How to Poop in the Woods
The Essential Guide to
Mastering the Art of
Let’s face it, if you want to spend any serious amount of time in the backcountry, at some point you will have to poop in the woods. I remember hating when nature called on me—while I was in nature. I found it inconvenient and uncomfortable to squat. But mostly I suffered from an intense fear that after relieving myself I would look down only to realize I had pooped right into the crotch of my pants. I’m not kidding, for a long time this was a huge fear. I’d been backpacking for seven years and still hated pooping in the woods. However, after only a couple weeks on the Pacific Crest Trail, I very quickly became a pro-level backcountry defecator. Many of the techniques I figured out I wish I had learned about years earlier, so hopefully this article helps you.
LNT as it applies to your poop
Leave No Trace, or LNT is the principle of conducting yourself in the backcountry that in a manner that minimizes your impact on the land and conceals from other hikers that you were ever there. Why is this important? Well, I’m guessing you don’t enjoy seeing litter, leftover clothes lines, or used toilet paper on your trail or at your campsite. And guess what? Nobody else does either.
When it comes to poop o’clock, LNT is pretty basic. The objective is to bury your nuggets of fecal goodness deep enough that they biodegrade safely, and to pack out items like toilet paper and wet wipes that never biodegrade (or take months/years to biodegrade).
Tools of the Trade
Build out Your Lightweight Backcountry Toilet Kit. Here’s the equipment you’ll need for an enjoyable, hygienic, and ethical (LNT) dump in the woods:
Quart Size Ziplock Freezer Bags (2)
There is some room for customizing this list to your needs, but one item you’re not going to want to skimp on is hand sanitizer. In an environment where you don’t often have a suitable place to wash up, keeping your hands from becoming contaminated with your own filth is critical. I carry a 2oz bottle of Purell in my toilet kit. This amount easily lasts me eight days on trail.
You’ll be digging cat holes for your poops, so you’ll need a way to dig. A lot of UL hikers poo-poo the poo trowel, instead opting to use a rock, their boot, or their trekking poles. I am not a fan of these solutions. My body doesn’t give me a whole lot of warning before things drop, so having a reliable way of quickly burrowing into the soil is key. I carry a Deuce of Spades aluminum trowel that only weighs a few ounces. With it, I can carve out a proper cat hole in about 30 seconds.
Once your business is finished, it’s time for a clean-up on aisle five. Unless you’re an uber-naturalist willing to use pine cones and leaves, you’ll need carry something with which to wipe your bum. I carry a small roll of toilet paper (size dependent on the number of days I’m planning to be out.) If you attract Klingons like the Starship Enterprise, you may want to carry some wet wipes. I recommend Wet Ones as they have the best packaging for resealing that I’ve come across. Please note that flushable variants do not biodegrade and need to be packed out. Even biodegradable options should be packed out.
Next, you’ll need two quart-sized Ziplock bags. This is an area where you don’t want to skimp. Spend the money on name brand Ziplocks. You want the ones with the blue or pink closures (Freezer or Storage). Why? Because Ziplocks stay shut. I’ve tried Glad, Trader Joe’s, Wholefoods, and full-generic. It’s Ziplock or nothing for me—especially when dealing with biohazards. One of these bags will be to store and keep dry your unused toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The other is for your soiled toilet paper. You are expected to pack this out—especially in dry environments like the PCT.
To keep all of this in one place, add a medium sized rubber band to the mix.
The Process of Elimination
Site Selection: Location Location Location
Now that you’re all tooled-up, let’s talk about how to find the perfect backcountry toilet. First, you need to find a place that is at least 150 feet away from any water source. Closer, and you risk contaminating the water for subsequent hikers. You’ll also want to be 150 feet away from the trail or any roads, because you know… nobody wants to see you as you poop. Make sure while you’re scouting the ideal location, be sure you’re not pooping at an empty tent site.
You may be able to hear running water in streams, but ponds, trails, and roads are often silent. Trails can have switchbacks and bends that could turn your privy into a very public show. Once in the Catskills I walked deep into the woods from my campsite for my morning glory, only to realize afterward that due to a nice bend in the trail, I was pooping only a few feet away from a thoroughfare that quickly became full of day hikers.
