Unavoidable Business: Is It Ok to Poop in the Woods?

Learn how to properly dispose of human waste and toilet paper while backpacking. Follow these tips to keep yourself and the woods healthy while respecting nature.

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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!

old pit toilet in the woods - is it legal to poop in the woods
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Knowing how to properly manage human waste is crucial for people looking to go backpacking in the woods and backcountry camping. This includes poop and toilet paper, so is it ok to poop in the woods?

While not illegal in most backcountry areas, there are rules to do your business in the woods responsibly. Things like Leave No Trace principles were established to help respect nature and to keep the woods pristine for the next visitor.

Since you are looking at taking a thru-hike, you need to start building a better understanding of being at one with nature. You need to know the signals of when you need to go along with the best ways to manage human waste and toilet paper.

Why Do You Need to Be So Responsible?

With hundreds to thousands hiking on trails each year if proper waste management isn’t done, it could lead to an unsightly and unhealthy situation. Things like toilet paper blooms are gross.

Managing your waste while on the trail comes down to having the proper supplies such as a trowel, packing out your poop in a WAG bag or cat hole digger, and lastly, how much toilet paper you should bring.

How Much Toilet Paper Do Hikers Carry Between Towns?

A common question regarding backpacking is how much toilet paper should I pack. There is no “correct” answer on how much toilet paper to pack.

In general, though most need at least 4-5 squares per bathroom trip, if you have stomach issues and need more, you may want to over-estimate as at least toilet paper isn’t heavy.

It comes down to preference, but consider how often you’ll need to go and how much you’ll need per visit.

How to Poop in the Woods

Depending on the trail, there will probably be only two solid options: pre-built pit toilets, which shelters along the Appalachian Trail tend to have, or you will need to dig your cat hole.

Pit Toilets

For those happy to have a similar-to-home bathroom, a pit toilet is as close as you will find on the trail. They are generally pretty clean, typically quite smelly, and frequently have toilet paper.

They should have wood shavings or similar that you need to spread over your business. This will help with the smell but also help the biodegrading occur in the backcountry privy.

Cat Holes

For those who want to be a little more rustic, you will probably find yourself digging a cat hole. Any time you need to dig, you must make sure to plan. Don’t wait until the last minute; you don’t want any accidents.

For a cat hole, you must dig a small hole with your trowel around 4-6 inches in diameter and 6-8 inches deep, and you will want to do your business directly into this hole; make sure you have your poop kit with all your supplies!

After you finish your business, you should cover the hole with the soil you dug out and then spread leaves or other natural materials to help it decompose and mask any scent.

Make sure to have a sealable plastic bag to hold your waste toilet paper for disposal so you can easily pack out the used TP.

Or use WAG, or waste alleviation and gelling bags developed as massively absorbent material that can change your poop into an inert and odorless gel, making it easy to hike out.

Toilet Paper Alternates

If you are interested in more natural or eco-efficient ways to clean up after yourself, there are some pretty neat eco-friendly options as well, which can help you save on weight and also help the environment.

Trail Bidet

Bidets have long been used in many places outside the US, but now there are these fancy backcountry bidet options, like the Culoclean, that can be added to a water bottle for transportation and use on the go.

There are different models, but essentially, they all attach to a water bottle and have a small tube with a nozzle that you can use to give yourself a quick wash after using the restroom. No more wiping at most; you just quickly wipe and dry with fewer sheets.

Natural Objects

If you are really into eco-friendly, you can instead use natural objects like large leaves, small stones, or similar objects from the trail.

You can make a little pile of whatever you use to clean yourself and use it one at a time to wipe.

There are pros and cons to using natural objects, but it is a great way to achieve that if you are interested in being eco-friendly.

Backcountry Hygiene Tips

Practicing proper hygiene may seem odd when you are not around public areas, but being unclean and unwashed leads to sickness and health problems from fecal matter passing things like Giardia, salmonella, and E. coli to you.

Keeping your hands clean is vital to preventing the spread of disease, especially when preparing food.

This also includes your cookware. It would help if you also cleaned any dishes and cookware after use promptly and properly.

Carry Soap

Good camp soaps like Dr. Bronner’s unscented can be used with minimal amounts in the woods to clean your body and ensure proper sanitation thoroughly.

You want to make sure that you are washing and cleaning yourself at least once daily with soap and water, more if you can manage it.

Carry Hand Sanitizer

Hand sanitizer is a perfect way to handle when you can’t immediately wash your hands with water and soap.

Make sure to use a good quality hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol to be effective.

You want to ensure you use hand sanitizer at a minimum after any bowel movements, urination, and before food preparation and consumption.

Issues With Poor Bathroom Management

Human waste disposal is necessary, and it is one of the worst-performing duties in the backcountry.

This is partly because people underestimate how much waste they create and how difficult it is to dispose of human waste properly.

People also often do not realize how improper waste disposal can negatively affect others now and in the future.

Most also don’t know that it takes nearly a year for human poop to biodegrade, and since people tend to have a bowel movement a day, this leads to thousands of holes of poop left in the woods each year.

This is unsightly and can lead to disease and sickness. Please properly dispose of your waste to help keep everyone safe.

Health Risks to Human Feces Exposure

The biggest problem for most is the invisible health problems bad toilet decisions create, like getting into the water source and causing drinking water pollution.

This is how things like Giardia and other waterborne diseases are spread, by people not washing their hands and properly disposing of their waste.

Feces can also contain harmful bacteria like E. coli, which can cause severe sickness in people, and it is essential always to practice proper hygiene to help prevent the spread of these diseases.

Dangerous to Trail Maintenance Crews

Trail crews will frequently move about the areas around the trails to maintain them, and they often get exposed to poorly executed bathroom trips and the health risks that come with them.

One of the most common dangers to trail crews is coming in contact with rocks smeared with human poop, which is dangerous to their health, let alone gross.

They manage to keep the trail pristine and ready for your use. Please think about the others who may be impacted by your use and leave it better.

Final Thoughts on Toilet Paper Use on a Thru-Hike

Ultimately, dealing with your waste while out on the trail is entirely up to you, but having a plan and preparation is crucial.

There are many ways to manage your poop and TP while hiking, so find what works best for you and stick with it.

And always remember to Leave No Trace!

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