Outdoor Skills + Advice: Leave No Trace Meets the Outdoor Outhouse
By Contributing Writer Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, faculty member and Diversity + Inclusion Manager at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS); photograph by Kevin Bergstrom/NOLS
There's nothing like enjoying the breathtaking beauty of a scenic landscape only to be interrupted by a pile of poo and crumpled up toilet paper at your feet.
How many times have you thought about not following the rules? How many times has the little devil on your shoulder said, "go ahead, once won't hurt." Well, imagine everyone doing it just once, and you'll quickly realize that's a lot of little devils. It's not a pretty subject, but it's one to get right: Here’s our little primer on how to poop in the woods for those of you who are a little hesitant (or absolutely petrified) about the prospect.
Step 1: Go When You Feel the Desire.
Don’t wait just because you dread the thought of having to do it, or because you’re embarrassed, or because you’re too busy trying to bag a peak. Holding it in can cause any number of backcountry medical ailments, from a simple case of constipation and discomfort to something as major as fecal impaction (If you don’t know what that is, look it up. It ain’t pretty.)
Step 2: Discuss It With A Friend.
Don’t be afraid to wake up your tentmates to let ‘em know you’re taking a little trip, and maybe ask one of them to turn on a headlamp to light your way back home. You don’t want to be that guy who had an unexpected bivouac 20 feet from his tent because he got lost while pooping.
Step 3: Don’t Forget Your Digger, Dr. Bronners, and Drencher/Debris.
In a pinch, you can McGeyver-ize with any number of backcountry implements, including pine cones, snow, rocks, and even twigs, but why be uncomfortable? I always take a trowel to dig, Dr. Bronner’s for Step 9, and a hydration pack to use the “Drench” method of cleaning (water always cleans best!). Others recommend debris like the soft petals of Balsamroot.
Step 4: Walk the Distance.
Move 200 feet (or about 70 paces) from your water source, your tent, and your kitchen. Look back every few steps so you can figure out how to get back to your camp.
Step 5: Dig!
In the Wind River Range ecosystem, we are advised to dig six to eight inches to allow for adequate decomposition. In desert ecosystems, which rely more on UV radiation than bacteria, four inches will suffice. A fellow NOLS instructor always tells her students to dig until they can fit their Nalgene bottle in the hole. If you don’t have time to dig, use the “golfball” method. Go first, dig later, putt it in.
Step 6: Dook!
Need I say more?
Step 7: Decompose!
This is the gross part, but vital to adequate decomposition. Throw leaves, twigs, and any organic matter you can find in the hole and mix it around until you make a “poop soup.” A recent study by the University of Utah showed that failure to make a poop soup resulted in some poop languishing in the same hole a year later, looking like it was deposited there just yesterday!
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Step 8: Disguise.
So that you don’t attract other animals or offend other backcountry travelers, cover your hole up and disguise it. Leaves, twigs, and rocks can help. Nothing to see here folks, move it along!
Step 9: Disinfect.
Most backcountry illnesses come from lack of proper hygiene. Take some soap with you and wash thoroughly after pooping, especially if you use the drenching method to clean yourself. Remember that it is the friction that removes most of the organic debris, not the chemicals, so rub those hands together and clean under your fingernails.
Step 10: Debrief.
There’s nothing like a successful poop in the woods. In the backcountry, it makes for great conversation and brings levity to the direst of situations. So when you’re done, go back to your traveling companion and let him or her know about your experience. Did you see any wildlife? Did you have great views?
Follow these steps and your daily ablusions in the backcountry will not only be easy, but an enjoyable little daily personal adventure on your grand backcountry adventure. For more information on responsible backcountry practices, read about the Leave No Trace curriculum.