Cathole Latrine Diagram

Building Your Backwoods Bathroom

A not often-mentioned aspect of backcountry camping is the necessity to relieve yourself. And while there are differing gender-specific processes for accomplishing that biological function, an outdoor bathroom or cat-hole latrine is a critical aspect of most primitive campsites.

While even remote, “wilderness” designated camping sites may include a basic toilet site (seat-mounted cone-covered pit), there are occasions where creating your own human waste depository may be necessary.

Cat-hole latrines are probably the most common type of backwoods “bathroom.” The simplest of which is nothing more than as the name implies: a hole the size of what a cat might dig in which to do its duty. Typically they are about 6” wide and deep and provide a most minimal depression (and target?) to complete this personal and private bodily function.

Prudent protocols for establishing a cat-hole latrine site embrace basic Leave-No-Trace recommendations:

  • Locate latrine at least 200’ from campsite, river source or other sensitive area;
  • Make hole no more than 6”-12” wide and deep (smaller is better);
  • Healthy soil with good structure and rich in organic material is preferred;
  • Refill hole with excavated soil and cover with forest floor detritus;
  • Containment and removal of soiled paper (more on that later)…

Simple enough and basically a one-time/one-stop process when Ma Nature calls in the backcountry. For prolonged usage while in a primitive camp a modified “cat-hole” latrine can be created.

A more permanent facility is often a larger, deeper hole than what is recommended for the cat-hole. A larger hole, or perhaps more elongated, “trench-like” pit, is better suited for a multi-day encampment or even an overnight involving 2-3 campers.

The basic components of this type of primitive privy is a slightly larger, deeper hole, some sitting platform, either natural or constructed, that enables both sexes to perform their task comfortably (and accurately!) and perhaps a place to position the essential toilet paper roll. A modest sitting frame constructed of lashed tree limbs and logs can become quite elaborate!

Here are a few tips I’ve learned about making the most of the latrine experience:

  • Positioning of the sitting platform can present challenges akin to rocket science – and sometimes in need of fine-tuning even duringthe first field test (consider making the seat/frame first and position the hole accordingly);
  • Keeping T.P. at the site, protected within a covered coffee can or other similar container – or slipping roll down over the end of a stick and covering with a can, makes it easily available;
  • Despite the recommendation above, ALWAYS bring paper with you – it’s a “bird-in-the -hand-is-worth-two-in-the-bushsort of thing!
  • Consider an umbrella! Forays in the rain to relieve yourself are never fun (and the bottom edge of your raincoat or poncho can become a very unpleasant interceptor of your business!). In fact, keeping a roll of paper, a flashlight and an umbrella inside the door flap of your tent can come in extremelyhandy in the middle of a rainy night!

Let’s talk about the disposal of used T.P. — First, get the basic, unscented variety — it’s usually cheaper but it also has less chemicals in it. That’s important because if you bury it, you are adding less to the environment. Some may insist that it be carried out with you — in little plastic baggies. Sorry, but just doing the math for a multi-day camp with 3-4 people, who wants to be on that “pack it out” detail?

I’ve always included strike-anywhere matches in my latrine kit. I light the clumps of paper and make sure it burns as completely as possible. When torched down in the cat-hole, it’s easy to make sure the fire stays confined. Using a container at the latrine site for disposing of paper, even if first placed in a baggie, sounds noble but impractical on so many fronts. Let your conscience — and your bowels — be your guide on this one!

Practice responsible hygiene, both for the environment and your personal health. Use common sense in locating your latrine site, taking in all natural and man-made features (proximity to water, sensitive areas, trails and campsites, etc.). Even in a remote corner of a wilderness, some areas will be more sensitive and critical than others.

Lastly, and most important, make sure you have a means to wash your hands immediately afterwards — packaged “wipes” or waterless hand-sanitizing dispensers, etc. — perhaps stored at the latrine site along with that roll of T.P. ( an ammo box “toilet” kit perhap?).

Having knowledge about cat-hole latrines may not be the kind of backcountry savvy you want to include among your arsenal of back-country bragging rights, but it’s an essential aspect of the back-country experience. Be safe, have fun out there!

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