Ok folks. I’ve been avoiding this topic for a long time, for obvious reasons, but it’s time to get down to business about doing business. We need to talk about how to poop in the woods.
Giggle all you want, but learning how to poop outside is actually really important for outdoorsy folks. Two reasons:
- It’s a major mental block (and potentially another uncomfortable type of block, if you catch my drift) for a lot of new campers. “I really want to enjoy the beauty and peacefulness of nature,” many people think to themselves, “but going number 2 outdoors is just one step too far!” They either hold it or avoid camping at all.
- When done incorrectly, pooping in the woods is one of the fastest ways to make the beautiful outdoor places we love, well… shittier.
If you’re a hiker, bikepacker, camper, or any other kind of outdoor enthusiast, sooner or later you’ll find yourself immersed in nature when nature calls. Judging by the popularity of the little post I wrote about how to pee outdoors, this kind of thing weighs heavily on many minds.
I get it! Pooping in the woods (or desert, or mountains) used to weird me out too, and it’s still not my favorite part of any wilderness experience. But I’ve learned to deal with it, and you can too. It’s a small price to pay for the many mental and physical benefits we enjoy in the great outdoors.
So let’s not beat around the bush — better to squat behind it and take care of business. Here’s everything you need to know about how to poop outside while hiking (or biking or camping) and how to do it comfortably, cleanly, and responsibly.
Oh, and if this fairly comprehensive guide still isn’t enough for you, you can always pick up a copy of this fine literary classic for even more detail.
Don’t Hold It
First thing first: don’t hold it. Nothing good can come from that. We all poop, and we all have to poop outside when we’re backpacking or bikepacking or whatever. It’s natural.
Sure, if you know there’s a pit toilet coming up in a few hours, perhaps you might hold out. But if you’re on a wilderness backpacking trip with no toilets for days in any direction, just get it over with. You’ll be much more comfortable, and everything about the rest of the process will be easier when you’re not dealing with emergency conditions.
Ideally, on a long trip your body will establish a routine. For some folks it’s a morning ritual. For others, an evening habit. If you’re unlucky or ate some dodgy trail food, it might be an urgent trailside break. Try to be patient with your body and work with it, not against it.
Don’t worry if you find the whole thing a little gross at first. Humans have a natural aversion to poo because it can spread diseases, so your brain is just doing its natural human thing. If you follow the steps outlined below to keep things sanitary, you can safely tell your brain to get over its squeamishness and get on with business.
Choose Your Spot Wisely
Choosing a good spot is the key to a successful experience. On the one hand, the whole outdoors is your toilet! How liberating. But on the other hand, treating the great outdoors like our toilet is, well, kind of rude. Here’s how to navigate the delicate balance.
If there’s a pit toilet or porta potty, use it. I probably don’t have to tell you this, but just in case: pit toilets are installed in high-use areas where too many campers pooping in the woods would be a sanitation problem. So use them, even if they’re gross and smelly.
Stay away from water sources. Leave No Trace guidelines recommend 200 feet (about 70 steps) away from any water source, including those that are currently dry but may become wet, like a desert wash or dry streambed. This is so harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites in your poo (Yes, your poo. No offense meant, it’s fairly common.) can filter through soil before rejoining the water supply, reducing the spread of nasty buggers like Giardia to animals and people.
Stay away from trails or campsites. Again, 200 feet / 70 steps is the golden rule. This is just basic decency and sanitation. The goal is to disperse waste over a wider area and keep it away from where people are walking, sleeping, eating, and otherwise trying to enjoy the outdoors without stumbling into hastily buried piles of crap.
Try to find organic soil and sunlight. Per lnt.org, feces decompose best in organic soil that is warmed by sunlight. Look for dark-colored soil, which is usually found in areas with trees or other foliage, in an area that gets plenty of sunlight. I know, this is a tall order given all the other factors you have to worry about, but it’s worth considering.
Find a private spot. Look around carefully. Check twice. You might be here for a few minutes (or more) and you’ll want to be as relaxed as possible. The best time to notice those people picnicking on the opposite side of the ravine, or that switchback in the trail just upslope, is before things have gotten underway. If you’re camping in a vast flat landscape, your only cover is distance.
