Top

How to poop in the outdoors || Part 2: Digging catholes & rolling rocks

The first step in pooping in the outdoors is finding a good location. Site selection was discussed in-depth in Part 1. But to quickly refresh, high quality pooping spots will be:

  • At least 200 feet away from water,
  • Inconspicuous,
  • Biologically rich, and
  • Conducive to a cathole.

The next step is creating a hole. Notice my use of the word “create,” not “dig.” If you are willing to carry a five-pound pick mattock, you can dig a proper cat hole almost anywhere. An ice axe is quite effective, too, but on very few backpacking trips is one actually needed.

Backpackers must be prepared for scenarios besides wonderfully soft ground.

Digging

Soft ground is ideal, because it’s easy to dig a proper cathole six to inches deep, and because soft ground usually has more existing biological activity than hard-packed earth.

Sand or alluvial deposits are notable exceptions — the soils are soft but relatively sterile. If it’s the best you have, go with it. But a “shallow grave” in a sunny location is actually best in these locations. Biological activity won’t neutralize the poop, but the sun will.

Some backpackers carry a Deuce of Spades Potty Trowel or similar. To me, this seems like feel-good-about-myself gear. If the ground is soft enough for a 0.6-oz spade, it’s probably soft enough for a trekking pole tip or the back of a heel, too, especially if there are nearby loose materials with which the hole can be buried further, i.e. a four-inch hole plus two new inches of leaf cover = a textbook six inches.

I have dug catholes into many fallen tree trunks, which are soft and biologically rich.

I have dug catholes into many fallen tree trunks, which are soft and biologically rich.

Rolling a rock

In arid and rocky areas, soft ground may be impossible to find. And no ultralight trowel will break through hard sun-baked alpine tundra or a drought-stricken hardpan meadow.

In this scenario, the best strategy is to:

  • Roll a rock;
  • Poop in the hole, or poop nearby and relocate it (along with any TP) into the hole afterwards; and,
  • Roll the rock back into place.

Unless I can hold it until reaching a lusher area, rolling a rock is a good option. But I’m not in love this this method:

  • The soil underneath the rock normally seems light on biological activity.
  • Insects or rodents often live underneath these rocks.
  • In popular areas, there is a high risk of being surprised(!) by what’s already underneath the rock. If that rock looked good to you, it probably looked good to someone else, too.
A rolled rock at 11,500 feet in the Colorado Rockies. To dig a cathole in this hardpan, you'd need a 5-lb pick mattock.

A rolled rock at 11,500 feet in the Colorado Rockies. To dig a cathole in this hardpan, you’d need a 5-lb pick mattock.

Stomping a platform

In deep snowpack, it is not practical to bury poop in the ground. Instead, focus on the location: stay away from where water will pool or flow when the snow melts, and where other backcountry users will travel for the remainder of the winter and the spring.

In non-weight-bearing snow, I find it useful to stamp out a platform so that I can step out of my skis or snowshoes to do my business. Before I leave, I kick snow over my platform. The one-way tracks and buried platform should make it obvious to any other backcountry user that they should not go digging in this area.


Disclosure. I hope this post was informative. It contains a few affiliate links, which help to support this website.

8 Responses to How to poop in the outdoors || Part 2: Digging catholes & rolling rocks

  1. Russell October 8, 2016 at 7:48 am #

    Great series on an important topic. In a few weeks I’m doing a four-day trek in an area that requires packing out all human waste. I already have my wag bags ready, and this will be my first time using them. Using them is intuitive enough, but I wonder if you or your other commenters here might address the awkward art of hauling your own poop around for several days. I’m smart enough to know to keep the bags separated as much as possible from your gear (and food!), but any other helpful hints would be appreciated! (And, do they REALLY help control odor like the marketing material says?)

  2. Hikin Jim October 9, 2016 at 10:02 am #

    I question whether counting leaf litter as part of one’s 6 inches is really adequate. Is not the idea to bury deep enough where it won’t be exhumed easily by weather or mice? Leaf litter seems ill suited for those purposes.

