There are a lot of things to be anxious about prior to your first camping trip. What if there are a bajillion bugs? What if I am unable to sleep comfortably in the tent? But perhaps the most troubling is this: HOW DO I POOP IN THE WOODS? Well, never fear because I present to you The Ultimate Guide on How to Poop in the Woods.
For several summers I took campers on multi-day canoe trips into the Canadian backcountry. Before embarking on our adventure, I would have the talk with them. The poop talk. I would walk them through exactly how to poop in the woods, and on our first night on trip I would go through it a second time. Here is my poop talk immortalized on the internet for your camping pleasure.
May this post help everyone achieve the pinnacle of hiking bathroom etiquette!
By following this method for pooping in the woods, you will be following Leave No Trace principles AND respecting others that may visit your campsite after you.
Why Does it Matter How We Poop in the Woods?
Before we dive into how to poop in the woods, I want to take a moment to explain why it matters.
- There are lots of unnatural chemicals in human food. These chemicals can be harmful, even in small doses, to animals and ecosystems. This is especially true for sensitive marine and alpine environments.
- Heavy rain / snow can wash bacteria and pathogens into the water. There’s also harmful bacteria and pathogens in human poop and we don’t want that getting into the water.
- No one wants to find your poop. If you just poop wherever you’d like, and don’t properly bury it, someone else will inevitably stumble upon your poop.
How to Poop in the Woods
Close your eyes and imagine this. You’re in the wilderness; tall pine trees surround you on either side, dark water glistens in the sun. You are setting up your tent. Everything is peaceful. Perfect. Then. Suddenly! Unexpectedly! You feel the need to poop.
At first you throw your hands up, lamenting. “Curse you high fibre camping meals!” But then you pull yourself together. You have TRAINED for this. You are ready to do the unthinkable. Today will be the day YOU TAKE A POOP IN THE GODDAMN WOODS.
Announce Your Mission to the Group
As you will be wandering into the woods on your own, you first tell your fellow campers where you are going. Some people like to boldly announce “HELLO FRIENDS I AM TAKING A POOP I WILL BE BACK SOON.” Others like to be more subtle and have established code names (for example, “I’m going to get in touch with nature, I will return shortly.”) But you – you have no shame. You confidently announce to your friends and family “It is time I venture into the woods to take a poop!” They clap as you gather your supplies.
Gather Your Packed Supplies
Next, you gather your poop kit. Your poop kit will vary depending on your location and preferences:
- Trowel – If you are camping somewhere without a thunder box, you will need a trowel.
- Hand sanitizer – Just because you’re in the woods doesn’t mean you can avoid clean hands!
- Toilet paper – This is optional, but often preferred.
- Brown paper bag OR plastic bag – I’ll explain this later.
Note: If you are camping in an arctic or alpine environment, you may need to pack out your poop. In that case, you will likely need a WAG Bag. This is a special durable bag that you poop into so you can pack out your poop.
What’s a Thunder Box?
A thunder box, also called a pit toilet or a backpacking toilet, is basically an outhouse without walls. A wooden box sits above a very large, deep hole (where the poop goes).
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Gather Your Natural Supplies
As you are searching for your pooping destination, you keep your eyes peeled for one (maybe two) things.
Find a large stick. How long? The length should be at least a foot long, but preferably more like two feet long. How thick? Place your thumb and index finger together in the “OK” sign. The thickness should be smaller than the hole created by your finger and thumb, but thick enough to not bend. You have found your large stick. It is perfect for pushing and stirring. You smile.
If you will not be using toilet paper:
Find leaves. Find some smooth, green leaves. If you can’t find any on the ground, this is the only time I permit people to pick leaves off living trees. I know that violates Leave No Trace principles, but be patient and I will explain.
Personally, I like to grab four or five large maple leaves. If it’s recently rained and they are still a little wet, even better. Ensure the leaves are clean (no bugs, dirt or weird things on it).
Location, location, location
Now you are off to go poop in the woods! Pooping in the woods is like real estate, location is everything. Here are the considerations you make as you are choosing your pooping destination.
200 feet from any water. Do not poop near the lake. Do not poop near the river. You shouldn’t even poop near large puddle. Poop + water source = bad time. If you can see the water, you are probably too close. If you can hear the water, YOU ARE MUCH TOO CLOSE.
