TP or not TP: that is the question

Image of a full roll of toilet paper on top of a scale which shows a weight of 7.05 ounces

Toilet paper: 7.05 ounces

I was tempted to title this blog “On the Origin of Feces.” But first, I wasn’t sure many people would get it – readers of backpacking blogs being perhaps more attuned to Darwin Rakestraw than Charles Darwin. And second, I’m not really writing here about how poop originates but how best to put it to rest.

This is an uncomfortable topic for most of us, including me as I decide how to deal with poop while hiking in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina this spring.

Everybody poops

Pooping is probably the most private thing we do in our entire lives, but it’s a fact of life on the trail as everywhere else. I remember reading a children’s book to my young sons: “Everybody Poops.” And that’s absolutely true: we all do it. So let’s take just a minute to talk about pooping on the trail … and more specifically, how best to deal with it.

How will you handle poop on your next long-distance hike? Will you take reams of TP with you? Will you rely primarily on wet wipes? Or will you rely on your hand, some soap, and maybe a conveniently placed rock or pine cone to bring a successful conclusion to the deed?

The full Skurka

I wish I had the confidence of outdoor athlete and backcountry expert Andrew Skurka: the prophet of paper-free pooping (and a repeat guest on the Backpacker Radio Podcast). Perhaps if I’m faced with exigent circumstances such as my TP getting soaked through, I will see the light and become a Skurka acolyte. I’ll use my water bottle – unmodified, stock Smartwater – as a bidet just like he does, then finishing up with some carefully sourced pebbles and a final sweep with my hand to eliminate all traces of the deed. After I’m done I’ll carefully wash and disinfect both hands. But for now, the Skurka Method is one bridge too far for me. I am still at least somewhat dependent on toilet paper.

A bidet cap and bottle on top of a scale, showing a weight of 0.65 ounces

Bidet cap and bottle: 0.65 ounces

The semi Skurka

However, there are other options falling between full-on Skurka and full-on Charmin. The effective use of a backcountry bidet will drastically reduce the need to pollute our trailside environment with tons and tons of toilet paper and wipes. Instead, poop is very water soluble and a few well-placed squirts of water through a bidet stopper will achieve most of the cleanup. A couple small squares of toilet paper or a single wet wipe is all the follow-up you need to make your bottom squeaky clean.

How to use a bidet

Believe it or not, the dirty bidet water won’t run down your legs and into your boots, and it won’t splash back onto your bottle. Simply stay crouched down after you’ve done your business, and aim a strong jet of water upwards at your bottom’s bullseye. For obvious reasons, try not to squeeze your butt cheeks together before you squeeze your bottle. As with bear hangs and other backcountry skills, it’s definitely worth practicing this technique at home before you hit the trail.

Close-up of small bidet cap

This 3D-printed hard plastic bidet cap with a rubber o-ring weighs about half an ounce.

If you’re reticent to have your drinking water bottle perform this doo-all (sorry) function, a Sawyer water sleeve is well sized and easy to compress. This is the system I used on the Colorado Trail in 2021 and 2022, and I’ll use it again on my 2023 long-distance hike.

Soft silicone bidet cap on a Sawyer water bag

This soft silicone bidet cap fits well in a variety of bottles and weighs about 1 ounce.

A bidet saves weight

For the gram weenies among us, there can be substantial weight savings in using a bidet versus toilet paper or wipes. A full roll of toilet paper weighs over 7 ounces. A bidet and bottle can weigh under one ounce (as long as you wait to fill the bottle until you’re ready to get down to business).

Where to deposit our deposits

Another issue is: what do you do with whatever you’ve produced? The Appalachian Trail has privies near most shelters where you can deposit your load, including toilet paper. Dirt and duff are to be sprinkled on top of your contribution to promote composting.

But often – whether on the AT or elsewhere – we’re faced with pooping sans privy, and in those cases we must dig catholes.

The idea of burying your poop goes back for thousands of years; you can even astonish your friends and impress your dates by reciting an ancient Bible verse endorsing the practice:

And thou shalt have a paddle among thy weapons; and it shall be, when thou sittest down abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee. (Deuteronomy 23:13)

Picture of the Deuce of Spades backcountry trowel

The Deuce of Spades is one of several ultralight trowels that do a good job of digging a cathole.

The modern-day paddle

We’ll need a proper tool for digging, such as a Deuce of Spaces: the modern, high-tech version of the Old Testament paddle. Some hikers suggest merely using a trekking pole, tent stake or even a spoon for this task, but I’ve tried this and have yet to create a suitably deep hole in compacted soil using a pole, stake or spoon.

Don’t just put a stone on top

It can be tempting to simply pry out a stone, do your business, and replace the stone like laying a brick on mortar, but this method slows decomposition. I find that the wells of toppled trees can be good burial spots, as they often have less compact soil and likely won’t attract nearby camping.

