The delicate matter of peeing and pooping on the trail

The whole subject of peeing and pooping on the trail remains a… shall we say, ‘delicate matter’? Pun totally intended, by the way. And the delicate subject of the how and where of peeing and pooping on the trail is one that pops up regularly. Someone even wrote a whole book about it – I think it was called something like “Sh#tting in the woods”*. Well, here’s the thing. We all have to do it at some point. So let’s get over the notion that we’ll be ’embarrassed to death if we have to go’ and let’s get on with the how-do-we-deal-with-it part. And while we’re on the topic of delicate matters, let’s also talk about how to deal with female periods.

Let’s deal with the first p-word… peeing on the trail

We’ll start with the easier one. Peeing. Boys have a distinct advantage here. Turn your back on the crowd, unzip and pee. Just make sure you’re not peeing into the wind. Nobody likes that.

For the girls it’s a bit more complicated. Duck behind a rock, or tell the boys to turn their backs, whip off your knickers and pee. Just make sure your pants and knickers are out of the way of the stream. Get those knickers back on, pack your paper into a plastic bag, for disposal at the next stop, and… let the boys know you’re done! So, they don’t end up stay standing like frozen pillars while you saunter off… Better still… get one of those shewee thingies. Learn how to use it before you go on the trail. Then you can line up next to the boys without having to find a rock to duck behind.

What about in the camp?

During the day, or before you go to bed, you should have access to toilet facilities on most organised trails. There are one or two exceptions, but for the majority of the time, you’ll either have access to camp toilet facilities or your own toilet tent. So, no problems there.

But what about in the middle of the icy cold night when you’ve finally warmed up your sleeping bag to something almost cozy? Get up, get dressed, down-jacket on, pull boots on, try and find headlamp, fiddle with zip to get out of the tent, stumble over the guy ropes, knock your shin on the tent peg, finally make your way to the toilet, where crawly creepies are waiting to welcome you?

Pee-bottle and shewees

There are better alternatives. A pee bottle is the first option. My biggest worry is always that I’m going to pee so much that the bottle will overflow. (Typical male!) But that hasn’t happened yet. A shewee plus the pee bottle can do the trick for the girls as well. But, with only two hands, it’s a little more tricky trying to keep both the shewee and the pee bottle in place. The other option is to squeeze out into the back cowl of the tent and pee. Make sure you point the stream away from the tent. And make sure the back cowl is lower than the front cowl. And that you haven’t stored any equipment in the cowl. But, what about the damp spot? That damp spot will most likely not be any more noticeable than the condensation build-up under your tent come the morning. Don’t worry.

I had two mates, who shared a tent in the Drakensberg. During the night one, occupant A needed a pee. Desperately. Only thing is occupant B had hung his brand new down jacket, carefully zipped up, on a coat hanger, just where the tent zip was… Occupant A unzipped the ‘tent’. Or what he thought was the tent, but was in fact occupant B’s lovely new down jacket… hung his willy out… and the rest of the story you can figure out for yourself…

Okay, so now that we know how to deal with the pee-word, let’s move on to the other matter…

Tip! Oh, and check the colour of your urine. If it’s yellow, you know you should be drinking more water!

The second p-word… pooping on the trail

Here the boys and girls are on somewhat more equal ground. The ritual is the same. Which basically means that whatever goes for the girls also go for the boys. The first thing to realise is that you’re not the only person in the world that will end up having a poop while on the trail. Relax. Get on with it. It’s a lot more uncomfortable to try and keep it in, and you’ll end up with constipation. Ouch! And, you’ll probably emit smelly winds all day long. Much to the disgust of your fellow travellers.

So, here’s how we deal with it. Find a bush, or a rock, or somewhere where you don’t have to feel that you’re exposing your bum to the whole world. And if that’s not possible, then just get over yourself and get on with it. I’ve had people observe me on more than occasion, and I’m here to tell the story. I remember once, sitting peacefully enjoying the scenery while going about nature’s business, when I looked up the ridge above me and realised there was a couple standing above, looking nonchalant, obviously waiting for me to finish. We stayed in the same hut later. We all survived. And I’ve had to pass my mate toilet paper while we were on a rock climb once… but, that’s a story for another time!

