Going to the bathroom is a part of daily life, and it doesn’t just disappear in the woods. So what if you’re hiking or camping and you can’t find a restroom? It may seem like a silly question, but pooping in the wilderness responsibly, effectively and cleanly is a skill that comes in handy if you’re spending any amount of time outdoors.
In fact, knowing this skill may be more important than ever before. This summer, many public restrooms and outhouses are closed in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. And based on anecdotal evidence, people are spending more time enjoying outdoor activities this season.
“It’s an important topic, that’s for sure,” said Holly Sheehan, coordinator for the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. “A lot of people don’t know how to poop in the woods, and it’s an important skill.”
So how do you poop in the woods? Here’s what you need to know.
What you’ll need
Before visiting an outdoor location, do some research to see if restrooms are available, keeping in mind that they may be closed due to COVID-19. Also, check land regulations pertaining to human waste.
“For the most part, you’ll be able to dig a cathole in places, but some places might require you to pack out your waste,” said Faith Overall, education and outreach coordinator for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.
A cathole is a small pit that’s dug into the ground to hold human feces. These pits are usually meant for one person and covered after use. To dig and use a cathole, you’ll need a sturdy trowel, toilet paper, a plastic sealable bag (to pack out used toilet paper) and hand sanitizer. For a trowel, you can purchase a special, collapsible backpacking trowel or simply buy one at your local gardening center.
However, in some locations — such as the 200-plus islands of the Maine Island Trail — a cathole is not recommended because of delicate environments, proximity to water that can be contaminated and shallow soil. Instead, visitors are expected to carry out their waste in a bag or some other container.
“We use what’s called a wag bag,” said Dana Wilfahrt, a Maine Island Trail Association member who is experienced at island camping. “Pretty much you can construct it out of a paper bag at your house. Lop off the top so it’s like a shallow square with the bottom intact and four short walls. Then do your business on it and pack it into a little plastic bag.”
Other homemade “wag bag” designs are available online, and some companies sell their own versions.
Where to poop
To poop in the woods, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics suggests walking 200 feet from water, trails and campsites to find a spot. That distance is equal to about 70 big steps. This prevents your waste from polluting water or coming into contact with other people.
“I would just be very aware of your surroundings,” Sheehan said. “Look for landmarks and pay close attention to where you are.”
In wilderness areas that do not require that you pack out your poop, a cathole is recommended.
“It has been a big problem in Maine on the Appalachian Trail,” Sheehan said. “A lot of people don’t bury their waste. We have ridge runners during normal times and that’s a big part of what they’re doing — they’re packing out or burying human waste from people who haven’t properly disposed of it. It’s a health concern, an environmental concern and there’s a visual impact.”
For your cathole, select a location that’s elevated (or at least not a depression) so it doesn’t get washed away by runoff or submerged under a pool. It’s also helpful to pick a spot in the sun, which speeds decomposition.
“We like to suggest that people dig in an area where decomposition is already occurring,” said Hawk Metheny, Northeast regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “A good spot is often next to a downed log, where the log may be beginning to rot. You can dig next to that log, and often people like that they can sit on it or use the log [to support themselves] when squatting.”
Also, avoid pooping above the treeline, which is the elevation on mountains where trees can no longer grow.
“The alpine zone is so fragile,” Sheehan said. “The plants up there are so unique and at risk of human impacts.”
If you must go poop above the treeline, the recommendation is to rock hop, staying on durable surfaces where possible, to reach a location at least 200 feet from the trail. Then select some bare ground in an area that is exposed to the sun, rain and wind, which will speed up decomposition. If you can’t pack out the poop, pack out any toilet paper.
How to dig a cathole
With your trowel, cut a circle in the duff (top layer of organic material) that’s about 6 inches in diameter, Metheny said. Lift the duff and set it aside, then dig down about 6 to 8 inches.
“You don’t want to go too deep,” Metheny said. “You want to stay in that layer where decomposition occurs.”
Once the hole is dug, squat over it and deposit your waste into it. Many people have a difficult time squatting for prolonged periods of time. To help, you can hold onto the trunk of a sapling or enlist a friend or partner to give you support by holding your hands or under your armpits. (The last might be a good method for teaching your children.)
“Most people find it easier to remove their pants or shorts when they squat,” Metheny said. “If you leave them around your ankles, you may not be able to squat comfortably, and secondly, there’s a chance for you to actually soil your pants because your aim is off. Or you can keep [your pants] around one leg. The goal is to be comfortable and prevent an accident.”
Once done, fill the cathole in with the dirt removed when digging it. Then top it off with the circle of duff you cut from the ground and scatter a few small sticks and leaves over it for good measure. If done right, the spot should blend right back into the landscape.
If you missed the cathole, move your poop into it by using a stick or rock. It’s important not to get poop on your trowel because when placed back in your backpack, it can contaminate other items.
If you’re in a group that’s camping, you may want to designate cathole areas for each person so you can have privacy and won’t dig up each other’s catholes. And if you’re staying multiple nights, you can mark your catholes so you can dig a line of them in your area. Then disguise them before leaving.
What should you do with toilet paper?
Toilet paper can be a big problem in the wilderness.
“A lot of places require or encourage visitors to pack out toilet paper,” Overall said. “We have a technique called the FOPO bag — the fear of packing out bag. It’s just a Ziplock bag wrapped in duct tape.”
The duct tape covers the see-through plastic so you (or anyone traveling with you) can’t see the soiled toilet paper inside. You can carry this in an outer pocket of your backpack. That way it’s easily accessible and separate from your other supplies.
If you can’t pack out the toilet paper for whatever reason, the recommendation is to use as little toilet paper as possible and to choose non-perfumed, plain brands that will be less attractive to wildlife.
“Wildlife will often dig up TP,” Metheny said. “That’s why you will sometimes find TP on a trail, kind of scuffed up, but no poop.”
Another option is to use natural materials, such as leaves, to wipe. This may be more feasible for pee than poop. Take care to avoid using poison ivy, stinging nettle or any other plant that might irritate your skin.
“It could take some experimentation,” Sheehan said. “Snow is actually pretty good in the winter. It’s cold but effective.”
“If you’re traveling in the backcountry, the more skills you have to be self-sufficient, the better trip you’ll have,” Metheny said. “[Knowing how to responsibly poop in the woods] can expand where you take your outings over time. And it’s essential. It happens every day.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Hawk Metheny’s name.