Hiking and backpacking have become increasingly popular activities. It is wonderful to hear from folks looking to hit the trail for the first time or spend their first night in the woods away from their car and worldly possessions. What is problematic is how few people follow some of the basic Leave No Trace principals when they embark on these adventures. In this case ignorance can cause a lot of issues so anyone looking to spend some time in the woods should seek information on how to eat, sleep, hydrate, clean themselves, and use the bathroom while disturbing the environment as little as possible.
Using the bathroom in the woods can be a challenge for some to overcome. It’s not glamorous, but hey, only the bears are watching!
In all seriousness, once you understand the technique of digging a cathole and the reasoning behind why you should put in the effort to do so, it’ll be second nature and just a part of your daily routine in the woods.
Before I go into how to dig a cathole, there are a few key points to discuss.
Nobody likes to see debris on the trail and when you use an improper spot to go to the bathroom (under a rock, around the corner just out of site, in a poorly dug cathole) animals dig up your feces along with the toilet paper which is scattered around the trail. Those rocks you used to cover your poo are sometimes handled by trail maintainers to create rock steps, help with drainage, or build cairns for navigation above treeline. Would you want to touch that? Don’t let it happen to a volunteer!
Anytime you need to poop you should dig a proper cathole. If you just need to pee, you don’t need to dig a cathole, but make sure you’re not going on fragile plant life. If there is an outhouse or vault toilet nearby, it was designed to consolidate human waste so you should use that. If there isn’t one, dig a cathole!
You are required to find a spot 200+ feet away from water sources, camp, and trail. I suggest measuring out 200 feet (about 70 adult steps) at home and see what that feels like to walk that distance to follow proper Leave No Trace Ethics and leave the trail looking beautiful! Make sure to also avoid areas with water runoff. The problem with these locations is they can slowly uncover your hard work and carry your waste to a local water supply. If you’re with a large group, use a variety of areas to disperse your catholes. Make sure you know before your trip if there are any areas where you won’t be able to dig a cathole. You may actually be required to pack out your waste in some places including Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48!) this is because areas of high elevation, narrow river canyons, and glaciers don’t have soil to decompose your poo and it’s impossible to dig a cathole. Human waste would sit there for decades if it weren’t packed out.
Now we can get down to business and talk about how to dig a proper cathole.
Make sure to use a trowel to dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter. A trowel is going to give you the best insurance of being able to dig deep and wide enough. A sturdy stick or tent stake can be a placeholder if you forget your trowel, but it is much more difficult to use and takes more time.
In rocky areas like New England you may need to spend some time looking for the ideal spot or try at multiple locations. Most trowels can handle some rocks and hard packed soil. Do your business in the hole and cover it up properly. Some people recommend making “poop soup” to help toilet paper decompose in the cathole. I recommend taking it a step further and pack out all toilet paper. Simply use a freezer ziplock bag for this. You can cover it in duct tape (there are so many patterns now!) to hide the contents if that bothers you. You can also use a WAG Bag which will begin the decomposition process.
You will probably find that on a longer backpacking trip a difference in your bathroom schedule. Most people find they go on a more regular schedule and do so with much better ease. Yup, hikers love talking about poop! Squatting is the best form when using the bathroom and the constant activity involved when hiking leads to a very efficient body. You may find it easier to dig a cathole at night if you often have to go in the morning. It’ll be a much better hole if you’re not in a rush. If you find yourself needing to go quick, you can always dig a cathole after you go and move your waste into it.
Carry a Proper Poop Kit
Contents: Ziplock to hold all contents, trowel, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and extra freezer bag to carry used TP. You can also duct tape around your used tp bag to hide the contents.
There are many trowels on the market now so you never have to carry that heavy (and super embarrassing) bright orange trowel around with you. I recommend purchasing either of these ultralight trowels:
QiWiz Titanium Cathole Trowel
About ready to hit the trail? Check out some gear suggestions for your next backpacking adventure!