We’ve all been there at some point. Whether on a camping trip, a day hike, or some other outdoor activity, we’ve all felt the call of nature in a very compelling way.
Unfortunately, restrooms and outhouses aren’t always available when you need them most. And sometimes, you just know that you’re not going to make it back to civilization in time to save your underwear. So what’s the best (and safest) way to take care of business in the wild? Here are some best practices that you should take advantage of the next time you need to poop outdoors.
Choosing a Location
Unfortunately, you can’t just poop anywhere you want, because of various health concerns and privacy issues – things we’ll talk about more in the Leave No Trace section of this article further down. So how do you know where it’s safe to go? Here are a few points that are important to remember the next time you need to poop outside:
Stay 200+ feet away from major landmarks. This includes any nearby trails, water sources, and campsites. Not only will this help keep local water sources uncontaminated, but you’ll also stay out of sight from the prying eyes of other campers and hikers who might be in the area.
Find an area with loose dirt. You’ll be able to dig a poop hole in loose dirt much faster and easier than in a place with hard, compacted soil. If you have a trowel, use it to dig a 6-8 inch hole into the earth – otherwise, a rock, your boot heel, or a stick can also get the job done as well.
If the ground is too rocky to dig in… Try lifting a rock and use that spot, returning the rock when you’re done. Otherwise, you may have to use something like a wag bag that will allow you to pack out your waste.
To have a successful and hygienic bathroom break, there are a few items that you’ll need to bring with you into the woods. If you don’t already have a camping shovel, I’d suggest getting one before your trip, so you’ll have an easier time digging a hole. However, they can get a little heavy, which isn’t ideal for trekking, so you may consider looking for a backpacking trowel instead.
Don’t forget the hand sanitizer either. Pooping outside can be dirty business, and there won’t be any sinks that you can use to wash your hands after you’re done. To keep bacteria from spreading, bring a small bottle of Purell or other sanitizer with a high concentration of isopropyl alcohol.
When you’re living off the grid for a few days, sealable plastic bags will become your new best friend. Essential for transporting and organizing all of your gear, they also make irreplaceable trash bags. And in this particular case, they’re what will allow you to pack out your waste, so you can follow proper LNT procedures.
And of course, you can’t forget the toilet paper. But stranger things have happened, so if you do forget to bring some TP, there are a few other options available to you.
I’ve used baby wipes before, but they do a better job at smearing instead of absorbing (sorry if that was a little graphic). Large leaves also work well, as long as they aren’t poisonous, but I actually find that rocks work the best. Just make sure they’re smooth, and don’t have any jagged edges!
Different Ways to Poop Outside
And here you probably thought there was only one way to take care of business in the wilderness! But here’s the deal – pooping outside can get complicated pretty quickly, since you don’t have an actual toilet to sit on. There are a few factors to consider like how bad do I need to go, how strong are my legs, and will I muck up my shoes in the process? Here are a few bathroom positions that you can use depending on what you have available, and how you answered the questions above.
The Squat. It’s the most common method, and probably how you planned on pooping anyway. I’d strongly recommend it, though you will need to be a little cautious when you perform this maneuver. If you squat too far down, your backside will almost touch your heels, which is perfect for getting poo on your shoes! Though it takes more leg strength, try to mimic a sitting position more than a squatting position.
The Tree Hugger. Just like it sounds, you’ll be holding onto a tree for this one. For it to work, you’ll have to make sure there aren’t any roots that will prevent you from digging a poop hole by the tree. But once you’ve found a suitable place, drop a squat and hold onto the tree for added support. It will take some pressure off your legs, so you can take a little extra time to make the magic happen.
The Tripod. This one is just like “the squat,” but with a slight modification. You’ll want to squat like normal, and then place one hand behind you to lean on for stability. It takes some strain off your legs, and also gets your backside more over the hole instead of over your shoes. However, it is more physically challenging (in terms of flexibility and arm strength), so I’d mostly suggest using this method if you’re concerned about mucking up your feet.
The Lean-Poo. You’ll have to channel your inner wall sits for this one. Find a sturdy tree or boulder that you can lean against in a sitting position and get as comfortable as possible. This method helps take some weight off your legs, and gives you quite a bit of clearance as well. Just a couple (vital) suggestions: make sure the tree is actually sturdy, and that your feet are well planted, otherwise you mind find yourself sliding into your fresh manure!
