Pooping in the woods is perhaps the biggest concern of any new camper. When you get accustomed to a world of flush toilets, the thought of having to poop in a hole can be a bit disconcerting.
So, how exactly do you poop while camping? Thankfully, pooping in the woods isn’t as bad as it seems. You have many options when it comes to pooping outdoors, from using a camp toilet or a “wag bag” to digging a cathole. With practice and experience, answering nature’s call becomes just another part of the camping experience.
But, it’s understandable if you’re feeling a bit apprehensive about your toilet options in the outdoors. So, to alleviate all of your worries, we’ve created this guide to pooping while camping, complete with answers to all of your top questions.
Is It OK To Poop In The Woods?
First things first, we want you to know that it’s okay to poop in the woods. Pooping is a natural bodily function and if you spend enough time outside, at some point you’ll need to go when you’re far from a flushing toilet.
In reality, it’s best to get comfortable with the experience of outdoor defecation rather than avoiding it, since this will allow you to go out on longer trips in more remote terrain, far from modern plumbing.
Should I Avoid Pooping While Camping?
The short answer: No! Holding in your poop in an attempt to avoid having to go when you’re outside can lead to some pretty serious medical issues.
According to the University of Utah, holding in your poop can lead to constipation. Plus, the longer you hold it in, the harder your stool can get, which can eventually lead to something called “fecal impaction.”
A BMC Geriatrics study found that fecal impaction is when people have hard, dry stools, that they can’t pass. This can be extremely painful and can actually be fatal if it’s left untreated for too long. While holding it in so you can avoid pooping on a weekend camping trip probably won’t result in a very serious case of fecal impaction, doing so on a long trip can be dangerous.
Although you might be nervous about pooping in the woods, remember that it’s better to take care of yourself properly and face your fears than to develop a serious medical condition. It’s okay to be anxious about pooping outside, but holding it in is not the solution.
Outdoor Pooping Guidelines
While pooping is a natural bodily function, you can’t just go anywhere you want. In most popular outdoor recreation areas, there are laws and regulations around where you can and can’t dispose of human waste. Additionally, there are a whole host of different guidelines you should follow to minimize your impact on the natural environment.
So, in this section, we’ll discuss some of the fundamental concepts and rules for pooping in the woods.
Laws & Red Tape
Most publicly-managed lands (think: national and state parks, national forests, etc.) have rules about how you should dispose of human waste. While these regulations vary from place to place, most land managers require that outdoor recreationalists follow these rules:
- Always poop at least 200ft (60m) from water sources, trails, roads, and established campsites
- Use outhouses, pit toilets, and other designated facilities whenever possible
- Always bury your poop in a cathole (more on that later) that’s at least 6-8″ (15.2-20.3 cm) deep, but don’t bury or burn your toilet paper
- Always pack out menstrual hygiene products, like tampons and pads
However, some very popular recreation areas have very strict rules about disposing of human waste. This is particularly true along major rafting rivers, like the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, and on popular mountains, such as Mount Rainier, Denali, and Mount Baker. Even some national parks, like Canyonlands, have strict requirements for hikers and other backcountry travelers.
In these areas, land managers require that climbers and hikers pack out their human waste in specially-designed “wag bags.” Doing so helps minimize the impact of human waste – which can carry diseases and can contaminate drinking water – on the environment.
If packing out your poop seems a bit odd, and perhaps over-the-top, consider this:
Between 1951 and 2012, climbers have deposited at least 152,000 lbs (~70 metric tons) of human waste in the Kahiltna Glacier [on Denali]. (Source: NPS)
That’s a pretty staggering figure when you consider that this is an estimate for human waste on just one route on just one mountain in the entire world. Since poop on trails and mountains is not only unsightly but potentially dangerous, minimizing the impact of our human waste is of the utmost importance.
So, it’s important to follow human waste disposal rules at all times, even if it means a bit of extra work on your end.
Leave No Trace Principles
In addition to local rules and regulations, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (LNT) provides guidelines that outdoor enthusiasts should follow on every trip. LNT Principle number three – Dispose of Waste Properly – directly addresses the issue of pooping in the woods.