Far away from other people. Get some distance between your pooping hole and the rest of camp. This is both for privacy and that no one wants your poop near their tent.
Soft ground. You want to find a location with soil, as you will be digging a hole. Trying to dig a hole where there is the exposed granite of the Canadian Shield is just going to be a bad time. Find an area that looks soil-y.
Dig That Hole
At last! You have found a suitable location for your poop. It is time to dig your hole. Using your trowel, you dig a hole 6-8 inches deep with a circumference about the same as a small dinner plate. You keep the soil you displaced near the hole. You will need this soil later.
Next, you put the trowel at least two meters away from your hole. This is very important and you will soon understand why. Place your toilet paper (or leaves) and your stick near the hole. It is time to Get. Your. Poop. ON.
Take That Poop!
Crouching or squatting above your hole, you poop to your heart’s content. You take in the scenery. You enjoy the quiet. Here, you are one with nature.
Packing Out Toilet Paper
Now, for wiping, you have a few options. First, you could wipe with toilet paper. In this case, DO NOT PUT THE TOILET PAPER IN THE HOLE. If you use toilet paper, you must either put it in the brown paper bag or in the plastic bag you brought with you.
Another alternative (and this is the one I prefer) is to use the four large maple leaves to wipe. Fan out the leaves so they cover a good area and have a good thickness (I have ripped leaves while wiping and that is just annoying because now you have poop on your hands, ugh).
If the leaves are wet, it’s like a butt bath. A backcountry bidet!* After you are done wiping, you can put the leaves in the hole with your poop.
(I like this option because I don’t have to deal with toilet paper. I have found that no matter how many times I say DON’T PUT YOUR TOILET PAPER IN THE HOLE people still do it. That has a larger environmental impact that pulling off the few leaves, so I encourage that as an alternative. If you’re an expert woods-pooper and disagree, please leave a comment below. I’d love to start a conversation on this!)
*Actually, a Backcountry Bidet is when you take a water bottle with a squirty top (like the green Gatorade ones) and squeeze it so a stream of water hits your butt.
What to do about “Backpacking Toilet Paper?”
There are some brands that make “backpacking toilet paper” and “hiking toilet paper” that is chemical-free and biodegradable, however you should still never bury toilet paper in your hole. Even if it’s advertised as the best backpacking toilet paper in the world, pack it out with you.
Fill the Poop Hole
Using the large stick you found, you push some of the soil into the hole with your poop. (If you missed your hole a bit, and we all have, use your stick to push your poop into the hole.)
Now, give it a stir. Use the stick to push the rest of the soil into the hole.
Now your poop should be completely concealed. (Why did you toss the trowel so far away? Because otherwise people forget and they use their trowel to push the dirt into the hole. They get poop on the trowel. The trowel has to go back into the equipment bag so I would rather it not be covered in poop, thank you.)
You take a look at the end of the stick. There is poop on it. You stake your stick into the hole poop-covered end first. This does two things. 1) The poop end is now deep in the hole. 2) The stick standing up on its own is a marker for where you have pooped.
Now, if someone else comes into the woods to poop, they will see your stick and NOT dig their hole right where you pooped.
You’re almost done. Now, you use the hand sanitizer to clean your hands. You pick up the trowel and toilet paper bag if you have one. Go back to your campsite. Return the trowel and hand sanitizer to the equipment bag.
If your toilet paper is in a plastic bag, put it into a large communal plastic toilet paper bag. In keeping with Leave No Trace principles, your group will carry this with you for the entire canoe trip. If your toilet paper is in a brown paper bag, you can put it in the fire and burn it.
Heads up: In the outdoor community, this is controversial! Some people don’t like it because they fear it will make the surrounding area smell like poop. Others think it violates Leave No Trace principles (I’m not sure how though). If you have an opinion, please comment below. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.
How great is Pooping in the Woods?
You just had the best poop of your life. Because you were crouching/squatting, your body was perfectly aligned for maximum pooping ability. Your bowels are happy.
Your mind is happy because your overcame a fear. You are in nature. Life is good. And there you have it, A Camper’s Guide to Pooping in the Woods. I hope this has relieved any anxiety you have about pooping while camping in the woods and inspired you to go camping even more.