Leave No Trace - Dispose of Waste Properly - Part II

This dear friends is that post. This is the post where we have the talk about pooping in the woods. Oh yeah!

In all seriousness though, knowing how and where to poop in the woods is a very important outdoor skill. Unfortunately for us, solid human and domestic animal waste is not a naturally occurring item in the wilderness environment. This means that we either need to dispose of solid waste properly, as appropriate for the environment, or pack it out.

Multi-colored trash items on a forest floor surrounded by trees.

The third principle of Leave No Trace is Dispose of Waste Properly. This is an important principle of the Leave No Trace ethics and the key to maintaining the beauty of our wilderness environments. 

We are exploring this principle throughout the month of September. 


Solid Waste - Human and Domestic Animals

The term ‘solid waste’ refers to solid excrement from humans or domestic animals not naturally occurring in a wilderness environment. Or, in other words, poop. This post explores the key skills and knowledge you need to safely and responsibility poop in the woods for you and your pet(s).

It is the responsibility of all users of wilderness environments to minimize our impacts to these environments. When it comes to solid waste, either dispose of it properly or pack it out. (yes - really)

Why Should I Care?

Proper disposal of solid waste is important to avoid pollution of water sources, avoid negative implications of someone else finding it, minimize the possibility of spreading disease, and maximize the rate of decomposition.

In other words, be awesome and avoid ‘Ewwww!’ for the environment and others.

Be Prepared. Have a Kit. The elements of a backcounty toilet kit should include the following:

  • Heavy Grade Plastic ‘Freezer’ Bag or Equivalent: This contains all of the elements of your backcountry toilet kit for quick access.

  • Toilet Paper: Keep clean toilet paper in a dedicated plastic bag to keep it dry.

  • Toilet Paper Disposal Bag: Stash used toilet paper in a dedicated plastic bag for disposal once off the trail.

  • Backcountry Trowel: For digging ‘catholes’ for solid waste deposit. We like the Duece of Spades.

  • Hand Sanitizer: Because cleanliness is good! (and we don’t see any sinks out there….)

Where and How Should I Dispose of Poop?

The ideal plan is to hold out for a backcountry toilet and/or trailhead outhouse. These are commonly marked on trail maps and available on most popular trails. We understand though that nature has a way of calling when it wants to.

In most wilderness locations, burying human / domestic animal feces in the correct manner is the most effective method. This includes the majority of our forest soil in the Pacific Northwest. It is important to choose the right place though far from water, campsites, and other frequently used places. It is also important to limit this practice to moist soil to assist with decomposition.

The Cathole

Catholes are the most widely accepted method of solid waste disposal. A cathole is defined as a hole, dug in the soil, at least 6 - 8 inches deep and 4 - 6 inches in diameter.

To make one, simply dig a hole with a small garden trowel or other digging implement. Once made, deposit your solid waste in the hole and cover it completely. It will ideally be not only covered but fully disguised with natural materials when you are finished.


Elements of an Ideal Cathole

  1. Location: Locate your cathole at least 200 feet (about 70 adult steps) from water, trails, and camp. Select an inconspicuous site where other people will be unlikely to walk or camp. Select an inconspicuous site untraveled by people. Examples of cathole sites include thick undergrowth, near downed timber, or on gentle hillsides.

  2. Moist Organic Material: Try to find a site with deep organic soil. This organic matter contains organisms which will help decompose the feces. (Organic soil is usually dark and rich in color.) The desert does not have as much organic soil as a forested area.

  3. Sunlight Exposure: If possible, locate your cathole where it will receive maximum sunlight. The heat from the sun will aid decomposition.

  4. Dispersed: If camping in the area for more than one night, or if camping with a large group, cathole sites should be widely dispersed.

Avoid These Practices - No Catholes When

  1. Toilet Paper & Tampons - Pack it Out: Take toilet paper and tampons back out with you. They can take a very long time to decompose. (if at all) Pack it out.

  2. Arid Organic Material: Arid organic materials such as deserts due not contain as many pathogens and/or moisture to break down solid waste quickly or effectively. It is best practice to pack it out in these areas.

  3. Near Water Sources - Current or Seasonal: Avoid areas where water visibly flows, such as sandy washes, even if they are dry at the moment. Also avoid existing lakes, streams, or rivers by at least 200 feet to avoid contamination.

  4. Snow: Solid waste will not break down in snow. It will only melt out when the snow does and/or find it’s way into a contaminating a snow melt based water supply. Gross.

Packing it Out - Tips and Tricks

So you have to pack it out, eh? It doesn’t have to be eww! Here are some tips to make it less traumatic and aromatic.

  1. OpSak - Scent Proof Bags: Use an OpSak! These heavy duty double-sealed plastic bags keep odors inside the bag. They are amazing.

  2. Double Bag It - Solid Color Inner Bag: There are some things that you simply don’t want to see in a clear plastic the bag. A common solution to this problem is to use a solid color inner bag inside of a securely sealed outer bag. Dog poop bags are great for this!

  3. Armor Clad Your Outer Bag - Duct Tape: Wrap your permanent multi-use outer bag with duct tape. This keeps unsightly inner bag items hidden away while also strengthening the outer bag against leaks.

  4. Buy Commercial ‘Wag Bag’ Kits: There are a surprising number of commercial ‘wag bag’ kits made for this purpose available for purchase. Our favorite is the ‘Go Anywhere’ kit available at REI.

Thank you for reading these important points on solid waste disposal. Only you can prevent the ‘ewwwww’ on the trail. Thank you!

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