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How to Perfect the Art of Going to the Bathroom Outdoors

Travel restrictions have led many Americans to look for outdoor adventures in their own regions. This has created a spike in the number of people who are hiking and camping for the first time. The Washington Post reports a significant increase in sales of guidebooks and hiking books, and my own visits to MEC (a Canadian outdoor gear retailer) have revealed startlingly empty shelves that, staff members told me, are a result of people buying whatever they can to facilitate outdoor adventures. 

This is a good thing, as long as people are following good wilderness etiquette. One of those rules is disposing of human excrement properly – a topic that’s understandably gross, and thus does not get discussed as openly as it should, considering how important it is. Leave No Trace issued guidelines this year in light of changing recreation patterns due to COVID-19 that addressed the problem of human waste, saying,

“In an attempt to understand local issues in our consistently changing scenery, we usually ask land managers, ‘What are the most common impacts you deal with?’ Nine times out of ten the response is, ‘Improper disposal of human waste is our number one issue.’ This is a sad realization. Improper disposal of human waste can contaminate water sources, is unsightly and can transmit disease between humans and animals.”

How Should You Do It? 

First, do some research ahead of time. Find out if there are public toilets available where you’re going and if they’re open during the pandemic. Make sure you go to the bathroom before you leave home and don’t fill yourself up with too many liquids.

Second, pack the essential items. Anyone who’s hiking or camping should take along a small trowel, some WAG bags, a Ziplock bag, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper (unless you want to use leaves). With these items, you’re ready for any calls that nature might throw your way.

When you feel a number two coming on and there is no toilet nearby, choose a location that is private and away from any trails or campsites. It should be at least 200 feet (equivalent to 70 big steps) from any water source. 

If the ground is soft, use the trowel to dig a cathole 6 to 8 inches deep. (If you’re in the desert, this hole can shallower, only 4 to 6 inches deep.) It may be helpful to dig your hole next to a tree that you can hold on to while squatting to do your business. 

If the ground is hard, you’ll use a WAG bag to collect the waste. These bags, which can purchased from outfitters and online, are leakproof and contain “chemical crystals that gel human waste and render it inert, allowing you to properly dispose of it in a garbage can.” You squat over the bag and then seal it up. It gets packed out for proper disposal after your trip is done.

If you’re feeling adventurous, wipe yourself with carefully-selected leaves (avoid waxy coatings, as these don’t do a good job and are one characteristic of poison ivy), but bringing toilet paper from home is a safer bet. Do not bury the toilet paper in the hole, as it takes a long time to biodegrade. Always pack it out in the Ziploc bag you’re hopefully carrying. (For pee breaks, I suggest you check out the Kula Cloth, which is a cool piece of reusable/washable toilet paper.) 

Fill in the hole with the trowel and mark the spot with a stick or a circle of rocks so that no one else opts to dig in the same spot. Sanitize your hands thoroughly, or return to camp for a good soap-and-water scrubbing. 

Several camping websites make a playful suggestion for traveling with friends or children: Create a ranking system for your squats, based on the quality of the view, how comfortable you felt, and whether or not you “witnessed a miracle in nature.” From Hipcamp’s writeup, “If you can nail a perfect score in all three categories, then you, my friend, have mastered the beauty that is going to the bathroom in the outdoors.”

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