Toilet paper-less: My evolution in butt cleaning

When I began backpacking nearly twenty years ago, I used toilet paper exclusively for cleaning my butt after pooping, just like I did at home.

I’ve pooped outside thousands of times since then, and now prefer to do the exact opposite: I use no toilet paper at all. Instead, I rely on natural materials, a water bidet, and either soap or hand sanitizer.

My motivation for switching was partly environmental, as I no longer leave behind toilet paper in the backcountry (or have to pack it out, where required by land managers). But, mostly, I find that this approach is in my own best interests: my butt is substantially happier without toilet paper.

My personal journey

On my earliest trips I learned that toilet paper alone could not keep my anus area sufficiently clean: feces lingered, hair and sweat collected, and toilet paper shards stuck around (“dingleberries”). So regularly my butt would itch uncomfortably, smell unpleasantly, and chafe severely (“monkey butt“).

To get more graphic, I attribute my lack of cleanliness to a horrific case of folliculitis in August 2002 while I was finishing my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, when every hair follicle on my undercarriage became a painful white-headed pimple. I’ll spare you the photographic evidence. Thankfully that happened only once, but on my next long trip I recall feeling like a dog with bad fleas because I was scratching my ass so often.

So to supplement the toilet paper, I added baby wipes to my poop kit. They helped, though not completely, and I remained curious about better solutions.

Environmental considerations

All this time, I wasn’t thinking much about the impact of my toilet paper or baby wipes on the NPS, USFS, BLM, and state lands where I was backpacking. But in hindsight it was another unfortunate aspect.

I’m certain that some of my toilet paper became “Charmin blooms,” grossing out future visitors. And the plastic content of my baby wipes probably remains non-degraded in my catholes across North America from my Sea-to-Sea Route, Great Western Loop, and other hikes.

A disgraceful attempt to hide poop and toilet paper near Crater Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness

Discovery: The backcountry bidet

My backpacking experience was transformed by the backcountry bidet, which I learned from a young Scott Christy while on a NOLS instructor course in 2007. The itching, chafing, and odors decreased dramatically by washing my ass with soap and water, exactly like I would do in the shower at home. This was the missing ingredient to my cleaning routine.

But until last year the bidet was a standalone event for me, performed every day or two — it was not something that I did immediately after pooping. To wipe, I used natural materials and then 1-2 squares of toilet paper, a system that I found quick and fairly clean (and that had a relatively low environmental impact).

It was Flyin’ Brian Robinson who sold me on replacing toilet paper with the bidet. If the bidet achieved a better clean than toilet paper, and if the bidet is better for our backcountry areas, then why was I using toilet paper?

I couldn’t argue with his logic, and we agreed that squeamishness was not an acceptable justification. If I can wash my ass with my bare hand using water and soap in the shower, I can wash my ass with my bare hand using soap and water in the backcountry, too.


Plan B

As a backup, I still carry some toilet paper — “some,” as in about ten tiles for a week-long trip. It’s convenient for when I must poop but don’t have enough water (either for a bidet or to drink), on cold mornings when my hands would hate me for dousing them with ice water, and if my nose starts to bleed. But my goal is to finish the trip without using my stash — and I do, more often than not, making me wonder if I’m just packing my fears.

If you opt to carry toilet paper, please be responsible about it. Minimize your usage by supplementing it with natural materials (see Step 1 below), and plan to pack it out unless local land agencies have approved the burying or burning of it (increasingly uncommon).


Four steps to a toilet paper-less clean

Ready to take the plunge, or at least willing to try? Follow these steps:

Prerequisite: Poop

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of an older tutorial for more in-depth instructions. To summarize:

  • Wander far away from any spot where another hiker might want to camp, take a break, or even poop;
  • Confirm that you are far from water (generally, at least 200 feet);
  • Dig your hole in soft, biologically rich ground; and finally,
  • Squat, aim, and squeeze.
This sign near Upper Calf Creek Falls is meant for all the lazy poopers out there, who don’t wander far enough from water or from areas where others may want to rest or camp.

Step 1: Wipe with natural materials

This recommendation may sound really crunchy, but it’s also very effective. Nature provides us with some fantastic options, and they are essentially in infinite supply out there.

Natural materials probably get my butt 90 percent clean, leaving very little feces for the water bidet in Step 2.

By natural materials, I mean:

  • Sticks
  • Rocks
  • Leaves
  • Moss
  • Pine cones
  • Snow

Materials vary in their quality and also in their geographic and seasonal availability, and could probably be the subject of another post. For example, in Colorado one of my favorites is corn lily (featured in the header image), which has durable and mildly textured leaves. But it’s found only in riparian areas through early-summer, so other times I rely on sub-alpine fir cones, river rocks, and dead sticks at the base of lodgepole pines.

The ultimate natural material is snow, because it’s a twofor: it wipes and bidets at the same time. The snow composition must be conducive to making snowballs — blower powder does not work.

