A Thru-Hiker's Guide to Toilet Paper Substitutes
By: Christine Martens
There are two topics of conversation that every thru-hiker seems to bring up sooner rather than later. Of course, the most obvious is food. We're all completely obsessed with food. Food we plan to eat, food we're carrying, food we're craving, and all the potential food options just a couple of days away in the next town. And then, well, there’s what that food leads to.
The next thing hikers are obsessed with is poop. Pooping stories are some of my favorites. I love to ask fellow thru-hikers where the most interesting place they've pooped was. I've heard some good ones. In the middle of a soccer field at night, in the vestibule of a tent, and in a bush by someone's driveway as they were driving past, are a few examples that come to mind. (Important note: the proper cat-hole was dug in each one of these cases.)
When it comes to pooping, a topic that often comes up is the use and availability of toilet paper and toilet paper substitutes. What I am hoping to discuss today are some ideas for toilet paper substitutes that have presented themselves to me over the past decade of hiking in various parts of the world and in various conditions.
Perhaps the best, most enjoyable, most satisfying toilet paper substitute is snow. When hiking southbound on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2014, I found myself hiking through hundreds of miles of snow in northern Washington, which sometimes made it quite difficult to find some actual ground to dig a hole into. I quickly figured out that my ice axe was a great tool for digging holes, and that a tightly packed ball of snow was a great way of reducing my need for toilet paper.
In 2018, I had the privilege of walking most of the length of New Zealand, where I discovered the magic of moss. New Zealand is very wet, and therefore, the moss action is top-notch. There was such an abundance of moss. When I felt how soft and fluffy it was, it was only natural to want to use it as toilet paper. It works amazingly well, and I just take the used chunks of moss and bury them along with my poop in my cat-hole. As a result, I hardly ever used toilet paper in New Zealand.
Once I was on to toilet paper substitutes, I started becoming more adventurous in what I tried. Rocks, if they're smooth or slightly pointed, work alright, and so do smooth sticks. I'm not a huge fan of using pine cones, and although leaves may be an obvious choice, many varieties break easily, so you kind of need to know what you're doing with leaves. Also, poison ivy is not fun to get anywhere on your body. I highly recommend striped maple leaves, taken straight off the tree – but always use two or three layers. Fallen leaves in the fall work great as long as they're not too dry, and again, layer them, because you don't want one thin layer of brittle dead leaf to be what's between your hand and your dirty butt.
Another option, which I've never explored, but I've heard many others that have, is a backcountry bidet. A carefully aimed squirt bottle seems to do the trick.
Since hiking the PCT, where toilet paper basically never degrades in the dry soil, I've always packed out any used toilet paper. Once it became a habit, I decided to keep that habit, even in places where toilet paper would presumably biodegrade quickly. The great upside of using any of the aforementioned options as toilet paper substitutes is that you don’t need to pack any of them out – just bury them along with your fecal waste.
There is one toilet paper substitute that I've been using basically since I started backpacking, and that is paper towels. Although not much different from toilet paper, I have found that paper towels are more sturdy than toilet paper, and the most I need is one paper towel per day of hiking, so it's really easy to take the right amount (I honestly wouldn't know how to ration toilet paper). I wouldn't recommend burying paper towels, though, since they're not as biodegradable as toilet paper.
A good way to transition to toilet paper substitutes is to start by experimenting with some of the options that I've mentioned above for your "first wipe," and then using some kind of paper product for the "final wipe." You may find that depending on what's available on the trail you're on, you quickly convert to needing no toilet paper at all.
Christine Martens and John Haffner are outdoor enthusiasts who have hiked several long distance trails, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. They call Asheville, North Carolina their home, where they’ve worked as hiking guides for Blue Ridge Hiking Company in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Learn more about their adventures on their blog.