I don’t know about you, but when I head off the grid and into the wilderness, I look forward to being unencumbered by the trappings of modern life and enjoying the unspoiled beauty of nature.
On the trail and far from civilization, there are no cell phones or computers to numb my brain. There’s no television or Netflix to binge and distract me from my own thoughts. There is no traffic with blaring horns and flashing lights to overwhelm my senses and create stress.
Do you know what else you won’t find in the backcountry?
Which brings me to a question that I get asked fairly often; how do you go to the bathroom in the middle of nowhere?
So, I figured it might be a good idea to share my insights about one of the less glamorous aspects of overlanding and dispersed camping—taking care of business on the trail.
And there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to empty both bladder and bowels in the wild, because improper disposal of human waste is bad for the environment and detrimental to public health.
Urinating on plants or bushes can cause animals to dig up vegetation in search of salt, which is found in mineral-rich human urine, destroying fragile ecosystems. Human feces in the backcountry, especially when it’s not buried or it’s dug up by animals, can contaminate water sources and spread disease.
Not to mention, it’s just gross.
If you’ve ever found the perfect spot to set up camp, only to discover a pile of poop or tattered and dirty toilet paper as you were pitching your tent, you know what I mean.
In my experience, there are two basic methods for taking care of your waste: dig a cat-hole or bring a portable toilet. There are pros and cons to each and, from observing conversations on this topic, both online and off, there seems to be a little controversy. Specifically, there are some who argue that bringing a portable potty is considered “glamping.” I have my own thoughts on this subject, and I’ll share that later.
But first, let’s talk about the two methods I mentioned for managing your personal human byproducts when you’re enjoying the great outdoors and find out if one is better than the other.
Didn't Our Ancestors Poop in the Woods?
Humans have been relieving themselves in the wild since the dawn of time, so what’s the big deal about pooping and peeing au naturale when you’re in the backcountry?
The big deal is that human feces can spread nasty diseases like hepatitis, Giardia, salmonella, and other gastro-intestinal ailments. In the days before modern medicine and science, our ancestors didn’t have a good understanding of the disease-causing pathogens that can be found in poop or how they could contaminate water sources and create a public health hazard.
Now, we know. Which is why there is tons of guidance about how to properly poop and pee in the woods, desert, or wherever else you may be when nature calls and there’s not a toilet in sight.
The most common and widely accepted method for taking care of your poop when you’re off the grid is to bury it in what is commonly referred to as a cat-hole. Here is some basic guidance, based on the third of Leave No Trace’s seven principles:
- Carry a trowel or small shovel with you for digging your hole. NOTE: This should only be used to dig and should never come into contact with your poop. Doing so could contaminate your trowel and anything else it touches.
- Select a site for your cat-hole that is at least 200 feet from water sources, trails, and campsites.
- Ideally, the location should be where it gets a lot of sunlight (to aid in decomposition).
- Dig a hole at least 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches wide.
- You can also help the decomposition process by using a stick to break up your poop—just make sure to bury the stick too.
- When you’re done, cover the hole with dirt and nearby natural materials so that you don’t leave any trace.
- If camping in one place for more than a day or with a group of people, make sure you spread out your cat-holes.
- Don’t bury your toilet paper or hygiene wipes, even if you bought the fancy eco-friendly ones—bring extra baggies so you can pack it out.
While peeing in the backcountry is less complicated, there are still some general guidelines that you should follow to protect the environment and show some courtesy to your fellow humans:
- Pick a spot at least 200 feet from water sources and 50 feet from trails and campsites.
- It is okay to pee on rocks, gravel, or soil.
- It is not okay to pee on plants or foliage. Animals, particularly deer and goats, are attracted to the salt in your urine and may tear up the plants to get to it, damaging the environment.
- Don’t leave any toilet paper behind, pack it out.
The advantage of using cat-holes and “peeing in the woods” is that you don’t need to carry around a lot of equipment. Essentially, all you need is a trowel or small shovel, toilet paper or hygiene wipes (or some other creative way to clean your bum), a way to pack your toilet paper out, and a way to clean your hands.
But, even though peeing and pooping in the woods is something generations of campers have been doing, it really is not the best or even the preferred method for disposing of your waste when you’re off the grid. Both the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management recommend packing it out.
In fact, before you hit the trail, it’s a good idea to find out about local regulations for properly disposing of human waste—in some places, it’s mandatory that you always pack it out. But if you don’t have any way to pack out your poop, as a last resort you can bury it as long as you do so correctly.
BYOT (Bring Your Own Toilet)
When I was younger, I went on many camping trips with my family and I’ve spent time in the field with the Marines when I was a Navy Corpsman. So I’ve done my fair share of roughing it and have dug a few cat-holes in my day.
Me during my time as U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman. In the picture on the right, I'm on the right.
But with age comes wisdom and I’ve learned there is a better way—portable toilets. In my opinion, they provide the most comfort and convenience when you’re out in the wilderness and you gotta go.
And, when used correctly, portable toilets are also less impactful to the local environment than digging a hole in the ground and leaving your poop behind. If you truly want to adhere to the “pack it in, pack it out” and Leave No Trace philosophies, bringing your own toilet really is the best method because you aren’t leaving anything behind.
There are several different types of portable toilets, but here are the three main categories:
- Waterless / Folding Seat Toilets. These have a removable bag that typically attaches to the frame beneath the toilet seat. Within the bags, there is usually some type of absorbent material.