Don’t leave a trace

The bottom line is (yes, pun intended), despite all our best intentions and good habits of going before we set off on the walk, at some point we all end up having to make a little detour. Peeing and pooping on the trail happens to all of us. That is, all of us. Male, female, unclassified. What is more important than worrying about the ’embarrassment’ of “I-had-to-go-on-the-trail” is to make sure we don’t leave a trace. For many reasons. The first one because your mother would not approve! The second one because the next person coming along, won’t want to have to look at your little pile… and thirdly, and most importantly because we all care for the environment! And we feel it would be better not to leave Kilimanjaro covered in little mine dumps.

Follow these two rules…

First rule of peeing and pooping on the trail: Take it with you or bury it! Repeat this rule until you remember it.

Second rule: Stay away from water sources, paths and campsites. Think about others. Don’t do it on a slope above a river either because the next rain will carry it down to the river, and you’ll be responsible for contaminating other people’s and possibly even your own drinking water. Think about others. The same goes for the campsite if you don’t have toilet facilities laid on. Walk 30-50 or so metres away from the camp, and get on with it.

Here’s how we do it.

Collapsible mini-trowel for burying poop
Collapsible mini-trowel for burying poop

Foldable trowel: Carry a small foldable trowel with you. In an ideal world, we should remove our little pile as well. After all, we expect dog owners to clean up their dog’s pile, so why not our own? But at the very least, we should cover it with some soil, and even more so at altitude where there is much less UV to decompose the matter. At lower altitudes, it may be better to leave it exposed to the sun, so that it can decompose quicker.

Zip lock bags: We carry plastic zip lock bags with us. Used paper, goes into the zip lock bag, and into your backpack for disposal at the next campsite. In other words, we do not leave our paper lying about to act as flags for the next party that comes this way. We take them away and leave no trace. (At some campsites you may be able to burn the paper.)

What about at the campsite?

Go before you curl up in your comfy sleeping bag. Better yet, get into the habit of going in the morning before you start walking. Yes, even toilet routines can be turned into habits. Try and practice this before you get on the trail, so that your body memory will know it is morning – it is time, and save yourself a lot of potential stress along the way.

The final p-word: the period…

Now that we have dealt with the peeing and pooping on the trail part, let’s move on to that other little p-word. The period. And here I have to be totally honest: I’ve never had one of those. In fact, I have no experience of what to do if it’s that time of the month. One thing I do know, is that girls, on treks, and especially longer treks, sometimes do unexpectedly get their period. I have prepared hot water bottles for more than one.

Altitude, and exercise, is known to bring about changes in cycles. It can shorten it, bring it on early, or cause you to skip it altogether, and all kinds of combinations. So be prepared. Bring your pads or tampons along, even if you think you’re two weeks away from the next period cycle. By being prepared, you will have the freedom to carry on, without worrying about the flow.

It isn’t a secret that your energy levels will dip during this time. The level may vary from person to person. Let your guide and/or group leader know what your situation is so that they know why you’re a bit slower than usual. No need to be ashamed of it. We’re all adults. And knowledge means understanding, better support for you, and no frustrations in the party.

And here’s a tip. Wearing a thin pad while hiking will help to keep your underwear fresher, and make them last longer (you might be able to wash daily and dry overnight in your tent – especially if it’s quick-drying technical material).

The last word on peeing and pooping on the trail…

We all have to do it sometime. Get on with it. But remember to leave no trace, or if that’s not possible, then as little trace as possible.

* The book is called ‘How to shit in the woods

One Comment on “The delicate matter of peeing and pooping on the trail”

  1. Love this. A hugely important subject and I so agree with your way of simply addressing it bluntly. We do NOT have to be as coy as our parents, and shit is not rude. It’s shit. In 1984 I spent 12 days in the Grand Canyon. All poop was carried out in sealed metal ammo boxes; we had to pee in the current so the pee got washed downstream. The river was flowing at 50 000cfs so huge dilution! Great post!

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