What happens if you have to use the bathroom and you’re far away from a toilet? This post covers how to manage that while making a minimal impact on your surrounding landscape, so that way both you and the ecosystem stay happy, healthy, and clean.
We’ll break down everything you need to know about pooping, peeing, and managing a menstrual cycle while in the backcountry, and you can also watch along with Senior Admission Officer Annie in this video:
How to Poop in the Woods
To start, here are the items to have handy to do your business:
- Trowel or a small shovel
- Hand sanitizer
- Biodegradable soap
- Small bag for packing out trash
Steps to Pooping
- Start with finding a good location. Find a spot about 200 feet away from a water source or 70 big steps away, and make sure you’re not right next to or on a trail. Keep a look out for dark soil—this soil is typically organic so it’s going to help maximize the decomposition of your poop. It’s also typically a little bit easier to dig into.
- Take your trowel and dig a hole between six to eight inches deep. Digging this hole is typically the most time-consuming part, so try to make sure that you start before you’re in a rush.
- Squat directly over the hole. Make sure to squat low to try to have the best aim. If there’s a tree right in front of you, sometimes it’s nice to hold on to that tree for balance while you’re squatting.
- Poop directly into the hole.
- Take the trowel and cover it with dirt. You want to make sure that the trowel is only touching dirt, not the poop itself. Your goal is to cover the hole so that it looks like it’s never been dug in the first place. If someone steps onto the hole, you don’t want their boot squishing into anything (ick)
Steps for Wiping
Using Toilet Paper
If you’re on a day hike or maybe an excursion that’s just a day or two, you can choose to bring toilet paper or wipes. Note that even if the wipes or toilet paper are marketed as biodegradable, you should still plan to pack those out as trash. That’s one use for the bag that’s part of your bathroom kit.
Using Natural “Toilet Paper”
If you're going on a longer excursion you might consider not bringing toilet paper or wipes at all. There are lots of natural options for toilet paper you can use. These include things like smooth rocks or smooth sticks that you can wipe with. Moss works well, so does snow, you can use leaves as long as you can identify them beforehand. You definitely don't want to be wiping with anything that's poisonous.
Using the Backcountry Bidet Method
This is a great method for staying clean that avoids needing to pack out poopy toilet paper or wipes. All you need is water, biodegradable soap, and hand sanitizer
- Designate a wiping hand and a clean hand.
- Take your clean hand and water, pour a little bit of water on your wiping hand
- Wipe with a flat palm, avoiding any fecal contamination into your fingernails
- Take your clean water, dump it onto your wiping hand, alternate that with a little bit of biodegradable soap. Do so until you don't see any more residue on the wiping hand. It’s ok (and encouraged!) to wash with soap and water as many times as you need in order to feel clean.
- Once you’re all clean and ready to go, grab your hand sanitizer, pour it onto both hands, and rub vigorously for one last round of sanitation.
And you’re done!
One last thing to remember is to check the local regulations before you set out. If you're going to desert location, an area with glaciers, lots of snow pack, or maybe an area where you can’t get 200 feet away from water, you may have to pack out your poop in something called a wag bag.
How To Pee
Similar to the poop routine, you’re going to want to move 200 feet away from a water source. Then, you can just pee however you normally do.
If you have a vagina, you might consider bringing a dedicated bandana to use as a pee rag to wipe with—something simple and cotton works fine, and some folks like using specially designed antimicrobial cloths like a Kula Cloth. Give this a rinse or wash every couple of days to keep it clean.
Other aspects of staying clean include washing your genital area with water every couple of days. Last, to avoid urinary tract infections or yeast infections, it can help to pack a couple of extra pairs of underwear and changing them frequently.
How to Manage a Period
There are many ways to manage a menstrual cycle in the backcountry! And no, bears are not attracted to people on their period.
If you use tampons or pads, bring a small garbage bag to pack out the applicator, the tampon or pad itself, and any packaging.
If you use a menstrual cup, similar to the poop routine, simply dig a small hole, dispose of your menstrual blood, and then cover that up afterwards. It can be cleaned by rinsing with drinkable water.
It’s really common to see changes in menstrual cycles while in the outdoors, especially on trips where the conditions or activities are strenuous or challenging. Even if you don't expect to get your period during your course, it’s better to be overprepared than underprepared, so bring a few extra supplies with you.
Hopefully, learning these tips and tricks of using the bathroom and managing a menstrual cycle in the backcountry helps you feel a little bit more confident and prepared before hitting the trails!
NOLS is a nonprofit global wilderness school that seeks to help you step forward boldly as a leader.