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Meeting your Needs Where There are No Toilets!

written by Hazel Stark

An Outhouse

My Actual Outhouse

I’ve had several living situations where I did not have running water. Those scenarios, combined with my love for multi-day backcountry adventure, has given me lots of experience with meeting my needs where there are no flush toilets. The most luxurious accommodation was a 3-walled outhouse where I had an amazing forest view, fresh air, and a bit of incense to burn when I needed to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Such an option is usually unavailable when you’re outdoors, however, so in this post I’ll cover some considerations for when you have to deal with urination and menstruation where there are no toilets.

Finding Success at Urination Station

If you’re someone who has to squat when you pee, you know that things are a bit more complicated when your bladder announces itself and you’re far from a bathroom.

  1. Find a good spot: To find some privacy and minimize your impact on heavily traveled areas like hiking trails, walk off the trail a bit. Also keep a distance from any water source, like a lake or stream. I highly recommend reviewing the Leave No Trace principles on disposing of human waste, which includes information about handling #2. You can read all about that here.
  2. Choose a comfortable position: My go-to outdoor peeing position is a squat. Spread your feet a bit wider than hip width apart, bring your pants and underwear down to your knees, and squat down so your thighs and shins are nearly at a 90 degree angle. Think about gravity and wind and where those forces will take your pee before you go! If squatting is challenging (if your quads are exhausted and shaky from a mountain climb, for example), it can be a relief to lean against a tree or rock. You can also hold onto a tree for extra support.
    Woman look out over vista

    The author wondering where to have a private pee in Wales, 2011

    I once spent a summer backpacking through northern Wales and Scotland where private spots to pee were few and far between. True, it was mostly only sheep that would have seen me squat, but I just wasn’t excited about exposing so much of myself to the open hills, especially when the wind was whipping and rain was dumping. This is where pee funnels can be quite handy. These “urination devices” can allow people who normally have to squat to pee to stay standing and fully clothed–a much more private and comfortable option once you get the hang of it. I recommend practicing using one outside or in a shower without wearing any clothes on your bottom half, just in case!

  3. Decide whether to wipe: Carrying a roll of toilet paper around isn’t always practical, and if you do, you must pack out your used toilet paper to avoid the many consequences of littering. Toilet paper left around outdoors is gross to come upon and simply does not break down fast enough to completely avoid environmental harm. Carrying a ziploc bag to pack out your used toilet paper is an option, but for multi-day trips especially, that routine can require you to carry a lot of extra stinky bulk. So in lieu of toilet paper, you could choose to drip dry or wipe with something else. I personally avoid drip drying as I find that it is much easier said than done. I prefer to wipe with something. If it’s winter, a snowball is my favorite–so refreshing! If there isn’t snow around, I use a well-marked bandana as a pee rag. They dry quickly and can be hand washed easily. You can also use a leaf: moose maple and hobblebush are a couple winners, though they aren’t as absorptive as a bandana. Make sure you check for ticks on any leaves before you use one. You could also experiment with a “backcountry bidet,” such as a squirty waterbottle that you can use to thoroughly wash up afterwards.

If you want even more ideas about peeing positions and wiping options, check out this article.

When Menstruation is on Location

When planning for an outdoor experience, plan for your period even if it’s not your usual time of the month. Our cycles are constantly changing, especially when we change our routines and activity levels significantly. I was once on a multi-day remote trip with a woman who normally was very regular, but Aunt Flo decided to stop by quite early. Fortunately, there were enough women on that trip that we could all rally together and give her the necessary supplies without depleting our own backups too much! Your usual menstruation routine may not work perfectly where there are no toilets or running water, so here are some considerations for when menstruation is on location outdoors:

  1. Hygiene, hygiene, hygiene. Keeping things clean down there helps you feel better, but also can help reduce chafing or other discomfort associated with the increased physical activity we usually engage in outdoors. Washing your hands before and after you change your menstrual products is also important, especially if you use an internal solution like a tampon or menstrual cup. I’ll talk a lot more about outdoor hygiene in our next post, so stay tuned for that!
  2. Pack out disposables: I always try to reduce my waste in general, but especially on multi-day outdoor experiences when I just don’t want the hassle of carrying extra bulk around. If you prefer to use disposable menstrual products, like pads or tampons, you must pack those out, just like toilet paper. Pads and tampons are even less biodegradable than toilet paper and are even less appealing to stumble upon. Again, a ziploc bag can help with this. If you’re worried about the smell or mess, I have known some women to have good success with putting some baking soda in their ziploc bag in advance–this helps absorb liquids and scents. If you’re camping, do not keep your used menstrual products or anything that has a strong scent, like food or certain toiletries, in your tent. Store them where animals cannot get to them, like locked up in a vehicle or hung in a tree as part of a bear hang (we will address bear hangs in our next video, Camping 101).
  3. Consider a non-disposable option. Period underwear and reusable pads that you can put through the wash (you’d still need to pack those out) and menstrual cups are a few reusable options. I’m a big fan of reusable menstrual cups. You can keep one in for 12 hours at a time so you only have to deal with them 2x/day, they create no waste, and they last for years–the least expensive, most comfortable, and most convenient menstruation solution I’ve tried.

Most people recommend rinsing it off with drinking water when you need to change it out and boiling it before and after your period; however, when I’m outdoors, I usually lack a faucet. Here’s how I clean my menstrual cup outdoors:

  1. I keep some sterile cotton gauze-like pads on hand and a leak proof spray bottle with a 70:30 denatured alcohol:water mixture in it.
  2. I sanitize my hands with that, let my hands dry, then I remove the cup, and dump the contents into a cathole.
  3. Then I wipe the cup clean with toilet paper and spray that alcohol mixture on the sterile cotton pads and wipe it down with that. Clean, sterile, and good as new. The key here is to make sure you let that cup dry off completely before inserting it again or it will sting!

All I have to pack out is that bit of material I used to wipe off the cup–it doesn’t take much. You can also buy individually wrapped menstrual cup wipes that are ready to go, but I avoid the excess waste from anything individually wrapped. It’s also much more cost effective to make your own.

Woman hiking in woods

A great area to find some privacy to meet your needs

So there you have it: several tips for meeting your needs if you menstruate or squat when you pee! Don’t let the lack of running water or a flush toilet restrict your outdoor experiences!