Our Outdoor Toileting advice article offer some ideas to help when nature calls and yet you want to protect nature. We really hope you find it useful.
The wilderness areas of the UK have probably never been busier than they were in the summer of 2021. This is great as it means more people are enjoying time in these precious places. However, it does bring some potential problems. One of these is the messy issue of human waste.
We’ve had plenty of experience of this growing problem. A friend arrived at the top of a gritstone route to find a large steaming present waiting for him (Yes, it was actually still steaming!). A climbing client trod in a poop while starting a descent from the top of Stanage. We could offer several other recent unpleasant examples.
Unfortunately, there will always be people who don’t care what they leave behind, but we strongly believe many of the problems stem from people not knowing how to apply Leave No Trace principles to their outdoor toileting. So, we thought there might be benefit in sharing some ideas for wilderness toilet best practice.
Urinating in the outdoors isn’t likely to cause much of a problem. The World Health Organisation guidelines on sanitation say ‘urine is relatively harmless, except in areas where the urinary form of schistosomiasis occurs.’ Later in the guidelines they also state that, apart from the situation listed above, ‘indiscriminate urination is not a health hazard.’
It’s obviously important to be discreet and any toilet paper should be packed out (more info on toilet paper later). There is also some evidence that animals may be attracted to the salts from urine. This could lead to them digging into the ground and damaging foliage or vegetation. The Leave No Trace guidance suggests peeing onto gravel or rocks is less likely to attract animals. We should also avoid peeing into or close to water sources. Otherwise, the big issues for outdoor toileting really revolve around number twos.
This is where the big outdoor toileting problem lies. The WHO state that ‘human faeces may contain a range of disease causing organisms, including viruses, bacteria and eggs or the larvae of parasites. Solid waste can contaminate water sources and cause community threatening pollution problems.’ It also, of course, has significant social and aesthetic impacts. So, the best way to avoid contamination in wilderness environments is actually to not go to the toilet outside. So, before we consider other options, maybe we can avoid going outside at all…..
Sometimes, for shorter duration adventures, we can easily avoid pooing in the outdoors just by doing it before we go. That way, we get to use a comfortable indoor loo and there is zero risk of contamination. To encourage a pre departure poo there is evidence that drinking coffee prompts the need to head to the loo. This is discussed in this article in Men’s Health magazine. Unfortunately, even with the best intentions, we may still have miscalculated our need to go. Alternatively, maybe we are out for longer and going outside is unavoidable. What then?
There are two options for the management of solid waste in the wilderness context. We can pack it out or bury it. We’ll take a look at both of those.
Pack It Out
The gold standard for outdoor toileting is to pack the waste out. In certain wilderness areas in some parts of the world this is a legal requirement and we suspect more stringent rules will become more common in other places too. But, even where it isn’t a rule, it still remains best practice. The best way to Leave No Trace is to leave no waste.
There are various commercial options available for packing out your waste. Products like Bivvy Loo, Bog In A Bag and Travel John are easily available. There are plenty of other options on the market too.
Most of these products combine plastic bags with an absorbent powder or pad to solidify and deodorise solid waste. Taking the Travel John as an example, the key component is a waste bag made from thick polythene material.
Infact, the Travel John is a bag within a bag. The inner bag is pulled up and opened out like a bin bag with a large aperture. Then, after use, it is simply pushed down again into the outer bag and sealed inside by the integrated zip-lock. The inner bag contains the absorbent deodorising pad. Many of these kits also contain toilet paper and sanitising wipes. We have used some of them and they work really well. The main disadvantages being the cost and, with some of them, they are quite bulky and heavy to carry.
It is quite easy to make a cheaper system yourself. A biodegradable bin liner makes a good poo bag and this can then be stored securely inside a zip lock food bag. The bin liner can be opened plenty large enough to make doing the business mess free. You can also easily buy sachets of absorbent granules to absorb liquids and deodorise the contents (see photo above). Some people recommend cat litter as a suitable absorbing agent but we haven’t tried this ourselves.
The other thing, of course, is if you are packing the bags out in your rucksack you really need to be sure the contents can’t leak out or the bags split. If that’s a concern it really pays to have a solid container to store the used bags inside. The video below shows a fairly typical example of a home made big wall climbing poop tube. In reality any secure fastening solid tube that is big enough will do the job.