Ready, aim, fire … and likely miss

Once you’ve got your hole, you’ll squat … and you may very well miss your mark completely. Over and over again I’ve taken the time to dig a proper hole, only to find that my anal aim is less than precise. This is why it’s important to have some sticks or stones nearby so that you can coax your errant turds into their hidey-hole. Don’t use your spade for this task! Keep it clean of everything but pristine dirt.

Burying TP

Image of hard plastic bidet with water stream

Give a squeeze …

In places with ample rainfall such as the Appalachian Trail, it may still be permissible to bury TP. (Always check with local land use agency regulations and recommendations.) Use a stick to mix it in with the poop, and if you can pee on the TP to further start the decomposition process, so much the better. If you can combine or replace TP altogether with smooth rocks or leaves, you’ll reduce your environmental footprint. If you’re using non-biodegradable wipes you should use double freezer bags to pack them out.

Image of soft silicone bidet with stream of water

… pretty please!

Whatever you doo (sorry again), don’t leave toilet tissue flowers blooming in the wilderness. Nothing is more discouraging to hikers than to see remnants of other hikers’ bodily functions.

Hike your own hike, and poop your own poop … but I hope this blog post causes hikers to consider using a bidet to replace all or at least most of their toilet paper, and to responsibly dispose of their waste.

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Comments 10

  • Jordan Robison : Jan 11th

    Maybe many people didn’t get it because the reference in “On the Origin of the Feces” is unclear. Is it supposed to be a pun? Well let’s see, what word would rhyme with “feces”? Perhaps “species”? I’m not aware of anything titled “On the Origin of the Species”, by Charles Darwin or anybody else. Which species (or feces) would that be, anyway?

    • Rolf Asphaug : Jan 11th

      Yeah, it’s one of a few silly puns in the article. Charles Darwin did write “On the Origin of Species”: I know, I know: don’t quit my day job.

    • Rolf Asphaug : Jan 11th

      And thanks for noticing: I had an extra “the” in the title. I’ll take it out. Thanks for reading my article, and happy hiking!

  • Jo Anne Reinhard : Jan 13th

    Nice article – loved the feces/species pun! I aspire to Skurka status but fall short, so I pack out whatever TP/wipes I use. It will be a wonderful day when we no longer see TP flowers on the trail.

    • Rolf Asphaug : Jan 13th

      I will try to do as you do. Thank you so much.

  • Paul D : Jan 13th

    I’m not an organic chemist or biologist, but just passing on info I’ve heard from others (that’s how we all learn). While back country backpacking with the Boy Scouts, obviously they encourage digging a cat hole, but also suggest separating urine from feces. Chemicals in the urine promote more pungent smells from the feces, which in turn brings animals and then potentially spreads things around instead promoting decomposition. The suggestion is to void your bladder before doing your business but keep them separate. Also, they suggest urinating on a rock, which allows insects to use the liquids (plus the salts dry on the rock, which gives animals a “salt lick”). If you pee on a tree stump (like many of us do), this brings insects and other animals to the tree and can encourage them eat the bark, thus unnecessarily harming the tree.
    I’m not 100% sure how true all this is, but it’s what I try to do since I heard it many years ago.
    Whatever you do, don’t do your business near campsites, close to the trail or water sources, & make sure to bury it. And clean/wash your hands after!
    (I use a bidet cap to clean my dogs feet and belly after a romp thru the woods before getting her back into my car. But, I just haven’t adopted the bidet for my own cleansing process.)
    Thanks for the article!
    (I loved the pun!)

    • Rolf Asphaug : Jan 13th

      This is really interesting follow-up info; thank you! I hadn’t thought about it before, but as you suggest a bidet can be used as a spray bottle for washing other parts of the body, too (such as washing dirty feet).

  • Ruth Morley : Jan 13th

    Interesting to read your post just days after beginning to use a personal bidet on the Florida Trail. I use one similar to what you had pictured, the Kula, I believe. I started with a 500 mg flexible hydro flask bottle with its own powerful spout. But I found myself resenting carrying the container and the extra water the powerful squirt demanded, although very effective. I will now try just the bidet cap inserted in my regular water bottle when needed, do the job, wipe clean with left hand and maybe my #2 bandana, and sanitize my hands well. I was getting so sick of handling poopy TP.

    This is also my first year to use a small trowel, with which I do the best that I can, depending on the soil. I feel really good using it and will even more so when above timberline several days on the Colorado trail next August.

    • Rolf Asphaug : Jan 13th

      Enjoy your Colorado Trail adventure (that’s where I’m from)! Andrew Skurka and his colleague Mike Clelland would both be proud of your decision. Clelland is an instructor for Skurka, and he talked at length about the Skurka method in a recent Backpacker Radio Podcast.

  • Crossword : Jan 15th

    Definitely dug catholes many times on my AT thru hike last year. I’m afraid I’m still a TP user though I will use leaves if they are readily available. One challenge I found with my trowel, which is lightweight aluminum, is that it was sometimes painful to dig with it because the edges would dig into my hand. After I got home I saw an ad for a trowel from Bogler Co which have a plastic cap at the end. I may try that. I thought about the bidet but haven’t gotten comfortable with that yet. Definitely a good topic to share experiences on!


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