Of all the principles of Leave No Trace, one of the most important tackles the topic of going to the bathroom when there are no facilities at hand. No one wants to visit a gorgeous location only to find a pile of poop or used toilet paper (and yet…). It’s unsightly, it’s bad for the environment, and – if near water sources – can make people sick. In addition, wildlife will use toilet paper for nesting, which can bring human faecal bacteria into their dens, and, while we may not like to admit it, poop is a source of food for some animals.
You should always use an outhouse if one is available, but if not then follow the advice from Leave No Trace:
- Find a spot at least 60 m (200 feet) from any water source, trail, or camp;
- Dig a hole about 15 cm across (6 inches) and 15-20 cm deep (6-8 inches), deep enough to get into the biologically active soil (if you go too deep, you may end up in mineral soil, i.e. sand or broken rock, which won’t help decomposition);
- Do what you need to do;
- Fill in the hole with the dirt excavated beforehand and cover with leaves, twigs, and maybe a rock or two, to make the site look undisturbed (although it might be worth marking in a way that other hikers may recognize, such as a stick poked into the ground);
- Pack your TP in a zip-lock bag and dispose of it in the bin; don’t bury it, and definitely don’t leave it behind!
- If there’s no place to bury your poop then you have to do the unthinkable: bag it, and pack it out. We’ll get to that later.
But why am I writing about pooping in the outdoors? I was inspired by two articles on Loos with Views from my friend Josy (including a Rocky Mountains edition) to think about scenic places without loos that I’ve, err, experienced. To my surprise, quite a few of them have been remarkably scenic. Here’s a quick photo-essay of some of those places. Just the views, mind…
Beano Creek and Calvin Falls (Nootka Trail)
This was our introduction to outhouse-free bathroom breaks and, at the time we hiked this trail, the recommended option was to use the so-called “intertidal flush”. No need to dig a cat hole, just use a spot where the tide can flush your offering out to sea. (I pity the fish…). I don’t know if that’s still an option given the overall increase in popularity of hiking and backpacking since we were there in 2006 so I hesitate to recommend it. Anyhow, the main issue with this method is that you need an empty beach as there weren’t many large rocks to hide behind. And it’s surprising how, at the very moment that you need to go, people will just magically show up….
Caltha Lake (Lizzie-Stein Divide)
Camping above the treeline in the alpine is one of my favourite things. The downside is that it’s very hard to find private or sheltered spots for doing what you need to do. Thankfully, there is often enough variation in the terrain to find a dip or hollow that provides just enough cover to be out of sight of your fellow hikers. Caltha Lake (out of shot to the left in the photo) lies on the edge of the Stein Valley in a large scenic bowl (no pun intended…) with superb views of the mountains to the west. Here I was able to find a small hollow at the edge of some boulders with this fine view ahead of me.
Deer Pass (South Chilcotins)
At this expansive pass on the top of a broad alpine ridge, privacy was – again – at a premium. We managed to find a decent spot out of sight of the tents (at least when crouched down) but still well away from the creek. However, if anyone had been on the ridge behind me they would have been treated to the whole show. But look at that view!
Sheba Tarn (South Chilcotins)
Possibly my most magical backcountry experience. The ground sloped quite steeply but had plenty of good rocks for balance and the soil was fairly easy to excavate with few roots and just some small stones that were easy to dig out. Not only did I have a stunning mountain vista, but there must have been unicorns doing the same thing as there was a big colourful double rainbow across the valley. A very moving moment!
Marmot Ponds (South Chilcotins)
This was one of the toughest digging spots I’ve ever encountered, and I was glad that I had pre-emptively dug this hole when matters were not as urgent. The soil was dense and hard packed, which meant I was constantly worried about breaking the trowel, and full of grassy roots that were very difficult to dig through. It took maybe ten minutes to dig a suitable hole and it was all about patience and technique. But the view was lovely, looking through the trees across the Tyaughton Creek valley towards Spruce Lake and the Dickson Range beyond.
Salal Creek/Athelney Pass
Pooping while admiring craggy peaks and tumbling glaciers? Sign me up! This was another area where it was hard to find both privacy and a good place to dig. But this time for the opposite reason: we were digging in to a layer of loose pumice, not soil, so it was far from ideal. Plus that spot was in full view of the trail on the opposite side of the creek. Our only shelter was a large rock that meant we were at least hidden from our camp spot. We were glad that it was a very quiet trail.
Twin Lakes/Barkley Valley
The steep slopes of the valley below lower Twin Lake (much like Sheba Tarn) made for a relatively comfortable experience. Soft soil near the rocks was easy to dig into and, of course, an absolutely magnificent view. It’s especially important to bury things well (or pack everything out) as this area is known for its overly familiar marmots.
Ptarmigan Ridge (Mount Baker)
This was a new experience: no digging allowed in the Mount Baker Wilderness, but we were given blue bags at the ranger station in Glacier. To be honest, it wasn’t that bad, and pretty easy to carry out again – on the outside of your pack, of course. Then it was a matter of throwing the blue bag into the garbage – note that it does not go in the blue bins (which are for recycling)! Here’s a useful tip: a take-out coffee cup makes a good container (insert joke here about Starbucks being crap…). Again this was a spot with almost no cover so we were very glad that there were only three of us here.
So there you go. A handful of stunning spots where we’ve done our very best not to pollute the environment.
Selecting a site and digging a cat hole does take practice, and it’s something I recommend trying out well before you need to dig one for real. And it’s not always just backpacking trips that may need a cat hole – it’s worth being prepared on day hikes too.
Of course, it’s easier to get privacy in the forest, trees make excellent supports (especially fallen trees), and the soil tends to be softer, though digging cat holes tends to encounter lots of roots. However, don’t use spots that could be used for shelter in bad weather, and definitely don’t use spots that could be used for camping. Please. (We speak from both of those unpleasant experiences.) Also, such backcountry matters are a lot easier to deal with if you are in good digestive health, so I highly recommend paying attention to that!