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How to Dig A Cathole

A Leave No Trace Cathole
A Leave No Trace Cathole

If you need to take a poop on a hike and you’re not near a composting privy or toilet, it is recommended that you bury your poop in a cathole so that it can biodegrade, animals won’t dig it up, and it won’t disturb other visitors.

You’d think everyone knew how to dig a cathole to bury their poop, but it’s surprisingly hard to do in certain soil types. That was one of the the main themes of the Leave No Trace Cathole digging lesson I gave on Saturday on an AMC beginner backpacking trip we did in the White Mountains.

If you’re a Leave No Trace Trainer, there’s a copy of the Cathole Lesson Plan I prepared for this exercise at the end of this post. The pine cones worked really well as fake poop.

Cathole Size

In most locations, dig a cathole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches inches in diameter. This can be difficult if the soil is full of rocks and roots like it is in New England, so give yourself a little extra time to find a good spot to dig. It might take you a few tries. In air or desert conditions, dig a cathole 4-6 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter.

Where to Dig a Cathole

When digging a cathole, select an inconspicuous site at least 200 feet (70 steps) from the nearest trail, campsite, or water source, including streams, rivers, ponds and lakes. The best sites have deep organic soil with a dark rich color and good exposure to sunlight to aid in decomposition. Avoid areas with water runoff, particularly above water sources, which might erode your cathole and carry your waste  into the local water supply. If you are camping with a large group or for an extended time, make sure to widely disperse everyone’s cathole locations, and use a single cathole for each poop.

Toilet Paper, Wet Wipes, and Tampons

It’s always best to pack out used toilet paper so that animals don’t dig it up and spread it around the area. Use as little as possible and store the used sheets in 2 or 3 ziploc bags to prevent leakage. Stick to plain, unperfumed toilet paper and hang you waste at night to avoid attracting animals scavengers. If local regulations or practice enables burying toilet paper, make sure to bury it in the bottom of the cathole.

Wet wipes, tampons and all other hygiene products should always be packed out with you and disposed of when you get back to civilization. To minimize smells in the ziplocs, mix the waste paper with crushed aspirin.


After you finish your business, bury your waste with the toilet paper on the bottom if the hole. Fill the cathole with the original soil you dug up and disguise it with leave little and forest duff.


When urinating, pee on rocks, gravel, or mineral soil instead of vegetation. This will protect plans from being chewed on by animals looking for salt.

Best Trowels

When digging in ground full of rocks or routes, it’s best to have a sturdy trowel with serrated edges. One of the most economic trowels available is the GSI Outdoors Cathole Sanitation Trowel ($4.95). The GSI is great because it’s lightweight, has inch long measurements embossed on it, and serrated edges to cut through roots and compacted soil. A MSR Blizzard Tent Stake also works fairly well but is more prone to bending ($4.95). Boot heels make poor digging tools in soil filled with rocks and roots.

Cathole Digging Team
Cathole Digging Team

Leave No Trace Lesson Plan – How to Dig a Cathole


Beginner backpackers and trip leaders will understand the need to dig catholes for proper disposal of solid human waste and experience the difficulty of digging a properly sized cathole in rocky New England forests.

Materials Needed

  • 5 GSI trowels. Students should have brought trowels or other digging tools, but most probably didn’t
  • Shopping bag full of pine cones to simulate poop. These should be collected ahead of time.

Scenario Preparation

  • Find an open but wooded site, off trail. Doesn’t have to be 200 feet in since we won’t be burying actual waste.
  • Count off into 2 person teams, mixing backpacking participants and trip leaders
  • Hand out three pine cones to each group
  • Hand out 5 extra GSI trowels in case students/leaders did not bring their own or want to try something different


  • Explain need to minimize impact on plants and animals, do not change their behavior, keep them wild, and preserve experience for others to enjoy
  • Pee on rocks or mineral soil and not vegetation because animal wil chew them to get at the salt.
  • Solid waste disposal using catholes
    • Placement: 200 feet off trail, campsite, or water source (70 steps), and out of the way of water runoff
    • Cathole dimensions: 6 to 8 inches deep, 4-6 inches in diameter, mix ingredients with stick, cover with organic matter, not rock, and disguise with natural materials
    • Toilet paper goes in first, then poo. Alternatively, pack toilet paper out.
    • Feminine products and wet wipes must be hung at night and packed out.
    • Start digging
    • Call out when your hole is completed
    • Instructor to measure depth and dimensions
    • Bury your poo and disguise site.
    • 10 minutes maximum digging time, then recall groups

Group Debrief

      • What did this experience show you?
      • How hard is it to dig a cathole?
      • How much time does it take?
      • How do different tools – tent stakes, etc, compare to a trowel?

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  1. I use the MSR Blizzard Tent Stake. It works well, plus it does double duty as a spare tent stake.

    Too bad these classes aren’t required in the Smokies. That’s the worst section of trail I’ve seen for human waste management. There were toilet paper and feces everywhere, even along the outside wall of the shelter. A large shovel was provided at each shelter to make it easier, but apparently wasn’t used that often.

  2. That’s awful to hear. I know the ATC has launched a huge new signage campaign to help educate people, but there’s no substitute for experiential teaching. One of the students in my Master Educator class was in charge of all CT RidgeRunners on the AT – I reckon that having those people do the teaching is probably the most effective way to get the word out.

  3. Great write up. There’s nothing worse than heading off trail to dig your own cathole and happening upon a pile of poo.

  4. Another way to kill smells in the pack-out bag is kitty litter. A little heavier, but it is designed for the job.

    The best cones for this exercise would be douglas fir. We have a big dog and a doug fir, and I always have to look twice when I’m cleaning up that part of the yard.

    For a trowel, I use an SMC Sno Stake with a handle made from a wine cork and some handlebar tape.


