Answering Nature's Call: Backcountry Potty Protocol

Not all leaves, rocks, or barks are created equally. When Nature calls be sure to follow proper backcountry etiquette for handling Number 2.

Most of us loyal Outbound followers have surely experienced the reliefs and woes associated with answering Nature's inevitable call while out hiking or backpacking. But for those less well-versed on the matter may find the below realities illuminating. But before we go any further lets get one thing straight...

Everybody poops.

There I said it. Now that we have all collectively taken a shared slice of humble pie, lets all get down to the great equalizing topic for all man/animal kind: Answering Nature's Call.

Photo: Mike Quine

Before I begin, I'll preface this by saying I am a man. For me to even pretend that I know the plight of women in the realm of outdoor sanitation would be a lie and a downright injustice to the better half of our species. Instead of trying to tackle this matter, I'll pass the buck and encourage one of The Outbound Collective's multitudinous female contributors to chime in on the subject. That beings said, I'm certain there will be many parallels. 

Anyway, men, lets get the easy part out of the way. Can we just skip over how to go Number 1 in the woods? I mean if you can't figure that one out you probably don't have any business backpacking in the woods to begin with. Now, moving on to more pressing matters (ha!). Right now I'd like to both highlight the realities, cautions, and advice for waste management in the backcountry.

To the seasoned backpackers out there, nothing here will likely come to you as any surprise. However, to the novices among us, don't let your inner-workings prevent you from experiencing the backcountry wilderness. 

Photo: Mike Quine

1. Respect and Privacy: Find a private area where you will not be disturbing your fellow hikers. Obviously you are going to want to aim well off the trail. Remember. These acts can infiltrate more than just the sense of sight, so be kind and put some distance between the trail and your...deposit.

2. Self Preservation: Privacy is key but if you are hiking alone, do yourself the service of also not doing your business close to where you are sleeping. Be even more careful that you don't GO near where you eat. And be the MOST careful that you don't go anywhere near a water source. This is important for you but also for any future hikers that may follow in your footsteps. 

3. Security: As a human being and a member of the community of the living, this act puts us in our most vulnerable of positions. So literally, "Don't get caught with your pants down." What I mean is make sure you aren't in the vicinity of any wildlife that may require your undivided attention. Even the most basic of human activities should take a back seat to ensuring your situational awareness. Grizzly Bears and snakes don't care if you are having a private moment, so don't expect them to wait until you have finished.

Photo: Mike Quine

4. Environmental Awareness: Even veteran backpackers can make this mistake when the call is urgent. But I caution you! Look at where you are standing/sitting/squatting! Pointy sticks and Poison Ivy give little thought to where you need to go. 

5. Leave No Trace: Here is the most important thing to know about going to the bathroom in the wilderness. When you use your bathroom at home, you don't want to forget to flush because you don't want the next person after you to suffer the visual byproducts of your body's miraculous excretory system. Take those same principles with you in the wilderness. Bring a shovel or use your hands to dig a small hole. Make sure its deep enough. I'm not talking a small dimple in the ground. You have to bury that sucker so you not only can't see it but no animal can smell it either. Oh and more importantly, anything...and I mean ANYTHING you take into the wilderness must also come out with you. Am I talking about toilet paper (TP)? You bet I am! So if you are the type of person that likes to carry around used TP in your backpack in 90+ degree weather (or at all) then be sure to pack it up in a zip lock bag at a bare minimum. I for one will never use toilet paper because the thought of having used TP in my backpack next to my food is somewhat unsettling. So if you are like me, I have a few recommendations for alternatives. 

Photo: Mike Quine

6. The Tools: Here are a few implements that can be used in lieu of TP (Starting with the most preferred - terrain dependent, of course). 

  • River Stones (Best ever)
  • Leaves (Just not poison ivy or any of its other poisonous buddies)
  • Fallen Bark
  • Sticks...but be careful...
  • Alpine Rocks (Can be crumbly...consider yourself warned)
  • NOT sand

Photo: Mike Quine

So there you have it! Its not Shakespeare, but its an important story to tell. When planning to live outside for a year, this was not something that I took serious consideration of prior to heading out into the wilderness. However, within a quick 24 hours, the reality of this human need became impressively present. For me, and I'm sure a lot of you out there, leaves and river stones will never look the same.


Published: December 30, 2016

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Mike QuineExplorer

Washington DC

...a year long journey through the American landscape of our National Parks. Disengaged from societal pursuits to set out alone and face the uncertainty guaranteed by the Wilderness. Hardening both hands and mind thro...