How to go to the toilet in the great outdoors | A guide for hikers & campers

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.

It might look like a beautiful camping spot for the night, but think about where you might be able to go to the toilet safely and hygenically.

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.

Burial

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.

A simple toilet kit to make sure you’re prepared for every occasion when you go camping or on a longer hiking trip.

Additional Hazards

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
A camping toilet kit is simple to put together, and doesn’t take up much room in your pack. You don’t need to take a whole loo roll, just as much as you think you’ll need, plus a little extra to make sure you’re not caught short, in a sealable bag to keep it dry.

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.

How are you feeling about your first wild poop? If you’ve got any more questions please ask in the comments below.
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What I’ve been reading this month | Black Lives Matter

Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And that is the only way forward.

Ijeoma Oluo

I’m from a rural area in the northeast of Scotland, and I have spent my career working in conservation, environmental education, and countryside access across the UK, with the occasional diversion into nature tourism and outdoor recreation in the UK and Northern Europe. I write here about my interests in travel, the outdoors, expeditions at sea and on land, and connecting with nature.

I occupy space in this world that is exceedingly white. I do not have to fight for my place in these areas due to the colour of my skin.

While I like to think I am not racist, I’m a beneficiary of the structural racism that winds through our society like bindweed, and that through my silence in not it calling out when I see it, I am complicit. It is vital we, as white people, start to see what has long been evident to Black people, however uncomfortable it may feel in the process; it’s time to grasp the nettle.

To start, we must educate ourselves. By being better informed, we can find a way to see more of the landscape that surrounds us, and be better allies to people of colour. We can start to open outdoor spaces that were once and are still exclusionary, and amplify the voices of those that are underrepresented in our fields.

This is what I’ve been reading this month:

Racism and White Privilege

The long-form article by Reni Eddo-Lodge that forms the basis of her eye-opening book of the same name.

An old Guardian article which probed the slave-owning history of Britain, and the legacy of fortunes made from the labour of enslaved people and the compensation for their emancipation. It ties into a two-part BBC documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, which is still available to view on the iPlayer.

An online portal providing articles and resources to help prompt conversations about racial identity and racism.

An informative blog post by Eulanda and Omo of Hey, Dip Your Toes In! laying out ways in which we can learn from, support, and advocate for the Black people in our lives, and ensure others aren’t excluded from opportunities arising from our white privilege.

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

Maya Angelou

Travel, Outdoors and Nature

Jini Reddy talks writing which views the world through a different prism, and shares some of the works that influenced her.

An action plan for increasing diversity in the US National Parks system, and wider outdoor industry, working through barriers to access and offering potential solutions.

A powerful piece by ornithologist J. Drew Langhan that explores how living in fear as a consequence of race impacts on freedom and the opportunity to pursue the things one loves.

Through the history of Yosemite National Park, Nneka M. Okona tells how Black presence in the outdoors has been attenuated through intergenerational trauma and cultural baggage.

Anthropologist Beth Collier gives perspective on the relationship Black and Asian people have with the natural spaces and rural settings in the UK.

The outdoors is not a space free from politics. Experienced hiker Amiththan Sebarajah writes eloquently on why viewing the outdoors as an escape from confronting reality is a mindset of privilege.

  • Whiteness in the Outdoors

Environmentalism

In this article Hop Hopkins tackles the legacy of white supremacy that impacts on working to resolve the global environmental crisis.

Leah Thomas introduces intersectional environmentalism and sparks a conversation on the need for anti-racism to be a cornerstone of climate and social justice.

This is just a beginning. I understand that it will not be quick or an easy process, and there will be times where I get it wrong, but it’s time to be idle no more. No lives matter until Black lives matter.

Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain

At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.

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The view from the western end of Schiehallion, looking along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In clear conditions, it’s possible to pick out Ben Nevis.

Schiehallion

In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion. Continue reading “Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain”

The Great Corset Caper: Pen y Fan in Period Costume

With a group of fabulous and inspiring women, I took on the challenge of hiking up Pen y Fan in period clothing, including wearing a corset.

Inspired by pictures of the pioneering women that founded the Ladies’ Alpine Club in 1907 and Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club in 1908, the first mountaineering organisations for women, we wondered what it would be like to take to the hills wearing the fashions of the times; heavy tweed long skirts and jackets, buttoned-up blouses, big bloomers and boned corsets.

I’d long admired the early outdoorswomen, who not just tackled some challenging routes in the hills, but were also some of the first to break down barriers for women in other areas of life; in society and politics, education and employment, fashion and convention.

