If you go down in the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise…and while you might be hoping for a teddy bear’s picnic, you are more likely to find a pile of poop.
Don’t be afraid. We all do it. And we need to talk about the best way to protect our environment.
I’d often joked about writing a book about pooping and peeing while hiking. I have many funny (and not so funny) stories to tell. Often the need to do a ‘number two’ happens at the most inconvenient time. Where there is nowhere to hide, or when despite being on a seemingly deserted trail another hiker happens to pass by at that precise moment.
One time, we were hiking in the Lakes District in the United Kingdom on a very remote part of the trail. I was hiding behind a tree while my husband stood guard. I thought we were alone until suddenly I heard him talking to someone. A ranger had come along to check a possum trap that was right near where I was pooping! What are the chances? So now we joke before doing a number two that we need to look out for the Possum Man.
As for writing a book, it turns out that in 1989 Kathleen Meyer wrote the best seller “How to shit in the woods”, an environmental approach to the art of going to the toilet. Unfortunately her words of wisdom have been lost along the way. I hike many trails throughout the world and am saddened to see what ignorant hikers often leave behind.
So, what are we supposed to do with our poo?
Meyer suggests that we should treat our poo like garbage and pack it out. Take it just as you would any other rubbish. While I squirm at this thought, does she have a point? What effect does poo have on our environment if we leave it in the bush? Won’t it just biodegrade? Animals do it. Why can’t we?
Human faeces carry harmful microorganisms and if deposited too close to streams or watersheds can contaminate the ground water source, leading to the spread of diseases such as giardia.
Water-borne nasties can make you very sick and that’s the last thing you want whilst hiking on the trail. In developed countries like Australia, we are lucky to be relatively nasty free, but if people don’t do the right thing then we will soon have a problem.
Animals poo in the bush and that’s ok. Unlike humans, animals eat what is found locally whereas people are usually depositing foreign elements.
In order to respect our environment and fellow hikers, it’s important to remember a few simple rules. A little bit of toilet etiquette will ensure everyone has a comfortable experience. I have hiked many a trail throughout the world and continue to see people pooping and peeing directly on, or beside the trail and leaving toilet paper behind. Many times I have thought I need to sit and rest for a minute only to look around and see toilet paper, knowing full well what it was used for!
Basic Bush Toilet Etiquette
Before embarking on a trail, check to see if there are any toilet facilities along the way and try to use them (no matter how stinky they can be).
Need to go along the way? Safely leave the trail. Be mindful of others who are also out enjoying nature too and ensure you are a respectable distance away.
Peeing girls need to resist the urge to use toilet paper, just shake a little and take a second before pulling up your pants. Or try using a urinating device in the form of a funnel so you can stand and wee like the boys.
Avoid using wet wipes if possible. If you do use wipes or paper, ensure you take it with you and properly dispose of it later.
For poo, the easiest option is to dig a cat hole.
What Is A Cat Hole?
A hole should be dug for human waste. A small trowel helps and there are plenty of lightweight ones on the market. Choose your spot away from the trail, and at least 100 m away from any campsites and watercourses. It really helps if you can find a spot in the sun as this helps your waste decompose. Dig your hole at least 10-15 cms deep. Once you have done your business, use some of the soil to fill the hole and stir with a stick. This helps break down the faeces and their nasty pathogens. Cover with the rest of the soil and tread down lightly. It is helpful for other hikers if you leave a stick poking out of the ground as a warning your business is there. Don’t cover with rocks and logs, as this will slow down the decomposing process. Carry toilet paper out in a ziplock bag and dispose of it appropriately. The practice of burning toilet paper is not recommended due to the risk of bushfires. I know I would hate to be the one explaining why the fire started.
Yes there is a poop tube. It is an option if you don’t like or simply can’t dig a cat hole, a great option for climbers faced with nowhere to dig through rock. You can buy them or make your own using a resealable tube or PVC pipe. Simply deposit your poop in the tube and carry it out to properly dispose later. Sounds smelly right? Don’t fear, special ‘poo powder’ is available for purchase that will help.
How do you poop in a tube? I know, I was confused as well until I googled it! Rather than depositing straight into the tube, you poop on some toilet tissue, roll it up, pop it into the tube, seal the tube and place in a dry bag for extra smell protection.
If the tube isn’t for you, consider a go-anywhere toilet bag. Often used by climbers, it’s perfect for rocky areas where digging a hole is not possible. There are biodegradable systems on the market that will not only capture and deodorise, but also break down the waste using a NASA-developed gelling agent contained in the bag. You can buy them online and they come with one waste collection bag, pre-loaded with poo powder gelling agent, puncture resistant zip lock bags, some toilet paper and hand sanitizer. You can also purchase extra poo powder.
Toilet Paper Tablets
Compressed toilet paper tablets are a great alternative to carrying a roll of toilet paper on your adventures. Each tablet is around 2 cm in size, so very small and lightweight. With just a drop of water they expand to a large wipe perfect for your hygiene needs. They are strong and 100% biodegradable made from pure Rayon (or wood pulp a cellulose raw material). Several brands are available to buy online.
What Do We Do About The Wee?
This isn’t such a problem, although the smell can be a bit much in a popular wee spot. The smell of your wee can attract animals so do think about where you go, particularly when camping. Be sure to wee well away from where you are sleeping.
That Time Of The Month?
Sorry ladies, this one can be a bit embarrassing, but is very important to discuss. Your feminine hygiene products are extremely slow to decompose so DON’T leave them on the trail. Not only are they bad for the environment, they attract animals and are very unpleasant for other hikers. Ensure you use a tube, ziplock bag or toilet bag to carry them out and dispose of appropriately. Alternatively, consider using a menstrual cup. Reusable and worn internally they collect your menstrual flow and eliminate the need for pads and tampons. You can empty them via a cat hole.
Leave No Trace
We all need to be proactive on the trails and protect our beautiful environment so that the next time we go down to the woods we aren’t in for a nasty surprise!
Bibliography: Michelle Ryan is a hiker that walks throughout the world, especially here in her home of Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and author. In 2018 Michelle produced a documentary ‘Bibbulmun Journeys’, and published her first book ‘The Capes’.