The Ultimate Guide to Pooping Outdoors
Because when you gotta go, you gotta go. Here's how to do it the right way.
“I love talking about poop!” It’s crisp, clear September morning in Montana, and I’m floating past islands with mountain views on Flathead Lake. My spirited kayaking guide, Shelby Horton, is regaling me with the finer points of how to go number two in nature.
Besides being a guide at Sea Me Paddle, Horton has gone through the Master Educator course at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Their mission is to promote conservation and minimize human impact in the outdoors. If you’ve ever visited a national park or gone backcountry hiking, you’ve probably seen signs touting the “Seven Principles” of Leave No Trace, such as leave what you find, and minimize your campfire impact. And the one that lights a fire under Horton: dispose of waste properly.
“Waste disposal is super big. With more and more people going outdoors, there’s less and less bathrooms out there, and more people who are just like ‘I can go pee and poop anywhere!’” says Horton. “We’ve gotten so far away from knowing what to do in the woods. When people get out there, they have no idea how to respect the land.”
So how do you go poop and pee in the woods without harming the environment and, frankly, alarming the wildlife? Here, courtesy of Horton, is everything you need to know when nature calls, in nature.
1. Find a suitable location to do your business
You're in the woods and you gotta go. First thing’s first: Pick a spot to evacuate your bowls away from the trail and for everybody’s sake, somewhere inconspicuous. Be sure you’re not directly impeding any plant or wildlife.
The ideal spot would be at least 200 feet away from any water sources (more on this later) and on a higher surface, so that storm runoff won’t wash it right back down into nearby lakes or streams. And if possible your spot should be south-facing, where it would get the most sunlight to aid in decomposition. Choose deep, organic soil. Because next, you’re going to:
2. Dig a hole
It’s called a “cat hole": a hole dug specifically for feces, about six to eight inches deep and four to six inches in diameter (as far as we can tell, it has nothing to do with cats). Carry a garden trowel in your pack for this step, which also acts as an easy measuring device. “Typically the shovels are as long as the holes should be deep, so you can use that to measure,” advises Horton.
3. Bury your toilet paper
The million dollar question: is it safe to use toilet paper when you poop in the woods? “If you only use a little bit, non-perfumed, and you’re digging a cat hole that’s deep, there’s little chance that rain or wind or any kind of erosion is going to bring that up,” says Horton.
“Take a stick and stir it around—it sounds super gross, but it helps with the degrading process, and it’ll break down faster.” The organisms in that dark organic soil you chose will also aid in decomposition, and the original dirt should be used to fill the hole.
4. Pack out the excess
Say you have no choice but to use an abundance of toilet paper (hey, it happens). Then you’ll definitely want to pack it out with you. “I recommend Ziplock bags and grocery bags,” says Horton. “There’s also a biodegradable WAG bag that’s pretty widely used in outdoor programs. It’s basically like, if you’re on a rafting trip or in an area like the desert where you can’t dig a hole, you can poop in this WAG bag to keep it contained. You just dump it out and put it in the trash, just like what you would with your dog’s poop.”
It's gonna be smelly, so until you’re able to throw it out properly, be aware of its attractiveness to wildlife. “When camping overnight, put it in an extra bag and keep it with your bear hang." (A bear hang is a rope and bag pulley system used to suspend smelly items like food and waste in a tree, just out of the reach of bears and rodents.)
5. Where you pee outdoors matters, too
Find a durable surface, away from trails, where urine can be easily absorbed into the ground or washed away. And use common sense based on where you are. “If you’re in a nice forested area, it’s going to absorb into the ground and pretty much dissipate. But if you go pee in the desert, that is gonna stick around for a while. Everybody’s gonna smell it, it’s gonna be there,” says Horton.
Though it may seem secluded, avoid going under rocks that are overhanging. “It gets stuck under there, rain doesn’t get to it,” Horton explains. “I know so many people who have worked trails and they go into these overhanging areas of rock and it smells like human pee and it is the grossest thing."
6. Avoid going in a natural water source
It’s a no-go to go in a river or stream—it can have detrimental effects on wildlife, and it can make your fellow outdoors-people sick. “Giardia is one of the biggest ailments you can get in the backcountry. It’s all from mammal poop and pee that goes into the water,” Horton explains. (If you’re camping or hiking in the backcountry, be sure to treat your water before you drink it.)
But really, it depends on how big the body of water is. “Take the ocean,” says Horton. “You can one hundred percent pee and poop in the ocean. It is so big that it is gonna disperse. If you’re out on a kayak and it is a large-enough body of water, and it is a dire emergency, you don’t have a WAG bag and you can’t get to shore, then you can jump in and go to the bathroom in it. But we highly, highly recommend planning ahead and preparing.”
7. Ladies, be extra prepared
You may think that ladies use more toilet paper, but not out in the woods. “The first time I ever went out into the woods to go backpacking with my professor, she said ‘I didn’t bring any toilet paper,’” Horton recalls. “I was like, excuse me??? She had some for emergencies, but not if we had to pee. We said, ‘But we’re girls!’ And then she said the best advice she’d ever give me: ‘Give her a good shake.’”
Horton also recommends a reusable bandana to help you stay dry. “You can tie it to your backpack, and if it’s sunny, the UV light from the sun will help to clean it.”
And when it comes to feminine hygiene products, bury them in a cat hole or pack them out. “Especially the applicator,” says Horton. “I love the OB brand tampons that don’t have the little applicator. All it has is the plastic wrap—it’s so much less trash.” Alternatively, many women in the outdoor industry prefer Divacups. “I just started using it on a backpacking trip and I love it. It’s so much less stress than dealing with a tampon.” Here, you’ll still want to bury your blood or pack it out. And if you’re on a bigger trip, put it with the bear hang.
8. Really, leave no trace
It’s not just toilet paper. If you've been hiking recently, maybe you’ve spotted stuff that seems like it should be okay to discard—like apple cores or orange peels. But anything that is not native to the environment may be harmful.
“It’s a common misconception. Everybody’s like, it’s biodegradable, you can just throw it out there," says Horton. "But it takes so long for these things to actually go into the soil. The wildlife in that area, they’re going to be curious about it. They’re going to munch on it."
Even if you’re just out for a hike, keep a Ziplock handy and pack out your trash. And if you’re feeling extra charitable, maybe throw some out that didn’t originate with you.
“Nobody wants to go out into the woods and be like, 'I’m gonna fuck shit up today!' No, they want to see, they want to smell, they want to experience. I think that is super powerful," Horton says. "But those coming from a big city, or without [prior] experience out there... it’s just a totally different environment. These Leave No Trace ethics put everybody on a good playing field to start understanding the effects that we have.”