Poop Etiquette While Hiking

toilet in a patch of four leaf clovers
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Defecating outdoors isn't likely to be on anybody's "must-do" list, but you can't dodge the bullet forever. When nature calls and won't be put off, you basically have two options: Bury your leavings or pack them out.

If you're in an area where there aren't enough bacteria to break down your feces, that's very heavily traveled or where there's just nowhere appropriate to bury said feces, packing it out is your only real option. If you're in a "pack it out" situation without the right supplies, you get to either improvise or hold it. (Yet another reason why it's such a good idea to have zip-close plastic bags on the trail.)

On the other hand, if you're in an area above the high-water mark with plenty of rich, fertile soil (i.e. teeming with bacteria that can't wait for a chance to break your feces down), it's time to talk about burying your poop.

The Basic Procedure

The basic process is pretty simple: You dig a hole — usually 6 to 8 inches deep — using whatever materials are ready to hand or, better yet, your handy camp trowel. (In a hot desert environment, you may choose to make the hole somewhat shallower — 4 to 6 inches.)

Squat over the hole, do your business (try to limit yourself to defecating because according to Kathleen Meyer, author of "How to Sh*t in the Woods," peeing in the same hole can actually preserve the poo), clean up, stir the results, fill the hole in, and go on your merry way. Sweet relief!

Of course, nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems once you're outside the realm of toilet paper and flush toilets — so here are a few notes on where to dig that hole and how to clean up afterward.

Choosing Your Spot

The ideal cat hole situates your poop at least 200 feet from your camp, your cooking area, any water sources, and trails. Look for rich, dark earth as a clue that the soil is fertile (which equates to breaking down your feces more quickly).

Avoiding water sources means more than just avoiding lakes and streams. Look for subtle clues that an area is subject to regular runoff, storm drainage or seasonal high water, and situate your cat hole beyond the reach of said flows.

Cleaning Up

In terms of how to clean up after defecating outdoors, basically stay squatting until you've cleaned up — because once you stand up, the "barn doors are closed."

Here's some more good advice: Eschew toilet paper in favor of natural materials (or if you do use toilet paper, pack it out). Whatever natural materials you do use — from a clean rock to sphagnum moss, a.k.a. nature's toilet paper — go into the cat hole. You also have the option of rinsing, bidet-style, with a little water from your water bottle.

Before you fill the cat hole in, stir loose dirt into it with a stick — mixing the materials gets the decomposition process going. Drop said stick into the hole and use your camp trowel or improvised digging tool to fill the hole back in.