Let’s Talk: Backcountry Bathrooms

Okay friends, let’s talk about using the bathroom in the outdoors. I’ve done a lot of overnight trips without bathroom facilities this year and I’m shocked by the amount of bathroom waste being left in the wilderness. I’m a wastewater engineer by trade and a passionate advocate for leave no trace camping, so let’s get dirty and talk about it!

You’d think using the bathroom in the wilderness would be intuitive, but it’s absolutely not for a lot of people, and that’s totally okay. You don’t need to feel bad if the prospect of peeing and pooping in the wilderness is scary or overwhelming for you, but you do need to do your research about it to be prepared. So I’d like to use this post to talk about some tips and proper leave no trace principles, so that we can all commit to a healthy and clean wilderness and so that Carolyn doesn’t have to avoid stepping in HUMAN POOP the next time she tries to make a bear cache.

Tip #1: Do your research about the trail

Before you go anywhere, always research the trail so that you know what to expect and ensure that the trail is within your ability. This includes checking if there are any facilities along the trail where you’ll be hiking or camping. I would say that generally, most hikes in southwestern BC have outhouses at the trailhead. There are hikes that don’t, but most hikes within provincial parks will have a toilet near the parking lot, so make sure to use it before you start your hike. Fewer hikes have outhouses at the end destination, but if it’s a popular backcountry camping location, odds are there may be an outhouse there too. Unless you have digestive concerns, for most people, access to a toilet at the start and end of the hike is usually sufficient, just make sure to bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you, because these are rarely guaranteed to be available.

Tip #2: Plan ahead

If access to toilets are limited, pay attention to your surroundings along the hike. If a hike has a long open section, you may want to consider using the toilet before you get to that section because there will be limited privacy later. Keep an eye open for more private areas where you can hide behind a tree, or if you need to poop, pay attention to the ground conditions and look for a spot that would be easier to dig. Take into consideration where the water sources are and avoid them or go downstream of where you collect your water. Planning ahead also includes making sure you have the right supplies with you, both for using the bathroom, and for disposing of your waste. I always bring a ziploc bag with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, plus another ziploc bag for my used toilet paper. Bring a trowel for digging catholes, or a waste disposal bag if catholes are not possible (see below).

Tip #3: Properly dispose of all bathroom waste

In my opinion, this is the hardest part and the part that most people get wrong. Never ever leave waste. I know pee tissue is gross y’all, but it’s not as gross as a beautiful trail that’s cluttered up with half de-composed pee tissue. There’s no getting around this one, unless there’s an outhouse, you just have to take it with you. Use an extra ziploc bag, double bag it, or bring an empty pringles container along with you, whatever you have to do to make it bearable. But you have to take it with you. If this is really a challenge for you, consider using the drip dry method or getting a pee cloth (see below).

Tip #4: Research proper cathole technique

I recommend using leavenotrace.ca for proper techniques, but to summarize here, the two most important considerations are location and technique. As discussed in Tip #2, find a location away from the trail, that has good soils, and that is away from or downsteam of your water source. I’ve found that soil type really is a big consideration because it influences how easy it will be to dig the cathole. Organic soils are best because they will help decomposition and are easier for digging. As for technique, the hole should be 6-8 inches deep (length of the trowel blade) and 4-6 inches wide. It’s not necessarily better to dig a deeper hole as it will be harder for the waste to decompose. Afterwards, fill the cathole with the removed dirt and disguise with other native materials. You can bury your poo tissue in the cathole, however, try to use as little as possible as it does take a while to decompose and some people recommend just taking your poo tissue with you too. For the same reason, do not try and bury your pee tissue from earlier as it’s just too much material. Overall, it is better to pack the tissue out as much as possible. Lightweight trowels are easily available at camping stores, Canadian Tire, Walmart, etc. I have a plastic Coghlan’s trowel that literally cost me $3.

Tip #5: Be prepared for your period

You can absolutely go hiking and camping on your period and it’s smart to be prepared for it. First of all, even if you’re not on or expecting your period, bring supplies for it. Hiking and camping are a big change to your normal habits and can cause your period to come early. Otherwise, dealing with your period on the trail isn’t really that different from anywhere else. Take extra care in washing and sanitizing your hands both before and after you use the toilet and pack everything out, including used tampons and pads. These will not decompose in an outhouse or cathole and may be dug up by wild animals, so they need to be packed out. Bring something a little more heavy duty for waste disposal (a pringles can instead of a ziploc) and mask the smell with other garbage, like used tea bags. As with all garbage, you need to keep it in your bear cache overnight. If you use a menstrual cup (see below), you can use a cathole to empty the cup. REI has a great article about menstruation in the backcountry if you want to read more.

Tip #6: Proper squatting technique

Some of you may laugh at me for including this one, but I still believe it’s not necessarily intuitive to everyone. The sitting position that we use on the toilet is not really a natural position for using the bathroom. Don’t try and mimic a toilet position in the wilderness, it’s tiring and not as effective. I’ve heard some people will bench against a tree for support, but my recommendation is to squat with your knees out so that you get your bottom as close to the ground as possible. Try and keep your feet a good distance apart and use your hand to brace against whatever is nearby. If you’re on a slope, pee downwards to avoid the pee running back into your shoes. Likewise, if its super windy, pee with the wind. If you still find squatting really difficult, consider getting a pee funnel to make it easier. Some people really love these, just make sure you give consideration to how you will clean and store it.

 

That’s it for my tips, but there are 3 more backcountry bathroom considerations that I’d like to discuss:

1. What to do when it’s not possible to dig a cathole? There are some situations where it’s just not possible to dig a cathole, primarily in the alpine where it is mostly rock. Fortunately I haven’t been in this situation very often and I usually try and plan ahead (i.e. poop in advance when it’s possible to bury it), but unfortunately in some cases you will just have to take your poop waste with you as well. If it’s a short haul, use a sealed container like a pringles can and dispose of it when possible by burying it or dumping in an outhouse. If it’s a long haul, consider getting a proper waste disposal bag. I don’t have experience with these myself, but there are waste disposal bags, such as the wag bag, on the market.

2. What’s the deal with menstrual cups? Menstrual cups are definitely not for everyone and if you’d prefer to continue using pads or tampons, that is totally great, though I’d recommend against free-bleed in the backcountry for wildlife reasons. Essentially, it’s a silicone cup with a stem that collects menstrual blood and is removed, dumped, and cleaned up to every 12 hours. Personally, I’ve been using a menstrual cup for several years and I absolutely love it. I find it more comfortable than tampons or pads and I like that you don’t have to change it as frequently. It’s great for the backcountry because it’s easier for disposal and you only have to carry the one little cup with you instead of a stash of products. But it’s definitely messy and that can be a challenge to manage. Always wash your hands before inserting or removing. It can also be hard to wash the cup in the backcountry, so I usually just give it a wipe with some toilet paper or pour some water on it if I’m only out for a day or two. There’s lots of cups on the market, I have only tried DivaCup, but I love it.

3. What about pee cloths? I don’t personally have experience with pee cloths since I don’t mind just dealing with pee tissue, but I’ve heard a lot of people really love them. It’s basically a microfiber quick dry cloth that can be used multiple times and then laundered after the trip. If you have one, you can carry less toilet paper and subsequently, less pee tissue. I won’t get into it because I don’t have any experience with them, but I’ve heard Kula is a great brand and recommend checking them out if you want to learn more about it.

 

And that concludes my bathroom talk. It’s important to take care of ourselves and the environment, so it’s also important to normalize talking about it. I hope you learned something and always do your best to be prepared in the wilderness!

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