Top

How to poop in the outdoors || Part 1: Site selection

Like real estate, pooping outdoors is all about location, location, location.

Conventional wisdom mostly skips over this aspect, and puts more emphasis on the cathole — you know, the perfect 8-inch pit that, like the perfect bear hang, is much easier to draw than to accomplish in the field. By finding a good pooping location, more liberties can be taken with the cathole and the method of toilet paper (TP) disposal.

Like a bear hang, a perfect cathole is easier to draw than to execute in the field. Copyright: Leave No Trace, North American Skills & Ethics Booklet

Like a bear hang, a perfect cathole is easier to draw than to execute in the field. Copyright: Leave No Trace, North American Skills & Ethics Booklet

Distance from water

To avoid the contamination of water sources, poop at least 200 feet away from water. Over this distance, any harmful contaminants should be filtered out by the soil. Account for perennial and seasonal flows, especially in arid areas and in the wintertime.

Of course, all 200-foot lengths are not created equal. Two-hundred feet of imporous granite or slickrock sandstone will not filter contaminants as well as two-hundred feet of sand or forest duff.

Judy Springs in Seneca Backcountry, WV. Notice the toilet paper on this side of the boulder. I did not dig around to find what may have been under the leaves.

Judy Springs in Seneca Backcountry, WV. Notice the toilet paper on this side of the boulder. I did not dig around to find what may have been under the leaves.

Inconspicuous

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matt. 7:12).

It’s f’ing gross to find poop and toilet paper left behind by another backcountry user. Break the cycle by pooping in an inconspicuous spot where someone else will not want to:

  • Camp,
  • Rest,
  • Fill up water bottles, or
  • Poop.

If you needed another reason to seek out five-star campsites, here it is: the outskirts of high-use camping areas are land-mined with poop. If you would like to find the highest concentrations, follow one of of the “poop trails” that lead conveniently into the woods around camp.

Exposed decomposing toilet paper, aka "Chamin bloom," on the outskirts of a popular camp in the High Sierra.

Exposed decomposing toilet paper, aka “Chamin bloom,” on the outskirts of a popular camp in the High Sierra.

Biologically rich

Where possible, select a location with existing biological activity, like the decomposition of evergreen needles, wood, and leaves. Poop and toilet paper will break down faster in such conditions.

In the East and Pacific Northwest, such spots abound. They are more limited in the semi-arid Mountain West and especially the arid Southwest. Do what you can.

Conducive to a hole

Your crap should have an earthen home. Select a site where this is viable.

Smearing, or the technique of “buttering” your poop on a sunny surface like slickrock, is no longer supported by Leave No Trace. Poop does decompose more quickly when it’s exposed to air and sunlight, but those advantages are overshadowed by water contamination and aesthetic concerns. Imagine, for example, if smearing were done regularly by John Muir Trail thru-hikers or boy scouts at Philmont Scout Ranch.

The practice is discouraged, but out of curiosity I experimented with smearing in a remote location in southern Utah. When I returned to the site four days later, the poop was baked to a crisp and presumably sterilized by the intense sun.

The practice is discouraged, but out of curiosity I experimented with smearing in a remote location in southern Utah. When I returned to the site four days later, the poop was baked to a crisp and presumably sterilized by the intense sun.

13 Responses to How to poop in the outdoors || Part 1: Site selection

  1. Ben October 6, 2016 at 6:29 pm #

    Was a little thrown by using your hand for the bidet. Have you run into problems with getting leftover poop caked in the cracks in your fingers? (I frequently get back from trips with dirt caked into my hands, which takes thorough hand washing to remove, more than just purrell). Easy fix would be to use a wetwipe as a barrier, I was just wondering if you’ve ever had any sanitation issues or if purrell ends up being enough even without a wetwipe.

    • Andrew Skurka October 6, 2016 at 6:35 pm #

      Unless you are a really poor wiper and unless you scratch (instead of scrub or rub) during the bidet, I think it’s unlikely that you’ll get any meaningful amount of feces under your fingernails. If you do, the hand-sanitizer should take care of it, if you use it appropriately.

