Here at The Trek, we strive to maintain an air of gravitas, which is why we always stick to the heavy-hitting subjects in the backpacking world. But seriously, correct backcountry pooping actually is an important skill to master. Properly burying your waste helps keep the backcountry pristine and makes for a healthier, happier experience for your fellow hikers.
It’s not hard to dig a Leave No Trace (LNT)-compliant cathole, but you need to know what you’re doing and follow specific guidelines to do it properly. Studies suggest that pathogens from human waste can remain viable for as long as two years inside a cathole, which is why you must do the thing properly to avoid contaminating nearby water sources.
According to Leave No Trace, the right way to poop in the woods is to bury it in a hole six to eight inches deep (but only four to six in the desert), four to six inches wide, and at least 200 feet away from any body of water. It sounds simple enough, but let’s dig a little deeper (heh).
How to Dig a Perfect Cathole Every Time
1. Surface pooping is not OK.
First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room. If you shit in the woods, and it’s not in a privy, you need to bury that sucker in the ground. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot, lay a steamy one down on the forest floor and just walk away. Only sociopaths do that.
2. Site selection is everything.
The first, most important part of site selection is etched in stone: you have to be at least 200 feet away from water. Beyond that, you want to look for a patch of soil that feels nice and springy underfoot.
I often favor digging on the uphill side of a decaying log. The log traps sediments washing downhill with rainfall, so the soil tends to be deeper and looser on the uphill side. At the same time, the log itself is feeding the ground as it decays, making it rich and soft. Soft pine duff is another excellent medium.
If possible, I try to avoid very rocky areas with a lot of exposed bedrock, for obvious reasons, as well as grassy meadows. Grasses have robust root networks that can be hard to dig through, plus they grow in sunny areas where the soil tends to be drier and more sun-baked. (Sunlight does aid in decomposition, but to me, the most important thing is to get a hole deep enough to bury the turd adequately). Avoid digging in areas where water obviously flows or pools during storm events.
According to Leave No Trace, if you’re camping in the same spot two nights in a row, don’t go in the same place twice—disperse your catholes widely.
IMPORTANT: take a moment to scan for hazards like poison ivy, fire ant nests, etc., before going to town. Trust me on this.
3. Timing is also everything.
You don’t want to dig your cathole too soon before you’re 100% sure you have to poop. Nothing is worse than spending five minutes laboring over a cathole only to discover it’s a false alarm. At the same time, if you wait until you’re utterly desperate, you may not have enough time to do a good job digging. Do your best to listen to your body and strike a balance between the two.
If you’re one of those lucky individuals with a consistent pooping schedule, you’ll have a significant advantage in this department. You might even consider pre-digging your cathole at night if you’re sure you’ll shit before leaving camp in the morning.
Desperation pooping pro-tip: If you’ve gotta go, and you don’t have time to craft your cathole before the main event takes place, you can buy yourself time. Surface poop, comple your dig, and then use a stick to jockey the turd into the hole after the fact.
4. Choose the right tool for the job.
I really do not endorse improvised tools like sticks, tent stakes, or trekking pole tips to dig your cathole. They do a terrible job, and chances are you won’t dig your cathole deep or wide enough.
An ultralight titanium trowel, such as the Deuce, is best-suited to the job. A more budget-friendly stand-in like a snow stake is also acceptable but definitely will not do as good a job as an actual trowel. I’m not a fan of heavy plastic scoops, which don’t have the sharp edge necessary to cut through challenging soils.
5. Do your best to preserve the soil surface.
If possible, punch your trowel straight into the soil several times to form a circular cut. In moist, well-rooted soils, you can often extract an intact topsoil plug, minimizing the disturbance to whatever little plants are growing in that spot.
When all’s said and done, you can use the plug to re-cap the cathole, and hopefully, the little plants will continue to grow and thrive, nourished by your fertilizer gift.
6. Make sure your cathole is big enough.
As stated above, Leave No Trace dictates that your cathole should be four to six inches wide and six to eight inches deep in most cases. In desert environments, the hole should be somewhat shallower: only four inches deep so that sunlight and rain can penetrate the hole and speed the decomposition process.
To ensure your hole is deep enough, it’s helpful to measure the length of your digging tool at home so you can use it as a guide. The Deuce, for instance, is about seven inches long from tip to tip, so if the length of the trowel fits entirely in the hole, I know my hole is deep enough. Without a definitive measurement, it’s easy to convince yourself that your three-inch excavation is actually six inches deep.
Note: if I sense that I’ve got a real whopper incoming, I dig my hole slightly deeper and wider in anticipation of extra turdage.
7. Fire on all cylinders.
There are a variety of ways to actually do the deed. I really can’t explain it as well as the diagrams in this post. Through trial and error, you’ll find a position that works for you regardless of your body dynamics. Don’t be afraid to use props like trees and logs to maintain your balance!
READ NEXT – 5 Ways to Poop in the Woods: An Illustration
7. Pack out your toilet paper.
Toilet paper takes longer to break down than poop. When a cathole is too shallow, it’s almost always toilet paper you see peeking out the top, not actual poop. If you pack the toilet paper out, you will never be at risk of accidentally creating a toilet paper bloom.
If the thought of schlepping used TP disgusts you, there are a few things you can do to make this process less unsavory. First, opt for an opaque bag so you don’t have to look at the contents all the time. A regular ziplock or odor-proof OPsack covered in duct tape works well. Second, double-bag. This way, you can keep your opaque outer bag and discard the inner when you get to a trash can. The secondary containment will also reduce odors. Third, budget enough extra toilet paper—about two squares per poop—to wrap around your used TP. Again, this cuts down on both visuals and smells.
Alternative plan: don’t use any toilet paper at all! Wipe with natural materials, like smooth river rocks or broad, soft leaves, or use a backcountry bidet.
8. Give it a stir before burying.
After making your deposit, throw a handful of soil in the hole and use a sturdy stick to stir it. Mixing soil with your poop helps soil microbes to colonize the turd faster, speeding the decomposition process. It is also oddly satisfying. Leave the stick in the hole when you bury it. I like to leave the tip sticking out when all’s said and done as a warning to future backpackers not to dig in that spot.
9. Wash your hands afterward!
Backcountry or not, unwashed hands can spread disease. For instance, lack of hand-washing is why norovirus outbreaks are rampant on the crowded Appalachian Trail each spring. A small amount of biodegradable soap and water or a squeeze of keychain hand sanitizer will suffice.
On my first long-distance backpacking trip, I didn’t poop for the first four days, and it was pretty terrible. But eventually, I came to embrace the many joys of a well-executed cathole. All it takes is a little practice and a good understanding of the underlying principles.
This guide might seem like overkill, but don’t poo-poo the little details (ha). Attention to detail will make your cathole process go more smoothly and (hopefully) keep the wilderness clean and wonderful.
Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.