TP or not TP: that is the question
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
What Do You Think?