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How to Poop While Backpacking: Backcountry Hygiene Tips

Looking for a guide on how to poop while backpacking? This article shares backcountry hygiene tips and best practices to help make pooping on the trail a breeze while minimizing your impact on the environment. The best method to poop while backpacking is largely going to depend on where you are, as I’ll discuss, but it’s helpful to know the options that are out there along with what to pack.

While these tips are geared towards backpackers, they also apply to hikers and other trail users, like mountain bikers. You never know when you’re going to encounter the “call of the wild” on the trail, so it’s important to always be prepared to potentially have to poop during your outdoor adventures.

Woman sitting on a rock while backpacking in Wyoming.

Quick Tips On How to Poop While Backpacking:

  1. Always pack out toilet paper and menstrual products if you have your period while backpacking. Even if the toilet paper you use says it’s biodegradable, it should still be packed out.
  2. Check local regulations. It’s increasingly common to see regulations that require you to pack out your poop, especially in popular areas. 
  3. Make sure you poop at least 200 ft. from water sources and trails when digging catholes.

Woman wearing a large backpacking pack looking out over the mountains.

The Best Methods to Poop While Backpacking

1. Pack It Out

When in doubt, pack it out! With so many people getting into backpacking (which is a good thing!), popular backcountry areas are starting to experience major poop problems. The best way to mitigate the cumulative impacts from heavy use is for people to pack out their poop using a WAG bag (WAG = waste alleviation & gelling).

It’s becoming increasingly common to see regulations that require or strongly encourage backpackers and other recreation users to pack out poop in heavily trafficked areas. In some places, like Grand County, Utah, there are laws that require human waste to always be packed out. 

While the idea of packing out your poop might take a little time to get used to, it’s really not that bad. In fact, I find it much easier and convenient than digging a cathole!

WAG bags come with 2 bags, along with a wad of toilet paper and a hand sanitizer wipe. The bag that you poop in has a HUGE opening and powder inside that helps to solidify the waste and control odors. After you finish going to the bathroom, tie the bag up and toss it into the second bag that has a zipper closure to securely contain your waste. Make sure to pack your WAG bag out and dispose of it properly in the trash (some places have trash bins specifically for WAG bags).

A turquoise bleu lake in Colorado.

When Should You Pack Out Your Poop?

  1. When local regulations require it.
  2. Backpacking in the desert.
  3. Backpacking in high-alpine areas.
  4. Backpacking in heavily trafficked areas

Why Should You Pack Out Your Poop in the Desert and High-Alpine Areas?

There are a few reasons why you should pack out your poop in the desert and high-alpine areas, whether you’re backpacking or car camping. One big reason is that the land in these areas is often too rocky or hard to actually dig a proper cathole in. The land that is soft enough to dig a hole in is typically either tundra or covered in cryptobiotic soil in the desert. These are ecologically sensitive areas that you shouldn’t be digging a hole in.

Another reason why it’s important to pack out poop in these areas is because it takes longer for human waste to decompose. The soil lacks the bacteria necessary to break down human waste in a timely manner. Human waste can potentially transmit diseases, so it’s not a good idea to leave it in the environment if it’s not going to break down.

2. Dig a Cathole

The traditional method used to poop while backpacking is digging a cat hole and burying your waste. This is still an appropriate way to poop while backpacking in many places, especially lush, forested areas. One of the most important things to remember when using a cathole is to Leave No Trace and pack out your toilet paper. It takes time for toilet paper to break down and wildlife can get into it in the meantime.

The secret to digging a good cathole in the woods is finding a private area with soft ground. You want to avoid digging too close to large trees if you can to avoid hitting roots while digging your hole. Once you dig your cathole (described below) make sure you position yourself carefully before going to the bathroom so you’re in the right place. Make sure you cover your waste completely and consider placing a rock on top so someone else doesn’t try to choose the same place.

How to Dig a Proper Cathole:

  1. Find a private spot at least 200 ft. from water sources and trails!
  2. Use a trowel to dig a hole at least 6-8 inches (15-20cm) deep and 4-6 inches wide (10-15cm). A good way to test if your hole is big enough is to see if a Nalgene bottle fits inside (before you use it of course!). Some trowels also come with measurements on them.
  3. Squat over the hole and go to the bathroom. If you want extra support while squatting, position your hole near a small tree or something else that you can brace yourself with.
  4. Wipe and pack out your toilet paper.
  5. Cover the cathole with soil so your waste is completely buried.

Woman backpacking in the forest in Olympic National Park.

3. Use a Backcountry Privy

Depending on where you’re backpacking you may be lucky enough to have access to a backcountry privy to do your business. These are basic pit toilets that help concentrate the impacts of heavy use. Sometimes you’ll have an entire outhouse, but oftentimes the toilets are open, providing a scenic view while you do your business. If you have access to a backcountry privy, you should use it to poop while backpacking to minimize your impact.

I’ve been on two backpacking trips (Coyote Gulch and Seven Lakes Basin in Olympic National Park) where I had access to a backcountry privy and it made the experience so much more pleasant! Even if you have access to a backcountry privy it’s still a good idea to have a backup plan in case the toilet is full. Also, don’t forget to BYO toilet paper!

Woman wearing a backpacking pack stands in front of a waterfall while backpacking in Coyote Gulch.

What to Pack to  Poop While Backpacking

  1. WAG bags to pack out your poop.
  2. A trowel if you’re in an area where digging a cathole is appropriate.
  3. Toilet paper (or you can use local foliage). Remember to pack your toilet paper out!
  4. A plastic bag to pack out your toilet paper (if you don’t use a WAG bag). You can also use a dedicated silicone bag, like a Stasher bag, if you want to cut down on waste, just make sure you label it!
  5. If you don’t want to use toilet paper you can also pack a portable bidet like a TUSHY Travel.
  6. Hand sanitizer to freshen up afterwards.

Looking for a full packing list for short backpacking trips? Download my packing list HERE!

Backpacking gear packing list.

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