How to Use the Bathroom in the Backcountry
One of the biggest obstacles for new backpackers is how to deal with going to the bathroom in the backcountry. There’s really nothing to fear, but before you go, learn how to lessen your impact on the local ecosystem following these guidelines.
Be prepared for using the bathroom in the backcountry with a simple bathroom kit. The basic items are a trowel and toilet paper, but I like to add an odor-proof bag for packing out toilet paper, a bidet head for a water bottle for better cleaning, and a pee cloth. Learn more in Personal Hygiene for Backpackers post.
This post is an excerpt from the book “I Heart Backpacking: How to Get Started” by Lisa D. Holmes and Sara Carroll
Peeing in the Backcountry
Look for a spot with privacy, and away from water, campsites, or trails. To avoid damaging sensitive vegetation, look for areas with bare ground or rocks whenever possible.
Ladies! There’s no reason to use toilet paper when peeing in the backcountry. Toilet paper left behind is unsightly, ruining the wilderness experience for others, plus it takes a very long time to decompose. Instead, consider one of these methods:
- Use a pee cloth. A bandana works well for this purpose. Tie it to the outside of your pack to dry and the sun will help to sanitize it. Wash it as needed.
- Add a spritz of water from a traveling bidet, then dry with a clean cloth.
- The drip dry method works for some people. Do a quick shake after peeing.
- Female urination devices are funnels shaped to fit up against the body so women can stand to pee. These devices can take some time to get used to, so practice at home in your shower.
- Use natural materials such as the long side of a smooth stick, leaves, moss, or a smooth rock.
- If you must use toilet paper, pack it out. It takes a long time to decompose and is unsightly. See “Packing Out Toilet Paper” below.
Pooping in the Backcountry
If you poop in the woods, will anyone be able to find it? Far too often, the answer is yes. Too many people are irresponsible and leave their waste under rocks, in shallow uncovered holes, or worse, right in a campsite. Don’t be that person. Learn the proper methods for dealing with human waste.
In most areas of the Pacific Northwest, you should bury your waste by digging a cathole at least 200 feet away (about 70 steps) from any water source, including seasonal watersheds such as sandy washes. It is also ideal if it is at least 200 feet away from your campsite. As a general rule of thumb, catholes should be dug progressively farther away from camp the longer you are staying at a site or the more people that you have at that site.
To dig and use a proper cathole:
- Look for a spot that has loose, organic soil and, if possible, some sunlight. Both will help to speed up the decomposition process.
- Remove the top layer of duff above the soil and set aside.
- Using a camp trowel can make digging a lot easier, but some people use sticks, rocks, or even trekking poles.
- Dig a hole at least 4 inches wide and 6-8 inches deep.
- Squat over the hole and do your business.
- Consider using a bidet to spray water for extra cleaning and reducing the amount of toilet paper needed.
- Wipe with toilet paper, wipes, or natural materials (make sure to pack out all toilet paper and/or wipes).
- Cover the hole using the soil you dug out. Tamp it down, then replace the duff layer, placing a small branch or two over the spot to discourage critters from digging it up.
- Clean your hands with sanitizer.
Packing out toilet paper
While you can bury toilet paper in a cathole, it’s better for natural ecosystems if you pack out toilet paper. Bathroom tissue will decompose eventually but in most environments it will take at least five months. In more arid environments it could be months longer. To pack out toilet paper, use double layers of plastic bags or use odor-proof bags. To disguise the contents, use a solid color doggie bag to hold the toilet paper and place that inside another plastic bag.
Use a bidet
There’s nothing like a blast of water to make you feel clean and refreshed! Bidets have been used in homes for a long time, but traveling bidets are easy to take on trips. A traveling bidet is simply a container with a spray head that’s filled with water. Just place it in position and squeeze to spray after using the bathroom. You may not even have a need for toilet paper after using a bidet. Just keep in mind that you will need an ample source of water for filling the container.
Like toilet paper, feminine hygiene products should be carried out, never buried or burned. Some women prefer to use a menstrual cup to eliminate the amount of waste that must be packed out since you can dig a cathole to bury the waste in.
Some areas, especially those with heavy use, have backcountry toilets located near campsites. It is always best for the surrounding ecosystem to use these privies when they are available. Please remember that others on the trail make use of the same facility. If you make a mess, clean it up. Always close the door or lid if there is one, as it will help keep flies and other critters out. And pack out your toilet paper. Someone has to haul the human waste out of these outhouses, either by helicopter or mule, and you will be doing them a favor by reducing the refuse thrown into them.
Packing out human waste
In heavy-use, sensitive or high elevation areas, you may be required to pack out solid human waste. Don’t worry, there are products made to assist with this task! Toilet waste kits available for purchase often contain additives such as odor neutralizers and gels for absorbing liquids, and some include toilet paper and hand sanitizers. You can also make your own at home with re-sealable plastic bags (odor proof bags would be a good choice here!) and kitty litter. Whether purchased or homemade, the concept is simple. Do your business in the bag and pack it out.