Poop. Everyone does it. Nobody likes to talk about it. As a hiking and backpacking guide, going to the bathroom in the woods is one of the most common talks I have to give. People don't know how to do it and are too embarrassed to ask. When I first started giving the bathroom talks I kept it pretty simple because I thought that people would pretty much figure it out on their own. It turns out that simply isn't the case. With more trail traffic than ever, especially living in the area of the most visited National Park in the country, teaching people proper bathroom habits in the outdoors is more important than ever. Here's my take on everyone's least favorite trail topic.
Before we even delve into using the bathroom in the woods, first we need to talk tools you'll need before you head out there. I cannot stress enough how useless those plastic orange shovels you see hanging on the back of every backpack and all over the camping department at Walmart, Dick's, and every other big box store in America truly are! Those plastic orange shovels can be used, sure. They're also bulky, heavy, and not so great at moving rocks or roots (spoiler alert - there are lots of rocks and roots in the woods). Skip that shovel and use the Mac Daddy of all trail shovels - The Deuce of Spades. Yeah it's expensive. It also is less than an ounce and is strong as... well, strong as you know... Don't want to drop the cash? You have something in your backpack you can use as well. A tent stake! I normally carry an extra tent stake right down inside my roll of toilet paper. It's always there when I need it. I normally carry my toilet kit in an outside pocket of my pack, right on top, so I can grab it and go. I pack it in a gallon freezer bag with the toilet paper, tent stake, baby wipes (for long-distance hiking), and an extra quart sized bag to pack out my toilet paper (more on this in a minute). If I'm day hiking, I have hand sanitizer in my toilet kit as I use antibacterial baby wipes on longer hikers and just use those instead.
Bathroom technique in the woods is a little bit different than it is in the civilized world. The first step in using the bathroom in the woods is deciding you need to use it! The second step is finding a place to go. When it comes to using the bathroom in the woods, especially for pooping in the woods, you need to get off trail. Proper Leave No Trace ethics state you should go 200 feet from the trail, campsite, or water. In regular terms, this means count out 80 steps and get away from things. Since you need to get away from others, it's important to not wait until the very last minute to go! Proper planning helps out here. If you're new to using the bathroom outdoors, I recommend finding a rock or a tree to brace yourself in the squatting position. It will not only help keep you balanced, but it will help you get back up out of the "position" as well.
Now that you're off trail and ready to go, it's time to go! Many people will dig their hole first, but I don't usually advocate this. Usually because you want to make sure the hole will be deep and wide enough for proper waste disposal. I recommend doing your business first and digging the hole afterward. A proper cathole should be 6-8 inches deep for a few reasons - it will be deep enough to cover everything and deep enough to let the waste naturally decompose. If you've waited to dig the hole afterward, you can use your toilet paper or a leaf or a stick to help you get it into the hole. If you're using a leaf or a stick, make sure these things go into the hole as well. Toilet paper and feminine hygiene products do NOT go into the hole and need to be packed out. Bury the human waste and disguise the cathole by covering it with leaf litter if possible. Many trail maintenance crews do not advocate using rocks to disguise your cathole site because it encourages people to get lazy and just cover their poo with the rock. Trail crews often move rocks to do maintenance projects and see more human waste than any one person ever should. Please do not use rocks to cover your holes!
Why Do I Need to Pack Out Toilet Paper?
I hear this one a lot and different people will give you a different answer on whether or not you should pack toilet paper out. Quite simply, toilet paper (if it even gets properly buried) takes a long time to decompose. Even biodegradable toilet paper and wet wipes should be packed out. Using a freezer bag with some baking soda in it will keep odors from packed out toilet paper to a minimum and the smell will not escape into other areas of your pack. Another plus side of packing out toilet paper is the fact that you'll probably run across a privy while you're out on your hike and you can dump it in the privy (but not wet wipes - never dump wipes into a privy!)
Feminine Hygiene Items
Pads, liners, and tampons should never be left in the backcountry. Period. These items need to ALWAYS be packed out and never dumped in the privies. If you're thinking of doing a long-distance hike I highly recommend looking into getting a menstrual cup, like a Diva Cup or a Lady Cup. I started using them over 10 years ago and I highly recommend them for distance hiking. If you're using a cup, you'll bury the waste just as you do with a cathole, rinse the cup with water, and reuse. You can learn more about making the switch to a cup here. You can properly clean the cup when you get into town. They come in a cotton storage bag and I've never had problems taking them on distance hikes.
Hand Hygiene Afterward
I wrote a post back in February 2016 about trail hygiene with a section about hand sanitizer and hand washing. While it's important to use sanitizer after using the bathroom, a good hand washing as often as you can is also incredibly important to fight against norovirus and other illness.
With a little bit of knowledge beforehand and a little bit of practice in the woods, you too will become an expert when it comes to pooping in the woods! While it seems intimidating to many people, it's honestly not that hard and gets easier the longer you're out there. Did this post help you out? Do you feel more comfortable knowing that it's really not that hard to go to the bathroom on a hike? Did I forget anything you think I should mention? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter or Facebook to get the conversation started!