You are your own biggest health-hazard in the backcountry. If you get sick in the backcountry, you probably did it to yourself through poor hygiene. Keeping clean is critical to a successful thru-hike, and in this section we discuss pooping, washing, and laundry.
Clean water is of course important to sanitation, and we have devoted an entire page to water treatment in our gear section.
Urination in the backcountry is okay. Urine from a healthy person poses no risk to the health of others or the environment. You don't want to pee right off the Trail, however. The next person who comes along will see it and know exactly what it is. Bad trail karma, man.
Alpine environments are fragile, the plants sensitive to disruption. When peeing above treeline, pee onto bare rocks rather than directly onto plants, including grasses.
In the Snow
Never pee near creeks, ponds, et cetera and cover up the yellow snow you create by kicking fresh snow over it.
Digging a cathole correctly is important to prevent water pollution, stop the spread of disease, maximize the rate of decomposition, and avoid the bad trail karma of having another hiker find your poop.
But every trail has a different pooping situation. On the Appalachian Trail, there is a composting privy at every shelter except in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. You almost never need to dig a cathole. On the other hand, the PCT has no privies. Arid conditions combined with a lack of cover change where and how you dig a cathole in the desert, and the rocky, snowy Sierras present an ethical dilemma.
Here are the cathole basics, intended for a generic forested environment:
1) Pick a Spot
2) Dig a Hole
3) Bombs Away
5) Pee & Stir
7) Naturalize the Site
8) Sterilize Hands
Finding a Hidden Spot
Problem: Finding an inconspicuous spot that's out of site is hard to do in the desert. Without tree cover, there's no place to hide. Many times the chaparral or Joshua trees are tall and dense enough to hide behind, but just as often there is only wide open desert. Additionally, the grade and routing of the Trail itself complicates things. Since it stays mostly level along the side of mountains, rather than going up and over every rise (like the AT), you can see the Trail many miles ahead of you. In other words, people can see you taking a squat hundreds of yards away.
Solution: Take advantage of opportunities to poop privately when they arise. In other words, don't wait until you absolutely have to go. You can't make a mad dash into the woods — there are no woods — so when you do come across an opportunity for privacy, take it.
Digging an Adequate Hole
Problem: One might assume digging a hole in the desert would be easy. It's sand, after all. But the sandy soil can be very densely packed and it's quiet rocky. You might struggle to find a spot where you can penetrate the soil with your shovel.
Solution: The trick is to dig at the base of bushes like the chaparral. The soil there is much softer and more easily broken up than soil even a few feet away.
Finding Dark, Organic Soil
Problem: You are supposed to dig your cathole in dark, organic soil since that is where all the microorganisms live that will break down your poop and TP. However there is no dark, organic soil in the desert, just sand and rock. That means your poop will take a lot longer to break down and we are presented with an ethical quandary.
Solutions: The absolute most ethical course of action is to pack out your poop — to use a wag bag (see below) and carry out all your business. If you choose to do that, that's wonderful and we applaud you. However, we know that for most people the ick factor is too much. So what should you do? Bury it like normal. The truth is, the PCT desert section does not have the environmental problems of the Grand Canyon (where packing out poop is a must) and is not as dry as you might imagine. Most of the first 700 miles is spent in the high desert, where there is more moisture than at lower elevations. Your poop will break down in time, and because there are no shelters or designated campsites, the human impact is spread out. If there were shelters, we'd have huge concentrations of non-decomposed poop near every one. This is a key reason why there are no shelters on the PCT.
Most of the time the Sierras do not present practical or ethical problems related to pooping. After 700 miles of desert there is suddenly plenty of tree cover, moisture, and dark organic soil. You can follow standard leave no trace rules for digging a cathole. Trouble begins when you start climbing the passes above 10,000 feet. There you enter alpine environments and the situation changes.
Above the Treeline
Problem: Once above treeline, you find an open, rocky, and wet environment. Once again there is no cover for privacy except for the occasional boulder. The soil is completely rocky and digging a cathole is impossible. The Trail snakes along streams, pools, and marshy areas fed by snowmelt. And then there is the snow itself. Getting 200 feet from a water source is near impossible. There is little bacterial activity in the rocks and snow, so poop will most certainly not break down and instead get washed down the mountain into waterways when the snow eventually melts.
Solution: Don't poop above treeline. Seriously, this is the simplest solution. You will rarely, if ever, need to camp above treeline, so you have ample opportunity to go before entering the alpine zone. Most of the time, if you follow the conventional PCT thru-hiker strategy for crossing the passes, you will camp below the pass (below treeline) and hike over the pass in the morning. By mid-afternoon you should be below treeline again. As long as you poop in the morning or evening, you can avoid the problems above treeline. However, it is wise to carry Wag bags in case of emergency (see below).