Lastly, you’ll want a location that is flat-ish. In a pinch, you can make just about anything work, but having level ground makes the squat much less strenuous. I’ll cover some pro-tips about coping with hills at the end of this article.
Your poop needs to go in the ground and get buried. This is non-negotiable. When you leave it on the surface, it attracts animals and insects. Worse, it can come in contact with other hikers, getting germs and bacteria on them and their equipment. Do the right thing, dig a proper cat hole.
What’s a proper cat hole? Great question! Make sure your cat hole is at least six inches deep. Some folks offer guidance on the diameter of the opening, but I generally find that if you go deep enough, the opening tends to solve itself.
Digging a cat hole can be a real pain in the butt if the ground is hard and dry, or really rocky, or full of shallow roots. You get the idea. Allow yourself enough time to dig your cat hole before you need to go. A couple times on the PCT, I did not heed my body’s warnings and found myself having to push my pile into a cat hole I dug afterward. It’s just not as satisfying when you do it in that order.
You’ll be spending your poops in a deep squat while on trail. Flexibility helps. Until I embarked on the PCT, I always had some degree of difficulty dealing with the deep squat. Two weeks in and I’d developed the ability to hold a squat without issue. If you’re overweight or very inflexible, you may want to start a stretching routine to help you limber up.
Once your cat hole is dug, you need to drop trou. I mentioned above that my big fear was crapping into the crotch of my pants. That’s cause I was pulling my pants down to my ankles like some kind of moron. You only need to lower your pants enough to expose your corn hole and make sure your urethra—–be it at the end of your dick or in your pannooch—is clear.
Squat over the hole and let fly. Don’t worry if you miss the hole on the first go or two. You’ll dial in your bomb sight soon enough and be dropping those turds right in the pickle barrel. If you do miss, grab a rock or a stick and help the brown snake back into the hole (but only after you’ve finished wiping… first things first!)
Cleanup on Aisle Five
So you successfully dropped the kids off at the pool, now you’ve got to wipe up. I highly recommend carrying toilet paper same as you would use in civilization. Why? Because you’re used to it, and you know exactly how much you’ll need? Or do you?
If you’re one of those resource wasting ass-clowns who goes through 30 squares back home then you’re going to have a problem on the trail, and also… WTF?
On trail, you need to become skilled at making a tiny amount of consumable material go a long way. Here’s how I wipe: I take two squares of paper (three on the first wipe if it seems like it was a messy one) and fold them over on each other until I am holding a stack of paper exactly one-half square in area. I wipe, making sure to poke and scrape, not shmear. Yeah, told you we’d cross the TMI line. After each wipe, I fold the stack in half and wipe again. I’m able to get at least two, and as many as four wipes out of two squares. Obviously your mileage will vary, but with a little practice, you too can be super stingy about paper. Yay!
After each stack has been folded and wiped with to the point where it can be folded no more, you’ll need to stow it in your dirty paper Ziplock. Nothing special about this, just drop it in and repeat the process (if needed). If you’re a particularly nasty mofo, feel free to break out the wet wipes at this point. I usually dry wipe first and wet wipe if necessary. If out for a long section, I may also use an additional wet wipe to give my undercarriage a whore’s bath. However, while wet wipes started out as a necessary component of my toilet kit, by the end of the PCT, I had stopped carrying them entirely. Hand sanitizer does just fine cleaning down under.
At this point, you may be wondering why papers, which are biodegradable must be packed out. That’s because of LNT ethics. If you bury your papers with your poops, two things happen: 1) Your poop will biodegrade in less than two months, but the paper will remain. 2) An animal will come by and dig out the paper, scattering it across the forest floor as they play with it. That’s right, animals think your poop is a toy. Don’t give them the pleasure. Pack out your poo papers. In all seriousness, I was aghast when I first heard this was what was expected of me, but it really isn’t that bad. So do it.
Now that you’re done wiping and your bum is sparkly clean, you’ll want to pack up your toilet kit. Here is where order of operations is your friend. Step one is to seal the poo paper baggie. I usually roll this from the base toward the opening, squeezing the air out of the top and making sure to trap the poo papers near the bottom.
