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When you look beyond the perfectly framed Instagram posts, tent and car camping isn’t always vistas and starry skies. There are bugs, there’s weather, and most importantly, there’s basic human biology. It’s easy to take eating, sleeping and basic hygiene for granted at home, but all of these aspects of life require considerably more preparation out in the wild. One under-discussed aspect is going to the bathroom. More specifically, pooping. So what do you do when nature calls while you’re out in nature? Fortunately, plenty of resources online make pooping in the woods easier. We consulted the National Parks Service’s website, scoured camping blogs, and talked to an experienced camper to find out the number one way to go number two.
For first-person insight, we talked to Alex McIsaac, an avid outdoors enthusiast with extensive experience camping, hiking (and yes, pooping) across America’s National Parks. In 2016, McIsaac and his girlfriend spent over 90 days on a cross-country trek from Massachusetts to California, “About 80% of which was spent tent camping or sleeping in our car.” By his count, McIsaac has visited 21 National Parks, a variety of NPS sites, and state forests in the decade-plus since he first got serious about outdoor adventuring. That means that McIsaac has occasionally had to make like a bear and poop in the woods. Here’s his advice and guidance based on resources such as the National Parks Service. We also included products that can come in handy based on research and reviews.
Leave No Trace
McIsaac, along with just about every camping blog and the National Parks Service’s own site, emphasizes the importance of Leave No Trace principles. Leave No Trace consists of guidelines for hikers and campers to responsibly enjoy nature without damaging important ecological systems like plants and animals. You might assume that because poop is natural, it has no effect on the local ecology, but this is not the case when you consider how many visitors some parks see.
When it comes to the rules, McIsaac emphasizes that different parks might have different rules. “Everywhere is different. Some parks have too many visitors; some parks have had problems in the past. Know what the rules are for where you are going. If you’re unable to find the info online ahead of time, try a visitor center or a ranger station. If it’s off-season and none of these options are possible, just play it safe and pack it out. You’ll never get in trouble for packing it out.”
Leave no trace principles are important for bathroom use, but they apply to things like food, too. Just because it’s biodegradable, that doesn’t mean you should dispose of things like apple cores and orange skins wherever you see fit. “Pack it in, pack it out” is advice that applies to just about everything you can bring into a National Park or any wild area.
Find a Spot
If you’re at a campsite with bathroom facilities, use those. But there are plenty of times when camping and hiking that you might be too far from the site, or you simply gotta go, now. In that case, you’ll need to dig a cathole. A cathole is a hole that’s 6 to 8 inches deep. Where you dig makes a difference. McIsaac explains, “When doing so, always be at least 200 feet from water sources, trails, or campsites to limit the potential spread of bacteria. It should also be about 6 inches deep and immediately refilled with the displaced soil. If hiking above tree-line in the mountains or anywhere in the desert, you’ll probably want to pack it out as it won’t break down well enough.”
For those situations where a cathole might not be sufficient, such as hiking in the desert or other areas where it’s forbidden, you can make what’s called a poop tube or buy wag bags to carry waste out.
The Tent Lab Deuce Trowel
This option is compact and specifically designed for digging catholes.
How To Wipe
What to do with toilet paper is a matter of debate. Some sources say that a small amount is okay to bury, while the NPS advises that you never bury or leave toilet paper in the cathole. Where allowed, you can look into biodegradable toilet paper. Even though all toilet paper is biodegradable, products specifically marketed for camping and hiking can biodegrade more quickly. Looking into the regulations for the specific park you’re visiting will help you respect the rules and, more importantly, respect the natural land you’re on.
Unless you’re absolutely sure you can bury toilet paper, you’ll be expected to pack it out. That means yes, you’ll need to carry used toilet paper out, which can be done with a secure plastic bag. If that’s (understandably) too gross, the good news is that there are alternatives. You can use what’s around you, like snow and leaves, and bury that. Just make absolutely sure you know what poison ivy and oak look like. Alternatively, you can use a camping or travel bidet, which allows you to ditch the TP altogether. Of course, remember that you might be dipping into your water supply if you use a bidet.
Coghlan’s Toilet Tissue
Coghlan’s toilet tissue is biodegradable and comes without a core, making it easier to pack into your backpack or pocket.
Happy Bottom Portable Bidet
The name says it all. A portable bidet from Happy Bottom can help reduce the need for toilet paper while also leaving you feeling cleaner.
Tushy Travel Bidet
There are arguably bidets that are just as good as Tushy’s that cost less money, but credit is owed to the brand for widening awareness of a bidet’s health and environmental benefits. They also make a travel version, which is collapsible when empty and has a folding nozzle.
How To Wash
You can use water to clean your hands, but this has limitations. McIsaac personally says to skip it. “Water is often a precious (and heavy) commodity both while hiking and camping, especially in undeveloped areas, so I tend to use a small hand sanitizer or the biodegradable wipes (which I pack out).” That said, if you’re car camping, you might have more leeway to store and carry water in your car, making washing your hands more convenient.
Purell Hand Sanitizer
We’ve probably all used a lot of hand sanitizer over the past couple of years, and in my view, there’s a reason Purell is the standard. Many other sanitizers leave a sticky feeling, while Purell is smooth. These have hanging loops to attach to the outside of your backpack easily.
Igloo 6 Gallon Heavy Duty Portable Water Storage Container
Igloo’s container mimics the look of a gasoline jug but comes in blue to ensure you’ll be able to tell them apart. It can be used to store up to six gallons of water, and the narrow design makes it easy to store anywhere inside your car.
Advice For Women
When it comes to pooping, the advice will be the same for men and women, but peeing and periods can come with additional considerations for women. Options include a pee rag, which can drastically reduce the need for toilet paper. Bandanas will do, and there are even specific products for this purpose. As for periods, tampons will need to be packed out, but menstrual cups can help reduce the need for carrying extra tampons.
Kula Cloth Reusable Antimicrobial Pee Cloth
Kula Cloth has different textures and colors on each side to make it easier to wipe without touching the dirty side. The antimicrobial material hides stains, while the snaps allow you to roll it up. The hanging loops allow you to hang it outside for sanitization purposes.
Always Be Prepared
Even if you’re staying at a campsite with facilities, McIsaac points out that it’s always a good idea to stay stocked on anything you might need to take care of the basics. He explains, “A lot of campgrounds are developed and have restrooms with running water, but a lot also only have pit toilets if anything at all. I will know ahead of time what kind of restrooms are available, if any, but I also account for surprises. Sometimes they are all out of toilet paper. Other times they are recently closed due to a plumbing issue or XYZ. I hope for the best but pack for the worst. Besides, if I’m camping, I’m hiking, and I won’t chance a surprise poo on any hike unprepared.”