Many new ostomates wonder how to deal with their output on hikes, as we usually have to empty our appliances every 4-6 hours. The answer is to dig a “cathole.” This is the term commonly used by backpackers for a hole to bury feces in. Because this is a very important skill for any outdoor enthusiast with an ostomy (or IBD) to have, I created a short video to cover some of the basics.
I am guessing that I have dug around 500 catholes in the backcountry in my lifetime. As an ileostomate, I am increasing that number at a rapid rate. Gone are the pre-ulcerative colitis days of having 1 or 2 bowel movements in a day. Now I consistently empty my pouch around 6 times in 24 hours. On the trips when I don’t use closed-end pouches, that equals 48 catholes on a 7-day trip! Knowing how to properly dig a cathole to protect the environment and water sources is crucial.
When digging your cathole, keep these things in mind:
- Carry a small plastic trowel with you. It is much easier to dig a good hole with the proper tool.
- Locate your cathole at least 200 feet (70 adult paces) away from water sources.
- Select a site that is not likely to be traveled over or camped on by future wilderness visitors.
- Dig a cathole in a sunny location if possible. The warmth from the sun helps with decomposition. Avoid the “rock and roll” method of moving a rock aside and then plopping it on top of your feces. This does not allow sunlight in and slows the breakdown of the waste.
- Avoid areas where runoff may wash over the human waste and carry it into a water source over time.
- Try to find a site with organic soil, as it will contain microorganisms that will help break down the wastes.
- If camping in the same place for several nights, spread your catholes out so they are not concentrated in one area.
It is a common practice for people to bury their toilet paper due to the belief that it is biodegradable. Toilet paper does break down under ideal conditions, but in some environments, such as alpine areas and deserts, it can take a very long time to go away. Also, animals often dig up feces and scatter the toilet paper in the process. Pair these things with the sheer number of people using the backcountry, and it becomes a recipe for a mess. This summer alone, I have come across over a dozen piles of TP in the wilderness.
When I was 16, I volunteered to build hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park as part of a Student Conservation Association (SCA) summer high school work crew. During the program, we lived in the remote wilderness for 3o days. Our leaders taught us how to dig catholes and pack out our toilet paper. I am so glad I learned how easy it is to do this early-on. Had I not, there would have been over 500 piles of toilet paper in the wilderness just from me over the years. Now with an ileostomy, I would leave at least 6 wads of toilet tissue out in nature each day. Yikes! It is easy to pack out toilet paper. Simply wrap the used tissue in several clean sheets, double bag it in a ziplock, throw it in your pack and dump it in the trash when you get home. Hand sanitizer or soap and water (away from a water source) takes care of any germs. There are actually regulations in many areas that require you to pack out your toilet paper. Whether or not it is the law, I always choose to carry my TP out of the wilderness and highly encourage other wilderness travelers to do the same.
Some popular wilderness areas with highly concentrated use, such as some of the heavily used climbing routes on Mt. Rainier and the Narrows area of Zion National Park, require that you not only pack out your toilet paper, but also your human waste. I can remember climbing the Grand Teton in Wyoming in the early 90s and seeing human waste behind just about every boulder on the outskirts of the popular “Meadows” camping area. It was disgusting, and I kept thinking of all the pikas and marmots that make their home up in those boulder fields. Biodegradable or not, the wastes of hundreds of climbers each week was not part of the natural ecosystem there. I am glad to hear that they are now requiring people to pack out their feces at some of the most heavily used camping areas on this route.
I had my first try at packing out my waste on a winter backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park (see the detail in my Episode 5 and 6 videos). Because the snow prevented the digging of catholes, the National Park Service required that we carry out our waste. I soon discovered that packing out poop isn’t as big of a deal as one would think. It is a little heavy, but other than that, is pretty easy and mess-free. The land management agencies often provide, or can at least recommend, the supplies for doing this. The system I used this winter was the Restop 2, which included a handy bag complete with enzymes for breaking down the waste.
The apprehension people have for packing their human waste reminds me of the stigmas surrounding ostomy surgery. Their are so many unwarranted fears and misconceptions! In reality, packing out your poop in heavily impacted areas is simple, sanitary, doesn’t smell with the right supplies, and is very beneficial to the environment and the experiences of other wilderness visitors. Also, if your choose to use closed-end pouches on hikes and climbs, you will become very familiar with packing out your waste. These used pouches obviously cannot be left behind and must be carried out in a double-layered ziplock bag.
So don’t let a fear of dealing with your poop stop you from heading into the wilds with your ostomy. Learning to dig catholes is easy and will allow you to confidently travel away from bathrooms out in nature.
This leads me to my final observation regarding catholes. Even in my pre-UC days, I would sometimes feel that urge and barely have enough time to hike away from camp and dig, dig, dig before I REALLY had to go. As an ostomate– you always have time to create the perfect cathole! Now you can chuckle quietly to yourself as your tent-mate abruptly stands up after breakfast, frantically looks for the trowel and toilet paper kit and runs top speed into the forest. When it is your turn, you can simply go for a relaxing stroll and find the perfect spot with all the requirements as well as a gorgeous view. After digging a textbook hole, you might even have time to do a little birdwatching or wildflower I.D. before getting down to business. Having an ostomy oudoors isn’t always a picnic, but sometimes it does have its benefits!