My cathole (in a composting log) and natural materials (a half-dozen snowballs) in Yosemite National Park

More tips about natural materials:

  • Avoid materials that are allergenic or spiky, like poison ivy or devils club. Duh!
  • Try to avoid materials that will leave behind an abrasive, like grit-covered rocks or sticks with flaky bark. The water bidet should clean this out, but it’s an unnecessary risk.
  • Sharp-edged materials like freshly broken rocks or pointy sticks need not be avoided, but greater care must be taken — don’t jab, just graze.

What to do with poop-covered materials?

Materials used for the first wipe or two should be buried with your poop. If your cathole is big enough you can bury the later materials, too, but I typically toss them around the area — they have very little feces on them, not enough to contaminate a faraway water source or to get a passerby’s attention.

Dead and de-barked sticks plus the water bidet and soap/sani.

Step 2: Perform the backcountry bidet

I’ve embedded two videos in this post that will give you an idea of how it’s done. Exact styles and preferences vary, and even my technique has changed some since the 2015 video, below. Specifically:

  • Step away from the hole so that you don’t step in your poop or trip.
  • Budget 16 ounces of water (half a quart, or about half a liter) for the bidet and hand-washing.
  • Get your shorts or pants out of the system by either removing them or by wearing them around your knees.
  • Instead of taking the cap off your bottle, simply loosen it, so that water can flow through the threads.

I find bidet attachments (like this one) unnecessary, and they’re less effective than direct scrubbing.

Soap is not a necessary part of the backcountry bidet, but some may enjoy the additional freshness. I’d recommend peppermint Dr. Bronner’s — it’s super concentrated and leaves the skin tingling.


Differences for women

The back-to-front nature of the water bidet poses UTI risks for women. So my female guides recommend:

  • Squatting extra low to prevent contamination; and,
  • Finishing with a wet wipe that was leftover from a face-wash the night before. This wet wipe must be packed out.

Step 3: Clean your hands

At the end of the bidet, you have a dirty hand and a clean hand. Before reaching for your trail mix, get both hands clean:

  1. One-hand wash your dirty hand with just water.
  2. Using your clean hand, pour hand sanitizer (good) or soap (best) into your dirty hand, and continue one-hand washing.
  3. Again using your clean hand, pour more hand sanitizer or soap into your dirty hand, and then two-hand wash. To get water into the system, place your water bottle between your knees, loosen the cap, and let water dribble out.

Step 4: Tell everyone you know how great it is

Don’t like finding toilet paper everywhere you go backpacking? Then educate your hiking friends to do it better. Pitch it as primarily being in their best interests, and secondarily as good for the environment.

Also, if anyone has a contact at The New York Times, I think this could be a provocative column.

Posted in , on July 7, 2021
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18 Comments

  1. CB on July 7, 2021 at 5:35 pm

    I care a lot about this topic because 1) hesitancy about lack of bathrooms stops a lot of people from trying backpacking (especially women), and 2) people leaving their toilet paper on the trails fills me with a fiery, passionate hatred for my fellow human beings. And I don’t want to be filled with hatred.

    Here are a few additional tips I’ve picked up over the years that may make the process more accessible for some folks:

    1) If you want to use toilet paper and or baby wipes, you should plan to pack it all out. An easy, non-gross way to do this is to just use doggy doo bags. Use as much TP and wipes as you’d like, drop them in a little pile, then pickup the pile with your doggy doo bag and tie it off , just like you would if you were picking up after your dog. Toss this in a zip lock as part of your bathroom kit. Is it the most light weight option? Certainly not, but it allows people to stay in their comfort zone without creating a disgusting, unhygienic mess for other hikers to have to endure. And if you are just doing a short trip (say a week or less) the added weight is really negligible if it makes you feel cleaner and more comfortable.

    2) If you desire a bidet attachment for your water bottle to get a bit more precision and water pressure, the best option IMO is to get one of these lab specimen washing bottles. The top is compatible with a smart water bottle, so all you need to do is put the top into your bathroom kit and you’ve got a luxury bidet ready to go. https://www.amazon.com/Economy-Bottle-Squeeze-Medical-Tattoo/dp/B00WTHLR18

    3) For ladies, get a kula cloth for your #1s. They are the most liberating thing ever. Best piece of gear I’ve bought in years.

    • Andrew Skurka on July 7, 2021 at 5:39 pm

      A second endorsement for the Kula cloth, at least based on the rave reviews from every female participant who has had one.

  2. Hunter Hall on July 8, 2021 at 6:35 pm

    I don’t even use toilet paper at home anymore. 🙂 #TMI? #bidet4eva

  3. Clement on July 9, 2021 at 4:57 am

    I would recommand taking fibers too, psilium is amazing for that, poop slide off cleanly, almost nothing to wash

  4. Mike G. on July 12, 2021 at 12:24 pm

    Hey Andrew,

    Great info and I’ll be trying this (and hopefully continuing to do this) from now on.

