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Toilet Paper Free Expeditions

Go wild - leave the TP at home.

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by Mike Clelland! | 2006-04-04 03:00:00-06


I am always surprised when I see my camping peers walk into the woods for their privacy time, and they bring along their toilet paper. Good grief, what kind of wilderness experience is that?

Mankind has been pooping in the woods since we climbed down out of the trees, and in historical time, toilet paper (TP) is a pretty recent invention. And, a huge percentage of our comrades on this planet have never even seen TP.

If you're seeing this on a computer screen, you're obviously a member of a privileged part of the world population, the part that has bathrooms. We live in a society with toilets and they're all accompanied by a nice roll of TP. There's nothing to think about, we do our little duty and wipe and flush. This is a delightful convenience we've created. But it's separated us from what should be a very simple bit of outdoor know-how.

Why are so many campers so dependent on toilet paper? I would have to guess that they either haven't used anything other than the store bought stuff on a roll or, they've had bad luck with their one-and-only time with natural wiping material.

It's a sad truth, Natural Butt-Wiping is a lost art.

I work as an instructor for an outdoor school, and one of the very liberating skills I teach is using natural “toilet paper” - in quotes on purpose. My job involves spending 30-days at a time in the Wilderness, far away from flushing toilets. My fellow instructors and I teach a very thorough Poo-Poo class on day one, and for the next month the students get a lot of practice. In over a decade at the school, taking many hundreds of students into the mountains, I have never had a student complain, just the opposite - they all feel genuinely empowered!

That said, we do carry a small amount of TP in a plastic bag for emergencies. If a team member gets diarrhea, toilet paper becomes a very comforting tool. We keep the bag closed with a knot, and consider it part of the first aid kit. It's been extremely rare that we ever untie that knot.

The lightweight benefits? Obviously, not having TP saves 100% of its weight. But beyond that, it's fabulous to learn something that liberates you from something we “think” we need.

What's Problematic about Toilet Paper?

  • It's hard to use TP in the rain.
  • It's a drag to triple bag and then carry out the used TP.
  • Everybody says, “Oh, I burn my TP.” But, I've never had any luck doing this. It's time consuming, and I can't get it 100% to ash.
  • I've seen folks burn their used TP in a campfire, and what they end up doing is tossing the entire triple bagged plastic package right into the fire. Plastic burns poorly and creates airborne pollution.
  • Too many people (of course, not you) bury their used TP, or worse, they just leave it on the surface. We don't have to deal with it in the bathroom, and that transfers to people not “dealing” in the backcountry too.

What to Use?

Any camper who wants to make fun of natural TP will sneer and mention pinecones. Yikes, just the image of a pinecone with all those pointy things makes my butt wince. With very few exceptions, pinecones don't work! But, if you find a batch from a Douglas Fir, you're good to go! Please know, when you are in the backcountry, you are surrounded by a plentitude of wonderful wiping things. Please see the ratings chart.

 - 7


If you have snow available, you will have a stupendously clean bunghole! No foolin' - snow has all the properties that make it the crème de la crème of natural butt wiping. Don't use gloves, use you bare hand and make a snowball by squeezing. You don't want a round shape; you want a pointy feature for the business. Snow is the perfect combo of smooth and abrasive, it's just wet enough for a little extra cleaning power - and, it's white! The whiteness will allow the wiper to accurately monitor any residue in the area in question. Plus, if you have snow, you usually have a LOT of it. Here's an insight into my personal wiping habits: I use a LOT of wiping material. I am never satisfied until I know that things are super-duper-clean.

 - 1

River Rocks:

Smooth and elegant, these polished beauties are the second best behind snow. Before visiting your private zone, collect a load of these rocks. Not to big, not too small, a little flat, a little pointy and NOT round. Once again, grab a lot of ‘em.

Wooly Lamb's Ear:

The Northern Rockies has been graced with this gangly weed, and a very similar plant called Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). It's a rather homely plant with a dull purple flower, but the leaves are like the wings of an angel. They are big, thick, strong, fuzzy and satisfying. This is a pretty common plant, and they grow in clumps. If you are collecting these leaves, please carefully get them from multiple plants, taking just a few leaves from each. Do not strip one of these cute plants of all their leaves just to guarantee yourself a tidy butt. You don't need to kill anything for hygiene!

 - 2

Old Man's Beard:

Have you ever marveled at that weird electric yellow moss that hangs from the pine trees? This stuff is great. Once again, grab a little bit from multiple trees.


A goodly clump of grass makes for a pretty good cleaning tool. For a nice stiff set of bristles, you can fold the grass into a very tidy little brush. Grab the grass from a big zone; avoid stripping an area of all the green stuff.

