What's the Bathroom Etiquette When You Go Camping?

Q: Yo Matt! So, I’ve gotten myself in a bit of a pickle. I’ve been crushing on a special new lady friend and we’ve made plans to take a backcountry camping expedition this weekend. She’s super green and quite the experienced camper and me? I consider “roughing it” spending the night at a Holiday Inn. The thing is, I want to impress her so badly that I’ve talked myself up to be quite the outdoorsman. And she bit -- hook, line, and sinker. I’ve practiced pitching a tent in my living room and have already purchased the necessary gear, but one dirty detail is still giving me uncomfortable pause: the bathroom situation.

From what I understand, public facilities will be nonexistent where we’ll be camping. I’m clueless to outdoor potty etiquette so when I “excuse myself” I want to make sure that I’m not doing anything environmentally egregious. Any camping toilet tips that will help me convince the girl I’m a pro and not offend Mamma Nature? Or should I just try to hold it in until I’m back in civilization?

Sheepishly yours,

Blair, Walla Walla, Wash.

Hey Blair,

Yikes. What a predicament ... make a mess in the woods and lose the girl or fight nature’s calling and damage your colon in the process. But you don’t need to sweat it: Abiding by the rules of Leave No Trace (LNT) camping and applying them to loo-land should bring you sweet relief. Essentially, LNT principles require you to take everything that you bring into the woods (including human waste) out with you or dispose of it in the safest way possible. Responsible human waste management in the great outdoors prevents water contamination and the subsequent spread of disease, unsightly messes and unwanted attention from critters.

You’ll most likely be dealing with a “squat and bury” scenario. When setting up camp, impress your lady friend by digging well-spaced “catholes” -- small dung ditches at least 6 inches deep and 4 inches in diameter -- with a garden trowel (an alfresco toilet must-have). Dig the catholes a minimum of 200 feet away from water sources, trails and campsites. Secure an inconspicuous spot but not one that will be impossible to find in the middle of the night. And pick a loo locale that’s not too shady since sunlight will quicken the decomposition process.

After you’ve done your business, fill the cathole in with soil and cover it with leaves and twigs to politely disguise it. Any wiping should be kept to a minimum if possible and plain, unbleached TP (or leaves!) should be used. LNT mentions the use of stones but I’m going to override that recommendation. Also not suggested: digging a latrine, a “communal cathole.”

In some terrains, especially ones sensitive to water pollution like river canyons, you must “pack out” your droppings -- unpleasant to think about when camping with a new lady friend, yes, but it’s compulsory. If this is indeed the case, LNT sells special biodegradable containment pouches meant for campers schlepping around in the wilderness with bags of their own dung. Some of these pouches are sold as kits with toilet paper and clean-up/hygiene supplies. Be sure to check out the waste disposal particulars of the area you’ll be visiting and study LNT guidelines before you head out.

So remember, Blair, it’s all about location, location, location or procuring human waste “pack out” gear. For your sake, I hope you’re dealing with the former. Whatever the case, be responsible, enjoy the fresh air and good luck with Grizzly-ette Adams. If she notices you slipping up somehow, at least you gave it a shot. It takes a big man, no matter what his experience in the great outdoors, to write a green advice columnist asking about how to properly poop in the woods.