How to Shit in the Desert

How to Shit in the Desert

Shit takes longer to decompose in the desert than it does in more humid places. Studies show that there can still be harmful bacteria present in the human fecal matter even after a year in the desert soil. Because of this, there are special considerations for shitting in the desert. However, rules about human waste disposal vary from place to place. Check the local regulations before you leave and plan accordingly. Be prepared with some combination of human waste disposal bags, a second waterproof storage bag or container to carry used disposal bags, toilet paper, and a trowel.

Cat Holes

The cat hole digging protocol recommended by Leave No Trace is what I follow in the desert. As per their guidelines: Dig cat holes 200 feet away from water, camp, and trails. Holes should be 6”-8” deep. When you’re finished pooping, cover your hole with soil and disguise it.  I usually carry The Tent Lab Deuce #2 Trowel to dig my cat holes. It weighs only 0.6 oz and is very durable.

For many years I tried to dig holes with sticks and rocks, and I would like to dissuade you from this practice; it is less effective than you might expect. Just take a trowel. A cheaper option—bulkier but hardly much heavier—is the Coghlan’s Backpacker’s Trowel. It weighs 1.8 oz and only costs only $5. Always pack out toilet paper. I carry two Ziploc plastic bags for this purpose.

Human Waste Disposal Bags

Wag bags, poop bags, human waste containment systems, and human waste disposal bags contain enzymes and polymers that treat human solid waste and keep it securely sealed so that it can be disposed of in ordinary trash receptacles. These are required in many National Parks and backcountry areas. Bear in mind, however, that not all poop bags are created equal.

The most popular WAG bags used by backpackers, climbers, and rafters are the:

For smell containment and durability, I would choose the Restop 2 bags, but to save 0.6 oz per bag, you can also use the Cleanwaste bags. Check the amount of toilet paper to see if it’s enough for your particular needs. As an alternative to toilet paper, look into the CuloClean Backcountry Bidet system many people are using these days.

Because the enzymes and polymers are activated by liquid, it is recommended to urinate a little bit in these bags to get them going. Not too much though! It is also possible to get more than one bowel movement in each bag, but I usually don’t. It’s not particularly pleasant unrolling an already-pooped-in bag for reuse. It’s ultimately up to you, but I’d recommend carrying more bags than you think you’ll need.

I also recommend sacrificing a roll-top dry bag for use carrying used wag-bags. Write ‘POOP’ on the outside so you don’t accidentally use it for food later, wondering why your jerky smells a little different on this trip. Any cheap silnylon roll-top dry bag will do. Just make sure it’s big enough to accommodate ever-growing wag bags for the duration of the trip. I prefer a roll-top dry bag because it keeps the smell inside a little better than a drawstring style bag. Carry this bag on the outside of your pack away from consumables.

Contents of the Cleanwaste bags (left) and the Restop 2 bags.
Contents of the Cleanwaste bags (left) and the Restop 2 bags (right)

Shitting and Peeing Along River Corridors

Human waste disposal bags or hard-sided poop containers are often required along river corridors. On the Green River and the Colorado River, poop bags are just fine. If packrafting in Canyonlands National Park, I carry a few of these and keep them in a roll-top dry bag. On the San Juan you need to have a hard-sided container such as a PVC pipe with a screw top or a large, plastic peanut butter jar.

Many rivers are large enough that it is recommended that you pee in them rather than on the shore. The solution to pollution is dilution, as they say. The Green and Colorado, for example, are so large that urine is easily diluted. People often camp in the same spots over and over, so peeing in camp could result in exceptionally stinky camps. Urine also attracts animals and can have adverse effects on some plants. Again, check guidelines if you will be walking along a river, and see if you should be peeing in it or not.

Use a pee bottle if you’re in one of these areas and know that you will have to pee in the middle of the night and don’t want to walk all the way to the river. Something like the Nalgene Wide Mouth Canteen seems like a good option, although I haven’t tried it. I always just make the nighttime walk to the water.

Parting Thoughts

Knowing why poop bags are required in so many places in canyon country has encouraged me to carry them even when they aren’t required, simply to reduce impact. As visitation to desert areas continues to increase, so will the amount of poop in the ground. Do the desert a favor and consider using human waste disposal bags even if they’re not required.

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About the author

Ben Kilbourne has been backpacking at least once a month every month for the last twelve years. His explorations have taken him all over the west, but especially the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau. The geography of the west has become familiar to him. He has developed a rudimentary understanding of its geology, and an awareness of the subtle changes in flora and fauna due to soil, elevation, aspect, and precipitation and how these elemental things interact with both ancient and modern humans. His experiences on the land, whether triumphant or thwarted by events either in or out of his control, have provided the foundation for the work he does. Find Ben’s paintings, songs, and essays here http://benkilbourne.com/.

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18 comments

  1. “When you’re finished pooping, cover your hole with soil and disguise it.”

    PLEASE do NOT “disguise” your filled cat holes!

    If you’ve ever dug into someone else’s fresh business because it was so expertly disguised, you will know the horror of the sanitation problem this creates for you, your trowel and the environment. Lightly mark your buried treasure with some small sticks stuck in the ground or a couple of rocks stacked on top. I have brought this issue up with LNT.org to no avail. They are more concerned with the physical intrusion of unnatural, small stick and rock placement than with surface fecal contamination and pathogen transmission.

