I can tell you from experience: There’s nothing quite like doing your business in -30°C (-22°F) temperatures with the wind chill.
Backcountry camping in the winter is wonderful, but the cold certainly makes routine tasks and personal hygiene a challenge.
Pooping is one of those challenges.
In the summer, and even in the spring and fall, you can simply dig a hole and cover it up after.
But when the ground is frozen and there’s at least three feet of snow as far as the eye can see, suddenly doing your business becomes a much more complicated and delicate task.
Choosing the right spot to poop
When nature calls during your winter camping trip, it’s important to choose an appropriate spot to minimize environmental impact.
Here are some tips to help you pick the right spot:
What to do when there’s a ton of snow
When there’s a ton of snow on the ground, you’ll need to dig out an area to poop in. Use a shovel to dig a hole that is at least 6 to 8 inches deep.
Choose a spot that is at least 200 feet away from water sources, trails, and your campsite.
Trudge along in your winter boots and potentially gaiters to find a good spot.
Avoid areas with a lot of vegetation or animal tracks.
What to do when there’s no snow but the ground is frozen
If there’s no snow on the ground but the ground is frozen, you won’t be able to dig a hole.
In this case, you’ll need to pack out your poop with human waste disposal bags.
WAG bags (waste alleviation and gelling) are specifically designed for packing out human waste.
They often contain gelling agents to solidify the waste and reduce odours.
Follow the instructions on the bag for proper use and disposal.
Remember to pack out your toilet paper as well.
Steps for pooping in the snow
When you’re winter camping, you will need to take care of your bodily functions in the snow. Here are the steps you should follow for pooping in the snow:
- Find a spot away from trails, water sources, and campsites.
- Use a shovel to dig a hole as deep as possible into the snow.
- Squat over the hole and do your business. Make sure you’re squatting far enough back so that your waste goes into the hole and not on the snow.
- After using toilet paper, throw it in the hole. Use a lighter to burn as much of it as possible. Alternatively, you can pack it out as garbage.
- Use the shovel to close up the hole by burying it with snow.
- If you can find one, stick a long branch into the spot to let other people know not to dig or step there. If you can’t find a stick or branch, draw a big X over it.
A note about burying toilet paper
Many naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts frown upon burying toilet paper, leaving the question of doing it at all up for debate.
In general, it’s most acceptable to bury toilet paper in areas where it can decompose—typically in areas with rich soil, not sand or gravel or rocky areas.
While camping in a snow-covered area, unless you can dig a hole deep enough to see the ground, you may not be able to tell if you’re in an appropriate spot or not.
In these types of cases, it’s best to pack out your toilet paper.
If you do choose to bury or burn your toilet paper, however, make sure you choose a brand that’s:
- Plain and white
Bamboo toilet paper is a good option.
A note about burning toilet paper
Similar to burying toilet paper, many people also frown upon burning it.
The main reason?
Starting a forest fire.
In winter, however, when you’re surrounded by several feet of snow, the risk of starting a forest fire is extremely low—even impossible.
Burning toilet paper becomes a more feasible choice, provided you ensure complete extinguishment of any potential flames and eliminate the risk of reignition.
Be sure to watch it burn completely out before leaving.
What happens to poop that’s buried in snow?
When you’re backcountry camping and don’t have access to a privy, outhouse, or thunder box, burying your waste is a common practice.
But what happens to the poop that’s buried in snow?
Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t freeze and stay completely frozen until spring.
Once it reaches the ground, bacteria in the soil will break down the waste even if it’s still covered by snow.
This process is slower in colder temperatures, but eventually the waste will decompose completely.
However, without the microbes present in soil to break it down, it’s entirely possible and likely that some of the waste will still be there come spring, which is why many parks (including Ontario Parks) that offer backcountry camping in the winter require you to camp far away from established campsites, trails, and water sources.
If you’re going to bury your waste in the snow, make sure to dig a deep hole and cover it entirely to help disguise it.
This will help prevent animals from digging it up and spreading it around.
When it comes to winter camping, burying your waste in the snow is a practical option when done right.
Just make sure you do it in a way that minimizes the impact on the environment and other campers.
More about winter camping:
- 12 big risks to be aware of on a winter camping trip
- Tips on how to go ultralight winter camping
- Should you use a sled, pulk, or backpack for winter camping?
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).