be teaching the newbies how to do it right, not how to skimp on important things like a proper cat hole. Come on, who really wants to see poop bombs and toilet paper flowers along any trail? Digging a proper hole will reduce those nasty moments.

Trowels are efficient and quick.

When you have to poop bad enough to finally stop hiking after you’ve been keeping your eyes open for a semi-private, appropriate spot 200 feet from water, the trail, and camp, it’s generally getting urgent. Who’s realistically going to wrestle with their trekking pole or search for another stick after the first two sticks already broke while in danger of imminently shitting their pants? Nobody who’s normal. We all know backpacking and the types of food we eat can bring on the runs, so nearly, or actually, shitting your pants is not an uncommon occurrence. Be a good backpacker and carry a trowel so you can dig deep enough quickly and bury your deposit properly.

But trowels weigh too much!

Most experienced backpackers don’t like the standard plastic trowel you can buy at any outdoor store for less than $3, but it’s the cheapest option. It weighs 2 ounces and is bulky. I carried one just like this for most of my AT thru-hike. I felt like a better person for digging deeper cat holes, but I didn’t like the trowel itself. It rode in the mesh pocket on the back of my pack and when I put down my pack the pointy end wore through the mesh and put holes in it. I could have tied or clipped it on the outside of my pack, I suppose, and probably should have.

Titanium trowels.

This is a great option, and you can splurge on a fancy, relatively expensive, awesomely cool titanium trowel in the $35+ price range. They weigh as little as .4 ounces for the smallest trowel that’s 6 inches long and nearly one ounce for the biggest at 8.5 inches long. This website lists sizes, weights, and prices from a particular company. There are multiple companies making these, and you can even make your own if you are so inclined and have the tools and materials.

Tent stakes as trowels.

Another option to cutting weight, bulk, and not spending too much money while still carrying a trowel came from something I read online. A tent stake. I wish I would have noted where I saw the suggestion so I could give credit, because the MSR Blizzard tent stake worked great on my last two backpacking trips. I chose that one because it was the biggest, lightest tent stake we had at the outdoor store where I work. At 9.5 inches long it only weighs .8 ounces and has a much smaller profile compared to the plastic trowel. It’s reasonably priced at $4.95 and surprisingly weighs less than the largest titanium trowel while being stronger than titanium. It could be hung by any of the holes but I slid it down the side mesh pocket of my pack. The digging end wasn’t too pointy so it didn’t threaten the mesh.

Multiple uses for your trowel.

The Blizzard digs a good hole, and after loosening the dirt you can flip the stake and used the lip end to scoop dirt out of your new, plenty-deep-enough cat hole. You could wrap the handle with something like duct tape or vet wrap to get a better grip, but I found no need to do that. It’s a good goal to have multiple uses for your gear, so having a trowel that is actually a tent stake fits that goal. Lose a stake? No problem, I’ve got my trusty trowel here.

My hiking partner was so impressed with the tent stake idea that she bought one, too. On our trip we discovered a third use for the Blizzard tent stake. She lost her spoon after the third night and never found it. Our fourth and last night she didn’t know how to eat her dinner until she realized the tent stake was shaped a little like a spoon. “It’s only been in dirt,” she said, rinsed it off, and proceeded to eat her Ziploc bag meal with the scoop end of the Blizzard. Yes, we’re hiker trash and not ashamed to admit it. So there you go. My perfect multi-use (x3) backpacking trowel so far is the MSR Blizzard tent stake.

What do you use to dig cat holes? Share your ideas and suggestions in the comments.


MSR Blizzard for the win!

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Comments 13

  • Chickenfat : May 13th

    .6 ounces
    For 20 bucks

    There is no reason to not have a trowel. It’s irresponsible and detracts from the trail every time you don’t bury your waste correctly

  • Katy B. : May 15th

    Great suggestion and excellent way to lighten the load. Thanks for that!

  • imin2w8s : May 15th

    Great idea! Thanks for sharing!

