Pooping in the Outdoors: The Complete Guide

A small shovel and roll of toilet paper on a mound of grass in the forest

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We’re dedicating our May features to the outdoors and adventure. In the past two years, we saw more people get outside, eager for fresh air and new trails. Now, read this month’s features to learn more about rock climbing among Sedona’s famed energy vortexes, the micro-adventures you can incorporate into your everyday life, what to do about number two in the wilderness, and more.

Between the tedious tasks of setting up camp, searching for clean water sources, and battling mosquitos, pooping outside remains one of the least favorite activities when hiking and camping in the backcountry. Though it can be fear-inducing in many ways, going numero dos in the outdoors is the only choice when there are no facilities around. 

The rules for pooping outdoors vary according to your environment and are rapidly changing due to many more adventurers now embracing the elements. Double-check with your destination to make sure what’s acceptable.

With a duty to preserve and protect the environment, here’s how hikers and campers can adhere to the Leave No Trace philosophy and poop outdoors responsibly.

What to Know 

Though the most widely accepted method of pooping outdoors is to dig catholes, many public lands and forests are now reversing these guidelines. Because more of us are heading outdoors, digging catholes in heavily trafficked parklands is no longer a sustainable solution. Instead, they encourage visitors to pack out their poop, especially in sensitive ecosystems like deserts and alpine environments.

In parklands where this remains voluntary, packing it out is the ultimate way to leave no trace. This philosophy also extends to toilet paper and wet wipes, even if they’re labeled as eco-friendly or biodegradable, as they can pose a danger to wildlife. Though many argue that biodegradable toilet paper is fine to leave in catholes, packing them out has become the best practice to minimize one’s overall impact on the land

Why Should I Pack It Out?

Besides polluting trails and campsites, human poop can be an environmental hazard by potentially contaminating nearby water sources. Aside from organic matter and nutrients, unprocessed poop may contain disease-causing pathogens that can leach into the soil and remain in the environment long after the poop has decomposed, which usually takes about a year. It can also contain seeds of non-native plants due to human diets, which can spread if not disposed of properly. 

Methods for Pooping Outside

Whether between the sturdy trunks of giant cedar trees or while admiring the sunset paint the sky a golden hue in a tropical rainforest, if you’re committed to burying your poop, first dig a cathole 4 to 6 inches wide and 6 to 8 inches deep. Squat and hug the trunk of a tree for stability or place one hand behind you for extra support to poop in the hole and swirl it with a stick to make what backcountry users call "poop soup." This accelerates its rate of decomposition. When you've finished, bury it up with the original dirt and discourage other campers and hikers from pooping in the same spot by marking it with a stick on your dirt pile. 

Alternatively, embrace poop bags, the most sanitary and environmentally friendly method to poop outside. These waste alleviation and gelling bags, affectionately known as WAG bags, are a double bagging system consisting of an outer bag that seals in the poop and an inner bag loaded with a treatment powder that gels waste and neutralizes its odor. 

After opening up the WAG bag, set it on even ground in an isolated spot, rolling the edges down so you can easily squat over the bag. You can also hold the bag to your bum and poop directly into it. For a more comfortable experience, line a commode with a WAG bag instead. After doing your business, toss the toilet paper and wipes right into the bag and squeeze out the air before sealing it shut. Each WAG bag contains enough treatment powder for up to four uses.

Where Can I Poop? 

In places where it’s still acceptable to dig catholes, find a secluded spot at least 200 feet away from any water sources, trailheads and campsites to avoid contamination and minimize the risk of spreading disease. Prime pooping sites are made of soft dirt yet have thick topsoil with sun exposure, which helps the poop decompose.

If you’re staying at the same campsite for multiple days or are camping with a group and are using the cathole method, poop in dispersed locations, making sure not to go in the same spot twice.

How to Pack Poop Out

WAG bags seal in odors and are puncture-proof, making them safe to store inside your backpack. But for an extra layer of protection, double up with a Ziploc bag. If you’re on an extended trip and plan to pack multiple poop bags, use a designated dry bag and secure it to your pack with a mini carabiner. Once you leave the park grounds, toss them out in any trash can.

What to Bring

To make pooping outside more convenient, make your own poop kit to take with you. Along with a supply of toilet paper, pack hand sanitizer or biodegradable soap and wet wipes in a Ziploc bag to save room in your pack. If your wipes dry out, rehydrate them with some water. For those planning to use the cathole method, a plastic trowel will make creating holes easier. And for a bit of luxury and that clean shower feeling, consider bringing a portable bidet, especially on multi-day trips.

Other Tips to Know

Some national parks, like Zion National Park, require backpackers to carry a minimum of one human waste disposal bag per person, while others provide these bags with the purchase of a backcountry permit. Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park offer them free, while WAG bags can be found at the Pine Springs Visitor Center at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. Check with your destination about what’s available before you go.