There are a lot of questions that beginner backpackers have. We were all beginners once, and we all had to learn a vital skill: how to poop in the woods.
When I talk about backpacking (to a meetup group, outfitter backpacking class, or just curious bystanders), I am often asked about going to the bathroom. People are usually shy or reserved when asking the question, so I always make sure to give them a straight answer. They may not have the nerve to ask someone else!
If you have any questions that I didn’t answer, comment on this post or send them to me via the contact link and I’ll be sure to update the article.
Question #1: How do you poop in the woods?
Answer: Much like you do at home – squat. It does get a bit more complicated outdoors, though. Make sure you are off trail as far as you can go, away from camp, and away from any water sources. First, you’ll want to dig a cathole. (The Art of Manliness website has a great step-by-step illustration.) I don’t carry a trowel because it’s unnecessary weight; I just use a nearby stick or rock or my trekking pole. As a nice bonus and trail etiquette, mark your covered cathole with an upright stick. It can prevent others from digging in the same spot, which is not a pleasant experience. And remember to bring along your hand sanitizer.
Question #2: But what if it’s an emergency and I don’t have time to dig a cathole?
Answer: These things happen. If you don’t have time to dig a cathole, go ahead and do your business (still try to make it as far off trail as you can). When you are finished, dig a cathole next to your waste. Using nearby sticks, move your toilet paper and waste into the hole, and cover it.
Question #3: Can I bury toilet paper in the cathole, or do I have to pack it out?
Answer: That depends where you are and the regulations for waste disposal in the area. Out West in high-use areas, you often need to pack out your waste and toilet paper. If you are in an environment with soil that is moist enough to decompose your biodegradable toilet paper, it is fine to put it in the cathole. If you are using a toilet paper like Charmin or Cottonelle, you need to pack that out because it won’t decompose quickly. Also, all feminine hygiene products and baby wipes need to be packed out. NEVER try to burn toilet paper, hygiene products, or baby wipes in the campfire. If you are worried about odors, crush up some aspirin and put them in the bag to help fight the smell. Make sure the waste bags are hung in/along with your bear bag(s) at night.
Question #4: How do I pee in the woods?
Answer: I only get this question from women, since men basically pee in the woods like they do all the time. I have done it since I was a little kid (growing up on a farm comes in handy sometimes), so I don’t give it much thought. Many women, however, are modest or shy; you have to get over that if you’re going to live in the woods. Some women pee standing up by using a female urination device like the pStyle or GoGirl. I’ve used a pStyle before, and while I see the allure of not having to drop trou, it’s just not worth the hassle of cleaning it, storing it, hanging it with the bear bag at night, etc. Plus, if you mess up even a little bit, you’ve peed your pants. It’s a lot easier to just lower your pants, squat (make sure you are far back enough so that you don’t get your shoes or pants wet), and go. If you use toilet paper, either dig a cathole and bury it, or pack it out. Many women on trail use a pee cloth. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You can make one from a bandana. When you are done with it, clip it to your pack. It will dry quickly, and the sun helps disinfect it. REI’s blog has a great article about peeing in the woods as well. Check it out.
Question #5: What happens if someone sees me in the woods?
Answer: Then they see you in the woods. It’s good trail etiquette that when you see an unattended pack alongside the trail, just walk straight on and don’t scan the woods, because someone is probably taking a bio break. Sometimes you may see someone in the woods; just keep walking, even if you made eye contact. And if someone walks up on you? You can either chose to ignore them, or if it’s super awkward, embrace the situation and wave. I once had a mom, dad, and little boy round a corner and surprise me. (In the winter, there are no leaves on the trees, so even far off trail you are pretty visible.) The little boy pointed at me and told his parents I was there. I smiled and waved. So it goes.
Question #6: How do I use the privy?
Answer: This may seem like a simple question, but there can be a lot of confusion the first time you use a privy (outhouse). First, don’t pee in the privy. Pee in the woods. On the Appalachian Trail, the majority are moldering privies. Urinating in these privies can mess up the moisture balance needed for decomposition, and it also worsens the smell. After you use the privy, make sure you pack out any non-biodegradable toilet paper, hygiene products, and wet wipes. Before you leave, throw a few handfuls of dry duff or leaves in the privy to help decomposition. Sometimes there is a bucket in the privy with duff/leaves. If it’s empty, be a pal and go on a quick refill trip in the surrounding woods.
(Note: the featured image of the super fancy privy was taken on the A.T., but it was the nicest one. The others look nothing like this. Trust me.)
Extra tip: Storing toilet paper
Store your biodegradable toilet paper in a ziploc bag and keep it in an easily-accessible pocket in your pack. If it rains (and it will rain) and your don’t have your TP protected, you will end up with a very wet, unusable clump instead of a nice roll. Also, there’s no need to bring an entire roll. Buy a cheap roll (Scott TP in a single roll is usually easy to find in gas stations, grocery stores, etc.) and pull out the cardboard tube. Take about half the roll out, and give the other half to a friend.