HAt The Trek, we strive to maintain an air of gravity, which is why we always stick to the most impactful topics in the hiking world. But seriously, fix the backcountry poo actually is an important skill to master. Properly burying your trash helps keep the backcountry intact and provides a healthier, happier experience for your fellow hikers.
It’s not difficult to dig a Leave No Trace (LNT) compliant cathole, but you need to know what you’re doing and follow specific guidelines to do it right. Studies suggest that human waste pathogens can remain viable for up to two years inside a cathole, which is why you need to get it right to avoid contaminating nearby water sources.
According to Leave No Trace, the proper way to poop in the woods is to bury it in a hole six to eight inches deep (but only four to six inches in the desert), four to six inches wide, and at least 200 feet from any body of water. Sounds simple enough, but let’s dig a little deeper (heh).
How to Dig a Perfect Cathole Every Time
1. Pooing on the surface is not acceptable.
First, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. If you shit in the woods, and it’s not in the toilet, you have to bury this sucker in the ground. You can’t, I repeat, you cannot, land a scorching one on the forest floor and walk away. Only sociopaths do that.
2. Site selection is paramount.
The first and most important part of site selection is set in stone: you need to be at least 200 feet from the water. Beyond that, you want to look for a nice, springy patch of soil underfoot.
I often prefer to dig from the upstream side of a decaying log. The log traps sediment washed away by precipitation, so the ground tends to be deeper and looser on the upstream side. At the same time, the log itself nourishes the soil as it breaks down, making it rich and soft. Soft pine humus is another excellent medium.
If possible, I try to avoid very rocky areas with lots of exposed bedrock, for obvious reasons, as well as grassy meadows. Grasses have sturdy root systems that can be difficult to dig up, and they grow in sunny areas where the soil tends to be drier and sunnier. (Sunlight helps with the decomposition, but for me the most important thing is to make a hole deep enough to bury the turd adequately). Avoid digging in areas where water obviously drains or accumulates during storms.
According to Leave No Trace, if you’re camping in the same place two nights in a row, don’t go to the same place twice – scatter your catholes widely.
IMPORTANT: take a moment to scan for hazards like poison ivy, fire ant nests, etc., before heading into town. Trust me.
3. Timing is also everything.
You don’t want to dig your cathole too soon before you’re 100% sure you need to poop. Nothing is worse than spending five minutes working on a cathole only to find out it’s a false alarm. At the same time, if you wait until you’re completely desperate, you may not have enough time to dig properly. Do your best to listen to your body and find a balance between the two.
If you’re one of those lucky people with a consistent poo schedule, you’ll have a significant advantage in this department. You might even consider pre-digging your cathole at night if you’re sure to poop before leaving camp in the morning.
Pro tip for desperate poo: If you have to go and don’t have time to craft your cathole before the main event, you can save time. Surface poop, complete your dig, then use a jockey stick to turd into the hole afterwards.
READ NEXT – Pooping on the Appalachian Trail: Important My Thru-Hike Stats
4. Choose the right tool for the job.
I really don’t approve of improvised tools like poles, tent pegs, or hiking pole tips for digging your cathole. They do a terrible job, and chances are you’re not digging your cathole deep enough or wide enough.
An ultralight titanium trowel, such as the Deuce, is best suited for the job. A more economical substitute like a snow stake is also acceptable, but certainly won’t do as good a job as a real trowel. I’m not a fan of heavy plastic shovels, which lack the sharp edge needed to cut through tough ground.
5. Do your best to preserve the floor surface.
If possible, drive your trowel straight into the ground several times to form a circular cut. In moist, well-rooted soils, you can often extract a plug of intact topsoil, minimizing disturbance to small plants growing there.
Eventually, you can use the plug to reseal the cathole and hopefully the little plants will continue to grow and thrive, nourished by your gift of fertilizer.
6. Make sure your cathole is big enough.
As stated above, Leave No Trace dictates that your cathole should be four to six inches wide and six to eight inches deep in most cases. In desert environments, the hole should be a little shallower: only four inches deep so that sunlight and rain can penetrate the hole and speed up the decomposition process.
To make sure your hole is deep enough, it’s helpful to measure the length of your home digging tool so you can use that as a guide. The Deuce, for example, is about seven inches long from end to end, so if the length of the trowel fits entirely in the hole, I know my hole is deep enough. Without definitive measurement, it’s easy to convince yourself that your three-inch excavation is actually six inches deep.
Note: If I feel like I have a real whopper coming, I dig my hole slightly deeper and wider in anticipation of some extra turding.
7. Fire on all cylinders.
There are a variety of ways to actually do the deed. I really can’t explain it as well as the schematics in this post. Through trial and error, you will find a position that works for you, regardless of your body dynamics. Don’t be afraid to use props like trees and logs to maintain your balance!
READ NEXT – 5 ways to poop in the woods: an illustration
7. Pack your toilet paper.
Toilet paper takes longer to break down than poop. When a cathole is too shallow, it’s almost always toilet paper that you see coming out the top, not real poo. If you wrap toilet paper, you’ll never accidentally create a toilet paper flower.
If the idea of schlepping used TP makes you sick, there are a few things you can do to make this process less unpleasant. First, opt for an opaque bag so you don’t have to look at the contents all the time. A regular ziplock or odor-proof bag covered with tape works well. Second, double-bag. This way you can keep your opaque outer bag and throw the inside away when you get to a trash can. Secondary containment will also reduce odours. Third, pack enough extra toilet paper—about two squares per poo—to wrap your used TP. Again, this reduces both visuals and smells.
Alternative plan: do not use toilet paper at all! Wipe with natural materials, like smooth river rocks or soft broad leaves, or use a backcountry bidet.
8. Stir it up before burying it.
After making your deposit, throw a handful of soil into the hole and use a sturdy stick to stir it up. Mixing soil with your poo helps soil microbes colonize turd faster, speeding up the decomposition process. It’s also oddly satisfying. Leave the stick in the hole when burying it. I like to let the tip out when all is said and done as a warning to future backpackers not to dig in this place.
9. Wash your hands afterwards!
Backcountry or not, unwashed hands can spread disease. For example, lack of hand washing is the reason norovirus outbreaks plague the crowded Appalachian Trail every spring. A small amount of biodegradable soap and water or a squeeze of hand sanitizer will suffice.
On my first long-distance backpacking trip, I didn’t poop for the first four days, and it was pretty terrible. But eventually, I came to embrace the many joys of a well-executed cathole. All it takes is a bit of practice and a good understanding of the underlying principles.
This guide may seem like overkill, but it doesn’t poop the fine details (ha). Attention to detail will make your cathole process smoother and (hopefully) keep the wilderness clean and wonderful.
Featured Image: Graphic Design by Zack Goldmann.