According to LNT, we should follow these guidelines (in addition to land manager regulations) for pooping in the woods:
- In forests and other suitable areas, always find a location 200 feet (60m) or more from water, trails, established campsites, and roads to dig a cathole 6-8″ (15.2-20.3 cm) deep. Always thoroughly cover the cathole with soil when you’re finished.
- Don’t bury or burn your menstrual hygiene products or any other garbage. Always pack it out. According to LNT, you can bury a small amount of toilet paper, but it’s really not recommended, especially in dry environments.
- Consider portable camp toilets and latrines when camping in a large group.
- Pack out your human waste on paddling and climbing (especially in popular areas) whenever possible.
As you can see, LNT’s guidelines for human waste disposal are very similar to local regulations. This is not a coincidence. Many land managers use LNT’s guidelines to create their own rules and regulations. However, you should always follow the local rules first and then implement LNT principles to lessen your impact on the environment.
How To Build A Camping Poop Kit
If you’re nervous about pooping outside, the key is to make the whole process as simple, convenient, and comfortable as possible. A lot of this can be accomplished simply by preparing ahead of time.
One of the easiest things you can do to prepare yourself adequately for outdoor pooping is to build a camping poop kit. Doing so will ensure that you have all of the tools you need to properly dispose of human waste in a way that is hygienic and adheres to local regulations.
But, the gear you need for building your camping poop kit will vary based on the type of outdoor activity you’re going. Here are some suggestions for what to pack:
Car Camping Kit
If you’re car camping, you probably have access to either a flushing toilet or some sort of outhouse/composting toilet. However, unless you’ve already been to that campground, you’ll need to assume that the facilities may not always be well-stocked with hygiene supplies.
When you head out on a car camping trip, you’ll want to pack the following:
- Toilet Paper. Never assume that the campground will be adequately stocked with toilet paper. Hopefully, there’s plenty of TP to go around, but you should always bring a roll, just in case.
- Soap & Hand Sanitizer. You’re honestly more likely to find toilet paper than soap or hand sanitizer in most campground bathrooms. Be sure to bring your own so you can stay clean and hygienic.
- Small Garbage Bag. Many composting toilets don’t have trash bins in them, so you may need to pack out any menstrual products and dispose of them elsewhere. So, pack a small garbage bag or a Ziploc bag so you can dispose of your waste properly.
Backpackers generally have to dig catholes to dispose of their human waste, so a backpacker’s poop kit will be a bit more involved than one you’d bring to an established campground. Additionally, if you’re backpacking, you won’t have running water or readily accessible garbage cans, so you need to be prepared to pack out all your waste and have a solution for washing hands.
We recommend packing your entire poop kit into a small stuff sack so you always have it ready to go. Here’s what you need to pack for a backpacking trip:
- Trowel. A compact trowel is a great tool for digging catholes. Sure, you could use a rock or a stick. But, if you really need to go, you don’t want to waste time searching for a digging tool when you could’ve just brought one with you.
- Biodegradable Soap. A small bottle of biodegradable soap is a must-have for staying clean outdoors. While you can also bring hand sanitizer, you should always clean your hands with good ol’ fashioned soap and water after going number 2.
- Drom. You’ll need to have water available to wash your hands after you do your business. You can always use your water bottle as a container, but hanging a small 2L drom from a tree is an easy and convenient way to create a mini-faucet for washing your hands.
- Toilet Paper. If you really want to use toilet paper when you’re outside, you’ll need to pack your own. It’s best to pack a half-used roll rather than a full one, as you’re unlikely to need that much. However, we strongly suggest using alternative wiping methods, which we’ll discuss in a bit.
- Plastic Bag. Anyone that plans to use toilet paper should strongly consider packing it out. To do so, you’ll want to bring a Ziploc bag to pack out your waste. This is also useful for packing out menstrual products. We recommend duct taping the outside of the bag to reinforce it and disguise the contents.
Since you don’t have to carry your gear on your back while paddling, you can afford to bring some luxury items on your trip. Generally speaking, a paddler’s poop kit will include everything that a backpacker would bring, especially for remote sea kayaking trips.