- Flushable / Self-Contained Toilets. Similar to a cassette toilet, these have a flushing system with water reservoir and waste tank. The waste tank is removable for ease of dumping.
- Composting Toilets. These use little or no water and mix solid waste with other materials, usually saw dust or peat moss, to naturally decompose your organic material (you still need to dump your urine).
I’ve used different types of folding seat and flushable portable toilets, but I have yet to try a composting toilet, which is the most expensive option. And since I haven’t actually tried this type of commode, other than letting you know it is an option, I won’t be going into any details about it.
My first experience with a foldable toilet was less than fantastic. It was a popular three-legged model and setup included unfolding the legs from underneath the seat. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t. Those legs snapped tightly into place when folded and I always had to fight to unsnap them.
Once unfolded, the legs always felt wobbly, and one leg kept collapsing whenever I tried to use it. Maybe it was operator error or maybe it was a defect in that particular toilet, but whatever the reason, I was not a fan.
But then…we got the InstaPrivy, and I completely changed my mind about folding toilets. The InstaPrivy has four legs that easily unfold and always feel sturdy and stable. It’s also lightweight and comes in a backpack-style bag that can also hold several of the waste bag kits, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer.
The removable waste bag comes with an absorbent pad (similar to what’s found in diapers), which is good for a few uses. Once you’re done, just remove the bag, fold it up, place it in the containment bag, remove any air, seal it shut, and place it in your trash. Since we keep a heavy duty trash bag on our spare tire, this works well for us.
This toilet is easy to set up, easy to use, easy to clean, and easy on the budget (these are the least expensive toilet option).
The only downside of the InstaPrivy is that there is no seat cover, unlike other brands of folding toilets. Which means, if you are planning on using one bag for a few uses, you need to find a way to cover it, which isn’t always easy when you’re overlanding.
The other type of toilet that I use is the flushable, self-contained toilet, and my husband and I keep one in our Patriot Campers off-road trailer. From the moment I first used one, after the disaster of the first foldable toilet, I knew that I could brave any overland adventure with this portable toilet at my side.
Seriously though, this toilet was a game-changer for me. It made me significantly more willing to hit the trial with my husband for parts unknown. Keeping things flowing “down there” and maintaining personal hygiene is important—for comfort and health.
These are heavier than the folding toilet and more expensive, but they are still easy to use and maintain. These types of toilets are self-contained systems that include a water reservoir and a waste tank (usually between 2. 5 and 5 gallons).
To use this toilet, I very carefully remove it from our trailer (don’t forget, there’s water in it…other things too if you’re on a multi-day trip) and place it on level ground.
On our particular model, after you do your business, you simply pull out the lever on the front, which opens the waste tank, and pull up another lever in the back to flush with water. Once the bowl is empty and rinsed, just push the lever to the waste tank back in and close the lid. That’s it.
You will want to keep toilet paper use to a minimum when using this type of toilet. Some people recommend putting all your toilet paper into the trash. Personally, I think that’s kind of gross if you’ve gone poop, so I flush it. If it’s just pee, I do throw the toilet paper into a trash bag reserved just for this. Using hygiene wipes can also help keep toilet paper use to a minimum, but make sure to throw those into the trash, not the portable toilet.
Our flushable toilet, which has a 4-gallon waste tank, is usually good for about two days for two people. At that point, it does need to be emptied, which you can do at either a dump station or a pit toilet. Just make sure you have disposable gloves and a way to clean your hands really well when you’re done.
The other item you might want to consider adding to complete your bathroom ensemble is a privacy tent. Not only does it give you some solitude when nature calls and you’re ready to use your portable toilet, it also reduces your risk of having mosquitos or other irritating insects bite your nether regions. Speaking from experience, having a bug bite on your backend is no fun.
We also regularly overland in the desert where there aren’t a lot of trees and other foliage to provide cover, so a privacy tent is an essential piece of our gear. We’ve been using the NEMO Heliopolis for a few years now and it only takes about five minutes to set up or breakdown, something I can easily do on my own.
Our privacy tent is also relatively roomy—my husband is 6’ 2” and has no problems standing in it—and has several convenient features, including a floor to keep the dust and dirt down, a small light that attaches to the roof, several pockets for storage, and a built-in toilet paper holder.
In addition to toilet paper, I always keep a small trash bag, hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, and hygiene wipes in our privacy tent.
To Glamp or Not to Glamp
I know a lot of people consider taking a portable toilet to be “glamping” and not serious camping. But there is nothing glamorous about disposing of the waste, whether you’re packing it out in a bag or dumping a tank.
If taking an extra few minutes to set up a tent and a toilet makes me a glamper, then I’ll proudly claim the title. I’m all about embracing innovation if it adds to the enjoyment of the adventure.
Leaving It Better Than You Found It
Getting off the beaten path for an overland adventure is an opportunity to leave behind the stresses and anxiety of modern life. It’s a chance to spend quality time with family and friends while being surrounded by the untouched beauty of nature.
But getting away from it all doesn’t mean you have to leave behind all the creature comforts and live like a neanderthal when you’re on the trail. Just like most people use a lighter instead of rubbing two sticks together to start a campfire, bringing a portable toilet when you head for the backcountry will add comfort and convenience to your journey. And, as overlanders traveling in vehicles, it’s not hard at all to bring one along.
But more than that, bringing your own commode will ensure that you tread lightly in the beautiful places you visit and do your part to leave it better than you found it. After all, don’t we want to do everything we can to preserve the pristine beauty of the wilderness we love so much for future adventures as well as future generations? I know I do.