Photo: Paxson Woelber
What you’ll need
- A trowel, small shovel, or ice axe
- Toilet paper and plastic bag (or alternative wiping method)
- Hand sanitizer / soap
Finding the right spot
Locate a place far (at least 200ft / 60m) from any natural water source, be it river, lake, or ocean. Defecating into water will contaminate it — especially bad if this is where you’re getting your drinking water from.
If you’re traveling on a trail, move a hundred meters or so to either side so as not to leave any surprises behind for other hikers.
Digging a cathole
It’s time to dig. While it’s possible to do this with large stones from the area (thus negating the need for a trowel), this is generally not something you’ll want to spend time on when you really have to go.
Most trowels are a good indication of how deep to dig, as the hole should be as deep as the trowel itself (at least 8in / 20cm). It should be wide enough to allow for easy aim. While digging, pile the excavated dirt nearby, as you’ll use it after to fill the hole back in.
Preferred techniques vary, and may depend on the natural amenities of the spot you’ve found. It’s nice to have a tree or branch to hold onto while you squat; some people like to lean with their back against a tree for extra support.
Another method I’ve heard of but never tried is driving the pick end of an ice axe into the ground, gripping the handle, and leaning back into your squat. My concern here would be the risk of the ice axe losing its purchase, or of you losing your grip, and falling into what you’ve just deposited.
One final technique requires the aid of a friend (prepare to get close!); two people squat down back to back, acting as backrests for each other, and interlock arms for balance.
Toilet paper vs. no paper
Using toilet paper is obviously the comfortable route to take, but to follow Leave No Trace principles and leave the environment untouched, it’s better to pack in what you pack out. A plastic bag can be used to pack out used toilet paper; while this is fine for short trips, on longer treks it can become an issue.
Replacing toilet paper with natural alternatives has important benefits — they’re easy to find onsite and don’t take up space in your pack, and they can be buried in the hole instead of packed out. The best wipers I’ve found are round, smooth rocks. Smooth sticks can also be used.
Plant leaves are a clear stand-in for paper, but you really need to know whether or not they’re poisonous / a skin irritant. Snow is another good option. Just remember to bury in the cathole whatever you use to wipe.
To preserve hygiene, either use hand sanitizer or wash your hands with soap. If washing, be sure not to do so directly in a lake or river (again, especially if it’s your water supply), as you will contaminate it with the pathogens present in feces (and potentially the chemicals in your soap).
Shitting in bear country
While the entire ‘how to’ is the same, bear country or not, there are a few additional points to keep in mind when going to the bathroom with bears around. If traveling in a group, it’s best to go with a partner — not necessarily back to back, but a relatively close distance to each other. This will allow you to group together in case there’s a bear and make yourself appear bigger to deter an attack.
Of course, if you have bear spray, definitely take it along.
As you leave the campsite to find a good bathroom spot, be sure to make a lot of noise (like yelling, “Hey bear!”), which will let any nearby animals know you’re there and give them time to leave the area.