The other main option is to bury your waste. It is important that burying it doesn’t just mean moving a rock and then popping the rock back on top afterwards. The underside of rocks are habitats for all sorts of creatures. Also, to decompose effectively the faeces needs organic matter surrounding it. So, burying it needs to be burying it.
To dig a hole you’ll need a small trowel. Alternatively, spoons or even climbers nut keys might be useable in an emergency. We’ve also seen sticks and trekking poles used effectively. The hole should be six to eight inches deep and about four inches wide. Backfill the hole with soil when finished. Finally, try to disguise the mound with ground material if possible. If you’re spending more than one night in an area or your are with a group, keep the holes scattered.
According to this very informative book, pathogens in human waste can remain a health hazard for up to a year. Therefore, it’s important to dig the full six to eight inches deep. The hole should be dug into organic matter. It should also be well away from a water source. The Lake District National Park Authority guidance is at least 30 metres from a water course, but it really isn’t hard to make sure you at least 50 metres away. It is also no use burying it in snow (please see winter notes below) or sand.
Toilet paper is another consideration. The best solution is to avoid leaving toilet paper behind. It really is easy enough to carry it out in a small ziplock bag. If you don’t have a suitable bag available, an alternative may be to use ‘national’ toilet paper. A small amount of moss or other user friendly foliage will do the job well.
However, be very aware of the risk of ticks and other insects that might live in foliage and as you squat you are perfectly positioning yourself for them to hop onto you. There are also ‘travel bidets’ on the market although we haven’t tried them ourselves. Also, if you haven’t got a bit of toilet paper you are unlikely to have one of these to hand.
Another idea that has been suggested for many years has been to burn toilet paper. We’ve never had much success with this (usually because it is windy or raining!) and there is also the possible fire risk. We avoid this option, but if you choose to burn then please consider the safety and viability of this option.
If toilet paper must be used and can’t be packed out (and the option of burning has been discounted), then Leave No Trace say that white, non-perfumed toilet paper is best. This, they say, can be buried in the hole with the solid waste. However, we consider a better option to be plant based biodegradable paper. Various types are easily available.
We really like products like Cheeky Panda bamboo paper. This is free from tissue dust, fragrance, pesticides, chlorine bleach. It is also BPA free. This is a brand we’ve used a lot, but plenty of others are available. Whatever type you use, it also pays to minimise the amount used.
Winter adds some significant outdoor toileting hurdles. It is impossible to dig a hole in fully frozen ground and burying your solid waste in a snowy hole is no solution. All that will happen is that when the snow melts the faeces will leak into the ground and potentially threaten water courses and flora. It is imperative that all solid waste is packed out in winter. We shared more information about this issue and the superb Cairngorm Snow White Project here.
Used sanitary products or nappies should always be packed out. They don’t biodegrade and can attract animals who might dig them up even if buried.
Ticks, Insects & Allergic Reactions
If you are grabbing some foliage to use as natural toilet paper or squatting close to the ground, be aware of the risks posed by insects and foliage. Your may have grabbed a bunch of nettles or thistles without looking. Also, some people have significant allergic reactions to certain plants just as some insect stings can trigger reactions. Similarly, ticks like to live in long grasses and foliage and you squatting near by might be a perfect invitation for them to climb onboard. Some ticks carry Lyme Disease. Regular body checks for ticks are good practice at any time, but especially if you’ve toileted outdoors.
Besides dealing with solid waste disposal, it is obviously also important to manage personal hygiene. It may not be practical to wash your hands when you’ve done the business. So, it may be worth carrying some form of hand sanitiser on your backcountry adventures. One choice is to carry a small bottle of anti-bacterial gel. This avoids any further waste as the gel simply evaporates when rubbed into your hands.
Another choice is to carry hand wipes. Of course, it makes no sense to then leave these behind, although there are options like the Sea To Summit Wilderness Wipes which are made from bio-degradable 100% Veocel fibres. We have used these a lot and really rate them. Do bear in mind, though, that they are alcohol free and so we expect they are less efficient at dealing with bacteria then some others on the market.
If you don’t have some form of sanitiser a natural way to clean your hands is to rub them with soil or ash and then wash it off. This is a method that has been used by some communities well back into history with good reason. There is scientific evidence to suggest this is an effective means of sanitising hands providing the soil used isn’t itself contaminated. Ash may also raise the ph levels on the skin and this can help destroy surface bacteria. For more evidence on the research into these methods please check out this article. This focused on the efficacy of soil and ash for killing COVID-19, but it also references other studies.