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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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:
- Pine cones
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.
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.
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:
- One-hand wash your dirty hand with just water.
- Using your clean hand, pour hand sanitizer (good) or soap (best) into your dirty hand, and continue one-hand washing.
- 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.