Thursday, March 24, 2011

Yesterday, Someone googled...

How to go to the bathroom on an expedition.

They were led to this blog post, which unfortunately for them didn't answer the question. Since it is a very common question - literally the first question my sister asked when I returned from my first Alaska trip - I decided to write a post about it.

One of the certifications I have acquired over the years is 'Leave No Trace - Master Educator', and I follow strict LNT rules when in the back country. Here is the LNT process for going to the bathroom.

Here is the short version:

200 feet from fresh water, dig a cat hole - six inches across, six to eight inches deep - Deposit waste in the cat hole. Refill the cat hole and disguise the site. I was taught that toilet paper must be packed out, but the LNT site currently says that non-colored, non-perfumed toilet paper can be buried along with the waste. I don't pack any toilet paper on expeditions. More on that later.

I like this for digging my cat hole as it works well and keeps BPA laden bottles out of the landfill.

Urine is a non-issue as it is sterile and has very little effect on the environment, but it should still be 200 feet from fresh water. It can sometimes attract animals due to the salt it contains, so urinating on gravel, pine needles, or soft soil will help prevent this. You can also dilute it with fresh water.

Notice all these descriptions say fresh water. The concern is contaminating ground water, which we then end up drinking. As a sea kayaker I am not terribly worried about contaminating the sea as there is a massive amount of bacteria that helps biodegrade anything that might get into it, but I am still digging my cat hole away from the ocean. Though I will urinate in the intertidal zone.

So why don't I pack in toilet paper? There was a time where you weren't allowed to bury toilet paper, and if you used it you had to pack it out. Let's be honest, no one is packing out used toilet paper. You can't burn it because the paper will burn, but the feces will not. My toilet paper substitute of choice is rocks. I will generally grab three or four rocks from the water line before heading off into the brush. These should be rocks that have lived a long time in the water, and are nice and smooth and rounded. Nothing with hard or sharp edges. I use them and simply drop them into the cat hole when I am done. I have also used moss, pine cones, and various other natural items. But I like rocks the best.

I am not a hygiene fanatic, but a lot of back country ailments can be traced to dirty hands, and so I do carry a small bottle antibacterial gel for preventing for keeping hands sanitary. In the front country I think antibacterials are a bad idea, as they are breeding more robust bacteria that will be harder to kill in the future. But in the back country where it is very hard to wash your hands effectively I think it makes sense.


  1. I know for our trip down the Salmon River, they requested that we only urinate in the river. Urine is generally sterile, but does also contain some toxins and can smell bad. The best solution is to dilute it to levels where it has no impact, and 6000 cfs does a pretty good job of diluting! I suspect the ideal solution for waste varies quite a bit depending on level of traffic the area receives.

  2. It does vary based on usage, and Even location. Different locations have different cocerns, and this post is - mostly - speaking in generic terms.

    The LNT site offers a lot of specific information for different environments. They uses to say the solution to pollution is dilution' which we know today isnt always the correct answer.

    Thanks for your comment.


  3. You might be interested in this southcoastal Alaska specific Leave No Trace guidance developed by the Forest Service Wilderness Rangers. Common procedure for leave no trace waste disposal with small groups in dispersed areas is to "go" well below high tide line. Details are found in this document.

  4. Anon -

    that is a great link, and I am going to get a copy to the other people on the trip. It actually lists both, a marine solution and a cathole solution, with the marine solution preferred because of the slow breakdown time in the soil in Alaska.

    The National Outdoor Leadership School - Alaska Branch - used to use the marine method, and switched to catholes because they did a study of the sites frequently used by their courses and did find a microbial effect in the water. Because of that I lean towards the cat hole method, but we will probably do a mix.

    Thanks so much for the link.


  5. Pinecones?
    All these years and I don't remember you mentioning pinecones.

  6. Good, solid piece. I am glad someone asked.