Everybody poops. It’s just a fact of life.
As someone who loves hiking and camping, and has been doing it since I was a child, of course I’ve had a poop in the great outdoors. But set all squeamish sniggering at this statement aside, this is an essential declaration. We can’t ignore it or pretend that it doesn’t happen when we’re outdoors for extended periods.
As a ranger in the Cairngorms National Park through the summer of 2020, I’ve unfortunately seen the impact of irresponsible hikers and wild campers at some of the most beautiful places in the country. Quite frankly, it’s disgusting, it spoils the outdoor experience of everyone else visiting the area, and I’m fed up of having to clean up toilet paper and baby wipes. I just don’t want to see it anymore*.
*And for chat with my ranger colleagues to revolve around more than the biggest jobbies we’ve seen this week.
Dealing with human waste in a hygienic, environmentally sensitive way is a vital outdoor skill, and not just for expert or elite-level outdoors folk. Anyone spending a long time out hiking, or camping overnight will have to face up to the inevitable. And as most of us are accustomed to flushing toilets, it’s a skill that needs to be learned like any other.
Talking about how to pee and poop properly in the outdoors raises awareness of the issue of environmental contamination from human waste, and hopefully will spread understanding of the most responsible way to manage our bodily functions while hiking or wild camping.
Also, I hope it will also go some way to resolving any fears or discomfort some may feel about going to the toilet away from the usual facilities, fears that may stop them from trying longer trips. I’ve shared a few of my toilet tips about how and where to go when hiking or wild camping to ease your worries and help you prepare for your next outdoor experience.
So here’s my guide on how to go to the toilet outdoors, to help you plan for your next hiking or camping trip. Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments below. I’m here to help.
Top toilet tips for the outdoors
Plan your day around facilities
As your mam always told you before a long car journey, it’s best to go before you go. And she wasn’t wrong. Proper planning is key to find available facilities before you head out on a hike, and a little bit of research will let you know if there’s a public toilet at or near the start of your hiking trail, or the possibility to stop on the route. An OS Map will show these marked with a PC symbol, for public convenience.
Walking routes in more populated areas may have the option to visit a public toilet on the way, or to call in by a pub or café for drinks, snacks, and access to the facilities. Knowing the route you intend to take ahead of arrival (and your Plan B) will let you plan the length of time you’ll be out hiking and the time between potential toilet stops. But what if you’re in a more remote area, or planning to stay out for a longer hike or camping trip?
Know where to go outdoors
Get off the trail. It’s really, really unpleasant to encounter human waste on or near a path. It may not always be possible to get off the trail in all places along your route, so check the map for suitable spots and don’t leave it to the last moment. Ideally, you should be around 50m from any paths, buildings or shelters, which is a bit further than everyone thinks (approximately 45-60 seconds walk, or a 10-second dash if things are getting desperate), and 30m from any burns or streams.
Where should you not go to the toilet?
Near a water source. A loch, lake, or stream could be the water supply for a remote settlement, farm or house, or maybe just an ideal spot for people to swim or paddle. You should try to be at least 30m from any water sources when you go to the toilet.
Shelters, shielings, crags and caves. At some point these interesting features to explore can all become really useful spots to escape from wind and weather. Think about finding a curious cave to investigate, or a big stone to shelter from the wind while you scoff your lunch. Then the prospect of seeing, smelling or stepping in something you really didn’t want to.
Ready to pee free?
So, if you’ve never tried it before, you really want to take into account the terrain and the wind when you go for a pee. Try to face downhill as much as possible, but also aim away from the wind to avoid accidental wet feet. Hiking poles can help you maintain balance if you squat down.
Take off a heavy backpack before you squat, to avoid tipping off balance at a critical moment and make it easier to get back up again. Just remember to leave your pack above you if you’re on a slope, but close enough to reach your toilet paper stash.
Devices like a SheWee or a GoGirl, essentially shaped funnels for urination, can make it much easier and discrete to pee outdoors. I would definitely use one for the peak of midge season in Scotland, when the thought of exposing any more skin than is absolutely essential makes me shudder. They’re the sort of thing that benefit from practice at home before venturing out into the world.
Have a bit of toilet paper or pack of tissues handy to dry off, but toilet paper doesn’t magically vanish overnight if it’s left on the ground. If you use it, take it away with you, just like any other rubbish you might create on your hiking trip. A sealable bag in a pocket of your pack is the best place to store used paper until you can dispose of it properly in a bin.
Remember, leave no trace.
Dealing with a solid problem
Going for a poop outdoors needs a bit more forward planning. There’s basically only two options available to you as a responsible hiker and wild camper: bury it on site, or bag it and take it out.
You’ll need a bit of equipment to do things properly. You can find a small trowel or folding shovel in your local garden centre, hardware store or online, and compostable dog poo bags or food waste bags are easily picked up when you do a supermarket shop.
