I first went backpacking when I was 7 or 8, too small to carry much other than a book, a little food, and the few items of clothing I brought. My Jansport didn’t have a waist or chest strap, so when I bent over in the parking lot to tie my shoes the entire pack fell over my head, pinning me to the ground in a forward fold until my Dad realized I wasn’t hiking along behind him. My mom had stayed home with my littlest brother, so it was just my father, my uncle, two of my brothers, my cousin, and me. So when the time came to go to the bathroom outside for the first time ever, my dad did a poor imitation of a squat and sent me off to do my thing. I shortly peed all over my sweats and, mortified, started yelling for help. I was so traumatized I didn’t go number two for the entire trip. In fact, I didn’t poop in the woods—despite plenty of times I needed to—until I was in my teens.
Bathroom time in the great outdoors can be a delicate subject, particularly with young ones, but it doesn’t have to be. All you need is a healthy dose of humor, humility, and frankness.
First things first: Do you have your own shit straight?
You can’t teach anyone to relieve themselves without undue pain, stress, mess, or negative impact on the surrounding environment if you’re not an expert yourself. The rules of responsible backcountry peeing are relatively straightforward: stay well away—ideally 200 feet—from waterways, campsites, and trails. Avoid peeing on anything green—bare dirt or rock is best—since salt-hungry wildlife will munch on urine-covered plants.
While urine is generally pretty harmless, fecal matter is a different story. Human waste in the backcountry calls for more care. Your two Leave No Trace-approved options are burying your waste or packing it out. More, um, rugged techniques like “smearing” and “tossing” (yes, I’m serious) aren’t considered safe or sustainable.
If you’re going the burial route, you have to think about four things: water pollution, the spread of disease, aesthetic impact, and decomposition rate. So choose a site 200 feet away from campsites, trails, and water sources, dig a cathole six to eight inches deep (don’t skimp!), do your business, use a stick to stir a little dirt in with your doo to help speed decomposition, and bury it all—stick included. Disguise the site as best you can.
Toilet paper is a subject of debate: some think it’s okay to bury it along with your poop, others burn it and bury the ash with the doo (this is wildly dangerous in fire season, please don’t do this), others religiously pack it out. Bottom line, TP takes longer to decompose than poop and nobody likes to see butt-rags floating around their favorite backcountry campsite. Packing it out is easy—it’s just one little ziploc bag. Or better yet, wipe with rocks, sticks, or leaves, and bury those with the rest of yo mess. Just be sure to wash your hands. Any other sanitary materials—tampons, baby wipes, pads, diapers—must be packed out.
If you’re backpacking through the high alpine, the desert, high-use areas like Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier, or Mt. Adams, or snow-covered terrain in the dead of winter, you might have to pack out your poop in a WAG bag or use a different burial technique more suited to the environment. We won’t get into all the variables here, but this guide from Trailspace can help, as can Kathleen Meyer’s excellent book How To Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art.
Now that we’ve got that straight…what about the kiddos?
So, how to teach the young ones (or the old ones new to the backcountry bathroom) proper technique?
1. Act it out.
On a NOLS course in my teens, having three instructors demonstrate their favorite pooping techniques—from holding on to a tree and leaning back to “wall sits” against boulders—was hilarious to watch and hugely helpful. If you have really little ones or your kids aren’t shy, accompanying them might be helpful (or necessary). For many kids, though, particularly past the potty-training age and into the “my bodily functions are not something I’m comfortable sharing with the world” age, this isn’t an option. So do a little crash course. You don’t have to demonstrate the whole shebang, but dig a proper cathole and demonstrate how you stir, bury, and disguise your waste.
2. Explain the “why.”
If your kid doesn’t know that pathogens spread more readily from a shallow cathole, making other hikers and animals sick, they’re going to be a lot more likely to get lazy when it comes to digging. (Hell, adults who don’t understand why we dig catholes deep and avoid pooping near waterways get lazy.) Don’t think the wonderful responsibility of taking care of wilderness doesn’t have sway over impressionable little brains.
3. Don’t be squeamish.
Doing your thing in the woods is nothing to be ashamed of, and the risk of kids running around giggling because a grown-up said “poop” is a lot easier to deal with than kids running around with, well, poop everywhere. Pooping in the woods is at once consequential (in its environmental impact), hilarious (in its mishaps and creative problem-solving), and really not a big deal (to talk openly about). If everyone feels comfortable talking about poop, everyone can ask questions and ask for help, which hopefully means you won’t have to deal with any unpleasant surprises around camp.
4. Get creative.
Someone can’t quite master the squat? Maybe you build a makeshift backcountry “toilet.” Did my third-grade pee debacle sound familiar? Maybe you invest in one of these devices that help women and girls pee while standing up.
5. Worst case scenario, you can always use the LNT-approved “scoot and bury” technique.
If you or your charges can’t or won’t dig a proper cathole, you can always go right on the ground, dig a hole nearby, and slide the turds on over (along with the underlying dirt or leaves). If a little one can’t seem to master the cathole (be that an issue of aim or a problem with digging one properly), you can always deal with their waste for them.
6. Don’t overlook the small stuff.
Little tips and tricks make all the difference. Pants around the knees rather than all the way down at the ankles keeps them further away from the firing range. Opaque ziplocs (and double-bagging it) make packing TP out a little less icky. A relaxed squat—what you might do in front of a fire to warm your hands—is going to be a lot easier on your body than a stance more akin to what we actually do on a toilet (and it helps with aim.) Pooping in the wilderness provides endless fodder for conversation, debate, and laughter. Keep the conversation going, share your tips and tricks, and don’t let something as silly as poop keep your kids from loving their time in the backcountry.
Photo by Peretz Partensky.