In my last post I discussed making your own backpacking food, so it makes logical sense to post about what to do with that food when it comes out!
If you are going to backpack, you’ll need to get over any squeamishness you may have about bodily functions. They happen and they are hard to hide on the trail. There are definite, clear-cut rules regarding how the process of elimination should be handled, and then there are personal choices. I’ll try to cover both.
Peeing is pretty simple, especially if you are male. There are things to consider, however, regardless of your genitalia. You should never pee near a water source. Although specific park rules and regulations may vary somewhat, be sure you are at least 200 ft. (about 70 adult steps) away from any water source when you pee. This protects the water and the organisms and animals that live in it. Remember – you filter or treat water to drink and you don’t want people peeing in your drinking water! So don’t pee in someone else’s. By the way, the 200-foot rule also applies to poop (and bathing and washing dishes or clothes).
Women and peeing
There is much discussion as to how this is best handled. Most women remove their packs, find something to hide behind, pop-a-squat and let loose. Me? I rarely take my pack off because I want the extra challenge of doing the squat (and standing back up) with my heavy pack on. Or perhaps I’m just lazy.
Some brave women use a device designed to let a woman pee like a man. That is: standing up and through the fly. There are a surprising number of products on the market to make this happen, and women who use them debate as to which is better. I tried the pStyle, and it was not pretty.
Like the box recommended, I first tried it in the safety of my own home. Easy enough. No problem. I peed standing up and it all went into the toilet! I was an expert after just one try …
… or so I thought. On day 2 of my John Muir Trail trip, I was hiking with two male strangers quite a bit older than myself. I had to pee really badly, but we kept meandering through open meadows with nowhere to hide. So I finally used my pStyle. I ducked behind a skinny tree for some semblance of privacy, unzipped my fly and attempted to replicate my one use of the device at home.
Things seemed to be going OK for about 4 seconds. Pee was funneling down the pStyle like it was supposed to. Suddenly, I felt that signature, unwelcome warmth down both legs. Uh oh! I had only been getting some of my pee into the pStyle! The rest was flowing down my legs. Flowing. Did I mention both legs? My hiking pants were soaked. My legs were wet. I stopped, mid-stream, and resorted back to the tried-and-true squat to finish, no longer caring if my new friends saw me peeing.
Then I did what any self-respecting woman stuck in the wilderness with two strange men would do: I stepped out from behind my tree and announced that I had pissed all over myself. Oddly enough, they seemed unfazed and we continued on our way. I washed my pants that night and ditched the pStyle in a trash can at Tuolumne Meadows. I wasn’t going to carry that extra couple of ounces all the way to the top of Mt. Whitney! I don’t blame the pStyle, and neither should you. Practice, practice, practice.
Wiping is another issue women must decide on. Some women do a little post-pee ‘twerking’ move to drip off as much as they can, and that’s it. Others carry a pee rag. Yes, a pee rag. This is actually what I do. Liteload makes these nifty 12″x12″ compressed towels that open up and expand with water. They’re disposable, but durable. I wet one slightly to decompress it and use it throughout the day to lightly dab myself. Some women hang their pee rag on their packs to let the UV rays kill the germs and keep it sanitized (which is a legit method but is just a little too “in your face” for me). I just fold my pee rag in on itself after each use and keep it in my pocket. I wash it at the end of each day. On longer trips, I break open a new Liteload towel every few days.
Pooping, for both sexes, gets a tad more complicated. You can’t hide the fact that you are going to poop. Go ahead and try, and good luck to you. You know what’s up when you see a fellow backpacker wander off into the woods, alone, with a bag of “supplies”. They are going to poop and everyone knows it. So get over any worries about privacy real fast. It ain’t gonna happen.
Pooping in the wilderness is a joy. Haven’t done it? Just wait – you’ll see. The views are frequently incredible and the birds chirping while you squat and do the deed make it sublime. In case you didn’t know (and why would you?), science says that squatting to poop creates a better, more nature angle in your colon, making elimination easier and more “complete” (Be sure to watch this Squatty Potty commercial for proof!). Also, your entire digestive system is working like a champ because of all that walking and healthy food (assuming you made it yourself).
All poop must be buried and you’ll need a tool for digging the hole. Some people use thick sticks, but what if none are available? Instead of buying a special pooping shovel (called a “cat trowel” or “cat-hole trowel”), just buy a tent stake designed for snow camping. They are super lightweight, incredibly cheap and take up very little space. Plus, they just work well.
Make sure you dig the hole at least 6 to 8 inches deep. Make it deeper or wider as needed (only you know how big your hole needs to be). Your waste should be truly buried when you are done. In most places, your hole must also be big enough to accommodate your toilet paper, so keep that in mind when digging.
In some wilderness areas, TP must be packed out. No burying it. There are several reasons why, but it’s important enough that I pack out my TP on ALL trips, even if it isn’t required, because it’s just the right thing to do. Where do you put your used TP? In a zip-lock bag. And then put that bag into another bag. Want to be super environmentally conscience? Wipe with what the good earth provides – leaves, sticks, stones.
What about biodegradable TP, you ask? In areas where TP must be packed out, that goes for biodegradable TP as well. No exceptions. Don’t be the selfish ass-hat who breaks the rules. Despite all those participation trophies, you’re not special.
Make sure you have hand sanitizer and please – for the love of God, PLEASE – use it every time you go to the bathroom. Most stomach illnesses on the trail are due to poor hygiene among hikers. Gross. Giardia sucks. Don’t spread giardia. Read my post on backpacking equipment for a nifty, homemade sanitizer hack.
In some heavily-protected areas, you have to pack your actual poop out, not just your TP! These areas are rare and usually you are given a special WAG (waste and gel) bag to put your poop in. Don’t think about this too much (it’s gross). And it’s rare, so moving on …
Here’s another tip: don’t burn your used TP! This happened to me once. A woman was running out of room in her zip-lock bag for TP, so she just started burning it on the group’s fire, without telling anyone first! Don’t do that. TP “embers” can also drift and start wildfires.
So there you have it! Everything you never wanted to know about pooping and peeing in the wilderness. Life skills, people. Life skills.
Next up: I’ll cover more Leave No Trace principles.
“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.“ – William Butler Yeats