In 2019, 49.7 million people went hiking/backpacking. If just 10% of those people had to go #2 while out on the trail...That is a lot of human waste.
Whether you are a seasoned outdoors person or going on your first overnight, chances are you are going to have to head out, dig a hole, and do the deed. Pooping in the woods is just part of the outdoor experience. Doing it comfortably, and with the least amount of impact, however, takes some know-how. There is nothing worse than checking out that view a few feet off-trail, and coming upon the waste of another human ripening in the sun, surrounded by a cloud of TP. YUCK.
So with pooping in the woods at the front of the mind, let’s dig the right-sized hole, and settle in.
Before you grab the trowel and TP, let’s talk about the ethics of using the outdoors as a litter box. First, do some research. There are a ton of locations, parks, and fragile ecosystems to enjoy, and ensuring human waste can biodegrade in the soil type specific to the location you’re camping in is critical. For instance, alpine zones and desert locations can not naturally degrade human waste so you’ll have to pack your waste out instead of burying it. Know before you go!
For more information on specifics check the Leave No Trace website.
Distances and Details
Why the focus on human waste? Why don’t we need to worry about feces from animals like bears and squirrels? Wildlife waste is a culmination of natural materials while human waste contains the waste of all our processed foods and meats. Even down to a molecular level, it isn’t the same. Burying or carryout is the best option.
That leads us to the all-important distance point of poop: 200 feet from any water source, 200 feet from camp, and 200 feet from the trail. An easy way to remember this is that 200 feet are about equal to 70 adult steps. To ensure you are being extra careful, let’s call it 80 steps. Various terms have been used to identify this rule, but the one we like best is the outdoor poop triangle:
Location matters. There is nothing worse than finishing that cup of coffee, grabbing the TP, and power walking to the nearest area, and feeling rushed...so….
Prime number 2 areas contain dark, rich soil. Loose organic matter will decompose waste faster and be easier to dig a cathole. You don't want to be frantically digging into roots or thick bushes! Some of the best outdoor locations can use the natural world to make it more like home. Digging the cat hole with natural features can be glorious, like beneath large dead logs. This will allow you to hang over the back and actually sit on a surface. Or maybe there is a rock that has a steep edge leading into your cat hole. Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to find a good poop spot with a view! All of these little additions make going outside pure luxury.
PRO TIP: Bring the coffee with you on a morning stroll. AKA Find the spot before it is urgent!
Make sure that you are digging 6-8 inches down, and 4-5 inches in diameter, essentially the size of a regular 32 oz Wide Mouth Nalgene bottle. Once you're done, bury the contents and leave the site as if you were never there.
Tools Of The Trade
TP is ideal for wiping. But less is more when doing business outdoors. There is no need to go extra plush. Usually, a whole roll being packed in is going to be packed back out with little use. Making your own smaller roll and bagging it up is the way to go!
If you do bring TP with you, make sure to get a stick and mix and stir the contents of the cat hole before burying. This ensures an even decomposition. If you are in sensitive areas such as the western US deserts or alpine zones, you must pack the TP out since those ecosystems are unable to handle decomposition.
Other Wiping Materials
Maybe you ran out of TP 4 days ago. Maybe you are going “au naturel” and purposely decided to forego TP... When you leave the TP at home, don’t be scared, there are other suitable options that provide natural wipeability.
Each material will be rated using a scale of 1 to 5 stars ★★★★★ of Wipeability, Leave No Trace (LNT), and Mess Factor.
Some of the most common items in the woods are, well, leaves.
Common leaves that can be used are striped maple leaves and mullein leaves (ideally large, and soft.) They should be free of any thorns or irritants on the underside. If you can’t identify the leaf, do not use it. Use what is familiar to you in the plant world for the undercarriage and ensure the plant you want to use is not endangered.
- Wipeability: ★★★★ Tried and true method, but make sure you know what you are wiping with (read: poison ivy is a bad time for everybody)
- LNT: ★★★ Try not to rip too many leaves off of live trees and plants. Dead leaves are a great option.
- Mess Factor: ★★★ Depends on if your fingers rip through the leaves or not. Pick wisely.
No, that random granite piece will not be pleasing to wipe with… But river rocks are amazing-- they’re smooth and free of sharp bits. Finding your preferential shape is part of the fun!
- Wipeability: ★ Depends on the consistency of what comes out… Solid and healthy, River rocks are a dream… You get the point.
- LNT: ★★★★★ Rocks are everywhere. Make sure to bury it as well.
- Mess Factor: ★★ Again, depends on the consistency.
If you love winter camping, then you'll be surrounded by this natural TP!
- Wipeability: ★★ If the snow is wet and easy to pack, you'll have a great snowball to use. If the snow is dry and you can't pack it into a ball, you'll be out of luck.
- LNT: ★★★★★ Snow melts! As long as you drop your used snow in your cat hole, this is a great option for Mother Nature.
- Mess Factor: ★★ Be quick or the snow could melt in your hands and can get messy quickly!
Cat holes in a pinch can be dug with your hands, a sharp rock, or a stick. But our recommendation is with a trusty poop trowel.
Poop trowels are similar to your gardening hand shovel at home, but with a more designated purpose. Most shovels come with measuring lines on them that will help you ensure your hole is deep enough for proper decomposition and LNT. Leave it to outdoor companies to create ultra-light poop shovels for those weight-conscious folks! You can get uber light as you do the deed by checking THESE out.
Wash those hands! At the very least, sanitize those hands after using nature’s toilet.
SEALABLE Plastic Bag
It is usually popular to bring a few: one for poop tools (the trowel and other cleaner items), and one for TP and a poop-specific sanitizer. Don’t forget to put some strips of duck tape on the outside of the dirty, LABELLED, carry-out bag. No one needs to see that waste or used TP every day. Trust us.
For those female-identifying folks: Pee Funnels are awesome. No squatting is needed, and with a little practice, using the bathroom is as easy as other appendages. Additionally the Kula Cloth, an antimicrobial reusable pee cloth, is an awesome pee accessory. Check them out!
See? That wasn’t so bad. Talking about poop and pee can be fun and educational!
Always remember to treat nature, humans, and animals nicely with your waste - no one wants to see or smell it. We didn’t go outside for that. Lots of products exist to make going outside easier and less intimidating. If you are new to the outdoors, you may find yourself loving the experience… After all, we all gotta go...