How to Poop In the Woods: Etiquette for Camping Without a Bathroom
It can be overwhelming to navigate camping without amenities we take for granted in our everyday lives. Backcountry camping, thru-hiking, overlanding… however you camp, whatever you call it, doesn’t have to be overshadowed by a lack of running water. The absence of creature comforts helps many campers focus on their surroundings and better connect with nature.
While there aren’t porcelain toilets waiting for you behind that tree up ahead, you can’t just go anywhere you please. The best thing you can do to prepare for camping without a bathroom is to educate yourself, now. There are protocols and regulations regarding the disposal of human waste, and they help keep our wild spaces wild (and safe).
The Method to the Madness: How To Make Cat Holes, Latrines, and Pack It Out
Latrines: Especially in inclement weather, with large groups, or camping with children, this variation of the traditional cat hole comes in handy. Rather than digging a separate hole each time you need to relieve yourself, dig a trench at least 6 inches deep, and a few feet in length. Whenever someone uses the latrine, they should choose a spot at one end or the other, then cover it with the original soil the same as they would a cat hole. This allows you to dig just once, and create a dedicated location for the group to use any time it’s needed.
Bottle Method: This only applies to certain situations, but some folks like to use a bottle when nature calls in the night, or on the trail mid-hike. It can certainly save you a great deal of hassle not climbing out of your tent in the dark to tinkle by starlight. Pack a spare water bottle, or two, and label them very clearly. You do not want them to be mixed up with the one you drink from. Use a wide-mouth bottle for this purpose, so it can be generous enough for campers of any age or gender. Once it’s full, empty the bottle in a location meeting the same criteria as a cat hole: at least 200 feet from campsites or bodies of water to reduce impact and contamination.
Packing It Out: To be honest, this means exactly what it sounds like. Pack it (waste) out with you. If you’ll be camping somewhere that does not allow cat holes, you will need to pack your own waste into a container (whether a bag or bucket) to dispose of in an appropriate fashion after you get home. Some like to use a simple 5-gallon bucket with a lid to keep things clean and odor-free, some use zip-top bags, camp toilets, or wag bags. We’ll talk more about extra gear like wag bags later, but remember that packing it out also applies to pet waste, toilet paper, and feminine hygiene products. While it is common practice to bury toilet paper when making cat holes, we do not recommend it. Pack out any toilet paper in an air-tight container and take it with you to dispose of when you return to civilization.
Know Before You Go: 7 Things To Consider Before Nature Calls
1. TREAD Principles: Without responsible recreation, our favorite parks, trails, and rivers can be closed to the public. Familiarize yourself with TREAD Principles to understand best practices and model appropriate behavior, ensuring our wild spaces can continue to be accessible.
2. Rules and Regulations: It is not uncommon for parks to have their own rules for waste disposal due to heavy traffic. Many parks are experiencing record levels of visitation. There’s only so much room to bury waste in the wild. If you know your destination ahead of time, review what’s expected to prevent surprises.
3. Environment: It’s important to remember that cat holes only work if there is some level of moisture in the soil, allowing bacteria to do what it does best. Conditions may be much dryer in deserts or areas of high elevation and create an environment where your waste does not decompose but remains in the soil like a time capsule of your camping trip. No one wants that.
4. Weather: If you’re camping in a shoulder season like spring or summer, it’s possible that rain and snow are in the forecast. Inclement weather not only impacts the difficulty of things like digging a cat hole (it’s much harder to dig into frozen soil) but the likelihood of whether burying your waste impacts groundwater.
5. Pests: Don’t squat directly into or over the brush. You could find yourself with any number of hitchhikers once you button up your trousers, including ticks.
6. Toilet Paper: A humble luxury. Avoid relying on the chance there will be leaves nearby for you to use instead of toilet paper. For one, if you’re camping in an unfamiliar area, you don’t know if the native vegetation may be poisonous. Maybe you mistakenly grab a handful of leaves and they’re not the plant you thought they were - we’ll let your imagination take you to the logical conclusion. Two, plants surrounding your campsite may not be in leaf at the time of year you visit. Deciduous plants drop leaves in the autumn, and you may find only pine needles or rocks in arm’s reach. Aside from how uncomfortable it would be to use a fistful of pine needles, it wouldn't be very effective. Pack toilet paper, and pack it out when you leave camp. This will minimize your impact on the environment. Even under the best of circumstances, toilet paper can take more than a month to break down.
7. Your Own Comfort Level: It’s normal and expected that you may be uncomfortable with certain methods of waste management. You’re not alone! But you should decide before your trip what your comfort level is with regard to burying your waste vs packing it out.
Keep It Clean: Hygiene and Miscellaneous Gear
1. Washing Up: The simplest solution is hand sanitizer. If you’re feeling old-fashioned, you can wash your hands with soap and water, but this should still take place at least 200 feet from a water source to prevent contamination from soap and bacteria. A bit trickier to manage, though it’s not too difficult. Add a bottle of water and a biodegradable/camp soap into your latrine kit and you’re good to go.
2. Wag Bags: These aren’t an obscure brand of poop bags for dogs, but they aren’t very far from that either. WAG means Waste Alleviation and Gelling. A wag bag contains a specialized powder that gels on contact with waste and neutralizes odor. Similar to using a cat hole, you want to find a discrete place to do your business, then squat over the bag and seal it up when you’re done. Depending on the brand, there is typically enough gelling powder to use a wag bag 3-4 times. They’re also designed with a double bag system to keep everything locked up tight. Once you get home, wag bags can safely and legally be disposed of in the trash.
3. Camp Toilets: Short of indoor plumbing, these are as good as it gets in the backcountry. If you don’t want to dig cat holes, and there’s room in your car or van for a portable toilet, it just might be worth it. They’re easy to use and maintain, and some camp toilets even flush! They can take a few different shapes and sizes, so we’ll leave you to do your own research. Camco and Cleanwaste Go Anywhere are the category leaders.
4. FUDs: Female Urination Devices are meant to be a convenience, but they’re one more thing to carry around, clean, and pack out. If you’re curious enough to explore FUDs, try them at home before your trip so you can feel confident using one when camping. Accidents happen. The shower is a great place to practice.
5. Bandanas and KULA Cloths: Like anything else, pee rags are a different comfort level from toilet paper, but they have less impact due to their reusable nature. Many female campers swear by KULA cloths because they are made with silver-infused textiles and are antibacterial. They also have a backpack snap to allow them to hang dry as you go about the rest of your adventuring. Bandanas aren’t specially engineered for this use, but work just as well on occasion. Both should be washed with soap and water as often as you have the opportunity to do so. If you’re worried about the level of cleanliness washing by hand, hanging the rag to dry in the sun will help sterilize.
While it doesn’t make for polite conversation, hopefully, this has offered helpful insights into camping without a bathroom. We want you to embark on your adventures with confidence, and a lack of facilities shouldn’t be a reason to spoil your plans. That’s it. That’s all there really is to know. Tell your friends, and watch your step.