Does this ring a bell with you? You’re struggling up a steep trail, pushing your way up switchbacks, when suddenly your stomach starts to rumble, and now that nourishing morning coffee you guzzled at the trailhead is taking a nosedive through your colon. The problem is, there’s no porta potty, pit toilet, or porcelain throne in sight.
How do you answer nature’s call without “marking your territory” in a way that goes against Leave No Trace?
You can always do what I do and whisper to a friendly tree, “I know this is a bit awkward, but do you mind if I use your bark?” Kidding.
Today, we’re delving into the fine art and etiquette of pooping in the woods. Because while it may feel like a trivial matter, mastering this basic skill will keep your nether regions comfortable during your outdoor experience and do your part to keep our wild spaces just that – wild.
Understanding the Harmful Effects of Human Waste In The Outdoors
According to the 2022 Outdoor Participation Trends Report by Outdoor Industry Association, 58.7 million Americans went hiking in 2021, and 10.3 million went backpacking. That translates to a lot of poop in the backcountry!
As Leave No Trace points out, proper disposal of human waste prevents pollution of water sources, limits the spread of disease, and accelerates decomposition.
If you’re thinking, “Wait a minute. If horses are allowed to poop on the trails, why aren’t humans? It’s all-natural, right?” Well, no. Not exactly. When human waste is left out in the open, it can cause several problems:
- Humans consume a different diet than horses. Our waste contains chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and other substances that can harm the ecosystem.
- Leaving human waste out in the open increases the risk of disease transmission among humans and animals. Pathogens in fecal matter can spread via direct contact or by contaminating food and water sources, leading to the spread of diseases like salmonella, E. coli, and parasitic infections like giardia.
- Unburied human waste and used toilet paper can attract curious and malnourished animals. And once local wildlife becomes habituated to human presence and food sources, conflicts and dangerous encounters between humans and animals are bound to happen.
- Discovering poop near your campsite is a serious mood killer. The sight and smell of unburied human waste can spoil the outdoor experience for visitors looking for an unsullied, tranquil retreat into nature.
What To Know Before You “Go”
Before you whip out your trowel (poop shovel), make sure you’re prepared for your potty break.
- Know the regulations: Research the specific rules and regulations of the area you plan to recreate. Some national parks and wilderness areas have specific guidelines for disposing of human waste. In high alpine regions where human waste takes longer to decompose, you may need to use a WAG bag to store and pack out your poo. Lugging around a bag of poop isn’t glamorous, but these rules exist to preserve the natural environment.
- Prep your bathroom kit: Your bathroom kit should include all the essentials for a hassle-free potty break on trail. Remember to pack out all used toilet paper and hygiene products, including menstrual products. Stash your bathroom kit in an easy-to-access pocket in your pack and take it with you whenever you scurry into the bushes.
A standard backcountry bathroom kit should include the following:
- Trowel or small shovel
- Toilet paper
- Smell-proof baggie for waste
- WAG bag (if required by local regulation)
- Hand sanitizer
- Biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronner‘s (recommended)
- Wet wipes (optional)
- Water (optional)
- Bidet (optional)
- Plan ahead: Plan your route and identify potential bathroom break spots before you leave. Topographic maps will show where your route levels off and where you’ll encounter high ridges or steep drop-offs; neither are primo locations for bathroom breaks. Unfortunately, you can’t always choose when nature calls, but if you can help it, pick a site with plenty of natural cover, like dense vegetation or large boulders, for privacy.
- Go before you go: For a long day hike or overnight backpacking trip, use the trailhead bathroom if the idea of pooping in the woods skeeves you out. However, the availability and condition of restrooms can vary depending on the location, and not all trailheads have them. Some trailhead bathrooms may be closed for the season or under maintenance, so keep your bathroom kit on hand anyway.
How To Poop in the Woods
There is an order of operations for properly pooping in the woods. Don’t worry, after a few tries, you’ll have it down pat. But first things first, you’ll need to pick a location to do the deed. Here are our suggestions on what to look for when choosing a spot to drop trow in the wild.
You’ll want to aim for somewhere that’s:
- At least 200 feet (about 70 paces) from all water sources, trails, or campsites. It’s no fun to arrive at camp after a long day of hiking only to catch a whiff of a poorly dug cathole too close to your campsite.
- Private and hidden from passing hikers, preferably near thick brush, fallen trees, or a hillside. In peak mosquito season, bloodsuckers congregate near damp wood in search of moisture. Getting bitten on your behind is inevitable in mosquito country.
