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.
Last year I wrote a post about the steps I’m taking to reduce the plastic footprint I produce on my travels, and at home. It gave suggestions of small, easy-to-take steps to reduce the single-use plastic items I consumed, those everyday things we all encounter; shopping bags and plastic bottles, takeaway drinks cups and eating tools. I hoped that it would spark others to start thinking about their own impact.
Single-use plastics, and issues associated with disposal and a lack of recycling facilities in many regions of the world, were highlighted in the BBC documentary series Blue Planet II. But as things move on, the immediacy of the need for action is starting to fade from our minds. More than 300 million tonnes of plastic are manufactured every year, generating far more waste than the planet can handle. It’s virtually indestructible, and invariably some end up in rivers, lakes and the ocean.
It causes distress to marine life in many ways: a risk of entanglement; ingestion, filling stomachs without giving nutrition; and tiny fragments accumulate toxins which are pervasive through the food chain. Marine ecosystems face massive threats.
There is no away. Because plastic is so permanent and so indestructible. When you cast it into the ocean, it does not go away.
Sir David Attenborough
This time, I’ve been thinking about the toiletries I use and take with me on my travels, and how I can ensure the choices I make have the minimum impact on the environment.
While my toothbrush certainly isn’t a single-use item, we still dispose of millions of used plastic brushes every year. Sustainable, compostable alternatives do exist, with handles made from bamboo, the fastest growing plant in the world, and are becoming increasingly available in supermarkets or high-street drugstores here in the UK.
If you’ve got gappy teeth like me, or wear a orthodontic brace, you’ll probably also use tiny interdental brushes as part of your routine, and these are also available with bamboo sticks.
My travel style means I rarely stay in the type of hotel that provides those tiny wee bottles of shampoo and shower gel, but I’ll admit I am usually tempted to take them. I’m not a complete eco-saint, and who wouldn’t want to smell like pink peppercorns and grapefruit when the opportunity presents? But the best plastic reduction strategy is to forgo these, and take your own toiletries.
More usually, I’ll take my own refillable travel-size bottles, topped up from bigger bottles at home (which I usually take to my local refill shop to top up from even bigger bottles). It’s still plastic, but plastic that’s used again and again. These refillable pouches from Matador roll-up when empty, saving space in your soap bag.
If I’m travelling with a group, like on the sailing voyages I’ve been part of, we’ll often share a full-size bottles of shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and the rest between us. As well as cutting down on plastics, it saves a bit of money too.
Solid soaps and shampoos
I’ve been experimenting with various solid shampoos and conditioners, and I love a gorgeously-scented bar of soap. It means I don’t have to worry about liquids leaking into my bag. I pack the bars in a Matador dry bag, which allows the bar to dry out and stop getting mushy without allowing moisture to seep out by some kind of witchcraft.
We all saw that shocking photograph of a seahorse published by National Geographic. Also known as Q-Tips, I see the plastic stalks turn up regularly in beach cleans. They get there after being flushed down the loo and passing into the drainage system, where they block filters and cause an overflow of wastewater, getting accidentally discharged into the sea.
But the good news is that most major brands have now ditched the plastic and returned to paper sticks. Be sure to double-check the composition when you buy, and bin the buds rather than flushing them.
Razors with multiple blades get clogged up with soap and hair, making the blade lose its edge more quickly, thus needing to be replaced more frequently. If you clean and dry the razor after use, it stays sharp and usable for longer, but plastic disposable razors and cartridge razor heads still generate a lot of waste that cannot be recycled. Around 2 billion of these end up in landfill every year.
I have a traditional style safety razor from Naked Necessities, with a double-edged blade, made of metal with a wooden handle. The only part which needs disposing of regularly is the thin stainless steel blade, which is easily recycled. And though it was initially expensive to make the switch from a razor with changeable heads, it’s something that’s saved me quite a bit of money in the long term.
Plastic tampon applicators are found on beaches so frequently that surfers coined the name beach whistles for these pervasive plastic presences. I find them washed up on the beach often, and I’m not alone as the Marine Conservation Society estimates up to six items of sanitary waste are found for every hundred metres of shoreline in the UK.
For a start, tampons, applicators, sanitary towels, and wet wipes are things that should NEVER be flushed. Wrap them, and dispose of them in a bin after use. Look for plastic-free period products, like TOTM or DAME, which use paper applicators and packaging, or reusable applicators. Some brands offer a subscription service so you can stock up on exactly what you need before a trip, especially if you’re going somewhere your usual products might not be available.
Menstrual cups and period pants go one step further. These are reusable silicone cups and washable absorbent pants designed to be used over and over, immediately cutting out the amount of landfill waste created. Though I still use applicator tampons at times (often I find myself in places where it’s difficult to wash the cup for reuse) I’m a fan of both solutions. They’re compact and easily packed for travel, and are also cost-effective alternatives in the long term.
With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you are connected to the sea. No matter where you live.
Dr. Sylvia Earle
Not all of these products are as easy to come by as their cheap, convenient, plastic alternatives, and some might take a bit of forward planning to incorporate into your travel schedule. But with the future health of the oceans at stake, upon which we all depend, it’s high time to make these changes.
Read more on the extent of the problem at Plastic Oceans, and get involved with various initiatives trying to raise awareness and tackle the issues, like Surfers Against Sewage, 2 Minute Beach Clean, and End Period Plastic. Small things done by many people will eventually have a significant cumulative impact.
What do you do to reduce your plastic footprint? Share your advice in the comments below.
Inspired by what you’ve read? Why not pin this post?
This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you. These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures. Thank you for supporting me.
*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.