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How to S*%# in the Woods

The trowel and TP are part of the shit kit. Photo by Mary Reed.

Note: This article uses a common four-letter word for defecation. If it offends, skip the article.

You’ve just hiked six miles into the forest and you realize that you have to shit. Without a toilet nearby, does that mean you have make like a bear in the woods? Not exactly. More like a cat in the woods. Here’s how:

Step 1, get used to the idea. If this sounds intimidating and uncomfortable, it’s not. Shitting outdoors can offer privacy and comfort if you’re prepared. Laurie Potteiger, a Leave No Trace master educator and the information services manager at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harper’s Ferry, WV, says, “The more prepared you are, the more comfortable you are.”

Bring a shit kit. Laurie recommends bringing a shit kit on your outings, which includes a trowel (for real shit, er, gearheads, the SMC brand Sno-Tent Stake is the ultra lightweight digging tool of choice), plastic bags, toilet paper and liquid hand sanitizer. Laurie’s tip on shit kits: use a little stuff sack that’s brightly colored and easy to find amongst you other outdoor gear.

Dig a cat hole. You can bury your waste in a so-called cat hole. Jon Lucadamo, the program director at Venture Outdoors in Pittsburgh and the Leave No Trace Pennsylvania state advocate, recommends digging a hole at least 6 to 8 inches deep. “You should be 200 feet away from a water source, trail and campsite, to not taint water or another’s experience.”

The trowel is for digging your 6- to 8-inch hole. This depth is recommended to avoid water contamination, and to protect human as well as animal health. “Too shallow and animals will dig it up” says Jon. This will expose the waste, and can spread disease.

If possible, scout out a spot well before you actually need to use it. Jon cautions that you’re likely to be lax on proper site selection and digging depth “when the pressure’s on.” Laurie also recommends digging your cat hole on a south-facing slope, which is warmer and will encourage quicker decomposition.

To further aid in the decomposition of your waste, Jon and Laurie both recommend stirring things up – literally. By digging the proper depth for your cat hole, you will reach the “inorganic” soil layer, where there are few microbes to break down your shit, unlike the top soil which is rich in microbes. Using a stick (not your trowel!) to stir some of the top soil (and the bacteria that comes with it) in with the waste will speed the decomposition rate. This is not essential, but if you can stomach it, go for it.

Pack out the TP. The plastic bags are to seal up the used TP in order to pack it out. If that’s too gross for you, don’t fret. “Do what your comfort allows,” says Jon. Packing out is best, but you can bury your paper too. In some environments, burying TP is a bad idea, but in the Ohio River region the soil has ample organic matter and moisture to ensure relatively rapid decomposition. That said, Jon urges to “Use as little TP as possible. It should be non-scented and non-dyed.” Leaving used toilet paper out in the open or just under a rock is lazy and gross. It can spread disease and is simply poor outdoor etiquette.

Of course, you can forego the TP and use leaves, de-barked sticks, smooth stones, or Jon’s favorite, snow – “form fitting and cooling,” he enthuses.

Leave everything clean, including your hands. Use soap and water or the hand sanitizer to kill any microbes on your hands.

Pack out the shit when necessary. Carrying out your waste is an option, or even mandatory in some heavily used natural areas. You can shit directly into sturdy plastic bags and throw them in the trash when you return to civilization. Any strong plastic bag will do, but three bucks can buy you a Phillips Environmental Leave No Trace WAG bag that takes shit in a bag to the next level with odor neutralizing, gelling agents, and a decay promoter. Notice that no customer on the REI site is brave enough to review this product.

Learn to love it. Shitting in the woods is a necessity, but it can also turn out to be a pleasant experience. Laurie goes as far as to say, “It’s my most cherished quiet time in the woods … it’s a Zen-like moment.”

Menstruating in the woods
Don’t bury tampons or pads; carry out them out. Bring extra plastic bags to accommodate. Laurie reminds women that these items need to be hung just like food at camp because the scent will attract animals. Reusable menstrual cups like the Keeper or the Diva Cup are a much more environmentally friendly option – dig your cat hole and pour the contents of your menstrual cup into it.