- Easy to dig a hole. Look for loose, dark soil or a location that gets plenty of sunlight to promote decomposition.
Picked a good spot? Good. Now it’s time to do the deed. Here are some tips for keeping the experience simple and stress-free because you wouldn’t believe how many things can go wrong without proper preparation (read: poop on your shoes).
- Have your toilet paper and everything else you need for the job within arms reach. Make sure they don’t blow away at an inconvenient moment by securing them with rocks or pine cones.
- Use a trowel, sharp rock, or tent stake to dig a cathole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches wide.
- Make sure your aim is true, and do your thing. There are many ways to poop outdoors, but if you’re a beginner, you can start with the tried and true squat method.
- Use as little toilet paper as possible. In place of toilet paper, you can use leaves, smooth stones, and moss.
- Pre-moistened wipes can be handy to use on occasion to avoid butt chafe, but don’t drop them in your cathole; place them in your waste bag (along with menstrual supplies).
- You can also use a backcountry bidet which uses water to clean things better than toilet paper.
- When you’re finished, backfill the hole with dirt and mark your spot with a couple of small twigs (I like to form an “x” with a couple of sticks as a visual aid).
- Pack out your dirty TP. Yes, you read that right. It may feel weird at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. Place your used toilet paper in a separate, smell-proof bag and carry it out with you.
- Whatever you do, don’t forget to clean your hands thoroughly after doing your business. Hand sanitizer is essential for any backcountry trip, but if you can, use water and soap to wash up (away from water sources) before you apply hand sani.
A note for women: Keeping our nether regions clean is especially important in the outdoors. If bacteria from poo enters the vulva area, the chances of getting a UTI or yeast infection skyrocket. Remember to always wipe from front to back, bring an extra pair of underwear in case your current ones get too funky, wear loose-fitting pants and shorts to give your area extra breathing room, and take a small pack of baby wipes to clean your pits and bits before bed every night.
Responsible Practices for Urinating Outdoors
Thanks to Bear Grylls, most of us know urine poses significantly fewer health hazards than poo. Hopefully, you’ll never find yourself in a dire enough situation where drinking your urine becomes an attractive option.
Still, it’s important to acknowledge that human urine can create environmental repercussions if disposed of improperly. For instance, animals you typically find in the backcountry, including bears, deer, and mountain goats, crave salt. They’ll go bonkers for urine due to its high salt content, going so far as to tear up soil, uproot plants, and hang around backcountry campsites for a salty snack.
If you want to minimize your yellow footprint, here are some helpful guidelines to follow when relieving yourself in the woods:
- Similar to going number two, choose a spot at least 200 feet away from the trail, campsites and water sources.
- Direct your stream on non-vegetated and durable surfaces like rocks, gravel, pine duff, moss, or dry dirt.
- If possible, take your pee break on higher ground to minimize the risk of urine reaching water sources.
- If you’re not about pulling down your pants and squatting to pee, a pee funnel is a convenient and easy alternative. They take some getting used to, so practice at home before your trip.
- While backpacking, a bandana or “pee rag” works well in place of toilet paper. Attach your pee rag to the outside of your pack where it can air dry. The sun’s UV rays will also help disinfect it as it dries. If you’re on a long trip, clean your pee rag every few days with a drop of Dr. Bronner’s and cold water.
- It’s good practice to pee before you hit the hay, but if you need to go in the middle of the night and don’t want to stumble out into the cold, you can use a Nalgene bottle (along with a pee funnel, if needed) to relieve yourself. Place the bottle outside your tent and dump it in the bushes in the morning.
For many of us, the outdoors is a home away from home. We are all responsible for keeping our wild spaces pristine and poo-free for future generations. You’ll inevitably experience discomfort while recreating outdoors and exposing your bum to drop a deuce in the woods is no exception. Rumor has it, though, once you’ve done it enough, you’ll prefer it to your porcelain throne!
Ash Czarnota is a freelance writer based in Southern California with over 3,000 trail miles under her feet. She is the founder of Go Galavanting, an online community to celebrate adventurous women and highlight emerging thought leaders in the outdoor industry. A PCT alumni, Joshua Tree enthusiast and burgeoning climber, Ash uses her outdoor experiences to craft content that educates and inspires a rising generation of adventurers to embrace their inner wild. Connect with her on Instagram (@salty_millennial).