How to poop in the woods and “leave no trace”
I’m not writing this because I recently went backpacking with someone who, in 30 years, has never been without running water, and who swore she’d never poop in the woods, let alone do a Number One (she did).
I’m writing this because on my last excursion I saw an alarming amount of loose toilet paper, and on the shore of a beautiful mountain lake. I guess not many people know how to poop in the woods or understand how to dig a cat hole.
Consider this. Imagine sitting in your living room when a piece of used toilet paper blows past you. A piece of TP from a stranger no less, and your dog grabs it and starts eating it (this happened but in all fairness Charlie will eat anything). That’s what happens when you do a “shit and run” and someone camps in the same spot later on.
Why do we care about properly disposing of human waste? Water contamination is number one. We procure our water from lakes and streams when we’re out backpacking. It’s simple, don’t do your business near water and we can all avoid contamination. There’s also concern about wild animals getting into the waste, not to mention no one wants to see it out in the open.
You should be prepared to make a doody every time you go camping. At a minimum carry a trowel like this nifty one from GSI. The trowel has serrated edges, a ruler, and instructions on it that tell you how to poop in the woods.
If you’re feeling super-responsible, or in an area prohibiting human waste, you can carry a WAG bag (buy a 6-pack at Amazon for $21.99). WAG bags are required in the wilderness area surrounding Mt. Whitney, for example, yet Guitar Lake is still covered in used TP! Come on folks!
Different methods of pooping in the woods
Remember our priorities:
- Prevent contamination
- Encourage decomposition
- Leave no trace of human presence
Best option: Pack it in, pack it out
Carrying your waste back out with you is the best option to practice “leave no trace” principles.
Bringing your own bags won’t be sufficient; dumping human waste in the garbage is not just gross but illegal.
The WAG bags mentioned above have a gelling compound in them that supposedly neutralizes all the bad stuff found in human waste. By the time you get back to the trailhead you can throw the heavy-duty, double-bagged pile in the trash. NOT the pit toilets!
But for this to be effective, yes, you actually have to carry the bag back out. Mount Whitney is littered with WAG bags “hidden” behind small rocks and that’s horseshit (you know what I mean).
Most common: Dig a Cat Hole
Not everyone carries WAG bags with them, especially since they’re not required in most places.
So this is where you need to know how to dig a cat hole using your shiny new trowel.
How to dig & use a cat hole:
- Find a suitable location at least 200 feet from any water, campsites, and trails. As a rule of thumb the distance is about 80 steps (40 paces). Look for soft, moist, organic soil that will promote decomposition if you can find it.
- Dig a hole at least 6″ in diameter and a minimum of 6″ deep. Go deeper if you can. We all have different opinions on what “six inches” is but the trowel makes it an objective measurement.
- Do your business next to the hole. If you’re not carrying your TP back out, throw it in the hole first.
- Shovel your shit into the hole on top of the TP using a stick or something else you can also throw in the hole.
- Cover everything with dirt.
- Place a large rock & other natural materials on top to deter someone else from digging right there.
Do not put any kind of wipes in the hole unless they’re special biodegradable wipes. Anything that’s not biodegradable must be packed out in a bag and disposed of properly.
Take a look at the topographic map below. This is Dardanelles Lake, where I experienced the final straw prompting this rant. Where would you poop? Scroll down for the answers.
Toilet paper alternatives & sanitation
I carry a small amount of TP in a ziploc bag. But you can still poop in the woods without toilet paper.
- Collect smooth rocks or large, smooth leaves while hiking. No poisonous stuff for the love of God! Stick them in your pocket when you come across them so they’re ready when you need them. I’m partial to the large fuzzy plants that seem to grow near water sources, or mules ears (you know, the yellow flowering plant). I collect a few and always have them with me throughout the day.
- Snow makes a great bum cleaner. Make a snowball with a pointy end and use that to clean off. The snow will act as a natural bidet. Be sure to bury all of the used snow.
Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer also. And don’t forget it when you grab your trowel and TP to go do your business!