Find a non-obvious spot. Explore a little further, get creative, and don’t choose the most obvious place in a high-use area. Think of it like a game. If you find a spot no one has used recently, you win! You also help avoid turning a popular site into an informal pit toilet, and reduce the chances that you’ll accidentally dig up someone else’s poo or someone else will dig up yours. Yay!
Find a comfortable spot. You might be there awhile. Holding a squat for several minutes is no easy feat especially with legs that are tired from hiking or biking. Here are a few tips to make your backcountry toilet more comfy:
- Facing downhill on a slight slope will help most people squat more comfortably. Otherwise, stiff calf and hip muscles can make it hard to balance.
- Holding on to a tree or branch in front of you can help with balance and relaxation.
- For the ultimate luxury in backcountry toileting, find a tree or rock to lean your back against or perch part of your bum on.
Bonus points for good views. If you have to poop while hiking, may as well enjoy the scenery you came out there to see.
Prep Your Supplies
Before going further, now’s the time to make sure you have everything you need. Keep this kit in an easy-to-grab spot in your backpack and take it with you every time you scamper off into the bushes:
Dig A Good Hole
Next step: dig the hole in which you’ll bury your business. This is important! Burying your poo prevents it from being unearthed by rain and erosion, curious animals, or unsuspecting campers.
The official guidance is that your “cat hole” should be 6-8″ deep and 4-6″ wide. My unofficial advice: dig a bigger hole than you think you’ll need. Especially if you’ve been eating trail food or holding it for a couple days. Trust me.
Depending on soil type, digging your hole can range from easy-peasy to a desperate struggle. Soft and loose soil near tree trunks and between roots can be especially nice. Hard and rocky desert soil is the absolute worst. You can make life easier by finding a rock to remove as the start of your hole.
How to actually dig the hole? This depends on how you’re traveling and your approach to gear and packing. Options:
- If you’re car camping, there’s no excuse for not having a shovel or at least a garden trowel.
- Backpackers often carry a lightweight toilet trowel. You don’t always need one (see next point) but they can be very helpful in desert areas where soil is hard and rocky.
- Backpackers focused on lightweight gear often skip the trowel and make use of a tent stake, hiking pole, rock, or other clever substitute. These do work if the soil is soft enough, but you should take extra care to choose a spot with soft soil and leave plenty of time to dig a big enough hole.
Do Your Business
You’ve found the perfect spot, dug an excellent hole, and now it’s time to get to the main event.
Lay out your supplies. Have your toilet paper, and whatever else you need to finish the job, all within reach. Make sure they won’t blow away at an inconvenient moment.
Squat over the hole. All the way down — butt lower than knees is best for helping the relevant muscles relax. Pants around your knees. Check your aim before you fire.
Try to relax, and don’t rush. You’ve done all the prep work, so finish the job completely. You don’t want to be doing this again in a few hours.
This is where opinions differ and things start to get personal (as if they weren’t already). You’ll need to find your own comfort zone and it might evolve with time. Here are some basics to point you in the right direction.
Toilet paper: The most obvious and beginner-friendly method. Works well for short trips but can be annoying to carry enough on long trips. Best to conserve by using less than at home; you can get by with just one or two squares at a time. Really! Pack it out, don’t bury it (more on that below).
Natural materials: Rocks, leaves, and smooth sticks can make effective toilet paper substitutes, at least for a first pass. Caution: know your local foliage (eg. poison ivy) before attempting.
Wet wipes: For those times when toilet paper just isn’t enough, it’s nice to have a wet wipe on hand. I cut baby wipes in half and allot one half per day on a long trip. It’s fine if they’re a little dry — they’re lighter that way and easily revived with a few drops of water.
Backcountry bidet: Popularized by Andrew Skurka but surely used by many others, the backcountry bidet is a method of washing yourself with water to keep things cleaner than mere toilet paper can manage. I’ll let him explain it, humorously and straightforwardly.
Combo: Many people use some combination. For example: start with natural materials, follow with a single square of toilet paper, and use a wet wipe or bidet to finish things off.
Clean thoroughly, whatever method you choose. If you’re out backpacking and won’t be showering any time soon, keeping things clean will help you avoid chafing, infection, and other unpleasant developments.
Clean your hands too, with hand sanitizer or soap and water. Ever had Giardia? Though drinking contaminated water is one common cause of this uncomfortable and messy affliction (that’s why you should always treat water while hiking), another sadly avoidable cause is hikers getting their own poo on their hands and then eating or preparing food. After you poop in the woods, always use hand sanitizer or wash with water and a small amount of camping soap.
