Backcountry Bathroom Etiquette
If you’re new to hiking or tramping and wonder how you’ll get on with going to the toilet / using the bathroom on a long-distance trail or when you’re out in the backcountry (as some of readers have asked me) then read on!
You may have noticed from my previous posts, that toilets (location, free or pay, opening hours, cleanliness) are a major conversation topic for me. Whilst hiking I have experienced many emergencies when I have found myself sweating with fear, doing the urgent-fast-silly-walk, desperately hoping for a toilet opportunity to present itself around the next corner.
Where to go?
Try not to get caught out! As DoC say … ‘poo in a loo“.. I always have the Backcountry Navigator topo map app on my phone, so I know where the huts (and toilets) are in the backcountry. I will do everything I can to hold on, until I get to one. When van camping or travelling, I use the ‘Flush’ app in the UK and ‘Campermate‘ or ‘Rankers‘ apps in NZ. However certainly in the case of the UK, there are no guarantees that a public toilet will be open when you need to use it.
If I’m hiking through town, it will hopefully have an open public toilet. If not, there may be a campsite, hotel, backpackers, cafe, restaurant, fast food establishment, supermarket, hospital, railway or bus station etc. Pubs can be added to the list by late morning. Aside from the traditional establishments with a toilet, or if I’m in a more residential or industrial area and I have an ’emergency situation’ I’ve also ducked into local businesses to ask if I can use their loo e.g. the corner shop, hairdressers, estate agents, doctors’ surgeries or any local business. If there’s a charity box in any of these locations I’ll drop in some change by way of thanks.
On the South West Coast Path in the UK I did everything I could to avoid hiking through a small town or residential area between 6-9am. I knew I was probably going to need to use a toilet, and on most occasions absolutely nothing was open – including public toilets. As yet, I haven’t had to knock on someone’s front door, but given the alternative, I absolutely would. Thankfully in NZ, your chances of finding a public toilet or café open early or late, are greatly increased.
Taking the above into account and/or when wild camping, there are times when a nature-toilet is the only option. In this scenario, I always try to adhere to ‘leave no trace‘ (LNT) best practice as far as I possibly can. If you don’t get rid of your waste properly, there are risks of contamination to soil and water sources, which can lead to diseases such as Giardia – which is pretty serious and definitely something you don’t want to be dealing with whilst hiking (or any other time for that matter).
I always carry a zip-lock bag with my toilet kit in it, as per the photo above, which I keep handy in an outside pocket of my pack. This contains a tiny ultralight titanium potty-trowel, toilet roll, hand sanitiser and a pee rag (see below) and a couple of little ziplock bags. Sometimes I carry a pack of 10 moist wipes.
For nature-pees, I dive off-trail and go behind a bush, tree, large rock, thicket of bracken etc. For pees, I don’t use toilet paper, but I carry a ‘pee rag/cloth’. My pee rag is a small piece of lightweight kitchen wipe, but other ladies might use a hanky or piece of bandana. I wipe, then hang it on my pack to dry, then I reuse it during the day and wash out each night. Some women ‘drip-dry’ which I’m personally not comfortable with, and some use a female urinary device. I tried the ‘Pibella‘ which is fantastic (you’ll need to practice first), but to be honest it’s just something else to carry and keep clean, so I abandoned it in favour of the squat. If you must use toilet paper for pees, make sure you pack it out with you and dispose of it properly later.
When long distance hiking I have always gone with the option of digging a hole and burying my waste. However, there are certain environmental conditions where you shouldn’t leave any waste at all – like in alpine areas where it’s too cold for the waste to decompose properly, or in a river gorge where you’ll immediately contaminate the water. You may consider carrying a poo pot/tube as this DOC article explains.
When I need to go, I take myself as far off trail as I can – and as far away from where other people will be. This means at least 50-60 metres (200 ft) away from the trail, campsite or water sources. I pick a spot that’s hidden from view next to the bushes. In drier areas I pick a sunnier spot if possible, so things will decompose more easily. If I’m in thick forest/bush and I’m frightened I won’t find my way back to the trail again, I leave a couple of coloured pegs on twigs or bushes to guide me back to the trail (I always carry 2 coloured pegs hiking). It sounds weird, but sometimes you go 10m off trail, turn around and the trail has vanished!
Digging a ‘cat-hole’
I use my little titanium trowel to dig a hole. If the ground is loosely packed, with lots of organic matter sometimes the heel of your shoe will do, or a stick or rock. Sometimes it will be more difficult when you’re dealing with roots or harder ground. I dig a hole around 20x20cms (8 inches) deep/wide.
If there is long grass or foliage to contend with in the immediate vicinity, I try to flatten or scrape it back and away from the little patch where I’m going. I’ve had instances where I’ve ‘gone’ in the hole and have then suffered a ‘foliage ping-back’ scenario where my legs have been caught by a wayward strand of something covered in ‘something’… which is pretty awful. I always wear shorts hiking, so luckily it can be cleaned from skin quickly and easily, but I never feel entirely clean afterwards until I can have a proper wash.
It takes a few times to develop an ideal stance/squat for a nature toilet. Mine is a crouch leaning slightly forward, feet a decent distance apart with one leg slightly forward of the other for good balance. I take the time to make sure my shorts are safely tucked away at my knees, and there’s no other clothing hanging down. I’ve had several minor incidents when I’ve peed on random dangling clothing, my shorts and/or feet, but I soon learned not to rush, and to tuck everything away. Next, be sure to aim for the hole. This may sound silly, but in the beginning it can be harder than it looks, and it’s not fun to have to manouvre everything into the hole if you missed slightly, or got the angle wrong. Wiping is fraught with danger – beware unexpected drips or overbalancing.
As with all of the above topics, there are different schools of thought when it comes to toilet paper. Of course the ideal option would be to pack it out or to not use any at all. Some hikers use ‘natural’ wiping sources like flat stones or leaves, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to the toilet in an area where there are any flat stones or useable leaves! Also, I’m allergic to various grasses/leaves etc. so I personally wouldn’t take the chance of using it on my sensitive areas. I use plain, unbleached toilet roll, which I use as sparingly as possible and bury in the hole. True LNT would be to pack it out. I sometimes carry a tiny pack of 10 wet wipes for (any) emergency cleaning or better freshness. If I use a wipe I will always pack it out in one of the spare ziplock bags.
Once done, I bury the waste using the dirt that came out of the hole. I then cover it with other foliage to disguise it completely. If I’ve had to go in an emergency-less-than-ideal location, like in an area where there’s a chance someone else might stumble across it, I signal it with an ‘X marks the spot’ kind of an effort over the foliage.
I digress a little here, to sanitary items. Always pack out sanitary items like tampons or towels. Some women use the reusable menstrual cups, which I researched, but decided wasn’t for me.. Women I’ve spoken to who have used them tended to be equally divided into the ‘it changed my life and is so easy…’ camp or the ‘too messy and difficult to keep clean/sanitary’ camp.
I always carry a 50ml bottle of hand sanitiser and sometimes a little packet of wipes. After the toilet or changing sanitary items I will wash my hands if I can, followed by hand sanitiser. I use wipes very rarely, but in times of need they are good for a freshen-up. I always pack them out.
In addition to the few articles linked within, there are plenty of great resources online re. leave no trace, best practice. This is by no means a definitive guide. There are plenty of things I’ve not included (like the worst of my toiloet horror stories!!). If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch or message me via my Facebook page.