    But I get it. I’ve camped at 12,000 + feet before. Sometimes you just do the best you can.

    HJ

  3. Hikin Jim October 9, 2016 at 10:20 am #

    And I guess I’d question whether or not one’s heel or trekking pole tip is really going to dig more than a shallow scrape. To really dig a hole adequate for keeping poop buried against weather and mice, I think one needs something more scoop like. A snow stake has been my tool of choice for the last ten years. Pretty light, reasonably good for scooping out a whole, and of course you can use it as a stake.

    HJ

  4. Inga Aksamit October 10, 2016 at 10:21 am #

    Andrew, this is such an important topic and one that is being discussed all over hiking Facebook Groups because of the profusion of toilet paper in the wilderness. I’m glad you took the time to create this video but I have to take exception with a couple of points. Though I know you delineated high use vs low use and mentioned wet areas where things decompose, too many people are not paying ANY attention to LNT principles and we’re finding gobs of TP right on the trail or inches from the trail, not 200 feet away, not buried 6 inches and not one square of paper. The other issue is the ability to dig a proper cathole with the edge of your boot. On a multi-day trip that might be possible some of the time but everyone should carry a trowel for those other days when the soil is very compacted. People look to you as a role model so I wish you had demonstrated use of a trowel instead of your boot and emphasized packing it out. This has become such a big issue that I’ve created a Facebook Group called “Let’s Get TP Out of the Backcountry” so people can learn about different ways to manage human waste. https://www.facebook.com/groups/1247019845360516/ #packitout

  5. Phil October 12, 2016 at 5:32 pm #

    I second the trowel for LNT purposes…a boot tears up more ground while the Deuce or other trowel can cut a clean “plug” that can be replaced and made to look like noone was there for the most part. Tearing up a rotting log is also quite noticeable. Otherwise, great advice and series of articles.

    • Andrew Skurka October 12, 2016 at 5:48 pm #

      If I’m pooping in a spot that someone else may come up on, I did a poor job in selecting my spot.

      Where I try to poop, no one will come up on the site for at least a season. My effect on a rotting log or some pine duff will be long gone.

      In higher use areas, some additional precautions may be warranted.

  6. Doug K October 21, 2016 at 10:43 am #

    on solo trips, I carry a weeder like this,

    https://radiusgarden.com/products/ergonomic-weeder

    10oz, and it’s strong enough to gouge a hole in most anything. Used TP gets carried out in a ziplock.

    This works for small parties too, but usually burn the TP in the hole if possible, as some folks have higher TP needs than me.
    For Scout trips, there is plenty of unskilled labor available, so set the boys to constructing a BIF (bathroom in the forest) – a couple of deep holes, more dug as needed, each surrounded by rocks and moss for extra comfort. TP is burnt.

  7. Old Vagabond January 4, 2017 at 11:39 am #

    Use a spray bottle with warm water and use it like a bidet. The bottle should be small of course and it works better if it has a tube and then a nozzle. Amazon has one called the smart fresh…but there many travel bidets for sale. Once you rinse a very small piece of paper can be used…one or two squares. Look…if you get a bit of poo on your hands…wash them. After all you should do that anyway. Dig you cat hole and place some leaves or decaying matter in there first, do your business and then cover with a natural enzyme (for arid areas) and then some green stuff..green leaves. Cover it with the soil you dug out to make the hole. You can buy packets of enzymes at any RV store and even Home Depot has them. It will help start the decomposition much faster. Since you are not using a lot of paper (1 or 2 people) putting it in the hole is fine. If you are with a larger group you can make a tiny fire pit and burn the paper.

    If you don’t like carrying out your own poo, then for god’s sake do not go into those areas. If you see people leaving a mess…use your phone and take a picture and report it. That…is the ONLY way people like that will learn.

Leave a Reply