    I can’t imaging bending the SMC stake with my hands or even by standing on it. Looking at the specs, it is heavier than the MSR (28g instead of 21g), so it may be stronger. At $3, it is also cheaper than the MSR stake or the GSI trowel.

    The sno-stake trowel was perfect for the rocky ground at Philmont (Sangre de Cristo mountains, New Mexico).

    I don’t know how strong the GSI trowel is, but I’ve seen Scouts break a couple of the traditional orange potty trowels.

    ULA used to make an extreme potty trowel, the Helix. It was a non-certified ice axe that weighed about five ounces. A decent axe, but an awesome potty trowel. The Suluk 46 TiCa ice tool seems similar (http://www.suluk46.com/products%20%20-%20P1%20TiCa.html).

    Finally, this exercise misses the hardest part — actually hitting the cathole with your, um, waste. There is a school of thought that says you poop before you scoop, instead of trying to hit the cathole with a blind bombing run.

    • It’s pretty hard to get the toilet paper on the bottom Walter if you poop in the hole first. But you’re a professor right? Do you use some kind of black hole mojo to make it all work?

      • Not a professor, but I work on search engines, so I’m sort of a computerized reference librarian.

        I expect a lot of people think they have better aim than they do, sort of like asking people if they are an above-average driver.

        Also, people who don’t hike several miles every day in regular life will probably have some digestional changes once they hit the trail.

        I find it more relaxing to dig the hole afterwards. I can swap divots to leave a relatively unobtrusive surface.

    • > There is a school of thought that says you poop before you scoop, instead of trying to hit the cathole with a blind bombing run.

      I am in that school of thought. Once I started pooping on leaves and then sliding the whole pile into my cathole that was dug after the fact, my pooping in the woods experience became considerably less stressful. Not that it was terribly stressful to begin with, but now it is entirely stress free.

  5. I like to dig my hole at the base of a tree. The soil is usually black, soft and deep there. Plus, it gives me something to lean against so I don’t do any embarrassing “cat falls”. I haven’t found one yet that has a good magazine rack but I’ll keep hitting the trail in search of one.

  6. If sufficient water is available in the area, mixing the poop, TP, dirt and some water causes the TP to disintegrate, accelerates decomposition, and makes the site slightly less interesting to fecophile animals.

    QiWiz.net has a couple of awesome titanium poop trowels that weigh very little and cut through roots like a lazer. Not cheap.

  7. Currently thru-hiking the PCT and own QiWiz’s Big Dig Trowel. Did a short and sweet review on it on our PCT blog if you are interested:

    Yes, expensive but love its design and durability and it is going strong after 450 miles of continuous use by my wife and I. Also love supporting individuals making great products.


  8. Here in Arizona, I use a snow tent stake. The flimsy plastic ones don’t hold up to the hard and rocky ground. An interesting note from one of the rangers in the Tonto National Forest — in desert conditions, he suggests smearing (yuck) versus digging a cat hole. His point is that without humidity to jump start the biodegrade process, the poo will petrify before it will rejoin the circle of life. I haven’t been brave enough to try it, but his point has scientific merit.

    • The only problem is that we have to look at it the whole time. Burying it is as much about hiding the poo so that other visitors can enjoy their time outdoors as it is about biodegradability. Compromises all around.

  9. This is mainly a problem of the “in-between” trails: Those trails that are neither close enough to civilization to warrant a port-a-potty or BLM/NPS standard outhouse, nor far enough away from civilization to go for weeks without a hiker. Long stretches of the AT are such an “in-between” trail, where venturing a couple paces off the path unfortunately carries a significant risk of stepping into land mines of a special kind.

    Most of the PCT, Florida Trail, the GET, or the Arizona Trail … thankfully still are remote enough that the chances to “bingo” onto somebody else’s hide while digging a cathole are remote ;)

  10. Dig–poop–wipe. How does the paper go in first?

    • I’d thought the same, but seeing his response to Walter, apparently people can’t hit the hole anyway so you just scoop the poop into the hole after you wipe and deposit your TP.

      Can’t say hitting the hole has been any challenge, but I’m one of those TP-free weirdos so it’s not an issue for me.

  11. Ha! Yes, the Sawyer Squeeze I found out about via your blog just isn’t doing the job!

    I agree that the main draw about the Big Dig is that is that it is UL and it may not be for everyone (or in your price range), but I do think its sharp edges and scalloped shape perform much better in tough soil that a lot of the other trowels I have used. Sometimes digging quickly and efficiently is pretty important — especially with “continuous” use!

  12. I confess that when conditions are favorable, I burn my TP. I realize this is not strictly acceptable, but it’s what My dad taught me to do. As for aim, I think it is often an issue of how you squat. This is a subject that rarely comes up in these discussions. It can be very difficult for some people to squat effectively. This can be due to girth, or lack of flexibility, or joint issues. I am blessed with the ability to fold in half, so my aim is true (sorry, Elvis). Practice certainly helps.

  13. I take issue with- “good exposure to sunlight to aid in decomposition”; at least in summer. Sunlight kills bacteria and dries moisture. But if it’s near freezing it should help.

  14. Hello,
    Have you ever heard of anyone using some type of accelerated decomposition process for human waste?
    This is product for septic systems, for example:

    It just comes as a powder, so I supposed you could take a few grams with you in a small bottle.
    There are also liquid sprays that you can get to break down animal feces: just google ‘stool destroyer’ :)

  15. Fact is most of us get the call of nature in an instant. Digging the hole might be good after the event and toss it in. MSA

    • For me, when nature “calls”, it’s not an instant. When she shouts or demands, that’s another story…

    • We call these people vegetarians! And this vegetarian always ends up in the rockiest and rootiest areas in the Whites!

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