Once you’re done taking care of business, it’s time to tidy everything back up again. Replace the dirt that you dug up, filling in the cathole, and covering up all of your waste. Pat it down with your foot for extra measure, and cover it with a rock to discourage critters from digging everything back up again. You may even want to shove an upright stick in their to prevent other campers from using that location to dig their own cathole!
Always finish off your session with a good squirt of hand sanitizer, paying extra close attention to your fingers for any brown spots. Don’t forget to grab your shovel, and the storage bag that contains your used toilet paper either.
Using a Wag Bag
There are several ecosystems that will require you to pack out your poo. Deserts, delicate alpine locations, and narrow river canyons are all sensitive environments that can’t safely contain your feces. Many National Parks and other sections of public land also make packing out your waste mandatory, as a way to keep the area as pristine as possible.
There are a few ways you can pack out your solids, but I’ve found that wag bags are the most convenient and hygienic. No need to dig a cathole for these (so they work great if you forgot your shovel back home), and you can often get multiple uses out of one bag. My parents like to use them in their camper van toilet, so I can personally attest to the incredible amount of weight they can hold!
Using them in the wild is pretty straightforward – just fit the bag around your hips and fill it up, cinching it closed when you’re done. The two layered design is great for keeping the smell inside too, so you don’t have that lingering scent of poo trailing you everywhere you go. And since animals are attracted to feces, you’ll be glad to have an odor free bag. Without it, you’d have to shove all of your waste inside a bear canister every night.
What About Pee?
Managing solid waste will be your most pressing concern, but there are also a few things to consider when it comes to pee. For starters:
Don’t pee in small bodies of water, like ponds, streams, or lakes. Move away 200 feet from these locations to keep the area from becoming contaminated for creatures who use the place as a watering hole.
On the other hand, do use the water as a toilet when there are large quantities of it. Oceans and large rivers will be able to dilute the urine content, making it a better option than oversaturating the campground.
You’ll want to find soft, spongy ground, if you’re squatting to pee. Rocks, roots, and other hard surfaces will splash it right back at you if you aren’t careful! Don’t forget to bring a pee rag or a few sheets of toilet paper for cleanup, unless you’d rather “shake dry” and spare yourself the hassle of packing out more waste.
When you’re sleeping in a tent but don’t feel like going outside during the night to pee, there’s nothing more useful than an empty bottle. Depending on the bottle (and how badly you need to go), you might run out of space to hold your pee. But at the very least, it’ll get you most of the way there so you can hold out until morning.
The Importance of Leave No Trace
So, why are we even talking about this? It’s a gross and somewhat embarrassing topic, and at the end of the day, you’re in the wild. Isn’t everywhere supposed to be fair game, when it comes to using the bathroom?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. In fact, improper human waste disposal is one of the biggest factors threatening the wellbeing and aesthetic of the land around us. Now, you might think that a little poop here or there couldn’t possibly make that big of a difference. But take a look at these numbers, and see if you’ll change your mind:
- Roughly 10 million people go backpacking each year.
- About 50 million people go on day hikes.
- 10 million people go climbing outside.
- 9 million go canoeing.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Just think of how many trail runners find themselves far from a bathroom, not to mention skiers, snowshoers, and other outdoorsy people. When you put them all together, that’s dozens of millions of people who may find themselves using the wilderness as their personal toilet…every year.
It really adds up.
And the problem with this is more than aesthetic, despite the fact that no one wants to tiptoe through National Parks to avoid stepping in fecal matter.
Poop is, by nature, a toxic substance. But even beyond that, there are countless harmful bacteria that call your stool “home.” Giardia, Hepatitis A, Meningitis, Salmonella, Rotavirus, Thrush, Worms, Viral Gastroenteritis… I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. There are a lot of nasty things that can be transmitted via your poop, which is why it’s so important to properly dispose of it in the wild.
Many of these are transmitted orally, so contaminated drinking water is going to be your biggest enemy. This is the primary reason why you should stay at least 200 feet away from any water source while you’re pooping, and why you should always filter your water before drinking.
Don’t Forget about Your Dog
Want to try camping with your dog? It’s worth mentioning that the same rules apply for pets as they do for you. Obviously, you can’t really dig a cathole for your dog to poop in, so you’ll have to pick up and pack out everything they deposit.