Once your poo paper baggie is rolled up, then it is time to wash the hands. The toilet paper roll goes back in it’s Ziplock, and the hand sanitizer can now be liberally applied. I try to make a point of applying the hand sanitizer only after I’ve rolled up the poo paper baggie, though I readily admit that we’re splitting hairs here considering that my dirty poo fingers have already touched everything in the toilet kit prior to getting sanitized and they will have to touch everything in order to put it all away.
That being said, I never once had severe gastrointestinal distress on the PCT with this routine, and I seldom remembered to ‘wash’ my hands prior to meals. So, therefore my logic is flawless!??
Packing it out
When you get to town, or a dumpster, drop that bag of dirty poo papers right in the trash, and replace it with a clean bag. Bonus points if you find a toilet to flush the paper down. At any rate, the key point here is that you carry the dirty and potentially non-biodegradable (if you’re using wet wipes) papers out of the wilderness and to a place where you can properly dispose of them. Speaking of that clean bag… In a pinch you can reuse the dirty poo paper baggie a couple times, but this is not one of those items I recommend being stingy about.
So now that you’re armed with all the information you need to be a backcountry poo-pro, here are some tips to turn you into a real turd ninja:
Use 1 freezer bag and 1 storage bag
Ziplock color codes the openings of their bags so you can easily tell what each bag is ideally designed for. What you want to remember is Pink and Blue. These are their stronger bags (Freezer and Storage). I recommend taking one of each for your toilet kit. That way you can easily tell the bags apart. You don’t want to finish wiping and seal up the poo paper baggie only to realize you put today’s poo papers into the baggie for the clean toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Yes, that actually happened to me. I was not happy about it.
Dig your morning cat hole the night before
Plan ahead. Pooping in the morning is no fun. It is cold, often dark, and you’re going to be in a rush to break camp and crush miles. Instead of frantically digging a cat hole in the wee hours of the AM while you’re prairie dogging, why don’t you dig that AM hole the night before? You’ll enjoy the relaxation of sauntering up to a pre-existing hole and filling it full of morning dookie. Hey, it’s the little things in life that bring us the greatest joy.
If you miss the hole
Don’t fret, it happens to all of us. So you finish the turd of the century only to look down and notice that the little brown monster is crawling out of the hole and trying to escape. Don’t panic, just use whatever is nearby to push it back into its final resting place. Stones work well, but I’m a big fan of the stick. Mostly because I also like to mark my cat holes with a stick poking out of the ground so nobody digs up my week old poop by accident.
Mark it with a stick
What I said above. Yeah, a couple times I found the ideal place to deuce-out and hit someone else’s masterpiece while digging my cat hole. Not really a desirable experience. In the backcountry the universal signage for “don’t dig here” is a small twig sticking vertically out of the ground.
Pooping on a hill
I mentioned above that it is best to poop on level ground. However, should you find yourself on an incline, I find it best to orient so that you’re facing downhill. Whatever you do, don’t try to squat facing horizontally across the fall line. You’ll just fatigue your legs unevenly and likely have to rotate mid loaf. I’m not kidding. This happened also to me. Also, facing uphill is less ideal because balancing is harder and you’re more likely to miss the hole.
Can't hold a deep squat?
If you're not flexible or strong enough to hold a deep squat for the time it takes to drop the kids off at the pool, then find a tree trunk or rock you can lean your back against and assume more of a sitting position. If that puts you too close to tree roots for digging your cat hole, you can always reaching backward with one arm to hold your self up with more distance from the support object. It's not super comfortable, but this is how I managed for the first three years of backpacking.
Use nature’s offerings to reduce paper consumption
If you’re running low on paper, you can use moss, leaves, pine cones, or snow to wipe with. I’m not going to lie, the first time you wipe your ass with snow will be a strange and magical experience. Just try to think of it as a backcountry bidet. Or a low cost wet wipe. At any rate, making use of what is around you can help you get by if you misjudged the amount of paper you needed.
Congratulations! You’re now armed with everything you need to know about pooping in the backcountry. With more and more people enjoying the backcountry each year, LNT principles and ethics are more important than ever. Do not be shy about discussing this issue with other hikers and climbers and if you see or hear about people crapping on the surface and not burying their business, shame the living fuck out them. Tell them I said it was what they deserved. But seriously, now that you know what is expected of you, it is your responsibility to help spread the word. Mother Nature—and your fellow hikers will all thank you.