I dug a hole and squatted behind a sage bush. Overlooking a gorge dimly lit in the morning sun, I settled into a squat and pooped. When my business was over, I cleaned up, filled the hole, and took a satisfied look at the inconspicuous nature of my doing. It was easy as that.
I wish I could say the same about the refuse I saw on my camping trip the weekend prior. Walking into the forest with my trowel in one hand and a baby wipe in the other, I was horrified to see the area beyond my campsite littered with toilet paper. Somewhere down the line, it seemed that people started to think it was fine to leave trash if it had poop stains on it.
Let’s change that. With a record number of people entering the forest to camp and hike, it’s essential to know how to poop in the woods. Here’s everything you need to know to get the job done hygienically and inconspicuously, including step-by-step instructions, equipment, and more.
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Why hikers need to learn how to properly poop in the woods
You might not think twice about what happens to your poop, and understandably so. It’s second nature to sit on the porcelain throne, release your bowels, flush, and be on your merry way. But in the forest, you’re much more accountable for your poop, and improper care can have a major impact on the environment.
Human waste is littered with bacteria and viruses that can make us sick. When we poop without care, that waste can make its way into the water, exposing us and all the animals to those threats. Burying our poop helps keep it contained, but with the explosion of ecotourism, even this practice doesn’t always cut it.
With the rapidly growing number of people using campsites and trails, the fact is that you should avoid using cat holes (shallow toilet holes) whenever possible. In many popular tourist destinations, such as Zion National Park, it’s common to see paths lined with recently dug holes, litter, and even surface turds (unburied poop) because most people don’t know how to poops in the woods. If you must dig a cat hole, it is never acceptable to leave trash – so never bury your toilet paper. Always pack it out and dispose of it in the next available trash can.
While it’s true that toilet paper is compostable, buried toilet paper can just as easily come unburied, especially when there is so much wildlife roaming the woods. Following the Leave No Trace principles and pack out your toilet paper to leave the least possible impact on the environment.
What is Leave No Trace?
At the base of any conservation efforts, including pooping in the woods, it is essential to know the Leave No Trace principles.
Backed up by the National Parks Service, the Leave No Trace (LNT) creates a framework you can apply to any situation when you’re out in the wilderness. Before going into nature, remember to:
1. Plan ahead and prepare
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
3. Dispose of waste properly
4. Leave what you find
5. Minimize campfire impacts
6. Respect wildlife
7. Be considerate of others
How to Poop in the Woods
Whether you’re on a weekend trip to the lake or on a roadtrip to Yosemite National Park, you’ve probably found yourself on a trail in a forest. And if you hear (or feel) the call of the wild, there aren’t many options but to answer. When you need to poop in the woods, follow these steps:
1. Locate your trowel, toilet paper or wet wipes, and other tools
2 Find an appropriate place to dig a shallow hole that’s off the trail and at least 200 feet from water sources
3. Dig your cat hole at least 8 inches deep and 6 inches wide and keep the dirt in a pile nearby
4. Place your toilet paper within reach
5. Position your feet to the sides of the cat hole shoulder-width apart and align your heels with the top of the hole
6. Squat all the way down, leaning forward to keep your balance, or lean back and support yourself with your hands
7. After relieving yourself, clean yourself
8. Place your used toilet paper in a plastic dry bag that you’ve brought with you
9. Fill in your cat hole with the previously moved dirt and tamp it down so it isn’t loose
10. Place your plastic dry bag with your used toilet paper in your pack, away from your food
What if I forgot my trowel?
I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no. Your poop does not share the same qualities as animals that live in the forest and it can contaminate their habitat. So don’t poop on the surface of the dirt and leave it there. It needs to be buried. If you’ve forgotten your trowel and don’t have a WAG bag, you can dig a hole with sticks. I’ve found the most success using a large rock. It’s not as efficient as a trowel, but at least you’ve done your duty.
Not every location will have soft, loamy soil that is easy to dig into, but don’t panic. There are still some guidelines you can follow to safely poop in all kinds of environments.
What if I don’t have toilet paper?
If you find yourself in the woods without toilet paper, it’s acceptable to wipe with found things in nature. Leaves, pinecones, or smooth rocks (my personal favorite) work well in a pinch. Just make sure you’re not grabbing poison ivy.
Pooping in the desert
Without the protection of trees, the topsoil in the desert is more exposed to the elements. As a result, it is typically looser than topsoil in the woods. Contrary to some guides, you should consider digging your cat hole a little deeper in the desert. This keeps the wind from uncovering your constitution and contaminating the environment.
Pooping in mountains or canyons
In alpine elevations, finding a suitable amount of dirt can prove challenging. In mountain or other high elevation locations, it’s best to pack a Waste Aggregation and Gelling (WAG) bag. These are special waste kits designed for defecating outdoors. Most kits also come with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Simply poop in the WAG bag, place all your disposable materials inside, pack it out, and throw it away once you encounter an area designated for garbage.
Similarly, you’ll need a WAG kit if you’re hiking through a canyon. Canyons are formed when rivers flood and cut away at soil over thousands of years. By their nature, virtually every canyon sees flowing water sometime during the year. Because cat holes must be at least 200 feet from water sources, avoid digging them in these locations.
Everything you need to successfully poop in the woods
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- Trowel: Used to dig cat holes and bury poop. They come in traditional, folding, lightweight, and multiuse styles. This iunio camping trowel is perfect.
- Biodegradable toilet paper: Baby wipes make great alternatives for a cleaner wipe. Always pack out your TP, never leave it behind in the woods. This bamboo option from Betterway does the trick.
- Hand sanitizer: Used for sanitizing your hands after wiping, because there usually won’t be a spigot or sink nearby. Purell has a great packable option.
- Plastic dry bag: Used for packing out soiled toilet paper and other waste materials, this can be as simple as a sandwich bag. Be sure to separate your waste from your food.
- Waste Aggregation and Gelling (WAG) bag: An alternative to digging cat holes. These kits include neutralizing chemicals that break down your poo. In most cases, they also come with hand sanitizer and toilet paper.
- Groover: This retired military ammo box fashioned with a toilet seat is completely optional. It’s often used on rafting trips for large groups and can hold a significant amount of waste.