The Unsung Hero of the Trail: Why Every Hiker Needs a Trowel

A trowel is an essential piece of gear for hikers that helps you follow Leave No Trace principles. Learn why you need one and how to choose the best trowel.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

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Some people do not understand why they need a trowel when hiking. They do not know that cat holes are one of the most important aspects of LNT and prevent disease.

Diseases, such as Giardia or Salmonella can be passed from human feces to other hikers by contact with the ground, shoes, hands, clothing, and gear. So, do I need a trowel for hiking the trail?

Digging a cat hole typically requires a digging tool. The proper depth is 6-8 inches to be LNT or Leave No Trace approved. If you don’t dig this hole and skip this you can lead to diseases being passed through the thru-hiking populace.

Proper use of cat holes helps prevent these diseases from being spread by allowing you to dispose of waste in a way that won’t contaminate anything else. These diseases like giardia can lead to a few days to a week or more off-trail in unplanned expenses!!

Why You Should Always Use a Trowel on the Trail

As a good steward in your outdoor activities you should always be working your hardest to leave the trail in the same or better condition than when you travel on it, this means picking up trash sometimes but in larger part means managing your crap.

A trowel helps to ensure you dig a deep enough poop hole to bury your crap and ensure that it doesn’t become a health concern for others nor get dug up by animals making a health problem for other hikers.

Failure to adequately bury your business is a huge problem the more people come on the trail, especially when they aren’t versed in the LNT principles and leave their crap out or worse, toilet paper and crap out to become toilet paper blooms along the trail touching everything.

This is why a trowel is a piece of gear that all thru-hikers need to carry and use every time.

Do you actually need a trowel?

Many hikers may argue that they have alternate tools to a backpacking trowel they can use instead to dig their cat holes but a trekking pole or spare tent stake isn’t going to be very effective at digging a wide enough and deep enough hole without utilizing your hands to enhance their ability.

What is Leave No Trace and Why It Matters

Leave No Trace, or LNT for short is a set of guidelines for outdoor recreation that encourages people to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. It is often summarized as “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

The Leave No Trace Seven Principles are:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

These guidelines are not just for backpackers, but also for all types of outdoor recreation. You should always be working to Leave No Trace when you’re out trekking into the outdoors .

These rules are basic but they keep the outdoor experience enjoyable for everyone including outdoor enthusiasts and others like day hikers.

Reasons Why You Should Always Bury Your Crap

There are many reasons why burying your poo is vital to the Leave No Trace principles, and also just as a general rule of being a good human who loves the outdoors.

No One Wants to See It

There is no person on the trail or even in the city who is interested in seeing a pile of human dung on the ground, this is beyond gross and it shows that the person who left it was ill-prepared for the trek and is burdening others with the health crisis that comes from this.

Gets into the Water Source(s)

One of the more dangerous aspects that last a long time is that you contaminate the water source with bacteria that are then picked up and spread through the simple washing of hands, feet, or filtering of water which doesn’t always get all these contaminants out.

Toilet Paper Blooms

I read this name for it and I laughed because it is very true, this is what happens when someone doesn’t pack out their TP (not always required) but also doesn’t bury it deep enough to not get free.

This material spreads easily in the wind and can spread crap across wide areas hitting all kinds of random objects people could touch which allows them to pick up bacteria and either get themselves or others sick.

Burying Speeds Decomposition

Burying your waste will help speed up the decomposition process and ensure that it is less likely to be dug back up by animals or other hikers who choose the same area to go number two themselves!

How and Where Should You Dig a Cathole?

Overall this will change a bit depending on where you are trekking, but in general, the rules to follow to take care of your waste will be to follow a few specific guidelines as listed below:

  1. Locate a spot 200 feet from water sources or greater, 200′ from the trail, and 200′ from any camp areas
  2. Dig a hole at least 6″ but preferably 8″ deep to bury human waste sanitarily
  3. Pack out used TP to dispose of in a sanitary container (check trails though as some will allow you to bury)

These are very simple steps but you would be amazed how little people pay attention to the environment and also complain when they get sick due to someone else failing to do this also.

