Going to the bathroom in the wilderness is not a particularly complicated task, but it does take some foresight. It’s important to note that we have two semi-conflicting goals in dealing with human waste outdoors:

  • Sanitation: We want to avoid polluting water, and we want the harmful organisms in our feces to die/break down as quickly as possible.

  • Minimizing disturbance: We want others (people, animals) to not have to encounter our waste. For people, it’s just gross, and for animals it can affect their natural behavior in foreign ways.

My personal procedure works like this:

  1. Retrieve toiletries kit from bear canister.

  2. Do you have to pee? If so, do that now before you get started on the real work. Pee on a rock or tree or other exposed surface, away from surface water.

  3. Find a suitable “spot”: should have some duff (pine needles, leaves) so as to hide the evidence afterwards, fairly level, at least 250 ft. from any surface water, and have soil you can dig into. Needless to say, it should also be far enough from your campsite and any others so that a) people won’t see you and b) people will be unlikely to discover your “transgression”.

  4. While searching for a location, also be on the lookout for: a “wiping rock”, a sturdy stick, and two baseball-sized stones with which to make a seat. Note that your wiping rock does not have to be some smooth pebble, its rough edges worn down by millions of years of erosion. Your backside is not some delicate flower.

  5. Dig hole: Brush away any duff, and then dig a hole 6 in. in diameter, 6 in. deep. Do not dig below the topsoil, as it has all the bacteria that will break down our feces.

  6. Place seat rocks on opposite sides of the hole; place wiping rock within arms reach (and make a mental note of where you put it).

  7. Pull down pants, sit on “seat”, poop into hole. Try not to think about all the wild animals that are staring at you.

  8. Wipe, place wiping rock into hole.

  9. Shove some loose dirt into the hole and then use the stick to stir it all up. Gross, I know, but it helps with the decomposition process. Place the stick in the hole when done. (Finding a stick that is long enough to keep your stirring hand away from the danger zone, but short enough that it can still be buried in the hole, and sturdy enough that it won’t break at exactly the wrong moment, plunging your hand into places you’d hoped it would never go, is something of a fine art.)

  10. Push the remaining dirt into the hole, covering everything. Compress. Cover with the duff that you removed initially (you just pushed it to the side, right?). Ideally, there should be no evidence. (If you ever need to bury a human body, you can follow a similar procedure. Not that you would, I’m just saying, this method would work.)

  11. Apply hand sanitizer from toiletries bag, and replace toiletries in bear canister.

Why don’t I use toilet paper? Because you have to pack it out. No, you can’t bury it, no, you can’t burn it. (One ultralight backpacking book I read suggested forgoing even the wiping rock, and just “scooting down the hill”. Now that’s just weird.)

Some people suggest using a snow tent stake like this as a lightweight trowel. That will work, but it takes 2-3 times as long to dig the hole, and to cover it up. A real plastic trowel will weight a few ounces more, but will dramatically reduce the amount of stress you have to go through. (On the other hand, plastic trowels are known to break, leaving you with nothing to dig with…)

Some people say you should pee into the hole, in order to make the stirring easier (aka “poop soup”). My reasoning is based on a study1 which found that the antiseptic qualities of urine are sufficient to inhibit breakdown in composting toilets. If urine can slow breakdown in a system specifically designed for fast breakdown, how much more is it going to slow things down out in the woods, in a simple hole in the ground? Also, animals will be attracted to your urine due to the salt it contains; better to leave it out in the open where it’s easy for them to get to, than bury it and have them dig it up.

One book I read suggested taking your pants off completely to do the deed. That seems really inconvenient, especially if you need to make a quick exit for some reason (interrupted by a person, or a bear). Also, depending on the temperature, really cold. (And speaking of temperature, you do not want to go at night. Peeing at night is doable, although you’ll want to have a headlamp; not being able to find your way back to your tent, in the middle of the night, will pretty much ruin your trip, and maybe your life.)

Note that there is, as with many things we do in the woods, an inherent conflict in how you dispose of your waste. If all you care about is ensuring that your feces become sanitary as quickly as possible, then you should smear your poop on a rock exposed to the sun. The UV radiation will kill all the bacteria, and it will dry out and flake off fairly quickly. Burying feces actually slows the breakdown process. But poop-smeared rocks are not something anyone want to come across, so we compromise and bury the business. The breakdown process takes longer, but no one has to watch it happening.

Further reading

  1. “Composting toilets a misnomer: Excessive ammonia from urine inhibits microbial activity yet is insufficient in sanitizing the end-product” (PDF) Geoffrey B. Hill, Susan A. Baldwin, Björn Vinnerås, Journal of Environmental Management, Volume 119, 15 April 2013, Pages 29-35