  2. I heartily agree with the importance of responsible wilderness defecation. However, the premise that “wag bags” are an acceptable arrangement is highly flawed. Think about it: Rather than allowing a biodegradable waste product to biodegrade, we are now wrapping it into a turtle-choking petrochemical packet.
    It it a testament to commercial ingenuity that we can be convinced to buy what are effectively adult diapers that only our poop wears!

  3. Do you think you might use a better word than s***?
    Just devalues your efforts.

    • I disagree. You may find use of the word “shit” unprofessional or offensive, but the information is still valuable.

    • The most famous book ever written about Leave No Trace is called ”How to Shit in the Woods”. It’s sold millions of copies. The author is Kathleen Meyer who’s written a few articles on SectionHiker in the past. She just came out with a 4th edition. It’s good shit. I recommend it.
      Here’s a link to the book.
      https://amzn.to/392czV0

    • I’m with Kyle on this one. Not sure if the word choice was for laughs or for shock value, but it detracts from what is a really classy blog that I have enjoyed greatly. I use words like this all the time in conversation, but not in print.

      • Rabbi Yahannan Goldberg-Levi

        Come on Man…..You are picking the Fly Shit out of the pepper. Oy Vey, such Meshuganah.

  4. Back in the 1990s, I bought a Vaude Wilderness Waste Disposal bag. That’s a fancy way of saying “a bag to carry poop & used toilet paper.” (It was essentially a dry bag with rolldown closures at both ends.) I suck at digging catholes, and I was mostly hiking in an area that’s so overwhelmed by humans I figured they’d soon be required. The downside is that your pack doesn’t get much lighter over the course of a trip. The plus side? I could poop anywhere I wanted. No more scouting around for an acceptable spot.

    A few years ago, I did a three-day trip during which it was HOT. A few other things went wrong, but smelling like an outhouse was probably at the top of the list. The end of the trip was capped off by an unpleasant incident as I was dumping its contents into a vault toilet. (Vaude recommended pooping into brown paper bags and then dumping the contents into a vault toilet to empty it. I checked with a forest ranger and she assumed me the paper wouldn’t present a problem when the toilet was pumped out.) That was the end of the Vaude Wilderness Waste Disposal bag.

    In retrospect, I was too hasty. There are times I’m struggling to dig through tiny roots or in rocky soil that I really wish I still had the thing.

  5. Bevil,
    Great article that will certainly change the way I do things when out hiking here in the Norther Territory, Australia.

  6. As someone who has done all their hiking under trees, I used to think I wanted to go hiking in the desert. Now I’m not so sure ;-)

    Seriously though, when you consider the lack of water resources, backcountry filtration and waste disposal/transport, and other details I am probably not aware of, sounds like hiking in the desert is a whole different ball game.

  7. You are already packing “stuff” out. There is no shame in having a pair of exam gloves in the kit to keep your hands clean (in the absence of water). They weigh nothing and take little space

  8. A good and useful write up. Obviously not the most fun of topics but something everyone with ideas of hiking in the desert should be aware of. I learned some new things…I would not have considered peeing in a river as ever being the preferred choice. I do know in some vehicle accessible “desert” areas they ask you to pee in the road just because that is what it is.

    Packing out poop also applies above the tree line in some places. The eastern side of Mt Whitney is a WAG bag area and you are encouraged to descend below the tree line on the western side.

    One thing I didn’t see mentioned is that in many areas in the Western US and deserts in particular, packing out toilet paper is required and should be done even if it is not…it doesn’t break down quickly and tends to get worked out or erode out back to the surface. And no one wants to see your used TP back from the dead…I use a Brondell GoSpa personal bidet and a baby wipe which I pack out. I haven’t had to cope with WAG bags yet so that may change things. For women, using a Kula cloth or bandana are alternatives to TP.

    A good point about carrying a trowel. I always cringe when gear list types advise using a stick or shoe instead of carrying a trowel. You can maybe get away with it in deciduous forests where there is deep leaf litter but it doesn’t work well or at all in other areas with different soils.

  9. Be very careful during that midnight pee at the river’s edge. More than a few people have fallen in, and some didn’t survive the trip, especially on stretches with slippery or unstable banks, and cold, fast-moving water or rapids just downstream. This applies to all rivers and bigger streams, not just in the desert. On a multi-person trip, take at least one pee bottle (e.g. cutoff juice jug) and post it near camp, in a safe and well-known place. Empty the pee bottle into the river from a safe place after use.

    From someone who led more than 100 whitewater raft trips around the Western U.S.

  10. I have the Deuce of Spades shovel, similar to the TenLab, and it works pretty well, but boy it does a number on bare hands when the ground is hard or rooty. I’ve learned to tap the end with a rock to dig when that’s the case. Of course if there is urgency I sometimes have to find a rock and dig the cat hole after the fact.

  11. I would add that even if you are in an area where you can bury your poop, you should pack out your used TP. I did this decades ago when backpacking in the Grand Canyon. When I was told we needed to do this I was appalled but it turns out it really wasn’t a big deal. Now I do it no matter what environment I’m hiking or camping in. It just takes too long for TP to decompose.

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