Semi-Rad: A Backcountry Guide to Toilet Paper

A few years ago, I was one of two volunteer leaders of a backpacking trip with six inner-city teenagers. It was their first time in the backcountry, and just before we left the trailhead on our first day, we discovered we had no toilet paper. They were, of course, mortified, and I can’t really blame them.

Among all the new challenges we were asking them to deal with—sleeping on the ground, washing dishes with only their finger and water, not showering for five days, carrying everything on their backs—we were now asking them to go au naturel when it came to lower hemisphere personal hygiene.

A range of emotional reactions followed: disbelief, shock, horror, protest and finally acceptance. Sticks and rocks, boys, I told them. We’ll be fine. And we were. We all survived five days in the backcountry keeping things clean like our ancestors did. Toilet paper’s been around since at least the 6th century AD, but humans have been around way longer than that, and at some point, if you want to do things outside for longer than a day or two, you have to get used to pooping outside.

And sometimes, you forget the toilet paper. So what do you do?

Be resourceful out there. Your butt is not that fragile. Without getting graphic, you have a thing you need to remove, and you need something besides your bare hands to do it. Long before humans had hammers, we had rocks for our first tools. So get creative. Obviously cacti and poison ivy (and poison oak) are not desirable. But everything else is fair game.

backcountry toilet paper

1. Snowballs?

As close as you can get to a bidet in the backcountry.

2. Leaves of mullein?

Ideal, soft and deservingly nicknamed “cowboy toilet paper.”

3. Leaves of woolly lamb’s ear?

Almost as good as cowboy toilet paper.

4. Leaves of other plants?

Often great—just be careful that they’re not too fragile (i.e. they won’t rip under a small amount of pressure).

5. Rocks?

For sure. The smoother, the better.

6. Sticks?

Again, the smoother, the better.

7. Pine cones?


8. Cactus?

If you’re looking to make it your worst day ever (or need an excuse to be evacuated to an emergency room), go for it.

9. Poison ivy/poison oak/poison sumac?

Probably fine for a few minutes afterward, but your next few days are going to be an itchy hell.

Remember, most of the stuff you find isn’t going to be as effective (or accurate) as toilet paper. But you’re in a place that demands a few sacrifices in order for you have a true adventure, aren’t you? Gathering water from a stream and filtering it isn’t as convenient as turning on a faucet at home, and cooking on a small single-burner stove using only one pot isn’t as easy as cooking in your kitchen.

So grab some sticks, rocks and leaves, and get down to business. No matter what you do, dig a Leave No Trace-worthy six-inch deep cathole, and make yourself at home. If you’re going on an adventure, your butt has to go on an adventure too.


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