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How do rock climbers poop?

Two rock climbers on portaledges on triple direct, El Capitan
How do rock climbers poop? We discuss the less-than-glamorous realities of big wall climbing (Image credit: Alex Eggermont)

When you watch big wall climbers – either on screen in climbing films like Dawn Wall, or in the flesh via your best binoculars while you’re hanging out in El Cap meadow – the overriding impression is one of total awe. Watching some of the world’s most fearless climbers inch their way up a slab of granite thousands of feet high, sleeping night after night on the side of a cliff, is truly one of the most remarkable shows of athleticism you can observe.

But at a certain point – maybe on day two or three – it’s practically guaranteed that that initial sensation will be replaced by a burning, almost all-consuming question: how do rock climbers poop? 

A woman sport climbing

Sure, she's having a great time now, but what happens when she needs to poop? (Image credit: AlexBrylov)

Enough, with your denials! We know you’ve thought about this and we assure you, so have we. This is actually a really common and valid question. It’s also one that will be taking up quite a bit of space in your mind if you’re planning on taking your best climbing shoes out for your first big wall adventure. 

After all, if you’re attempting a route that’s going to take more than a day, you’re probably going to have to poop at some point. Clearly there aren’t any facilities on a vertical wall, and of course you can’t just drop trou and relieve yourself into thin air. This would be the fastest way we can think of to get climbing banned everywhere, and the climbers down below you wouldn’t be too happy about it either. 

So what do you do? Do you have to wear a diaper? Can you even poop while wearing a climbing harness? Let us answer all of your questions about the less glamorous side of big wall climbing.

Speedclimbers Hans Florine, left, of Lafayette, Calif., and Yugi Hirayama, of Japan prepare their climbing gear at the base of Yosemite's El Capitan

Your poop tube will go in your haul bag with the rest of your supplies (Image credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images / Contributor)

How do rock climbers poop? 

If nature calls when you’re on a big wall, you use something called a poop tube and carry your poop with you until you are finished climbing. A standard poop tube is just a PVC pipe with a removable end or cap designed to carry human waste until you can dispose of it properly. The tube needs to be big enough to fit all of your waste, so its usually recommended that it be at least four inches in diameter and 10 inches long. The poop tube will go in your haul bag with the rest of your supplies, and in addition, you’ll need to carry the following: 

  • Compostable dog poop bags with handles
  • A little bit of kitty litter for odor control

How do you use a poop tube? 

There are lots of apparently serious directions out there for pooping directly into the tube, but honestly it’s probably best to save the acrobatics for the actual climbing and just poop in a bag. When it’s time to go, your harness stays on for safety (remember, it doesn’t go up your butt crack so it won’t really get in the way). It’s easiest if you take in all the slack on your rope so you can hang out with your knees bent and up towards your chest a bit, like a climbing squatty potty. 

Clip one handle of the poop bag into a carabiner on your harness to avoid dropping it (this also means both hands are free for clean up), work your pants down as far as they’ll go with your harness still on and poop into the  bag. When you’ve finished, chuck a little kitty litter in the bag to help with the smell, tie a secure knot in the top and put the whole affair in the poop tube. Put the poop tube back in the haul bag, and when you return to solid ground, dispose of the waste responsibly and the poop tube itself will be ready for your next climb.

Two big wall climbers relax on a portaledge high up in Squamish

Things are about to get real awkward here (Image credit: Alex Ratson)

But wait, what if you’re cliff camping with someone else? Doesn’t that mean your climbing partner will be, like, two feet away from you while you poop? Yes, that’s exactly what it means. But you don’t usually just squat on the platform where you’ll both be sleeping. Instead, indicate to your partner that you need to go, either using mature, grown up language or a pre-agreed upon safe word that indicates to them that they need to face the other direction and stick their fingers in their ears. Then, lower yourself a little over the side of the portaledge and proceed. Whatever you do, do not make eye contact! Remember, you have to climb, eat, sleep and breathe with this person for several more days.

Doesn’t sound like your cup of tea? Sorry, it’s not optional. In fact, in popular climbing spots like Yosemite National Park and Zion National Park, climbers are required to carry a poop tube and will be fined if they fail to comply with this law. So there you have it – that is how rock climbers poop.

A shot of a rock climber from above

"Please don't look at me while I do this." (Image credit: Westend61)

How do you make a poop tube for climbing? 

You can make a poop tube for climbing and the internet is awash with instructional videos involving lengths of PVC and cement, but an easier method is just to find something of a similar shape and size with a sealable lid – for example, an old Nalgene water bottle with a screw top. Just don’t get confused about which one is for drinking and which one is for pooping. 

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.