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Poop Week: Proper Etiquette for Backcountry Potties

Posted by Anna Roth at Jul 31, 2014 04:50 PM |
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Welcome to Poop Week, the week where we get real about No. 2. From diapers to dogs, the conservation science of scat to the best backcountry privies in Washington, we're digging into the subject of poop on trail all week long.

Welcome to Day 3 of Poop Week, the week where we get real about No. 2. From diapers to dogs, the conservation science of scat to the best backcountry privies in Washington, we're digging into the subject of poop on trail all week long.

Group poop

When you join a volunteer vacation or a Backcountry Response Team (BCRT) trip, you get the chance to camp for several days in a beautiful part of Washington’s wilderness. But sometimes there are no pit toilets, and a large crew camped in one spot for up to a week can, if it's not handled right, have a large impact on an area.

Recently, I went on my first BCRT, where I learned several solutions for keeping a camp clean on backcountry trips. These work for any camper, whether you’re out there helping build trail or simply taking a break from flush toilets for a while.

Keep it simple: one place for everyone

When many people are staying in one area for multiple days, it’s better to have everyone use one area as the "bathroom". Designating one place to go saves time since the crew doesn't have to dig catholes each time we had to go, and it prevents the campsite from becoming riddled with too many “used” areas.

A deep hole far from camp. When we got to camp on day one of the BCRT, our crew leader dug a deep hole several hundred feet from camp and from the small creek that would be our water source. This hole served as the bathroom for our crew of seven for five days.

Sometimes, a trench is better. Because we were a small crew, we used a pit, but volunteer vacations, which have more people out for longer periods of time will dig trenches to accommodate the larger crews.

Depending on the size of the crew you're camping with, you can opt for a hole or a trench, but keep in mind that it's easier to dig a hole than a trench with a standard backpacking trowel.


With our small crew, it was easy to let everyone know that we were using the facilities because we all knew where the designated bathroom was. That better ensured privacy while doing your business. But when you gotta go, you gotta go, and some people may not feel comfortable telling everyone in the group what they're about to go do.

Larger backcountry trips have developed a more subtle sign system to indicate whether the bathroom is in use. The group picks a sign to indicate "in use."

Any indicator works: a water bottle on a nearby rock or a stick laid across the route to the toilet, as long as everyone in the crew agrees on what the sign is.

Leave No Trace

When the time comes to break camp and head down trail, be sure to fully cover the hole or trench you've used during your stay. This means not only filling the hole with dirt, but also putting some flora or sticks on top to truly mask it. Our crew leader and I even fluffed up the grass on the route to the bathroom, which had gotten flattened by visits from the crew during the five-day stay.

It's easiest to fluff up the flora with a McLeod, which makes it slightly easier for trail crews to do, but stout sticks can get the job done as well. If you're hiking with little ones, this a good job for them to do when you're breaking camp, and it helps them learn the importance of Leave No Trace.

Thoughts on thru-trails and popular campsites

When you camp in a popular backcountry destination or a remote camp along the Pacific Crest Trail, then you're essentially facing the same question of group poop over the course of a hiking season.

A quick survey of the WTA staff found that many of us have had the unpleasant experience of digging into someone's cathole at the end of the hiking season.

It may feel like you're the only one who will ever use this or that particular patch of wilderness to do your business, but there will be hikers—maybe even hundreds of them—that come before and after you.

When you do your business a full 200 feet from camp (which is much farther than you think), you're preserving the experience of that camp for everyone who follows you.

Got another great idea?

Have you found a zero-impact solution to group bathrooms in the backcountry that we didn't address above? Share your hints in the comments!