But, many popular rafting rivers now have strict requirements about packing out your human waste. So, using wag bags and portable camping toilets might be your best option. Here’s what you need to know:
Cleanwaste bags or “wag bags” as they are more commonly known are human waste disposal bags that can be used in nearly any location. “Wag bag” is actually an acronym, which stands for “Waste Alleviation and Gelling.” The name refers to the powdery substance (somewhat similar to kitty litter) that is used to neutralize the odors of human waste until it can be disposed of properly.
These days, you can buy premade wag bag kits that come with:
- Outer Ziploc-style bag
- Waste collection bag
- Waste treatment powder
- Toilet paper
- Hand sanitizer towelette
Pre-made wag bags are a bit more expensive, but they’re ideal for people that don’t want to do any prep work. All you need to do if you need to poop is open up the bag, do your business, and pack it out.
If you’d like to save a bit of money, you can always get the “toilet in a bag” version. This includes a set number of bags (usually 15) and a proportionate amount of the waste treatment powder.
When you get the toilet in a bag version, you simply need to open the waste collection bag and pour a bit of powder inside. Then, you can attend to your needs and tie the bag up.
The cheaper toilet in a bag model is ideal for use with a portable camping toilet. Additionally, this version is a great way to save money, especially if you’re going to pack out your waste in a “poop tube,” which prevents punctures to the bag and any subsequent accidents.
Portable Camping Toilets
Portable toilets are a simple way to add a bit of comfort and luxury to an outdoor adventure. While they’re too bulky and heavy to be practical for a backpacking trip, a portable camp toilet can be great for river rafting.
There are many different portable toilets out there, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Some, like this model from Cleanwaste, are really quite simple. They are basically just a toilet seat, where you can attach a wag bag to collect your waste.
Others, like this deluxe model, are much more complex and include a shelter that you can use to get a bit of privacy while doing your business.
How To Poop In The Woods
At this point, you should be quite well versed in the different rules, regulations, and guidelines that govern pooping in the woods. Additionally, you should be well aware of the gear you’ll need to ensure that your experience goes smoothly.
So, now it’s time to actually talk about how to poop in the outdoors.
Key Considerations For Pooping Outdoors
As soon as you get the urge to poop in the outdoors, your clock starts ticking. Pooping outside is a bit more involved than just walking to the bathroom, so it’s important that you are familiar with the process and all it entails before you have to do it for the first time. Here are some key things to consider when pooping outdoors:
- Have A Location In Mind. As soon as you get to camp, you should start scouting out the area. Think about the location of your tent, kitchen, and any nearby water. You’ll want to find a good pooping location that’s at least 200 feet (60m) from all three of these places. This can be tricky and stressful, especially if you really need to go. So, come up with some potential locations ahead of time.
- Keep Your Poop Kit Handy. Your backcountry poop kit should always be easily accessible so you can quickly scurry off to take care of your business. The very last thing you want is to be rifling through your backpack looking for your trowel when you really need to use the toilet.
- Don’t Forget About Bear Safety. If you’re hiking in bear country, you need to take the appropriate precautions, even if you’re pooping. This means taking your bear spray with you when you leave the rest of your group to poop.
- Beware Of The Bugs. Mosquitos and biting flies can be absolutely heinous, especially when you have to expose your buns and your legs while pooping. If the bugs are really bad, you’ll want to wear a head net to keep them off of your face as you use the toilet. In some instances, you may even want to wear liner gloves and a rain jacket to protect your hands and arms. When the bugs are really bad, you need to make things quick so you don’t expose any more skin than necessary.
Backpacking Toilet Paper Alternatives
The use of toilet paper is very common in many Western cultures. However, it isn’t very practical for use in the outdoors. Although LNT principles say it’s okay to bury a small amount of toilet paper in some environments, it’s really not ideal. No matter how well it’s buried, woodland creatures tend to dig up toilet paper and leave it strewn around the forest.
So, on your next backpacking trip, consider packing out your toilet paper or some of these great alternatives:
- Leaves. Leaves are a classic wiping material that’s usually pretty easy to find in a forest. Choose recently fallen, sturdy leaves that are big and broad. But, be cautious when choosing leaves. Some are poisonous or have toxins on them that can leave your rear end feeling a bit itchy and uncomfortable for days or weeks on end. Be sure that you don’t pull leaves off of a tree – just use whatever is already on the ground.
