Critical Issues - How to Poop in the Woods

Phoenix, AZ: This past Wednesday we, the Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainers Team West, taught an awareness workshop for a graduate level Critical Issues class at Arizona State University. The class focuses on both environmental and social critical issues. Once we learned this, we immediately knew one way to relate Leave No Trace to their focus – poop. That’s right! Improper disposal of human waste is one of the most critical issues that recreationalist, agency personal and wildlife face today. Evidence from our field observations, conversations with land managers and personal experiences confirm this.

Impacts are a frequent topic that we discuss with land managers. In an attempt to understand local issues in our consistently changing scenery, we usually ask land managers, “What are the most common impacts you deal with?” Nine times out of ten the response is, “Improper disposal of human waste is our number one issue.” This is a sad realization. Improper disposal of human waste can contaminate water sources, is unsightly and can transmit disease between humans and animals.

Unfortunately, it is through personal experience that I know just how important it is to teach people how to dispose of human waste properly. In college I fell in love with the outdoors, frequenting the Great Smoky Mountains to hike and paddle. I considered myself a responsible adventurer. During this time, I traveled hundreds of miles of trail and water accompanied by avid outdoor enthusiasts. Not once did someone tell me how to go to the bathroom. Eventually, I felt uncomfortable enough that I did some personal research, and it was then that I learned about catholes. (What’s a cathole? Learn more in our video below.) Looking back, I am not proud of my poop piles. Furthermore, I feel ashamed of hurting the outdoor places I adore. If you too fit into this category remember that, “it’s not what you did yesterday, it’s what you do tomorrow.” And it is with this motivator that I move forward. Now I am happy to say that when nature calls I feel confident in my technique, comfortable in my actions and am thankful of all of the beautiful locations I get to call my bathroom. For me, this is why I think it is so critical that we broach the subject and teach our people how to poop in the woods!

Another prime example of experienced outdoorsmen and women being unaware of how to do their business was brought to our attention during the Yosemite Facelift, the largest volunteer cleanup taking place in our national parks system. During this cleanup, volunteers removed hundreds of pounds of trash from the nose of El Capitan. Included in this total was human waste. To successfully climb El Capitan (and reach the nose) it takes a skilled, seasoned athlete with ample experience and technical forte. Needless to say, these are individuals who have spent some time, lots of time, outside.

The take away point here is, never assume people know how to go to the bathroom in the woods. Have the conversation regardless of whether or not you think someone is an expert in his or her pursuit. After all, what’s there to lose?

As for the conversation, “how does one properly dispose of human waste in the woods?” one of the most common ways to do this is to dig a cathole. Check out our 50 second video below on how to dig a cathole, or continue reading for a step by step break down. It’s as easy as one, two, three!

1.     Guidelines for site selection:

  • Dig catholes 200 feet away from water, camp and trails. 200 feet is about 70 adult paces (100 steps for children). 
  • Look for an inconspicuous site where other people will be unlikely to walk or camp. Examples of cathole sites include thick undergrowth, near downed timber, or on gentle hillsides.
  • Try to find a site with deep organic soil. This organic matter contains organisms that will help decompose the feces. (Organic soil is usually dark and rich in color.) The desert does not have as much organic soil as a forested area.
  • If possible, locate your cathole where it will receive maximum sunlight. The heat from the sun will aid decomposition.
  • Choose an elevated site where water would not normally go during runoff or rainstorms.
  • If camping in the area for more than one night, or if camping with a large group, cathole sites should be widely dispersed.

2.     With a small garden trowel (or shovel), dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter. This hole is where you dispose of your human waste. Pack out all toilet paper, or check the local recommendations for the area. 

3.     The cathole should be covered and disguised with natural materials when finished. Always use a hand sanitizer afterwards, or wash your hands with camp soap and plenty of water.

If all of these guidelines cannot be met, do your best. And know that doing your best is doing your part to help reduce recreational impacts. An example of when it is difficult to meet these guidelines is in river gorges where terrain poses a challenge to selecting a site 200 feet away from water. In addition, in arid environments it is recommended that the cathole be dug 4-6 inches deep so that it will receive more sunlight and decompose better. Likewise, there are also particular recommendations for winter.

Consider that catholes are just one method of proper human waste disposal. Depending on the outdoor area you're recreating in you may have the opportunity to use wilderness toilets (what a luxury!) or it may be required that you pack out your waste. Some common pack out methods include: manufactured human waste disposal kits, homemade human waste disposal kits, poop tubes, and portable toilets. There are also times when latrines may be more applicable, such as when camping with young children or if staying in one camp for longer than a few nights. Check out this Trailspace article for a more in depth look at the different methods of human waste disposal. And when in doubt, thinking about "going before you go."

The next time you hit the trails, join the movement, remember your trusty trowel or wag bag and ALWAYS have the conversation. Thanks for helping us tackle these critical issues one hole at a time!  

Helping keep our wilderness wild,

Jenna - Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Team West

Leave No Trace’s Jenna Hanger and Sam Ovett are part of the 2015 Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Program that provides free, mobile education to communities across the country. Proud partners of this program include Subaru of America, Deuter, Hi-Cone, REI, Smartwool, The North Face, and Yakima.