Pooping in the Woods while Hiking

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Gossamer Gear | Apr 06, 2015

Ever wondered how to poop in the woods while hiking? Everybody poops, and everybody who enjoys the backcountry has probably heard talk about how to poop in the woods. There are many good reasons why this is such a popular topic– pooping without a toilet is something most people in the developed world find uncomfortable at best, and when done incorrectly, it can leave unpleasant and toxic piles near campsites or trails.

Nobody wants to see a human poo sitting on the side of the trail, nor would they want invisible poo particles leeching into a pristine stream where they may need to get their drinking water. With that in mind, the proper etiquette for Leave No Trace pooping is one of the most important things you can learn before hitting the trail.

cathole

Interested? - Lets get started!

poop in the woods

Option 1: The Outhouse

The easiest way to take a LNT dump is to do it in a toilet. Whether it's a vault toilet at a trailhead, or an outhouse at a campsite, the toilet in question was designed to consolidate human waste in a place that is easy to use.

poop in the woods

Different types of outhouses are available at different campsites and trailheads, but they're almost always situated where lots of people may need to go, so there will be a high volume of poop. If there's a toilet at your campsite, use it instead of going on to option 2.

cathole

Option 2: The Cathole

A cathole is the most widely accepted method of backcountry human waste disposal outside of a toilet–dig a hole, poop in it, cover it. The advantages are:

  • They are easy to dig in most areas.
  • They are easy to disguise after use.
  • They are private.
  • They disperse the waste rather than concentrate it (which enhances decomposition).
  • It is usually easy to select an out-of-the-way location where you can be certain no one is going to casually encounter the cathole.

A problem with catholes is that animals will often dig them up to get at partially digested buried food particles in feces. This tends to mix soil with feces (a good thing), but changes animal behavior (a bad thing), and possibly worst of all can leave dug-up toilet paper "flowers" in the area (another bad thing). One solution is to pack out toilet paper (TP) or use leaves or other natural materials as TP, but animals will still be attracted to the cathole as a food source. Another solution is to make Poop Soup. A further benefit of the "Poop Soup" technique is the funny name and the humor that can be put into teaching youth and adults an effective cathole technique.

Selecting a Cathole Site:

  • Select a cathole site far from water sources, trail, or camping sites. 200 feet (approximately 70 adult paces) is the recommended range.
  • Select an inconspicuous site untraveled by people. Examples of cathole sites include thick undergrowth, near downed timber, or on gentle hillsides.
  • If camping with a group or if camping in the same place for more than one night, disperse the catholes over a wide area; don't go to the same place twice.
  • Try to find a site with deep organic soil. This contains organisms which will help decompose the feces. (Organic soil is usually dark and rich in color.) The desert does not have as much organic soil as a forested area. (See number 2 below.)
  • If possible, locate your cathole where it will receive maximum sunlight. The heat from the sun will aid decomposition.
  • Choose an elevated site where water would not normally collect during runoff or rain storms. The idea here is to keep the feces out of water. Over time, the decomposing feces will percolate into the soil before reaching water sources.

Digging a Cathole:

  • A small trowel is the perfect tool for digging a cathole. If you don't have a trowel, you can use a stick, a flat rock, a hiking pole, or a tent peg as a digging implement, but it will probably take you longer. A trowel will be more efficient and ensure you make a proper cathole. They are inexpensive and some are extremely light.
  • Dig the hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter. In a hot desert, human waste does not biodegrade easily because there is little organic soil to help break it down. In the desert, the cathole should be only 4-6 inches deep. This will allow the heat and sun to hasten the decay process.

Making Poop Soup:

After depositing waste into the cathole,

  • use a sturdy stick (not your trowel) to mix all of this with some loose soil,
  • then add a cup or so of water* and mix again. The soil and feces should not be recognizable as such once thoroughly mixed in this soup. The thorough mixing of all of the cathole contents with soil and water will speed decomposition and make animal digging less likely. Packing out toilet paper will completely avoid the "TP flower" problem.
  • there is some disagreement as to how essential it really is to add water to the mix, but if you can spare some, it does speed the mixing process

Topping Off the Cathole:

When finished, the cathole should be topped off with the rest of the original dirt and disguised with native materials.

Now check out Option 3

wag bag

Option 3: Carry In, Carry Out

In places where outhouses aren't available and decomposition is unlikely to happen quickly, you may be required to pack it out, just like any other trash. Narrow river canyons, popular high elevation destinations (like Mount Whitney), or glaciers are examples of places where your poop won't decompose, so you'll want to pack a few WAG Bags. WAG stands for Waste Agglutination Gel - Poop in the bag, seal it, and pack it out with the rest of your trash. Otherwise your poo will be left sitting there for decades to come.

wag bag

TP-less Options

For an even more trace-less dump, you can go the route of using natural materials instead of toilet paper. There are countless materials you can find in the woods and mountains that work just as well as TP, with the added benefit that you aren't introducing a new material to the environment, and you won't have to worry about running out. The only downside is that they may take some getting used to, since we're all mostly comfortable with paper.

Snow and water are the cleanest and most gentle solutions. For snow, you'll want rounded, packed snowballs with a bit of a cone shape. The best snowballs wipe and wash at the same time, while also giving you a little wake-up jolt at first. Water on its own isn't much use, but you can make a makeshift bidet with either a squirt bottle or a hand (always wash with soap after going!) that is surprisingly effective.

Broad leaves and moss may be the most comfortable natural option for those of us used to paper, but you'll want to be careful about picking live plants. That's generally frowned upon, especially if lots of people start doing it. The forest can very quickly be picked clean.

Another abundant option is smoothed stones from stream beds or smooth sticks. Just don't get too aggressive with your wiping, since neither is quite as forgiving as soft TP.

What about urine?

The nice thing about human urine is that it is sterile and does not have any illness-causing bacteria that can get into streams and lakes. The not so nice things about it include an unpleasant odor from ammonia and other concentrated liquid wastes, and concentrated salts, which are sought after by some animals, especially deer, sheep, and goats. We have even had the experience of being followed around at a distance by mountain goats, just waiting for us to pee so they could get the salt. When you pee on vegetation or on soil at the base of living plants, these salt lovers will tend to come by later and can be fairly destructive of soils and plants.

To avoid this, especially in alpine areas or other places with fragile vegetation, try to pee on rocks or other durable surfaces that will not be damaged by salt-seeking animal activity. Remember as well to pee off trail and away from camping areas so that the odor will not assault the nose of the next hikers to come along.

This article was contributed by former Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassadors and Leave No Trace Master Educators Ryan "Guthook" Linn and Rob "QiWiz" Kelly.