The “doos” and don’ts of outdoor bathroom etiquette

Nature can call at any moment, so let’s talk about a topic that’s not exactly glamorous, but definitely necessary: how to poop in the great outdoors using Leave No Trace techniques.

What are Leave No Trace principles and why are they important?

Leave No Trace is a set of principles and practices designed to promote responsible outdoor recreation and minimize the impact of human activities on the natural environment. By following Leave No Trace principles, you’re helping minimize the impact of human waste on the environment, protect public health, and preserve the natural beauty and ecological integrity of the outdoors for future generations to enjoy.

Going to the bathroom in the outdoors: Tips for a clean and green experience

So you have to go for a “number two” with a view while hiking or camping? Don’t be a party pooper by leaving your mark where it doesn’t belong. And don’t fret – we’re here to share the “doos” and don’ts of outdoor bathroom etiquette!

DO dig a cat hole for individual camping

If you’re camping alone or with a very small group, you can dig individual holes – called cat holes – to do your business. Cat holes are small pits dug in the ground for doing the deed outdoors. They’re typically 4-6 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter, and should be dug at least 60 metres (70 steps) from the nearest trail, camp site, or water source. When finished, the waste should be buried in the cat hole and covered with soil, and the area should be disguised to blend in with the surrounding environment.

DO build a latrine for larger group camping

On Uplift trips, we’re usually hiking and camping in larger groups, so everyone having their own personalized cat hole simply isn’t practical, or sustainable. That’s why our lead guide digs a larger, communal latrine that is strategically located and clearly marked for everyone to use during the trip.

An example of a dug latrine. Notice the subsoil in one pile on the left (can also put at the back of the latrine or side) and the top soil on the right.

DO pick a strategic spot

When deciding where to dig the latrine, try to find a spot with soft soil and minimal roots and rocks – this will make digging a lot easier. And as we mentioned, making sure it’s far enough away from your camp site, trails, and any water source (ideally at least 60 metres) is very important.

DO make sure it’s deep enough

Make sure the latrine is big enough for a) the amount of people who will be using it and b) for the duration of the trip. Ensure it’s large enough so people can squat over it (some backpackers prefer to build a little seat for it, but we think it’s more hygienic to simply squat over the hole). DON’T make it too wide – you want it more long and narrow than wide and circular, because you don’t want to have your feet set wide apart when you’re squatting.

Remove the top layer of soil with any roots or grass and set it off to the side. Then, begin digging down into the subsoil and place the dirt just behind the latrine so you can easily access it. DO leave a trowel just by the subsoil pile. When someone does their business, they’ll use the trowel to cover it with subsoil.

Remove the top soil in clumps for easy removal. Keep separate from the subsoil.

DO cover up the evidence

The last thing to do before leaving camp is cover up the latrine. Try to pack as much of the subsoil back into the hole. If it’s well-packed, something called subsistence can occur, where there are little depressions all over a past campsite.

To finish off, take the layer of topsoil you set aside and place it back on top. With the seeds and root systems still part of that topsoil layer, the area will regenerate a lot faster. If a latrine is properly dug and covered back up, with time, you can’t even tell it was there in the first place.

Placing the top soil overtop of the subsoil will help this area recover.

DON’T leave white flags

Is it OK to leave toilet paper in the woods? We hear this a lot. The short answer is: no!

Toilet paper can take anywhere from a few days to several years to decompose, depending on factors such as the environment and the type of toilet paper used. It’s never a pleasant hiking or camping experience to see someone else’s toilet paper in the outdoors.

Toilet paper that’s used and discarded in the backcountry is known as a white flag, and it’s a major pet peeve of many outdoor explorers. If you’re digging a cat hole or latrine, the toilet paper can be buried right in there.

If you’re just hiking and not digging any holes, toilet paper should be packed out to protect wildlife, prevent the spread of disease, and keep the area hygienic and beautiful for the next person passing through. Bring a sealable plastic bag with you to dispose of these items when you return to civilization.

DO consider your surroundings

What type of environment will you be camping or hiking in? Depending on the surrounding landscape, the proper steps to take to Leave No Trace will vary.

For camping: Will you be camping in a desert environment? Things don’t break down as fast in sandy ground as there’s little organic matter to help it decompose. Most times, you’ll have to pack everything out, including human waste. Outdoor equipment stores sell waste bags for this purpose – they usually have a deodorizing powder and make packing out waste a clean, easy experience.

Same goes for camping on glaciers or higher alpine areas, which tend to be rocky, since you won’t be able to use the cat hole or latrine methods we covered above.

For hiking: Consider the popularity of the route you’re hiking. If it’s a popular route, like Turtle Mountain in Crowsnest Pass, for example, you wouldn’t want to do your number two and simply put a rock over it. In the summer, there can be as many as 30 people hiking Turtle in a single day – imagine if everyone did that! Or don’t – because it ain’t a pretty picture.

The best course for day hikes is to do your business in the morning, and then you don’t have to worry about it until after your hike. But we get it – nature calls at the oddest times. If you absolutely must make a deposit, dig a cat hole to bury the evidence.

DO check the local regulations

Some wilderness areas and parks have specific regulations regarding the disposal of toilet paper and human waste, so it’s important to check local guidelines and following the regulations they set out.

Keep it clean and classy in the great outdoors

Going to the bathroom using Leave No Trace techniques doesn’t have to be scary or unpleasant. With a little preparation and knowledge, you can do your part to minimize your impact on the environment and preserve the natural beauty of the outdoors for others.

On multi-day backpacking trips with Uplift Adventures, our lead guide digs the latrine and provides guidance and education on Leave No Trace principles and how to properly use the latrine. Our Intro to Backpacking course offers more in-depth education on Leave No Trace techniques, so if you’re interested in backpacking and want to learn more about Leave No Trace, our course is a great place to start!

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