- Smooth Rocks. A nice, smooth rock can be a great wiping surface. But, you may want to quickly rinse the rock with water to remove any bits of dirt before you wipe.
- Snow. Snow is one of the best wiping materials around. It might sound cold, but snow helps give your bum a proper clean, which is ideal on longer trips. All you need to do is ball up some snow into a teardrop shape and use the larger end for wiping.
- Backcountry Bidet. The backcountry bidet is a simple method where you use your hand and some water to wipe your buns. This might sound totally gross, but if you wash your hands after, it’s as hygienic as any other method. Plus, you can even wash off with soap every few days to keep your rear end squeaky clean. To use this method, it’s best to hang up a drom from a tree and open the cap so it acts like a miniature faucet. Then, when you’re finished, you can easily wash your hands using your awesome pseudo-running water system.
Pooping In The Woods: A Step-By-Step Guide
Alright, now for your step-by-step guide. This is what you need to do to poop while camping using the cathole method:
- Get The Urge. As soon as you feel the urge to go, you need to start getting ready. Unlike at home, you can’t just dash into a bathroom if you need to use the toilet. Pooping outdoors takes a bit more prep work, so get started as soon as you feel the need to go.
- Gather Your Gear. Hopefully, your poop kit is very accessible and you can just grab it and go. Be sure to bring your bear spray with you if you’re traveling in bear country.
- Start Walking. With your gear in hand, start walking. You need to walk at least 200ft (60m) from water, trails, roads, and your camp, which is about 70-80 adult paces. If you plan to use natural wiping materials, you should gather them as you walk.
- Find A Good Spot. Once you walk at least 200ft (60m), you need to start scouting out potential locations. Look for somewhere that has deep organic soil that isn’t too rocky. Somewhere with boulders and trees to hang off of or lean on is also ideal.
- Dig A Cathole. As soon as you find your spot, start digging. You’ll need to dig a cathole that’s at least 6-8″ (15.2-20.3 cm) deep. The idea here is that you dig a hole deep enough to disguise your poop so no one else accidentally stumbles into it. Once you have your hole, place your trowel to the side with the rest of your poop kit.
- Set Up Your Gear. If it’s buggy or rainy out, you’ll certainly want to make this process smooth and efficient. To do so, you’ll set up your gear so it’s ready as soon as you need it. This involves hanging up your drom or opening your water bottle so you’re ready to wash your hands. You’ll also want to open your soap bottle and have your wiping materials ready to go.
- Squat And Aim. Once everything is ready, its time for you to do your business. Pull your pants down, squat over the hole, and aim accordingly. If you’re having trouble squatting, you can always try to lean on or hang off of a boulder or tree.
- Wipe. Wipe your buns using whichever materials you choose. If you’re using toilet paper, you can bury a small amount (not in a dry environment), but it’s best to pack it out. Natural wiping materials can be placed inside the hole along with your waste. Should you choose to use the backcountry bidet, you’ll just need to put water in your hand and wipe until you’re squeaky clean.
- Wash Your Hands. Before you touch anything, you need to wash your hands. Hand sanitizer is not sufficient here. Be sure to wash with soap and water and scrub thoroughly so your hands are clean.
- Disguise The Hole. For the final stage of this process, you’ll need to get a stick or a rock and pile some dirt into your cathole. Once you have a bit of dirt in the cathole, use the stick to mix in some dirt with your poop to help the decomposition process. Then, cover up the rest of the cat hole with plenty of dirt. The cathole should be disguised so well that it’s not noticeable to anyone passing by. Someone should be able to literally step on your cathole without anything gross happening. Once this is done, you can pack up your gear and head back to camp!
If local regulations require that you pack out your human waste, then your process is going to be slightly different. Here’s what you need to do:
- Get The Urge. As soon as you feel like you need to go, it’s time to start prepping.
- Grab Your Gear. Quickly collect your poop kit and one wag bag. Don’t forget to bring some hand washing supplies.
- Start Walking. Since you’re packing out your waste, you don’t have to walk 200 feet (60m) from camp, trails, and water, but it’s nice to have some privacy. So, walk a good distance away from camp and find a nice spot to take care of your business.
