Let’s Talk About Poop: A Camper’s Guide to Human Waste

Jan 11, 2023 | Camping Tips, Conservation

Let’s Talk About Poop: A Camper’s Guide to Human Waste

With multiple options for doing your business, there’s no excuse for leaving your waste behind for others to find.

By Josette Deschambeault

With more people enjoying the outdoors, ranger districts and campers are reporting a higher-than-normal amount of people leaving human waste on the ground. This elevated incident level suggests that many people are taking to the outdoors—away from restrooms—for the first time. Getting outside is awesome; leaving your poop behind isn’t. If you’re new to the outdoors and concerned about your options for going number two, have no fear. We’re here to talk about poop.

First, here’s a quick lesson on Leave No Trace (LNT). The non-profit promotes seven core principles, including how to manage your waste. As the standard for outdoor travel and public lands usage, LNT urges recreational users to leave nature exactly as they find it: pristinely wild. While different outdoor areas may have slightly differing human waste regulations, leaving waste directly on the ground isn’t acceptable anywhere.

Related How to Leave No Trace: Boondocking Edition

Why should you properly dispose of your poop? Human waste can pollute waterways and change the local ecology, spread disease, and make a beautiful area smell. Think about it: Would you want to camp next to a pile of poo? Would you want your kids, dogs, or friends stumbling across such an unwelcome surprise? 

poo on side of trail

Here are a few tried-and-true waste management options that are good to go, wherever you need to go.

Catholes and Latrines

Let’s start with the basics. Catholes and latrines were previously the standard for most backpacking trips and camping areas where toilets aren’t available. A “cathole” is a hole dug into the ground to dispose of and cover up waste. A latrine is the multi-day, large-group version of a cathole.

According to Outside Online, a growing number of outdoor land managers and scientists are no longer recommending that recreational users bury their poop, citing the growing number of campers and hikers as well as scientific research and studies. Instead, they recommend using WAG bags (see more below). 

If you absolutely have to bury your waste, choose a site that’s at least 200 feet away from camp, trails, and water; somewhere out of the way where other campers won’t walk. Proper catholes should be at least 6 inches deep—most camping trowels are about 6 inches long, perfect for measuring a proper hole. Once you’ve done your business, fill the hole with the original dirt, and disguise it with debris to make it look natural again.

So what do you do with your used TP? Pack it out. Toilet paper doesn’t disintegrate like waste does, and even burning it isn’t effective; you’re still leaving traces of ecosystem-harming product behind. A duct-tape covered Ziploc bag is the best place to store your used paper; that way it’s discrete and smell-proof.

Always look up local and campground regulations before burying your waste outdoors.

Waste Bags

Also known as WAG bags, think of these as dog poop bags for humans. They’re designed to collect and carry human waste in wilderness areas safely and discreetly, without lugging a portable toilet around with you. The bags are puncture-resistant and coated in a NASA-designed odor-killing powder. Plus, they typically come with hand wipes, sanitizer, and a small amount of toilet paper, so you can ditch the whole roll. Set up the bag in a Cleanwaste specialized toilet seat kit, over a small bucket, or on its own. Do your business, tie off the bag, and voilà—you’ve just earned an LNT pooper badge.

Groover

Also known as a “river toilet,” this option is a basic outhouse-on-the-go. Sometimes it’s just a toilet seat over a 5-gallon bucket, but usually, a groover consists of a seat and tank combo. Either option includes a screwed-on, locked-on lid to ensure there are no spills in transit. Groovers are an inexpensive option for multi-day car camping in areas without provided toilets. Plus, groovers hold TP like an RV toilet—just don’t go number one in these potties.

Cassette Toilets

A cassette toilet is similar to a groover, but with a few key differences. Cassette toilets use a removable black water tank inside of a larger container, which also houses the seat. Popular in RVs and van builds, this option allows you to remove the waste tank and dump it in a regular toilet or dumping station. While bulkier than groovers, the cassette toilet is much more comfortable, stable, and discrete than its river-running cousin. Some even include flushing water (just press a button to rinse it down) and water holding tanks, for an at-home bathroom experience.

Premium Portable Toilets

If you’re not quite ready to go the full monty with your gotta-go routine, never fear: There’s an upgrade for that. Portable flushing toilets (like Dometic’s toilet options) are a more comfortable way to answer nature’s call out in nature. While there’s a range of options to choose from (including budget and pricier picks), all offer flushing features. Some are foot-pedal powered, while others may use a wall switch or hand-wave technology. A few can even swivel the seat 90 degrees to fit any RV or camping situation. These are more expensive options, but if you want the most comfortable and homey bathroom experience on your outdoor adventures, this is it.

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