Thursday, April 12, 2012

How to Poop in the Woods...this time Without Toilet Paper

Why on earth would I tackle the indelicate topic of answering the call of nature while in nature not once but twice?  Well, the article I wrote on How to Poop in the Woods is far and away the most popular one on this site.  It's not surprising to me - this is something that I used to have a fair deal of anxiety about and can be a real barrier to many when they think about getting out camping.

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!  
Here are a few of my favourite natural TP sources, but I'm sure you'll find your own:
  • 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:
  1. Light Weight.  No need to carry any toilet paper, shaving ounces from your pack.
  2. 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).  
  3. 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.


  1. Thanks for being so brave that you write about this highly private topic (as you also did in April 2009). Last summer I attended a survival course for women. During that course we had to stay outdoor for two nights. We had no access to a toilet, neither to toilet paper. Our instructor suggested that we should use either moss or fern. Not to go into details but both "remedies" were sufficient for the purpose. Last week I went for a canoe hike with some friends and inspired by your article I tried to act the privitive way again. Just for the fun of it I tried to manage without toilet paper. And again it was ok. But I think one point should be added to your list of advice: Wipe when still squatting to ensure that the skin around the opeing gets well cleaned.

    Then a general comment: Last week we were around 20 persons canoeing together. We were discussing equipment, food, health, weather......, but the toilet issue was never mentioned between us. It was neither discussed in the information material for the hike nor spoken of. No toilets along the route. Obviously we all had to visit the bushes lots of times. Still I guess that everyone tried to get away alone without anyone noticing, but certainly everyone knew what was the reason when somebody went alone for the woods. And occasionally, especially in the morning, when trying to find a secluded spot for own privacy, one could get a glimpse of someone else just as a confirmation of the fact that we all have the same needs. And yes, I still feel very embarrassed if anyone gets a glimpse of me squatting in the bushes. Articles like those from CB is important as reminders to all hikers. ("Hikers of all countries unite"... to make this a conversable issue.)

    1. Thanks Anon! I know that a lot of people are nervous about these questions (as I was). Somebody's going to talk about it, it might as well be me!

  2. You, this blog post, its predecessor, and this entire blog are so awesome. Thanks!

    1. Ha ha, glad you enjoy it Amanda! I aim to please :D

  3. I just wanted to comment upon this one too! I have never really managed to quit with bringing toilet paper. But I have reduced the use of it to a minimum. Partly because I try to use some kind of natural material for the first wipes and then finish with just one small piece of paper. Partly because I have experienced that when squatting really low the need for wipes are less than when just "hovering" over the ground. Often I also have to open my bowels in the early morning and then I try to get it done before I am bathing or washing myself.

  4. I agree with the posting at the top. Brave of you to address this issue. I think many of us not only feel embarrassed about going to toilet outside, but also are in doubt how to do it and even if it is legal. My personal, short algorithm is: 1. When beginning to feel the urge, start lookig for a suitable spot. 2. A suitable spot is well away from water and out of sight for the friends. Most of us do not like to be involved in other persons needs of this kind. 3. Squat low then the process goes quickly. 4. Follow local customs (bury, packing out etc). 5. Smile, enjoy the surroundings and be happy not to be constipated, and if in doubt I say to myself that for sure my friends also do it.

  5. using a rock can leave you with ring worm, don't try that method.

  6. Very effectively removes poop and cleans the wiping region

  7. I have tried, but never really managed to quit with toilet paper. For peeing I use a "pee rag", and for pooping I usually only need one tiny wipe. (Perhaps TMI but I squat as low as I can, bend well forward, and I (please do not laugh) try to widen the butt crack by stretching the buttocks with my hands... Hopefully nobody has seen me in that situation. I guess it would have been a tragic and comic sight, really too embarrassing to think of...)

    1. I do it exactly the same way. And I think few hikers would be astonished or embarrassed of such a sight. I guess most hikers have seen others as well as being spotted in such situations. Without a door to lock that is part of outdoor life.

    2. Eh, uhm, well; perhaps I should not write this. But I once accidentally walked in on one of the (elderly) men in my hiking group (pilgrim hike) just as he was in that particular position. Luckily (?) I came up from behind so he did not observe me before I succeeded to withdraw from the scene. Therefore none of us got embarrassed. Neither I got astonished, because I was out there for the same purpose. But, it was a comic and unforgettable sight that helped me to become somewhat more relaxed about such situations and accepting it as a natural part even of a pilgrims' hike. If anyone should wonder, I managed to get my duty done, in quite the same way. So yes, every hiker knows all about it, mature men and young women included.

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