GOING IN THE WOODS: HOW TO DIG A CATHOLE
Cast aside your worry!
There’s not much to fear with this, perfectly, natural act long considered a right of passage for experienced hikers, backpackers, and outdoor adventurers. Continue reading below, where we’ll demystify the steps you should take when needing to dig a hole (the ‘cathole’) for using the bathroom efficiently and responsibly in the backcountry.
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Do you want to be a responsible outdoor traveler or contribute to ruining the experience for others? Finding someone else’s evidence of a trip to the bathroom is never an enjoyable moment while exploring outside. Proper waste disposal is, therefore, necessary to prevent this undesirable discovery by other hikers or animals.
Not only is the practice of burying human waste a common courtesy to others, it helps prevent the spread of harmful bacteria by accidental human and animal contact or water runoff. The organic soils found in many locales, also, aid in decomposition.
It’s such an important practice, in fact, that the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has listed ‘proper disposal of waste’ as one of their popularized seven principles of LNT.
Public pit toilets, typically maintained by park staff and/or local trail crews, are always the best option for minimizing your bathroom impact as a trail user. They’re not always available, however, and it is during those times where you’ll need proper backcountry, bathroom etiquette.
Numerous studies have shown that urine presents, practically, negligible impact to local vegetation or soils. Therefore, it is not necessary to dig a cathole if you are only needing a quick pee break on the trail. Remember to place yourself a minimum of 200 ft away from fresh bodies of water before marking your territory. Also, consider aiming (time to prove your accuracy!) at bedrock or pine needles to minimize the possible impact of animals digging up salty soil.
Need to poop on the trail? No pit toilet anywhere in sight? Then get ready to put your new cathole digging knowledge to work. This is the standard scenario for when you would need to a dig a cathole for taking care of a business in a responsible way.
Ever seen those signs along the highway reminding property owners to ‘Know before you dig’? Well, apply that same ideology when selecting a suitable site for a cathole. Look for a site that meets the following four criteria BEFORE you start digging:
Pro Tip: Look for a restroom with a view
Finding a site that meets the above criteria, while also giving you an incredible view is a fun way to lessen the ‘ew’ factor of going outdoors!
Once you’ve identified a good site, it’s, almost, time to start digging. Inexperienced hikers, new to using the bathroom outdoors, will often forget to consider their positioning when digging a hole, especially on sloped or uneven terrain. Don’t fall backward in the midst of your ‘business’ because you failed to realize how difficult it would be to hold a squatted position over your, already dug, cathole (unless you want a gross but hilarious story to tell).
We, actually, squat down in position, before digging, to help identify the best spot. Utilizing tree trunks or fallen logs as support are common ways to make the go a bit more comfortable, particularly on sloping hillsides.
Your cathole should be between 6 and 8 inches in depth. Deep enough to be hidden from other humans and animals, yet close enough to the surface to maximize decomposition within rich soils.
The hole you dig should be wide enough to hold the entirety of your deposit. 4-6 inches wide is good in most cases.
Once you’ve finished going to the bathroom, it’s time to cover your tracks. Be sure to fill in and cover up the hole with dirt that you, previously, dug out (never let your trowel touch fecal matter for bacteria contamination prevention). Do your best to return the site to its original look by re-scattering any leaves or debris that you may have moved to access the soil. Placing a rock over your cathole, after it has been refilled, is one way you can help minimize future animal encounters.
The best practice for toilet paper disposal is to pack it out with you. We promise it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. A Ziploc bag, covered with colored duct tape to disguise the contents, is all that’s needed. Simply place your used toilet paper in the bag for disposal once back in civilization.
Alternatively, you can bury toilet paper with the waste inside the cathole. While not best practice according to LNT, it is, generally, accepted in most areas. Please use minimal toilet paper that is unscented if you plan to leave it in your cathole.
For those wanting to commit to best leave no trace practices without needing to carry out their own toilet paper, consider finding natural varieties in the form of large leaves, smooth rocks, or moss. Cleaning up with a tool provided by mother nature (a large, dead leaf on the ground in front of me) was one of the coolest moments in my backcountry, bathroom career!
It is never permissible to leave feminine hygiene products or other maintenance items, such as wet wipes, in a cathole. These should be packed out as indicated above. My wife prefers the Ziploc with duct tape technique, described above, for backpacking during that time of the month.
We’ve already discussed how important planning is to every successful outdoor trip, and analyzing your poop kit should, always, be a part of that process. What you carry for trips to the bathroom while outdoors will vary based on the environment and land-management restrictions where you will be traveling.
Change the stigma associated with your first time using the bathroom outdoors by creating fun ways to classify or rate the experience. I once listened to a seasoned river guide explain how they would encourage guests to ‘rate their poo’ upon returning from using the bathroom.
For example, a 3-star poop (didn’t think you’d ever use that phrase did you?) might include all the LNT principles met, while in a comfortable position, whereas a 4-star rating may include all the above, plus an amazing view. You get the idea. It can be a fun way to acknowledge something that everyone does and encourage responsibility.
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In addition to his role as an outdoor adventure guide, Chris Olson seeks to share his passion for, and experience in, the great outdoors through writing and photography. He has backpacked, hiked, climbed, kayaked, biked, and skied throughout much of the eastern United States, as well as iconic locations such as Zion National Park, Newfoundland, and Puerto Rico. His passion for fresh air, and beautiful places, reminds us all of the simple joys to be had from spending time outside!