 - 3

Size Matters

For obvious reasons you'll want to keep your hands away from the contaminants that you're trying to wipe away. So, whatever you use - make sure it's big enough to keep your fingers a good distance from the working area.

 - 4

Time Required

The humble act of pooping in the woods involves a goodly amount of busy work. If your partner says it's dump time and then comes back after just a minute, don't let ‘em put their hand in your bag of gorp! To do a good job requires at least 10 minutes.

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Before the urge becomes a raging alarm, there are a few small things you'll need to do. The act of collecting the wiping tools may take a little time and some searching. While hiking on the trail, begin filling your pockets with nice round rocks, lots of ‘em. Keep an eye out for the perfect collection of broad leaf plants. Is it a short walk to a small batch of snow from last winter?

Do not - I repeat, DO NOT just squat down and expect to find the perfect wiping material within arms reach. It won't be there, I know from experience. No need to describe this unpleasant dilemma.

What to Do with the Used Material?

After wiping you'll need to dispose of the goods. If you've dug a deep enough hole, depositing the wipers in there is a great solution. Re-fill the hole, and you're done. But, often the hole is too full (or barely deep enough) so you'll have to toss ‘em. Carefully look around for a good place to toss the contaminated post-wipe product. Avoid any place a fellow camper may travel or step, and think about where water will run in the rain. Under a nice bush is a good solution.


Wash your hands when you're done! Don't be a slob - fecal contamination is the cause of backcountry NVD! That's Nausea, Vomiting & Diarrhea!

For the highest degree of success, employ your teammate as a helper. When you come back from your dump-run, tell ‘em that you'll require their assistance. They'll dig through the pack and touch the water bottle. They put the soap in your hands and they pour the water. Your contaminated hands touch NOTHING.

 - 5

Ryan Jordan wrote an excellent feature/instructional titled Backcountry Hygiene for Ultralight and Long-Distance Hikers.

Hygiene Tools

Purell Alcohol Hand Gel, repackaged in a tiny vial.

Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap, repackaged in a tiny vial.

Also, I know some folks that take the liquid anti-bacterial hand soap (repackaged in a tiny vial). But, it's my understanding that the germ killing benefits advertised with these products isn't any better than a good washing with plain ol' soap. This might be an okay alternative, but after reading the Dr. Bronner's label, I'm devoted to the ALL-IN-ONE goodness of the castile soap, and Almond is my favorite.

On a long trip, I'll include a few WET-ONES SINGLES. These are the individually packaged moist towelettes, with alcohol as the active ingredient. I keep these in the first aid kit, but they are a godsend if there's a poo-poo accident. Four of these weigh in at 0.5 ounces. Get ‘em at the grocery in the picnic or diaper section.

Clean your Butt!

A fellow backcountry traveler once spoke this little truism, “A clean butt is a happy butt!” Words to live by.

On a long trip, taking a little time to wash your butt is essential to your wilderness experience. This humble act can genuinely make the world a more wonderful place. I've taught this valuable skill and my students really enjoy the benefits.

Find a private spot away from the trail and away from any running water. You'll need at least a liter of water in a bottle and some kind of soap. A nice warm day makes this all the more pleasant. Pant's off and squat down. The area getting washed will be positioned low, so all the water should run off onto the ground. Dedicate one hand for doing all the clean work (right), and the other for doing all the dirty work (left). The right hand opens the water bottle and squeezes the little soap vial. Just a tiny bit of soap is plenty. The left hand rubs and scrubs. C'mon, get right in there and do a high-quality job!

Here's a rinse trick. In the squatty pose, you can pour water along your left arm with your right hand, the water will run like a “sluice” and gravity will deliver it down into that work-zone. This rinsing works perfectly. When the washing is done and the soap is rinsed off, the pant's come up.

Then, wash your hands, and do a good job! Take a full minute with the soap, sing a song, and don't be lazy. Really rub those hands together, this scrubbing action is essential. And point your fingers downward so gravity will let the water and soap (and those germs too) fall off and onto the ground. If you fingers are pointed up, everything runs down along your arms.

Give a good rinse with non-soapy water. If you have antibacterial alcohol gel, use a little and you're done.

I do NOT use a hanky or a washcloth for washing anything “private” in the backcountry, it's just too hard to clean completely.

 - 6

Note: This is not an instructional for Leave No Trace pooping skills, insights into this very important subject can be found at

About the Author

 - bio

Mike Clelland! divides his time between illustration work and instructing for the National Outdoor Leadership School, NOLS ( ). He teaches in Alaska, Canada, the North Cascades and the Rockies. His books as illustrator include LIGHTEN UP! by Don Ladigin and the Allen & Mike's Really Cool series. Mike is a regular contributor to Climbing magazine. He lives in Driggs Idaho.