  • Kristine Goodman : Aug 10th

    Recently I was in the Wind River Range. TWICE I found toilet paper poop “holes”. So gross! If you have to go so bad you can’t wait to dig a hole – go and then dig a hole and push it in with something. Not that hard! Great post by the way!

  • Ron Rogers : Dec 6th

    I too have been using a REI brand (identical except for color to MSR) snow stake for multiple purposes. Best multi-use piece of equipment I own! These uses include:
    1.staking down tent
    2.digging cat holes
    3.using as a spoon when packrats stole my spork
    4.opening my Garcia bear-proof canister
    5.prying Hawaii Opihi off rocks and shucking (yum!)

  • George : Jul 7th

    Next time out, I’m going to try a… metal shoe horn. 🙂

  • Steve Flinn : Feb 9th

    Whoa! If you dig with that snostake and then use it as a spoon without sterilizing it you are quickly going to find yourself with intestinal worms. Do NOT do this. It’s a stupid.

    • tirod : Jun 25th

      Proper field sanitation would more likely be served by washing your hands, filtering ambient water sources (giardia) etc. I don’t support the idea of using a tool meant for dirt as an eating utensil – rocks will burr them which can cut your lips and tongue. There is the bigger danger, turning your spoon into a serrated spork. Going light doesn’t mean going without, keep a good spoon handy.

      How people lose things outdoors is solved with paracord and self discipline. In this day and age of AIDS and Covid, sharing utensils thru theft seems dangerous. Those who know never shake left hands, either.

  • JJ : Oct 28th

    You’re in the freaking woods . . . . shit and move on. Animals do. A lot of animals will eat what comes out of you and love it.

    Any place that makes you “pack your own poop” is probably run by degenerate Old Hippie types . . . . the kind who drink their own piss. Go somewhere else.

    Nature isn’t complicated until humans start making their silly-ass rules . . . . .

    Rant over. As far as a “trowel?” Waste of money. A good knife is all you need. Air Force Survival Knife, USMC KA-Bar . . . or what I carry, a Randall Model 1.

    But since you carry your own poop, I don’t suppose you even own a knife . . . .

    • h : Dec 5th

      Toxic person, watch out!

    • tirod : Jun 25th

      Large, heavy, and inefficient tools are the option some choose, I owned a Randall, Swamp Rat, etc and finally sold them all off. A lSven saw and 4″ folder on two week FTXs got me wondering why I needed the saw when an E tool was required. Ounces are pounds and pounds are pain. Yes, we could use a $400 knife for digging in dirt – but there are tools far cheaper that can do it more efficiently and which wouldn’t need sanitizing before cutting up supper.

  • Steve M : May 3rd

    In the forest, it’s not easy to avoid roots.

    I bring a cheapo, light-ish knife to cut through the smaller roots, as far away from plants as possible.

  • tirod : Jun 25th

    Aside from all the flex and inconsiderate answers, a good digging tool is as important as a unsharpened spoon and a sharp knife. Tools have distinct purposes and the more activities attempted with them only demonstrates how poor they are in doing the wrong thing. I’ve carried an MRE spoon sticking out of my pocket for days and never lost it – used shovels for cutting roots, and rarely had a dull knife when it came to cooking up supper or other work. Yes, a knife should be cleaned, that last root might be poison ivy. Camping in the Ozarks you get every hazard thrown at you every season.

    The Deuce style trowel seems to be the best current answer – I would not store it in a mesh pocket as one user reported it wore thru, which is more a testimony to how poor mesh is overall. I see it disappearing from current packs. Carabiner clips are worse unless you need the tool acting as a bear bell for hours and hours all day. Because they can cut and have a point, an appropriate kydex holster would be better which fits a modular mounting system sewn onto the pack, like, molle – the lightweight laser cut variety. Said holster could also have a pouch to hold toilet paper, something rarely discussed in all the online reviews.

    I recently bought a used pack which had the mesh pockets cut off, something the seller neglected to mention, and you can see how I’m turning that to a blessing. Improvise and overcome, I was taught.


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