- Open The Wag Bag. If you have the premade wag bag kit, open it up to reveal the contents inside. Take the waste collection bag (which should already have powder in it) and set it up so it has a big opening to aim for. Place the other items nearby but make sure they won’t fly away. If you’re using a camp toilet, this process is much easier as you can just attach the bag to the toilet seat.
- Set Up Your Hand Washing Station. Hang a drom from a tree or open up your water bottle so you’re ready to wash your hands.
- Squat And Aim. Squat over the wag bag and aim accordingly. This can be tricky and awkward the first few times, but you’ll get the hang of it after a while.
- Wipe. Wipe with your toilet paper and dispose of it in the waste collection bag.
- Wash Your Hands. Before you start touching things, wash your hands with soap and water.
- Pack Up. Tie up the waste collection bag and place it inside the outer Ziploc bag. We recommend using a third bag or a poop tube to prevent any accidental punctures in your pack.
- Sanitize Your Hands. Then, take your hand sanitizer or the little hand sanitizer wipe from the wag bag kit and give your hands a final clean before heading back to camp.
- Dispose Of Waste Properly. Once you get back to the trailhead, you’ll need to find a way to dispose of your wag bags properly. Some popular trailheads have wag bag-specific garbage bins, but in most places, you can simply put the bags in a regular trash bin. If the bins are full, please take your wag bags elsewhere to prevent overflowing trash cans at trailheads.
Here are our answers to some of your most common questions about pooping outdoors:
Are bears attracted to human poop?
According to the National Park Service, bears are, indeed, attracted to human poop. This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to poop at least 200 feet from camp and trails. However, bears are going to be more attracted to your food than your cathole.
So, if you’re camping in bear country be sure that you’re both disposing of human waste properly and storing your food using a bear-resistant method.
Can I leave toilet paper in the woods?
Whether or not you should leave toilet paper in the woods is actually quite a contentious question. While LNT guidelines say that it’s okay – but not ideal – to bury your toilet paper, it’s really best to pack it out – especially in arid environments.
Although toilet paper does biodegrade over time, human poop attracts woodland critters who will then dig up the TP and spread it around the nearby area. This can be unsightly and unhygienic. So, sure, you can leave toilet paper in the woods, but packing it out is better for the environment.
How do you poop in a cathole?
Pooping in a cathole might sound a bit gross, but it’s really quite simple. Basically, you need to dig a hole 6-8″ (15.2-20.3 cm) deep, squat, and aim accordingly.
If you’re not used to squatting when you go to the toilet, you can try to lean or hang off of a boulder or tree. Then, when you’re all done, you need to disguise the cat hole by filling it back up with soil. Oh, and don’t forget to wash your hands before you head back to camp!
How long does it take for human poop to decompose?
It turns out that there’s not really an answer to this question besides “a long time.” In reality, the decomposition rate of fecal matter depends on your location. Human poop can decompose within a year or so if the environmental conditions are ideal. Particularly dry or excessively moist environments can significantly delay decomposition, sometimes for years, especially in the desert.
My recommended method…
Everyone has there preferences when it comes to pooping outside. However, when you spend weeks and weeks outside during a long backpacking trip, you really figure out a toilet system that works for you.
For me, the best toilet is a simple cathole, dug in soft soil that’s not too rocky. Ideally, my chosen toilet spot has a nice view, but you can’t always be too picky. My preferred method of wiping is the “backcountry bidet” method, since it involves no toilet paper, no potentially poisonous foliage, and leaves your buns feeling squeaky clean.
Personally, my backcountry poop kit always includes a 2L MSR DromLite, which I use for both wiping water and hand washing water. I always pack a small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap for handwashing and a bottle of hand sanitizer for that extra layer of hygiene.
But, what’s important here is that you find a system that works best for you. If you’re new to camping, you’ll find that your system will probably evolve over time, as you get more comfortable with pooping outdoors.
That being said, I strongly recommend that you find a way to reduce your reliance on toilet paper in the backcountry. Whether you choose to use natural wiping materials or the backcountry bidet method, freeing yourself from toilet paper will lessen your impact on the environment, which is better for all of us in the long run.
David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.