After chatting together on Facebook, we came up with a plan to experience it for ourselves.  I really liked the idea of the challenge but was nervous about the corset.  I’d never worn a proper one before (though I had one of those corset-style tops in the 90s when we all wore our underwear as outerwear).

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Living our best Edwardian life.

Continue reading “The Great Corset Caper: Pen y Fan in Period Costume”

10 of Scotland’s Greatest Long Distance Trails

You could walk for 500 miles, and then you would walk for 500 more. That’s just how beautiful Scotland is.  Wide-open moors, historic castles, picturesque lochs (what we call lakes) ancient forests, and sweeping mountains are the hauntingly beautiful backdrop for some of the finest long-distance walks in the UK.

But enough havering; Scotland’s long-distance routes are a fantastic way to get outdoors, and explore some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes on foot.  Not only that, you’ll also be treated to close encounters with nature, the freshest air, and the freedom that comes with being out in wild and remote areas.

Just because these routes take multiple days to complete, don’t be put off by the thought of not having enough time.  The trails don’t have to be completed in one go and can be broken down into bite-sized chunks to fit into weekends and single days that are just as enjoyable.

Here are, in my opinion, the greatest of the long-distance trails in Scotland.  The routes vary greatly in character, from waymarked cross-country trails like the ever-popular West Highland Way to unofficial, often pathless, challenges aimed at experienced backpackers, like the Cape Wrath Trail.

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Buachaille Etive Mòr, at the head of Glen Etive, has one of the most distinctive mountain profiles in Scotland. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

Continue reading “10 of Scotland’s Greatest Long Distance Trails”

Armchair Travel: 10 Books on Mountains

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books with a mountain setting, including accounts of expeditions, favourites from my childhood, biography, and nature writing. 

Welcome to the first edition of Armchair Travel for 2019, and a breath of pine-fresh, mountain air for the New Year.  The weather outside might be frightful, though not as bad as conditions in some of the books I’ve recommended, so in this post, I’m planning on making myself a massive mug of cocoa, wrapping up in a blanket, and vicariously scaling the heights in ten of my favourite books about mountains…

Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books on Mountains”

RED January Round-Up

At first, RED January (Run Every Day), sounded like a ridiculous challenge; who can run every day for a month?  (How far do I have to go to count?) Who actually wants to?  But I really wanted something to kickstart my year, and needed something to give myself a bit of a boost through a difficult time of year.

Really it’s Do Something Every Day January, which doesn’t sound nearly as big or as scary.  The flexibility of the challenge let me set my own targets, such as being physically active outdoors for at least 15 minutes every day, and explore activities other than running to contribute to my goal.

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And so it begins… RED January 2019

Continue reading “RED January Round-Up”

RED January to beat the blues

Every year, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem, but still it’s often considered taboo when it comes to talking about it, and those that do often feel side-lined and stigmatised.

What is RED January?

RED January is a community initiative encouraging people to support their mental health by undertaking something physically active every day in January.  This can mean running every day, swimming, cycling, walking to work or any other activity you like to get your heart pumping and endorphins flowing.

After last year’s RED January, 87% of participants said they felt significant improvement in both their mental and physical health afterwards.  It is free to take part, and you can sign up here.

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Continue reading “RED January to beat the blues”

10 Things to Get Through Winter

A list of little things to help boost my mood and manage seasonal blues.

At this time of year, with the winter solstice just past, and New Year not too far ahead, I usually find myself in a reflective mood, thinking about all the things that have happened through the year, and what might be to come in the year ahead.

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Getting outside in winter has huge benefits for physical and mental health, but can be a real challenge.

I find this time of year quite challenging; living with depression sometimes I’m so lacking in energy and motivation through these months that just getting out of bed feels like swimming through treacle. I’m no fan of the resolutions that January brings, usually involving the denial of alcohol, caffeine and sugar; things that make the dark winter months that bit more enjoyable.

In my opinion, such extreme measures and deprivation are unlikely to do any favours in the long term. I think a more workable way to make lifestyle changes, and to manage the challenges of winter, is to introduce small, enjoyable, things that upgrade my every day, and contribute to success without excluding anything.

Continue reading “10 Things to Get Through Winter”

My Cold Weather Essentials

A few items to keep you comfortable on outdoor adventures with the changing season.

first_foot_at_compton_smallAs a wildlife ranger I’d spend the vast majority of my working time outside, all year-round, whatever the weather. As autumn heads into winter, there are a few additional things I rely on to make it easier to get out and do my job, and to make the most of adventures on beautifully crisp winter days.

Continue reading “My Cold Weather Essentials”