How to Poop in the Woods
Everything you need to know about doing your business in the outdoors.
You've decided to go on your first outdoor adventure. Every detail's been planned. You've got your campsites planned out, the gear is packed, and the permits are in hand. But there's one thing lingering in the back of your mind. When you're out there, miles from civilization, where exactly are you going to do your business when nature calls?
With an estimated 10 million people backpacking in the U.S. every year, and another 20 million out hiking, the collective decisions of all those people can have a major impact on the trails we all want to enjoy.
It's important to keep in mind the ultimate goals for a successful outdoor deuce. Any method should do four important things:
- Aid decomposition
- Limit the spread of disease
- Protect water source contamination
- Maintain site integrity
Remembering those goals can help guide you to the correct method for any type of outdoor adventure you might be on. We'll start with the easiest first.
If you're heading out into a popular area, there's a good chance you might have access to a privy at some point along the way. A privy is basically an outhouse or outdoor toilet that is meant to make pooping in the woods accessible and easy, while also limiting the need for other methods that may ultimately lead to more problems. They can range anywhere from a box over a hole in the middle of the woods, to elaborately engineered structures that may rival your commode at home.
Things to know about using privies:
- If available, this should be your primary method for deposits. They are built and maintained in order minimize the impact caused by other methods.
- Follow the directions. Many privy maintainers post directions for proper use, so follow them. Privy use can sometimes involve throwing in a handful of leaves or wood chips after the act in order to aid in decomp.
- A privy is not a garbage can. Only decomposable material should go in a privy. Anything else will have to be removed at some point, usually by volunteers, so do them a favor and pack out everything else, including hygiene products. Regular toilet paper is fine.
- Pee outside before pooping. Unless it specifically says it's ok, peeing in privies is generally not a good idea. It can increase odor and decrease decomp, so pee outside before using the loo.
In the absence of a privy, burying your waste is probably going to be your method of choice when the time comes. There are several tried and true techniques, but in the end they boil down to a few important rules.
- Hole Size: 6in-8in deep, and wide enough to contain what you're dropping. Hint: Go a little bigger than you think. Trust me.
- Hole Location: At least 200 feet from any water, camps, and trails, preferably in dark organic soil away from any low spots where water can pool and become contaminated.
- Leave No Trace calls to pack out any non organic waste, even toilet paper. While this is preferable, most people end up burying the TP as well. There are other methods for wiping that we'll get into later.
- After the deed is done, fill the hole back in and get on your merry way.
Once you've got the basics down, there's a little more you can do to help ensure your poo won't come back to haunt the next hiker. Since our feces has undigested bits of food in it, anywhere you leave a cathole becomes a target for animals looking for a snack. One technique to speed up decomp is stirring you poo in the hole with some dirt till it no longer resembles its original form. Use a stick and not your trowel, you want that to stay clean. Packing out your TP will avoid it reemerging before it's broken down.
And understanding the subtleties of the environment can alter your method. In desert environments, where the soil lacks the moisture and bacteria to properly break down excrement, it's actually best to make a shallow hole, so the sun and heat can sterilize the waste instead.
Pack it Out
Occasionally there are times when digging a cathole isn't possible or ideal. You might be traversing a glacier or narrow canyon, high on a rocky summit, or paddling down a river in a canoe when you get the urge. In those types of situations, there's only one acceptable method left: you're going to have to take your poo with you. You'll need two things:
- Something to contain the poop. This could be as simple as a plastic bag (think cleaning up after your dog, only this time its you) to commercially available bags and kits known as WAG bags (Waste Agglutination Gel) that provide everything needed to seal up a steamer.
- Something to carry the bags in, especially if you're out for multiple days. Some hikers use a length of PVC capped at each end. The key here is something that won't get punctured and can hold enough for the whole trip.
This method has the most room for creativity, since in the end, it's between you and your poo, and leaves the wilderness out of it. You want to keep it airtight, easy to transport, and safe from ruptures. Beyond that, let your imagination run wild.
- Always check to see if there are any local recommendations for where you're headed, and then do your best to follow them.
- Skip the TP by using smooth rocks, leaves and moss, a makeshift bidet with a water bottle, or a large snowball. Any natural material on site is preferable to a pristine forest ruined by wads of decomposing toilet paper.
- If you can't comfortably squat over your cathole, use a nearby tree for balance or sit over a log.
Most importantly, try and have fun with it. Humans have been pooping in the woods since the dawn of our species. It's only relatively recently that we've grown accustomed to toilets and TP. Find a nice spot, preferably one with a view, and connect with your ancient roots in a way most people won't dare to experience.