You’ve now told us how to stay safe in the backcountry. Great. But what do we do when we get there and we have to go to the bathroom?
Dear Backed Up:
I’ll admit, before I spent any time in the Great Outdoors, this was one of my biggest questions. And I was terrified to ask anyone about it. As if other people would be shocked to learn I peed and pooped just like them! GAH! The internet wasn’t really a thing then, so I eventually got over it and asked my close friends, who were outdoorsy people for most of their lives. I was relieved to learn how simple it was. Now that I’ve learned the process and done it a few hundred times, I hardly give it a second thought when I’m out wandering in the wild.
I am fortunate that my Alaskan Camper has a cassette toilet in it. Such luxury! There are plenty of times, however, when I’m far away from my camper—and an outhouse. Whether I’m doing a day hike on a trail or paddling on a river for multiple days, I’m always prepared to do my business out there.
Because sometimes you just never know when nature will call in nature! Here’s how to answer it:
Pick a location: When scouting the perfect place to do your duty, look for a slightly angled piece of ground a minimum of 200 feet away from water sources, washes, and depressions where water might collect. After all, we don’t want to pollute our drinking water. Also stay at least 200 feet away from trails, campsites, human-built infrastructure, and any other place humans might widely travel. Avoid using existing holes you might find in the wild. No critter—snake, spider, mouse, etc.—wants to get flooded out of their home… Privacy is my last consideration. Sure, I try to hide myself behind a tree, shrub, or rock. As one of my Grand Canyon rafting boatman said, though, “If someone is watching you pee, you aren’t the one with the problem.”
Dig a cathole: It should go without saying, but no one wants to see your—or anyone else’s—shit. No one wants to step in it either. Burying our waste not only promotes natural decay but it also hides the evidence. Using the heel of your shoe, a trowel (like an iPood, if handy), or a pointed rock, dig a hole at least six inches deep and at least six inches wide. If you are only urinating, you can reduce the size. If your aim is poor—and I’d anticipate it will be to start—you might wish to widen the diameter.
Do your thang: Pull your pants below your knees (or lower) and squat over your hole, making sure you’re positioned so liquid runs downhill and downwind. Keep a careful watch on your clothes and feet to make sure the stream isn’t spraying or dripping onto them. Some people might find squatting difficult or unstable. In that case, try bracing yourself against a rock or leaning up against a tree to facilitate this important work. Sometimes you can find the perfectly-shaped log or rock (i.e. rounded like a toilet seat)—or even two appropriately-positioned rocks—to hang your booty over. Just remember to lean forward to balance yourself.
Clean up: You could use natural toilet paper, like leaves and rocks, to wipe but you better be damn sure you know what poison ivy, oak, and sumac looks like before you go that route. I find it leaves a bigger mess than necessary so I carry toilet paper, and on occasion wet wipes, with me instead. Per leave-no-trace principles, unless you are using biodegradable toilet paper, place all toilet paper and/or wet wipes in a plastic bag or other sealable container. If you have a water bottle handy, dilute your puddle with a quick pour of water so that animals aren’t attracted to the salt. Once you finished your business, redress and fill the cathole with the dirt, sand, or soil you initially dug out. Try to make the area look less disturbed by covering it with rocks, leaves, and the like. At your earliest convenience, dispose of your bag containing your toilet paper and wash your hands thoroughly with soap, water, and hand sanitizer.
Some public lands require you to pack out ALL human waste, including your poop. Some require you to pack and use portable toilet systems (even though some experts suggest they increase the amount of waste and take longer to biodegrade in landfills…). Researching the rules and regulations of the managing agencies for the location you plan to visit—before you visit—is important.
For these situations, pick up WAG bags. WAG stands for “waste alleviation and gel.” These single-use bags come equipped with everything you need to contain your crap: a dual-bag system for sanitary disposable, absorbent granules (which resemble cat litter), toilet paper, and a handy wipe. If you use a WAG bag, you can skip digging a cathole. Simply find somewhat level, comfortable spot; open the bag; wrap it around your butt; and you know, do your thang. If it’s windy out, tuck the end of the bag in the pit of your knees to keep it from flying off at an inopportune time.
On rafting trips involving multiple people and bigger crafts than stand-up paddleboards, it’s more efficient and effective to bring along a dedicated groover. A groover is a reusable container usually made of metal. (Large ammo cans are often used on private rafting trips.) As you travel downstream, the groover remains sealed. During the day, if you have to go #1, you pee in the river. As is said, “The solution to pollution is dilution.” (Ladies, you can either sit down in the water to pee or use a female urination device If you have to go #2, you use a WAG bag.
In camp, though, the groover is open for business! It’s positioned on the outskirts of common areas, usually downstream and downwind, but always with a scenic view, for #2. A toilet seat is attached on top so you don’t get grooves on your bottom—which is where the name “groover” came from. You’ll still pee in the river or in a designated pee bucket (as seen in the photo on the right) or pee bottle if the river is not accessible from the groover location.
So go on. Get your groove on. Or flow on. Or whatever you want to call it. No matter your outdoor pursuits, finding a way to relieve yourself in the backcountry shouldn’t stop you up from enjoying the outdoors.
Be well, be wild,