      I have no record of any health problems related to my sanitation habits or those of my clients.

  2. Jarrett October 7, 2016 at 7:23 am #

    Great tip, I’m down with a bidet backcountry or any where

    Another poop thing, I find it flustering when someone takes the time to bag their dog’s poop, but leaves it laying in the ground.
    While less likely the more remote the trail people just need to commit to packing it out or burying it.

    • Jamie October 17, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

      It is annoying, but some dog owners do retrieve their poop bags on their way out. I think it’s mostly just a method to avoid having a daypack full of dog crap… of course, I’ve definitely seen poop bags that have obviously been left for many weeks. Not cool.

  3. Patrick October 7, 2016 at 7:54 am #

    Do the toilet papers or camping wipes that advertise themselves as “biodegradable” need to be packed out? Do the latter substitute for the backcountry bidet?

    • Andrew Skurka October 7, 2016 at 8:06 am #

      “Biodegradable” toilet paper reminds me of “gluten-free” apple juice — of course it is.

      Wet wipes are usually not though, so they must be manufactured differently, without plastic.

      In either case, “biodegradable” implies no sense of time. I am sure in the desert both products are fossilized like any normal TP.

      Re the bidet, I would not consider wipes to be a perfect substitute. Better than TP alone, but not as clean as bidet clean.

    • J Ramos October 7, 2016 at 12:54 pm #

      These biodegradable products are designed with landfills in mind, not backcountry use. Yes, pack them out, please, if you use them. I think there are some areas where it’s ok to bury them but that’s a judgment call based on environment, traffic, and location…it’s easy to just pack it out, though, and usually the best choice overall once you overcome the aversion factor.

      • Andrew Skurka October 7, 2016 at 7:30 pm #

        In total agreement here.

  4. Matt October 7, 2016 at 8:20 am #

    I’ve been on some desert trips, and people typically burn their TP rather than pack it out. What are your thoughts on that? It smells bad for a few minutes, but as long as you’re careful not to start a fire it seems better than packing it out.

    Do you use purified water for the backcountry bidet, or is it safe enough to use unfiltered water? If the bottle is used for anything else it might matter, but I normally use a Sawyer Mini filter, so I carry dirty water and filter it as I drink. The bottle could also be sanitized with chemical purification or a Steripen if you wanted to use it for clean drinking water at some point.

  5. Michael October 7, 2016 at 9:50 am #

    RE: dirt caked into my hands
    – wash your hands with soap and some sand before going to sleep and use some hot water if you can afford extra fuel for this.

    RE: burning toilet paper
    – it never burns completely because part of it is wet from poop. The only way to burn it completely is in good campfire.

    • Andrew Skurka October 7, 2016 at 10:03 am #

      Disagree about it burning. If you only use it at the end for some polish as I do, it is mostly an “air wipe” and it will burn completely. If you use TP start to finish, yes, burning it completely takes more heat.

      • J Ramos October 7, 2016 at 1:01 pm #

        I think it’s a moot point mostly affecting aesthetics. Complete or partial burn, it’s the poo itself that is the environmental concern. I don’t know if the miniscule amount of ash left behind would affect anything one way or the other in the hole, but likely not. On one hand it’s nice not to see any white tp leftovers but on the other hand it’s a convenient warning if you happen to stumble across a pre-owned location. Burn if you like and if it’s safe to do so – better yet just pack it out.

  6. Rick Shelton October 9, 2016 at 7:33 am #

    I think diet needs some discussion. I’ve found that having adequate fiber and staying hydrated aids in clean up after BMs, usually just a light wipe with very little material. “Cutting it clean” is actually a good sign of proper diet and hydration. Conversely, letting yourself get “bound up” requires considerable effort to not only having a proper BM, but the “smear fest” that inevitably follows.

Leave a Reply