Considerations For Women
We ladies have one additional issue to worry about: the possibility of a UTI or yeast infection if bacteria from poo end up in the vulva area. This makes it extra important to keep things clean in general, and also to wipe or squirt from front to back when using any of the above cleaning methods.
Cover It Up
Congratulations, the deed is done! Now it’s time to tidy up and leave your special spot in good condition.
Fill in the hole. If you removed dirt or a large rock, put it back. If you have the stomach for it, stirring dirt into the mix first supposedly helps the poo decompose faster.
Stomp it down firmly and add more dirt or leaves over the top to create a firm and level surface. What you’re going for is a solid surface that won’t lead to any messy surprises if a fellow camper wanders through your spot looking for their own backcountry toilet.
Mark the spot if necessary in a high-use area. If you have reason to believe other people might choose the same spot you did, place a large rock over it or plant a stick in the ground as a signal to others.
Pack It Out
I know you don’t want to hear this, but it’s best to pack out your used toilet paper. I know it’s easier to bury it, but the thing is, it tends to not stay buried.
Even biodegradable toilet paper takes weeks to decompose, or much longer in arid desert environments. In the meantime it can be washed out by heavy rain or dug up by animals, creating lovely TP “blooms” across otherwise pristine natural landscapes.
Packing out your used TP isn’t really that bad. Use a ziplock bag (sandwich or quart size), and if you want to be discreet about it, put the whole thing inside an opaque dog poo bag. Empty or replace at each resupply stop if you’re thru hiking.
In some places, hikers and other outdoor adventurers are asked to pack out their toilet paper AND their actual poop. This makes sense in areas that see high recreational use and lack adequate soil for cat holes, such as the granite-strewn slopes surrounding Mt. Whitney in California.
In these areas you’ll either be issued a WAG bag along with your permit or told which one to use. The basic idea is a sealable bag with deodorizing gel that solidifies liquids. It’ll add some weight to your pack but otherwise it’s not so bad. If you’re asked to use one, please assume it’s for good reason and follow the directions.
Side note: they’re great for car camping too. Pair with a five gallon bucket and toilet seat lid and you have a budget #vanlife toilet setup.
Toilet Paper for Backpacking
Hikers tend to have as many questions about toilet paper as they do about food and water! I get it, toilet paper is an essential consumable and you’ll want to plan your supply carefully before heading into the wilderness. Here are a few common questions and answers.
Any toilet paper will work if you pack it out. Some folks find cushier two-ply goes further than thin single ply, so they can get away with one square where they might otherwise need two. If you’ll be using it in pit toilets or burying it (which I don’t recommend) then use only single-ply biodegradable TP.
Don’t just throw the whole roll in! Save space by using a small camping-specific roll without the cardboard core. Even better, just roll as much as you need from a full-size roll around a pen and then slip the pen out, creating your own mini-roll.
Ah, the million dollar question. The answer depends on soooo many things: whether you also use wet wipes, natural materials, or a backcountry bidet; whether you use TP for other things like peeing (which I don’t recommend for ladies); whether you’re using double or single ply; what you’ve been eating and how your body is coping with it; I could go on. A somewhat minimalist strategy might include 3-5 squares plus half a wet wipe per day. When in doubt though, pack extra! Only the most experienced backpackers should be confident in closely rationing their TP on the trail.
There you have it, everything you need to know about pooping in the woods comfortably and responsibly. What, this wasn’t what you had in mind when you pictured yourself becoming a master outdoorsperson?
Outdoor expertise isn’t just the sexy stuff, like pro navigation skills and starting a fire with two sticks and all that. Sometimes it takes skill to care for our basic physical needs without the usual comforts of domesticated life, and without harming the wild surroundings we came to enjoy.
In the wilderness we can relish the chance to return to basics in a natural environment — yes, even if it means pooping in a hole in the ground. And back at home we can appreciate indoor plumbing with renewed enthusiasm. Win win!
More Backpacking Resources
If you’re into backpacking, you might also find these posts helpful:
- Toiletries for Backpacking: What’s in My Lightweight Kit
- 6 Bear Hang Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them)
- Colorado Trail Thru Hike Gear List
Or, visit the complete backpacking and hiking resources section for lots more.
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