The Dos and Don’ts of Pooping in the Backcountry

A group of hikers walking cross a tree trunk bridge over Tyndall Creek on Emerald Lake Trail at base of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo Credit: SeanXu (iStock)

When you gotta go, you gotta go right? Sometimes that urge strikes when it’s least convenient. Pooping in the backcountry can be an enjoyable experience; the chirping birds, cool air, and a good view. Or it can be utterly terrifying to feel so exposed for the newly initiated. I get that. I used to get so scared to go in the outdoors it would either take forever, or not happen at all. With a little know-how you can make your bathroom time in the outdoors an enjoyable experience.

1. DO: Practice Leave No Trace

Improper disposal of human waste is the number one complaint from recreation agencies today. Perhaps you’ve stumbled upon an improperly placed bathroom along a busy trail (I’m looking at you, Grey’s and Torrey’s Peak). It’s gross to put it bluntly. Human waste is not only unsightly, but it also pollutes our waterways and spreads disease for both people and wildlife.

First things first, always do your business at least 200 feet (70 adult steps) from water sources, trails, and your camp (poo attracts unwanted wildlife). Dig a hole in a bare patch of organic soil, six inches deep (four if you are in the desert). When you’re done, cover the hole with dirt and other organic material.

2. DON’T Bury Your Toilet Paper

Fun fact: little critters like to dig up your toilet paper and chew on it, yum! This is not only unnatural for the animal to do, but it also creates lovely streamers that often plague trails and camping areas. Pack out your used toilet paper in a dedicated baggie. If it grosses you out, you can duct tape the bag, so you don’t have to look at it.

3. DO: Pack Out Your Poop in Sensitive Environments

If you are traveling above tree line (read: on a 14er) or over rock where you cannot dig a hole, you will need to carry your poo out. Organic waste cannot break down easily in these environments and the result is a build-up of human poop along popular trails.

They make special bags for human waste that dry it out and keep the smell at bay. You can also make your own or your use a dog bag, double wrapped. If this is too gross for you, consider avoiding these environments until you are comfortable.

3. DON’T: Stress Yourself Out on Your First Try

When you’re searching for your ideal outdoor bathroom, try to find an area that is a bit secluded, so you don’t feel exposed. This will help you relax. Squatting is healthier for you than sitting, so when you hover over the hole try to relax and breathe if you’re nervous. Don’t rush the process, it’s ok if your first few times take a while, stage fright is normal. If you have trouble squatting, try focusing on a fixed object on the ground to keep your balance.

4. DO: Wash Up Afterwards

Proper hygiene on the trail keeps you from getting sick. Always “wash” your hands with hand sanitizer after dealing with a poopy situation. Don’t forget to also clean up before enjoying any snacks. If you are bringing communal goodies, dump tasty treats into friend’s hands instead of allowing them to reach into the bag.

5. DON’T: Use Unidentifiable Vegetation

If you happen to forget your toilet paper, you’ll have to use what nature gave you. Don’t take living leaves off of trees. You’re not only harming the environment, but you may accidentally pick up a poisonous plant, and that’s not going to be any fun. Use dead leaves on the ground, smooth rocks, or sticks. Most people prefer dead leaves or rocks to sticks but do your best to clean up.

6. Finally…DON’T Forget About Fido

Here in Colorado, dog waste is just as much of a concern on the trail as people waste. Be sure to follow the rules for your four-legged pal as well. You may be unable to bury doggy waste 200 feet from the trail, but you should still remove it from the trail and preferably bury it as well. Never leave dog bags sitting on the side of the trail, even if you intend on picking it up later. Attach it to your pack and keep walking, you do this at home when you walk your pet, so it shouldn’t be any different on the trail.

Everybody poops. Sometimes we have the opportunity to poop in nature. It might not feel like home, but it can be an enjoyable experience. Just be sure to follow the rules of the wild and relax.


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