"Toilet Paper Free Expeditions," by Mike Clelland!. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2006-04-04 03:00:00-06.


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Toilet Paper Free Expeditions
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Toilet Paper Free Expeditions on 04/04/2006 22:58:16 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Toilet Paper Free Expeditions

Mark W Heninger
(heninger) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Toilet Paper Free Expeditions on 04/05/2006 07:19:35 MDT Print View

Man, I love mike's illustrations.

And yes, I'm astounded that people get worked up over leaves.

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
Sinister hand use on 04/05/2006 10:29:30 MDT Print View

Clelland is very right-hand centric. :-P

My birthright has predicated me to dedicate my right hand to defile. I've had some interesting culinary and hygenic experiences in the Islamic world, as a result.

Great illustrations in the style of the underground comix of yore--- Crumb, Sheridan, etc.

One more leaf to remember, at least on the PNW rim, is Thimbleberry. TP has nothing over this. Scouts call it Toilet Paper plant.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Sinister hand use on 04/05/2006 10:38:21 MDT Print View

Thimbleberry threw me-- salmonberry is the name familiar to me (there are more, see the link below)

I've waded through miles of this stuff on overgrown trails-- I'll be a lot happier to see it now :) It's the best dew collector on the face of the planet.

Great article-- should be part of a permanent FAQ at BPL.

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
those oh so very soft leaves by any other name on 04/05/2006 10:52:21 MDT Print View

Thimbleberry, Salmonberry----lotsa names----Western Thimbleberry, Salmonberry, Mountain Sorrel, White Flowering Raspberry, Western Thimble Raspberry. You name it.

Relatively low elevations, only, though

Mark W Heninger
(heninger) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Sinister hand use on 04/05/2006 11:34:16 MDT Print View

Yes, that stuff is good.

Too bad my scouts are too indoctrinated to do anything other than scowl at plant wiping material.

Personally, I look for moss growing on trees. That stuff is heavenly and I'm not aware of any reasons LNT for not using it.

Joshua Mitchell
(jdmitch) - F

Locale: Kansas
Wow... on 04/05/2006 13:20:39 MDT Print View

Just wow...

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Toilet Paper on 04/05/2006 15:27:54 MDT Print View

My luck I pick something like Poison Oak and develop a rather large rash. Nawww sorry, I will stick to the toilet paper method.

Brett Tucker
(blister-free) - F

Locale: Puertecito ruins
Re: Toilet Paper on 04/06/2006 12:22:56 MDT Print View

Sphagnum, hobblebush and striped maple are among the toilet-trees favored in eastern US forests, but not along the Appalachian Trail please, unless the consensus suggests 360 degree views from the privy.

nathan matthews
(nathanm) - F

Locale: Bay Area
thimbles, salmon and moss on 04/06/2006 22:18:22 MDT Print View

in my neck of the woods, thimbleberry is the common name for Rubus parviflorus, and salmonberry is the name for Rubus spectabilis. Easiest way to tell them apart is that salmonberry bushes have compound leaves, and that thimbleberries taste better. i think both work equally well for hygiene.

i'm not such an expert on moss, but i think that from an ecological standpoint moss is a worse idea, and that you really shouldn't use the lichen we incorrectly called "spanish moss" as kids. reason being that lichens (and mosses?) trap water and provide local nutrients for trees, but are pretty slow growing--unlike most leaves that grow anew each year.

Hippies... on 04/07/2006 00:09:33 MDT Print View


paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Sphagnum-TP and disinfectant on 04/07/2006 03:19:03 MDT Print View

On a slightly related note - another use for sphagnum moss:

once needed to use sphagnum moss to pack a wound to avoid infection during the three day hike out in 90+ deg summer temp.

relatively high levels of iodine can be found in most sphagnum moss. on this one instance it worked fine and no infection resulted from a backcountry wound that would, IMHO and experience, would definitely have become infected otherwise.

i'm not going to go into details of its use, either in my case or generally since i'll undoubtedly be taken to task by others with far more medical credentials and experience, but who may never have been in a similar backcountry emergency situation themselves and will only spout medical dogma at me. i'm not advocating that anyone else try this. read up on it if interested. learned about it initially from reading books as a kid (New England Native American peoples used it as a medicinal plant) and then was reminded of it during medical training in the military (our tax dollars hard at work). YMMV.

anyone still so inclined may fire when ready. "Shields Up"!!!

Brett Tucker
(blister-free) - F

Locale: Puertecito ruins
Re: Sphagnum-TP and disinfectant on 04/07/2006 11:08:00 MDT Print View

>>(New England Native American peoples used it as a medicinal plant)

Not to mention as diaper material.

