Skills: No Plumbing, No Problem

The dirty business of doing your business in the wilderness
Staff Writer

Everyone poops. (I read that once in a kid’s book, anyway). And sometimes, particularly on multi-day backcountry trips, it happens—gasp!— miles away from the nearest bathroom. It’s what keeps a lot of otherwise reasonable people from embarking on said trips. What should you do in this situation? We turned to Ben Lawhon, education director at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, to find out.

“Go” before you go.
At home, where you have a well-appointed bathroom, complete with a flushing toilet and a sink to wash hands. It’s not always an option, but before heading out for a day-hike, consider a quick bathroom break. It’s sanitary, and saves you discomfort on the trail.

Make a pit stop.
Some trails feature pit toilets, or privies. They’re basic—essentially a seat built over a hole in the ground—but they get the job done while offering (bonus!) free toilet paper. Be warned, though, that pit toilets can smell pretty gnarly. But that’s a minor price to pay for a seat and some privacy.

Channel your inner cat.
Use a stick (or, if you’re a gearhead, a specially designed trowel) to dig a “cathole”—a six- to eight-inch-deep hole—at least 200 feet from the nearest water source, campsite or trail, and do your business Garfield-style. If balance is an issue, try setting up near a small tree that you can grip with both hands while leaning back, or a bigger tree that you can lean up against in the “chair” position. Hopefully you’ve packed toilet paper, which you can discard in the hole. When you’re all set, pee or pour a little water on the toilet paper to help break it down, and bury the whole mess.

Bonus: The Paper Trail
Lawhon recommends going a step further, and packing out your toilet paper to reduce pollution. And if you’re really hardcore, he says, you’ll carry your poop out, too. Some land managers—including the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service—are making it a requirement (see California’s Mt. Shasta and Mt. Whitney, and Arizona’s Vermillion Cliffs, among others), so it’s probably something you should start getting used to. Gross, right? But consider what you’re putting into the ground, where it could eventually leech into water sources. “Bears aren’t generally on Viagra and Levitra and St. John’s Wort and eating McDonald’s,” Lawhon says. As outdoor usage increases, so does human impact. He recommends double bag systems by companies like Restop and Cleanwaste, which safely contain and even biodegrade waste.

Ben Lawhon has been hiking, camping, backpacking, paddling (kayak, canoe and raft) and fly fishing for almost 30 years, and figures that by now he’s pooped in the woods about as much as he’s pooped indoors.

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