Pooping in the woods is usually a laughing matter — a go-to campfire discussion. But when one cyclist in Idaho started a wildfire with his excrement, it turned serious; and we realized some people don't know how to properly go in the outdoors. (For one, don't burn your toilet paper, ever.) So we turned to the experts to help us all get it exactly right. For starters, "using the Leave No Trace guidelines is the best practice for waste disposal and a fundamental part of being a good backcountry traveler," says Yosemite National Park spokeswoman Jodi Bailey. And that's not just because you could start a fire: "Human waste can attract insects and animals. If not buried properly, it causes an unpleasant odor and can potentially have impacts on water quality.” Below is a complete, painstaking guide to going in the woods.
Step 1: Pick Your Place
"Think about everyone who will hike the trail after you," says Bailey. "That spot over behind the big rock? Someone else probably already thought of using it. There are lots of people accessing the backcountry, using the same trails, and camping in sites that have been used before." Make sure you get at least 200 feet (about 70 paces) away from the trail, water, or campsite. If you are with a big group or are staying in a certain area for an extended amount of time where you will be taking multiple poops, make sure you widely disperse them. Always make sure that you are above the high water mark (the point that represents the maximum rise of a body of water over land) and any obvious runoff paths so you won't contaminate any water. Look for rich, dark soil, which will be higher in bacteria that can break down your feces more quickly.
Step 2: Choose Your Method
In soil, dig a hole at least 6 inches deep. For a hot desert environment, it can be a bit shallower, about 4 to 6 inches. The National Outdoor Leadership School suggests scraping the sides of the hole to loosen some dirt to stir into your poop to speed up the natural breakdown process when you're done. Always conclude the burial process by covering the hole and tamping it down.
- Packing it Out
This method works best if you are in an area with a sensitive environment, are around water or a canyon, or are required by law to carry your poo with you (such as Yosemite). The simplest way is to go on the ground and treat it like you would treat your dog's poop. Use a baggie like a glove to pick it up, throw in your used TP, tie it off, and put the entire poop/TP-containing bag into a larger, sealable bag for transportation.
The Yosemite website suggests that for trickier activities (such as climbing) using a dedicated vessel called a "poo-tube" to attach to your pack so you don't have to carry your bags of poop in your pack. To make a poo-tube, attach screw caps to each end of a large PVC pipe. Glue one end shut and tape on some webbing or some nylon rope for easy hauling. It takes time and a hardware store to make, but it's durable and reusable.
- Last Resort: Sun Drying It
Yes, sometimes you will find yourself in rocky, steep, and precarious situations where there is no ground soft enough to dig and you have no way of packing it out with you. This is the last resort. Smear your poop with a leaf, rock, or stick as thinly as possible onto another rock. Make sure the rock has exposure to direct sunlight, as UV radiation sterilizes the bacteria. If you have to do this, do it in a location where no one will come into contact with it.
Step 3: Assume the Position
Now that you know where to go and what to do when you go, it's time to learn how to go. The three easiest (and most functional) methods to get yourself comfortable are as follows:
- The Squat:
This is the original stance. And pretty self-explanatory. Keep your butt away from the backs of your feet and your hands on your knees for support.
- The Seated Hang:
Sit on a log or a boulder with your butt hanging off the edge and your arms holding you in place. This is as close as you'll get to the comfort of a toilet.
- The Tree Hug:
Bring your feet as 4-6 inches from the base of a tree trunk and wrap your arms around the tree. Bend your knees and lean back (so your butt isn't over your heels) while hanging on to the tree trunk for support.
Step 4: Clean Yourself
If you learn anything from our cyclist in Idaho, it's that toilet paper is not your friend. Never burn it, and if you can help, don't use it in the first place — rocks, smooth sticks, and the right leaves (see below) all work just as well and can be left behind in the hole. If you must, use non-scented, singly-ply biodegradable toilet paper or wipes, since these will break down the fastest when you bury them. If you happen to be without these necessities and are in a messy situation that requires "nature's toilet paper," know what leaves you should and shouldn't be wiping with.
Safe to Wipe:
- Lamb's ear
- Spruce (be sure to go with the grain of the needles)
- Big Leaf Aster
- Smooth stones, sticks, or moss
- Avoid all leaves of three, since common poisonous plants such as poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac come with that.
- Cow Parsnip
- Devil's Club
- Stinging Nettles
After wiping, you can use a moist hand towel or hand sanitizer, but make sure it is backcountry safe — because most types contain chemicals, like triclosan, that are endocrine disrupters and harmful to animals — and that you pack it out. But it's imperative to clean up to avoid contaminating your water bottle or anything else that you may touch later on.