Your PCT thru-hiking permit is a golden ticket to climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states. You should do it, of course. So here is the pooping situation on Whitney: Wag bags are legally required on the mountain. The night before you summit Whitney you can camp in one of two places, Crabtree Meadows, which is below treeline, or Guitar Lake, which is above treeline. If you stay at Crabtree Meadows, you can poop before you summit and not worry about needing to go and using a wag bag on the mountain. If you stay at Guitar Lake, you will need to bring some wag bags.
A complicating issue is that Crabtree Meadows has a bear box, while Guitar Lake does not, and so you legally must have a bear canister to camp at Guitar Lake. However, if you follow our advice and use bear boxes up until the point at which it's no longer an option, then you won't have a bear canister with you yet when you reach Whitney. You'll have to camp at Crabtree Meadows.
Problem: There will likely be times when you find the Trail covered in snow below the treeline, like on San Jacinto in the desert, or the northern half of Washington. You should never poop in the snow, because when the snow melts your poop either washes down the mountain into waterways or becomes a stinking pile on the ground.
Solution: You could pack it out in a wag bag (see below). The Leave No Trace organization prefers you make this choice, but we understand the ick factor. The second option is to find a snow-free spot and dig a hole in the earth as normal. The base of trees, especially trees with low-hanging branches, are often void of snow because the branches shelter the immediate area around a trunk. These are called tree-holes, tree wells, or sometimes spruce traps. Deep snow can create deep tree wells that are dangerous, but during the thru-hiking season this isn't a serious concern.
Like Ziploc, the WAG Bag is a brand name that has become the general term for pack-it-out poop bag systems. It stands for Waste Alleviation and Gelling Bag, but oddly Cleanwaste, the company that first created the product, has walked away from the memorable rhyming name and re-branded it the GO Anywhere Toilet Kit. ReStop and Biffy Bags are competitors with similar pack-it-out poop kits.
Every system is essentially the same: you use one bag like a glove and pick up the poop, and then seal it inside a second outer bag that's thicker, sturdier, and sealable. Included is an absorbent powder that dries out the poop and traps odors like kitty litter. The outer bag is opaque so you don't have to see your business.
Homemade Wag Bag
The original WAG Bag costs about $30 for a dozen. If you'd rather not pay for them, you can easily make your own wags with:
1) plastic grocery bag as an inner bag
2) ziploc freezer bag (heavy duty) as an outer bag
3) kitty litter.
Ziplocs are transparent however, so you'll see your business. That's the downside to the homemade wag bag. We've also seen notes that homemade versions are not approved by the EPA to enter landfills, while commercial products like GO Anywhere, Biffy Bags, and ReStop are. We have not been able to confirm this.
1) Pick a spot that's inconspicuous and out of sight. Take your wag bag, TP, and hand sanitizer.
2) Bombs away and wipe as normal.
3) Put the inner bag over your hand like a glove and pick up the poop and used TP. The absorbent powder is already inside the inner bag, so you have to be careful not to spill it. Also, your poop will be warm. Eww.
4) Wrap the poop and TP up inside the inner bag like you would a doggie doo bag.
5) Stuff the inner bag into the outer bag, and seal it.
6) Sanitize hands.
Burn Your Toilet Paper
We've never heard of a thru-hiker doing this, and let's keep it that way. Occasionally outdoor enthusiasts, out of concern their toilet paper would never decompose, have decided to burn their TP, leading to huge forest fires in New Mexico, Idaho, Spain, and Australia. The slightest breeze easily blows toilet paper away and the desert is filled with dry wood and grass that can erupt like gasoline. Burning TP is simply too risky and dangerous to be a solution to long decomposition times.
Smear Your Poop On a Rock
This outdated advice says to smear your poop on a rock rather than bury it, that way the sun bakes out all the harmful germs. The Leave No Trace organization found that people do not smear their poop thin enough for this to happen— people spread it like peanut butter on a sandwich — so it's ineffective and LNT discourages it. Also consider how dry and windy the desert is. Poop smeared on a rock will dry out, break apart, and then get lifted into the air on the wind. That cocktail of germs then becomes part of the dust we breathe.
Place a Rock Over Your Poop
We have found these little surprises and it's always gross. While decomposition time in soil may be slow, it's faster than unburied poop with a rock sitting on it, where morning dew and light rain never get a chance to soak through the sand and reach the poop. Furthermore, when heavy rains do come, your poop will be carried from under that rock and down the hillside. Besides, someone will inevitably move your rock and discover your business. Bad trail karma, man.
Deuce of Spades
Sea to Summit