How to Poop in Extreme Environments
When is it not enough to just dig a hole?
To dig or not to dig?
While a good cathole will get you by 9 times out of 10, more extreme or fragile environments require a different approach. Whether you're above tree line in an alpine tundra, hiking across a snow field, or camping in the desert, extreme environments make waste decomposition more difficult.
Here are some tricks for optimal disposal.
Above tree line
In the snow
In the desert
Along river beds
Above the tree line
Human waste can take years to break down. This is especially true above tree line, where there are fewer soil bacteria to help it decompose. Additionally, alpine tundra environments are extremely fragile, so the risk of human damage to plant life is much more pronounced.
Pack it out
The ideal solution above tree line is to pack it out. Now, if you're like me, you probably didn't bring a wag bag on your summit hike because you were planning to be down by lunch. Ziplock baggies, though, should definitely be on your list. Turn the baggie inside out, insert your hand, use your bag-covered hand to pick up your feces, and turn the bag right-side-out around your deposit. Zip it up and pack it out!
Pro Tip: Even if you only expect to be out for a few hours, never leave home without a couple of ziplock baggies. They're light, stowable, and indispensable in a bathroom emergency! As a bonus, clear baggies can double as a collection source for evaporated water.
If it's a real emergency and you don't have a bag, you can employ a wonderful practice called smearing.
First, find a place away from the trail and water. Consider what is down-mountain from you so that you don't end up surprising unsuspecting campers.
Next, find a flat rock that faces the sun (so, east or west facing). Poop on that rock.
Now comes the fun part! Find a smaller rock to use as a trowel and spread your feces in a thin layer over the flat rock. Think more paint than peanut butter. The layer of pooh will dry up, the sun's UV rays will kill the bacteria, and it will flake away with minimal impact to the environment.
To wipe, you can use a smaller, round rock, snow (pack it into a pear-shaped snowball), or water and your hand. Just make sure you sanitize! Steer clear of using vegetation since it is scarce above tree line and should be preserved.
In the snow
While this might seem like a simple dig and bury situation, snow shits are not as easily disposed of. Cold temperatures freeze your deposit instead of decomposing it, and come spring, leave it exposed to contaminate water sources or the landscape.
Plan A: Pack it out
Bring a wag bag or see above.
Plan B: Bury it
If you aren't prepared to pack it out, try to find a snow-less spot like the area around a tree trunk or on the sheltered side of a boulder. Dig your cathole there, being mindful to stay clear of water, trails, and campsites.
If you are unable to find snow-free ground, consult your map, make sure you aren't near any streams, trails, or camping areas. Dig your hole in the snow, and cover. Keep in mind that if you follow this option, you're dooming spring hikers to stumble across your stuff, so try to keep it away from populated areas and in a spot where the sun will melt it quickly.
In the desert
In the desert, the delicate cryptobiotic soil and lack of soil bacteria present a unique challenge. Even peeing can be rough. The lack of rain means that instead of absorbing into soil or washing away, your pee can sit and bake in the sun, leading to very unpleasant odors.
Your best bet when pooping in the desert is to dig a shallow cathole, 2"-6" deep, to maximize decomposition in the more nutrient rich soil. Under trees is best, as the cryptobiotic soil found in flat areas is extremely fragile.
If you're in a particularly rocky area where you cannot dig and bury, the smearing method will also work. Just keep in mind that the sun baking your poop will stink, so find a spot away from frequently trafficked areas.