Skills & Techniques

Confessions of a First Time Cathole Digger

Julia Oleksiak - August 27, 2020

When it comes to peeing outside, I feel fairly confident. Pee rag in hand, I count my 70 big steps, go, wipe (or drip dry if I don’t have my Kula Cloth handy) and continue on my way. With pooping… I felt a bit less certain of my skills. Although I technically know how to go outdoors, it wasn’t until a recent multi-day trip without facilities available that I found myself needing to put my cathole digging knowledge to the test. Here’s what else I learned:

1. Give yourself more time than you think you need to dig your hole

It’s sometimes hard to know when the urge to poo is going to hit you, but as much as possible try and be proactive. Upon the first inkling of feeling like maybe you’ll need to go soon, I would encourage you to grab everything you need, walk 200 feet away from any water sources, campsites or trails, and start digging. Take it from me, you don’t want to find out when you’re in a really desperate situation, that 6-8″ is deeper than it seems on the diagrams. This depth is super important for decomposition and so it’s best to truly dig that deep before we start to do our business. From personal experience, this is a lot easier to do when you give yourself as much lead time as possible. Extra tip: if your body is on a regular schedule (e.g. you know you usually go in the morning) you can even dig your hole the night before. The trick is remembering where you dug it the next day!

2. Yes you really do need a small shovel to dig a proper cathole

Before this experience I believed that having a trowel was a nice to have not necessarily a must have for digging a cathole. But I see now that having a trowel makes it SO. MUCH. EASIER. Depending on where you are and what the soil is made up of, it’s likely that you will encounter rocks, roots and snags in the soil as you begin to dig. Trying to use nearby sticks and rocks as your digging tool just isn’t going to cut it (or those small roots) and instead, a small garden shovel or a plastic trowel work great. It makes getting to that sweet spot of 6-8″ a much more efficient and effective endeavor. When time is of the essence, you’ll be thankful to have a shovel! 

3. Natural toilet paper isn’t so scary after all 

OK, so those nearby sticks, pinecones, smooth rocks and leaves aren’t that useful for digging but they’re great to use for something else: natural toilet paper! Before giving this a go I’ll admit I was skeptical. It felt a bit extreme to wipe with something that came from a tree unless it was in the form of toilet paper. I am pleased to report that this wasn’t my experience. Depending on your location, you can likely find some pretty soft options, and surprisingly it’s actually quite comfortable and effective. I chose to finish up with a wet wipe which I then packed out, but liked using the natural TP instead of multiple pieces of regular toilet paper. If you go with leaves, just make sure it’s not poison ivy, oak or sumac, but otherwise I give natural toilet paper 5 stars.

4. Have everything you need to be comfortable with you 

This includes trowel, toilet paper, hand sanitizer—your very own poop kit if you will. In order to have a more positive experience, I realized that it was much easier to have everything I would need for the duration of my excursion in an easy one-stop-shop so I could grab it and go before the need became dire. It’s not great to realize when you are mid act that the wipes you were planning on using are still back at camp 200 feet away. Extra tip: if squatting down isn’t very comfortable for you, you can position yourself with a tree trunk or boulder within arms reach to help hold on to, lean against a tree for support, or sit down on a log and hang over the edge. 

5. Give yourself grace

Like with any newly learned skill, cut yourself some slack. You may have a 10/10 experience on your first go (kudos to you!), but more likely it will be a learning process to figure out your own tips and what works best for you. And don’t be afraid to ask questions! I promise, your friends and peers have all had some cathole experiences in the past where they left a trace 💩  and that’s okay—giving ourselves and others the grace to learn is key. I left this experience with some newly acquired perspective and things that I will attempt to do better next time. It’s important to remember that all of our small actions add up to make a cumulative impact. If you’re digging a cathole, even if it wasn’t perfect, you’re helping to minimize your personal outdoor impact and thus leading to a larger positive impact. Keep it up! 

I have yet to use a WAG bag—a good option for extra sensitive environments such as deserts and areas above treeline and one that eliminates the need for squatting altogether. When I do, I’ll let you all know how it goes. Until then, Enjoy Your World and (do your best to) Leave No Trace.

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