Let’s Talk About Poop: A Camper’s Guide to Human Waste

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With more people enjoying the outdoors this summer, ranger districts and campers are reporting a higher-than-normal incidence of people leaving human waste on the ground. My own backyard, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, has been hit especially hard by huge crowds of city-goers escaping to the woods… and leaving their poo on the sides of trails.

poo on side of trail

While it’s not uncommon, this elevated incident level suggests that many people are taking to the outdoors — and away from restrooms — for possibly the first time. Getting outdoors is awesome; leaving your poop behind isn’t. If you’re just getting into the “outdoor arena” and are concerned about your options away from the powder room back home, have no fear. We’re here to talk about poop.

To start off, let’s talk a little about “LNT.” Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics cover 7 core principles, including how to manage your waste. As the standard for outdoor recreation travel and public lands usage, LNT urges us to leave nature exactly as we found it: pristinely wild. While every outdoor recreation area will have its own unique set of human waste regulations, it’s safe to say that leaving waste directly on the ground is not okay anywhere.

Why should you properly dispose of your poop, you ask? Simple: it’s gross. Human waste can pollute waterways and change the local ecology, spread disease, and make a beautiful area, well, stink. Think about it: would you want to camp next to a pile of poo? Would you want your kids, dogs, or friends stumbling across such an unwelcome surprise? We didn’t think so. The golden rule applies to poo, too!

Here are a few tried-and-true waste management options that are good to go, wherever you need to go.

Catholes

Let’s start with the basics. Catholes are the standard for most backpacking trips and camping areas where toilets are not available. A “cathole” is about what it sounds like — a hole dug into the ground to dispose of and cover up waste. Choose a site at least 200 feet away from camp, trails, and water; somewhere out of the way where other campers won’t walk. Proper catholes must be at least 4 inches wide and 6 inches deep. (But again, check your campsite’s rules!) Most camping trowels will be about 6 inches long, perfect for measuring a proper hole. Once you’ve done your business, fill the hole with the original dirt, and disguise it with debris to make it look natural again.

So what do you do with your used TP? Pack it out. Toilet paper doesn’t disintegrate like waste does, and even burning it isn’t effective; you’re still leaving traces of ecosystem-harming TP behind. A duct-tape covered Ziploc bag is the best place to store your used paper; that way it’s discrete and smell-proof.

Latrines

This is the multi-day, large group version of catholes! If toilets aren’t available and you have multiple people camping for multiple days (especially with kiddos), a long dugout area is convenient, effective, and respectful of future campers. Use the same placement criteria as catholes: far enough away from camp, water, or trails without being too far away. You shouldn’t have to hike for your loo! The latrine should be at least 6 inches deep, 6 inches wide, and at least 1 foot long (or longer, depending on how many people are in your group). Since latrine contents will decompose slower, sprinkle a handful of dirt over top after each use. The enzymes in the soil will help decompose the waste faster. When you’re packing up camp, make sure to fill the latrine back in with its original soil and disguise the top, just like a cathole.

Waste Bags

wag bagFormerly called WAG bags, think of these like dog poop bags for humans. They are designed to collect and carry human waste in wilderness areas safely and discreetly, without lugging a toilet around with you. The bags are puncture-resistant and coated in a NASA-designed odor-killing powder. Plus, they come with hand wipes and a small amount of toilet paper, so you can ditch the whole roll. Set up the bags in a Clean Waste specialized toilet seat kit, over a small bucket, or on their own. Tie off the bag, and voila! You’ve just earned an LNT Pooper badge.

Groover

Also known as a “river toilet,” this option is a basic outhouse-on-the-go. Sometimes this is just a toilet seat over a 5-gallon bucket; usually, a groover consists of a seat and tank combo. Either option includes a screwed-on, locked-on lid to ensure there are no spills in transit. Groovers are a great inexpensive option for multi-day car camping in an area without provided toilets, especially if the group isn’t comfortable with the cathole method. Plus, groovers hold TP like an RV toilet. Just don’t go #1 in these potties! How did the groover get its name, you ask? Let’s just say the toilet seat wasn’t always included in the set-up…

Cassette Toilets

A cassette toilet is similar to a groover, but with a few key differences. Cassette toilets use a removable “black water” tank inside of a larger container, which also houses the seat. Popular in RVs, this option allows you to remove the waste tank and dump it in a regular toilet or dumping station. While bulkier than groovers, the cassette toilet is much more comfortable, stable, and discrete than its river-running cousin. Some even include flushing water (just press a button to rinse it down) and water holding tanks, for an at-home powder room experience.

Premium Portable Toilets

If you’re not quite ready to go the full monty with your gotta-go routine, never fear: there’s an upgrade for that. Portable flushing toilets (like Dometic’s toilet options) are a great way to answer nature’s call out in nature. While there is a range of options to choose from (including budget and pricier picks), all offer flushing features. Some are foot-pedal powered, while others may use a wall switch or the upgraded hand-wave technology. A few can even swivel the seat 90 degrees to fit any RV or camping situation you may come across! These will definitely be the more expensive options, but if you want the most comfortable and homey bathroom experience on your outdoor adventures, you’ve found it.

With so many options for doing your business, there’s no excuse for leaving your waste behind for others to find. Happy pooping, campers!