Since it's obviously a topic of interest, I think it deserves a follow up. I've done a lot more camping, and a therefore a lot more "business in the woods" since writing that article. (I'm sure you really wanted that image in your head. You're welcome.) And so I have an update: I've quit carrying toilet paper, and I'm loving it. (Again, don't you just want to invite me to your next sophisticated cocktail party?)
That's right, I've fully converted to using nature for my toilet paper. I was intimidated by this at first, but once I read Mike Clelland's fantastic book, Ultralight Backpackin' Tips I was inspired to give it a go. Mike (we're on a first name basis now, obv) describes pretty much everything you could ever use as TP in his book, lovingly detailing the benefits of different mediums. I definitely suggest you check the books out which is packed with useful information.
If you haven't tried it you'd be surprised at what makes great trail TP. After employing this method in a variety of climate zones, I find that it's impossible to try to give you a list of what works well since it varies so much from area to area. For example, moss in one area may be dry and crumbly (not practical) and sparse on trees (shouldn't be picking it) versus moss in another area may be thick and damp and awesome and practically choking the life out of every surface available (a.k.a. jackpot).
When choosing natural toilet paper I'd suggest these general guidelines:
- Texture: choose something smooth enough to not scratch your tender bits, yet textured/rough enough to get the job done.
- Waterproof: choose something that's either water proof (such as a leaf with a soft and textury on the under side for wiping, but water proof and smooth on the other wide for finger protection) or can be stacked thick enough that leak through wont be an issue.
- Quantity: nature as TP is rarely if ever as efficient as normal TP, so grab plenty of your material of choice and wipe away generously.
- Environmental Impact: choose something that wont be missed from the current environment. What is found in abundance? What is already on the ground and not still living? These are good places to start.
- Dampness: Try using something a little damp - it's surprisingly luxurious. It gives a delightful little freshening up.
- Variety: Don't think that each bathroom session can only have one type of TP. By all means, grab a few different items and try them out!
- Snowballs. If you do a lot of winter camping this may be the only thing available to you, so it's lucky that it makes for great TP. Form several tight snowballs and give it a go. Not only does the delicate yet gritty snow wipe pretty well, but it also gives a bonus washing effect. I recommend following these up with something dry if you can find it.
- Moss. The right moss is a delight. I live in British Columbia where moss can often be like a thick shag carpet over everything in the forest and can be pulled off in 2 inch thick pillowy clumps. The right moss may actually be better than toilet paper. Well, that's probably an exaggeration. But it's pretty great.
- Rocks. I know, right? Rocks! Who knew! I never would have figured that rocks would make nice toilet paper without Mike Clelland's endorsement. Just make sure they aren't too scratchy.
- Leaves. The obvious go-to. If you can find a broad leaf with a fuzzy, soft underside it works well. But overall I'd say leaves are a lower order choice for me. Firstly, usually that means picking a live plant which I'd prefer to avoid. Seconly, many leaves are a overall too slick to do a nice job.
The benefits of using nature as toilet paper are many:
- Light Weight. No need to carry any toilet paper, shaving ounces from your pack.
- Minimize impact. I always hated the idea of leaving toilet paper behind, even if it was buried, and equally hated the idea of packing it out (or packing it until the next outhouse).
- It's kind of fun. It makes you feel like an adventurous pioneer person. Toilet paper hasn't been around forever, after all. Plus it makes you appreciate the convenience of TP more when you get home.
If you've been thinking about it, take the plunge! You may find that it's not nearly as intimidating as you thought and be able to confidently leave the toilet paper behind on your next trip.