How to Dig the Perfect Cathole

The simplest way is to use a trowel, whether a plastic trowel or a lighter-weight titanium trowel. A trowel can do the job in less than a minute if you do it right, and also will do much more work for you by digging when in more rocky soil or harder soil is typically the worst to dig into.

The larger trowels will have a ruler on the shovel to help you know when you have dug the hole deep enough, the lighter ones will be much smaller but you will have to estimate, please if you estimate go on the deeper side for all hikers!

You want to dig the hole 6-8 inches deep (about the length of the trowel blade) and 4-6 inches in diameter as well as with as much exposed sunlight as possible to aid in decomposition.

Should I take toilet paper?

Depending on the trail you hike on you may be required to hike out your TP, which is always preferred as this is one of the more gross things that can get exposed when failing to properly dig a cat hole.

For those trails and areas that allow you to bury TP then you want to dig your hole at least that 8″ mark to provide the extra space that the toilet paper will take up while keeping everything buried deep enough to not attract animals.

Trowels Help You Be a Responsible Hiker

A cat hole trowel is very simple but it can do so much for you when practicing LNT. It will speed up your efforts to bury waste, help ensure that the hole is deep enough and large/wide enough, and also help protect water sources from becoming polluted with poop!

Trowels are efficient and quick

You might not think about this before going on hikes or treks into secluded areas, but having a potty trowel on you is one of the best things you can do to prevent yourself and others from getting sick.

Tips to Choosing the Right Trowel

When looking at the above poo trowel options or at other choices on other sites there are a few key things that you should look and think about before making a purchase, none are deal breakers but can help you choose the right piece of equipment for you.


Most of these trowels won’t break the bank, they can range from very low cost for a plastic trowel to more expensive but durable titanium or stainless steel trowels.

If you are looking for an ultralight trowel you will find most of these will be metal trowels as these materials will allow for the trowel to be ultrathin and less bulky.


If you shop at Walmart you may see the more traditional camping trowel or shovel, this is NOT ideal for you on a 6-month hike carrying it with you the entire time.

Weight should be a core decision for you though items at this scale you should be able to find a fairly inexpensive trowel that can fit your needs as lightweight trowels can be made from most materials.


You shouldn’t look at purchasing a black or darker color trowel as they will be easy to lose in the wilderness, same with the more natural greens and browns.

The best colors to use on smaller gear like trowels will be brighter colors, this is why highlighter orange is used for hunting times, it is just easy to spot as it doesn’t blend in.


The material of your trowel can matter as you are trying to do good with the wilderness, your trowel shouldn’t be made from a man-made material if this appeals to you.

Preferably if you should accidentally lose your trowel you don’t want it made from a chemical that will not break down for thousands of years of time, this is why I don’t choose plastics.

At least metal trowels are made from elements that naturally exist and will eventually become their elements again!


For most, you will want to choose a trowel that has the markings on it to help you when out on the trail, you would prefer one marked to 6 and 8″ as this can help you measure both the width and depth of your cat hole.


You want your trowel to be able to dig in near any soil you come across, you will deal with rocky soil, packed soil, roots, and similar in-ground objects.

You will want to make sure the trowel you purchase can dig into these types of conditions but also that it won’t dent and become rusted and inefficient over time, especially on wet trails like the Appalachian Trail.

Final Thoughts on Cat Holes and Trowels

When it comes to thru-hiking , there are a few pieces of gear that are essential for your success and safety. One of those is a cat hole trowel – something that will help you bury your waste properly and prevent any diseases from spreading.

While many hikers might not think about bringing this piece of equipment with them on their trek, doing so can make all the difference in terms of practicing good Leave No Trace principles and keeping yourself healthy.

Make sure to do your research before purchasing a trowel and choose one that is lightweight, durable, and easy to use!

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