Find a suitable spot, at least 30m from watercourses, shelters and paths, and use your trowel to dig a hole about as deep as your hand (15cm / 6″ is ideal, the length of a mobile phone… Don’t drop it!). Best to make it a bit wider than you think you might need to. Do your poop.
Any toilet paper or wet wipes you use should be placed into one of the bags you brought, and binned later. Fill in the hole with the soil you’ve dug out, completely covering the new contents. Don’t forget to wash your hands or use sanitiser. If you’re in a rocky spot, try resist the urge to build a little cairn over your poo, in tribute to your special moment. This is the sort of place where your should really consider using a bag to remove all trace of your waste.
If you’re caught out walking without your toilet kit, scrape out a depression in the ground with the heel of your boot or the end of a walking pole. Do the deed, and cover it up as best you can with the material at hand. Soft moss and gravel can top up the material you’ve scraped away.
In a real emergency, spongy soft sphagnum moss can be used instead of toilet paper. However, this is destructive to the ecosystem and doesn’t fit with a leave no trace philosophy, so should be the last resort option.
Bag it and bin it
In the UK we don’t really have a tradition of bagging and binning our own waste, but it can be an essential requirement when hiking in other locations around the world, especially in remote areas or in mountain or desert environments where natural composting wouldn’t occur. With the extremely high pressure on some honeypot sites, it might be something that land managers and recreation groups promote more in future. Be ahead of the curve!
Take a supply of compostable dog poo or food waste bags to collect that thing you need to do. Seal up the bag, then place it inside another sealable bag or container to hold it until you find a bin or return home. A plastic tupperware-style box** is easily cleaned and disinfected at the end of your trip, or dog owners might be familiar with dicky bag type containers, which can clip onto the outside of your backpack, and work just as well for other species’ faeces.
**It’s best to label it for exclusive use to avoid putting your sandwiches in at a later date.
Take a good look at your chosen spot before you squat. Brambles, thistles, gorse and especially nettles don’t make for a comfortable jobby option (I’m sure many of us have at one time or another managed to use our bare bum to locate stinging nettles in the dark… Ouch!).
Also, be aware that bracken, heather and long grass can all potentially be harbouring ticks, especially if there’s a lot of sheep or deer in the area. It’s good practice to do a body check for ticks at the end of your day’s hike, and carry a specialist tick tool and small travel mirror if you’re in a high-risk area. Read more about risks associated with ticks here.
Menstruation in the Outdoors
While we’re talking about what happens in the toilet, let’s tackle menstruation too. It’s a subject that can often be taboo, whether through stigma or shame, but something like 25% of the global population experience menstruation, with around 20% of them on their period right now. And while it can leave you feeling sore, irritable, and lacking in energy, it shouldn’t be a factor to stop you getting outdoors to do the things you enjoy.
However, menstruation in different environments brings up the issue of waste, especially in more remote locations where there is limited, or no, disposal facilities. As with everything else, the message is leave no trace! You really shouldn’t leave any sanitary products behind. Many contain plastic, and even a natural cotton tampon will take up to six months to compost in optimum conditions. In a mountain or moorland environment that will be considerably longer.
Used sanitary towel and tampons, and any tissues and wipes you use, can be stored hygienically in a compostable dog poo or food waste bag, and disposed of properly when you return home. An additional ziplock bag or tupperware container to hold filled waste bags will protect against any potential leakages or broken bags inside your backpack.
In a move to cut down on the amount of waste created during my period I started using a reusable menstrual cup a couple of years ago. It’s ideal for long day hikes, or overnight camping trips, as you can wear it for up to 12 hours, though I’d definitely recommend getting used to it at home first.
For longer trips, it would need a bit of additional planning to ensure you can clean your hands properly before and after fitting it, empty it safely and cleanly, and rinse it out between uses, particularly in a challenging setting. Do you want to be faffing about with one when faced with a lack of privacy, heavy rain, low temperatures, or an abundance of midges? It may not be the most practical solution in some circumstances, but will reduce the amount of sanitary protection you will need to carry in your pack.
Essential kit to go when you’re outdoors
- A small trowel or folding shovel
- Hand sanitiser, for before and after
- Toilet paper or tissues, in a sealable waterproof bag. I get my toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap?
- Compostable food waste bags or dog poo bags
- A sealable waterproof (ziplock) bag or small sealable container to contain all used waste bags
I tend not to use wet wipes unless I’m going on a longer trip and they’ll be a substitute for showering. Most contain some form of plastics, and can take an incredibly long time to break down after disposal, so choose a brand that is biodegradable and made of natural fibres.
Putting together an outdoor toilet kit for your camping and hiking adventures means that you’re prepared for whenever nature calls, and you can enjoy yourself without worry. Remember to leave no trace, and help keep the outdoors safe and beautiful.
I hope this blog post has given you a few guidelines on how to go to the toilet outdoors comfortably and confidently, and without leaving a big impact behind you.