The wound dressing use for sphagnum is well documented, as well.

Tim Garner
(slowhike) - F

Locale: South East U.S.
leaf/ paper combo on 04/12/2006 21:36:46 MDT Print View

this past year i started using the shop towels that i belive rayn talked about in another artical.
but first i start w/ leaves.
i like to use a couple differant kinds of leaves, layered together.
start w/ a rohdodendren leaf or two for strength, then add 2 or 3 softer leaves (maple?) for better wiping action. the softer, thinner leaves by them selfs will probably let your finger poke through when you apply the needed pressure. but the rohdo leaves give structure.
after taking care of the bulk of the waste w/ leaves, i switch to the small square (1/4 of a full sheet)of shop towel. it`s just a really sturdy kind of paper towel that really alows you to use the pressure to do a good job.
i use about 3 (mabey 4) squares to finish up. i may wet the next to last one, then finish w/ a dry one.
the leaves get left in the cat hole, & the shop towels get double baged. they aren`t that heavy w/ waste any way after starting w/ the leaves.
another trick that is handy, is to duct tape a loop of cord around the bottom of a quart baggie, comming up to form a loop on top of the baggie. when you get ready to do your bisness, just fill the baggie about 1/3 full w/ water & hang it on a branch next to your cat hole. also have the little bottle of soap sitting there (cap off).
to have running water, just pinch one of the lower corners of the baggie & lift. very little cross contamination going on there.
so along w/ your waste, the bulk of the clean-up stays behind (in the hole) & the durable, yet comfortable shop towel squares that alowed you do do a great job of finishing up haven`t gained much weight either. ...tim

John Carter

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: those oh so very soft leaves by any other name on 04/13/2006 07:32:13 MDT Print View

"Thimbleberry, Salmonberry----lotsa names----Western Thimbleberry, Salmonberry, Mountain Sorrel, White Flowering Raspberry, Western Thimble Raspberry. You name it.

Relatively low elevations, only, though."

You've just given me an epiphany. Why not grow Thimbleberry in your backyard? For trips of only a few days, particularly at high altitudes, you just go out and 'pick' your TP before your trip. You get to bury your TP and don't have to spend an hour finding sutiable material.

Of course, with my complete lack of gardening skills, for all I know Thimbleberry uis an atrocious weed that will destroy my entire garden and spread to my neighbors. Better check with my Mother-in-law; I've had more than one humorous conversation with her--an Oregon native--where what I see as a beautiful flower (aka Scotch Broom, thistles), she laments and whips out the weed killers. But that's just my native so-cal eyes talking, where any sign of floral color whatsoever is considered a blessing! I've never had to uproot them before. She tells me that when they bought their 5-acre property, the entirety of it was covered in chest-high thistles and blackberries (bountiful berries and dazzling purple flowers, right?) =). Took them 5 years to get them to finally stop sprouting everywhere.

John Reed
(johnwmreed) - F

Locale: Sierras
Toilet Paper is ok on 04/15/2006 10:00:35 MDT Print View

Sorry, but too much hassel and mess.

Dig a 6" hole, take a dump, use some toilet paper, burn it, and bury the remaining ashes in the hole. It is simple, fast & clean.

Then place a small rock on top of the filled hole, and place some debris around area to hide. Wash hands. Make the whole procedure a "Zen thing."

I bet you can't find where I did it!

William Wright
Re: Toilet Paper is ok on 05/28/2006 19:24:44 MDT Print View

"I bet you can't find where I did it!"

Cool! A wilderness version of Where's Waldo? For those more technically inclined, this could be called biogeocaching.

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: Toilet Paper Free Expeditions on 07/14/2006 09:29:42 MDT Print View

I just use water -- and have never felt the need to look for anything else -- plants, rocks, whatever.

When done, I pull up my pants and sanitize both hands with a few drops of Purell -- available in 1/2-ounce bottles and up. Body heat ensures that pants become dry in no time at all.

Edited by ben2world on 07/14/2006 09:32:07 MDT.

Dwight Shackelford
(zydeholic) - F

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Backpackers Bidet on 07/23/2006 14:14:17 MDT Print View

After my recent experience with a dump in the woods, and limited toilet paper, I began brainstorming about a backpackers bidet. Something that will blast a stream of water to dislodge and clean.

After thinking of all sorts of designs, I finally settled on the easy route and considered some of the pump up plastic water cannons that kids play with. Not sure if there's small light ones.

Just put a gun rack on the top of my backpack, and I'm off.

Dwight Shackelford
(zydeholic) - F

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Backpackers Bidet on 07/23/2006 14:23:35 MDT Print View

Maybe something like this. Not sure if it has a nozzle to increase stream pressure.