    Question for you, has your cat hole creation/selection process changed at all? Do you find a trowel useful or still unnecessary? In the eastern woodlands, I find some of the more biologically ideal places are also pretty dense with vegetation and roots and harder to dig through without a tool.

    • Andrew Skurka on July 12, 2021 at 4:41 pm

      Compared to those blog posts from a few years ago, my thoughts on site selection are still the same. Probably the best thing you can do for everyone else is to find a spot far away from where they might rest, camp, or try to poop.

      I don’t bring a trowel. I find soft ground instead (in the east, those would be beds of leaves or needles), and a spot that’s way out of the way so that even a “shallow burial” goes completely unnoticed.

  5. Stitch on July 17, 2021 at 8:20 pm

    Thank you, Andrew. Most bloggers and influencers don’t cover this topic as comprehensively as you have. I don’t know why. We all poop and understanding how to best mitigate your impact on the wilderness is fundamental advice. Like CB stated above, it angers me to see a mess of toilet paper on the trail. Hope others read this and heed your advice.

  6. Jim Carretta on July 18, 2021 at 12:12 am

    Have used TP maybe 3x in the past year (both home and camping). I just use a bicycle squeeze water bottle that has enough pressure to get the job done and the results are far cleaner than TP ever was. You have to linger and air dry though, but my hands never touch my butt. I fertilize the oak trees in my canyon and rarely poop indoors. For inclement weather or darkness, I’ve got the bicycle water bottle bidet routine mastered for indoor use. I’ll never go back to the traditional TP + wipe routine.

  7. Kelly on July 23, 2021 at 6:18 pm

    +2 for the Kula Cloth (coming from my daughter and myself)

    Andrew, and others that do the backcountry bidet – do you fully treat the water you’re using to wash? I’m thinking of stream or lake water that’s clear, but that I’d always filter/treat to wash.

    Thanks for the practical advice!

    • Andrew Skurka on July 25, 2021 at 9:39 pm

      No, no reason to use purified water for this.

    • Cameron on November 8, 2021 at 7:11 am

      On the topic of eco friendly pooping.

      If you’ve seen film Demolition Man, How would *you* use the 3 sea shells, Andrew?

      https://youtu.be/n7nFEnFtvCM

  8. Lowell on July 28, 2021 at 9:52 pm

    Perhaps the dirty hand is not so clean, even after using soap. Why not bring along a sturdy surgical glove to wear over the hand that is doing the final cleaning? After use the glove can be cleansed with soap and then removed to be used again and again and your skin does not come into contact with feces.

    • Matt on August 8, 2021 at 5:08 pm

      How are you going to clean the glove–with another glove? I think it’s better to just get to it and clean your hand well.

      • Lowell Kleinman on August 8, 2021 at 5:20 pm

        One hand cleansing for the gloved hand. It’s not a perfect solution, but I seriously wonder how clean an ungloved hand can get without lots of soap and running water. It doesn’t take many bacteria to cause a problem, just look at what happens in schools due to fecal oral bacteria transmission.

        I am in the medical field, so I am having a hard time not being skeptical about this idea.

        I suppose someone could culture Andrew’s hands 🙂

  9. jon on October 14, 2021 at 10:25 am

    Preface: I could very well be wrong about what plant those leaves are from.

    The larger leaves in the thumbnail picture (with water bottle on the right) appear to be from either green false hellbore (veratrum virde) or some sort of cypripedium lady slipper orchid. Both of these plants are poor candidates for toilet paper.

    – Green false hellbore is toxic, and can cause naseua, vomiting, and hypotension if taken internally. Whether this would apply to brief rectal administration I do not know, but not something I would want to risk.

    – While the fuzzy leaves of a giant yellow lady slipper could probably give Charmin a run for their money, lady slippers are endangered in many parts of the US, and, afaik it is not legal to pick them on any federal land.

    • jon on October 14, 2021 at 10:30 am

      I am very smart and skimmed right over the part where you said what kind of leaves those are. Delete all this plz.

      • Andrew Skurka on October 14, 2021 at 10:40 am

        You were not the first and you won’t be the last person to have skipped over that, so I’ll address it here, too.

        * Corn lily has a very specific toxin, known only to be problematic for pregnant female livestock that eat it. Based on how often I have used this for TP, and on reports from many others having done the same thing, with no ill effects, I’m going to keep using it. As TP, the transmission mechanism is broken; and as a male, I’m not worried about being pregnant.

        The other leaves in that image are white marsh marigold, which I find in Colorado lining alpine streams.

  10. Gregg Lind on October 20, 2021 at 8:05 am

    I love this article.

    I have found portable “universal bidet nozzles” to be a *very welcome* addition to the trail.

    Echoing CB’s comment above, here is a 2nd option for universal sprayer attachments that fit easily onto a standard screwtop bottleL https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08T9V47F7
    ^ These are 1 ounce each, and pretty indestructible.

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