We’ve all been there. Inevitably, as soon as you’re too far away from a rest area, port-o-potty, or public restroom—provided they’re even open in the first place—you have to go. And when you gotta go, you gotta go.
It’s a topic most people hate to talk about, but as that iconic children’s book taught us, “everyone poops.” So what should you do when you have to, but you are in an area without a toilet? I spoke with the experts from Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics about how to do your business responsibly, whether you’re hiking in the woods, mountain biking, or hanging out at your local beach, playground, or park.
Know the regulations before you “go”
Certain wild spaces require you to pack out all human waste, particularly along river corridors and in fragile ecosystems like deserts or alpine wildernesses. That means carrying it home, doggy bag style—but we’ll talk more about the procedure below. “Packing out your waste is a whole new level for people,” says Faith Overall, education and outreach coordinator for Leave No Trace. “But the reason is because the soil is too fragile for that stuff to decompose.”
Following regulations isn’t just to protect the environment; it protects other people, too. “Human waste has over 100 different protozoa, viruses and bacteria, so it can be a massive vector for the spread of disease,” says Ben Lawhon, director of education at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. “But it’s also just gross, right? No one else wants to see that.”
If you’re not sure, look up regulations before you visit—and certainly before you leave anything behind.
Laws vary in less-wild spaces. Public urination is illegal in most of the United States—and depending on the state, by the side of the highway or in view of the playground might count—so you want to make sure you know you won’t be trespassing or otherwise committing a crime. (Always a good thing, right?)
Always be prepared
Pooping in nature isn’t as easy as perfecting your squat. You’ll need supplies, too.
At a minimum, you’ll want to have a small trowel and hand sanitizer. For toilet paper, stay away from using leaves (even if you’re pretty sure they’re not poison ivy) in favor of a store-bought biodegradable option.
You could spring for a portable toilet from a brand like ECO-Safe if you want to get extra about it; they run between $200 and $500. But there’s not much you really need for a run-of-the-mill hike or outdoor trip—as long as you’re not in a pack-in, pack-out zone.
While cleaning up after peeing in the woods is fairly straightforward for men, for women it can require a little more thought. A common piece of thorough-hiker gear is what’s known as a pee rag, usually a piece of bandana (or a fancy antimicrobial cloth like this one) tied on the outside of your pack or in its own bag that offers a reusable wiping option that you can throw in the wash when you get home.
Other popular options for women are standing female urination devices (FUDs) like the PeePocket, LadyP, and GoGirl. Or, you can make your own:
These glorified funnels will help if you’d rather not be caught with your pants around your ankles, or just have trouble getting your squat on. Just make sure you practice before you go—they can take some getting used to. (Trust me on this one!)
Walk 200 feet away
Wherever you are, take a walk before you begin. 200 feet—or about 70 big steps—is a good start when going to the bathroom outside. You want to be far enough away from any people, homes, roadways, picnic setups, and, most importantly, water sources, so as to avoid contamination. (And also to keep from mooning everyone around you.)
Of course, you won’t always be able to get that far from water, roadways, or other public spaces, so you’ll need to be smart about it. “It’s not always possible, so we just encourage people to do the best they can,” says Lawhon. “You want to think about the biophysical impacts in the landscape, but then the social component, too.”
Find the right spot
The best spot is one that isn’t used often by other people. “When we look at the scientific literature, urine is relatively harmless to the environment, unless it’s in high concentrations,” says Lawhon. “If you’re on a popular hike, and there’s an overlook at the end of the trail, everybody goes behind the first tree they can find.”
Look for rocky areas or patches of bare soil, rather than disturbing existing plants or grassy areas. If you’re going #2, dig what’s called a cathole—about four to six inches deep—and when you’re finished, bury the waste using a nearby stick. Your trowel should only be for digging the hole itself, so there’s no cross-contamination when you use it in the future. You can bury toilet paper (especially the biodegradable kind), but ideally, for the least environmental impact, you should bring a bag to pack out any toilet paper you use.
Dispose of your waste properly
If you need to pack out, do it properly. “You can’t just doggie bag it and throw it in the trash,” says Overall. It’s illegal to throw human waste into a landfill in some circumstances, but even if “household waste” is exempt from those laws, it’s still unsanitary.
EPA-approved W.A.G. bags—standing for waste alleviation and gelling, made by brands like Cleanwaste—contain a waste-treatment powder inside that breaks down the poo and makes it safe to throw away. If you use one of these, you can freely throw it away in the trash.
For most people, doing your business in the woods is decidedly outside your comfort zone. Even if you’re not ready for a W.A.G. bag situation (or even a camp latrine), being more aware of your surroundings and more knowledgable of how you’re impacting your environment is a great start. “The one thing I would say when thinking about disposing of human waste in the outdoors, is there’s a spectrum,” says Lawhon. “Doing something to minimize the impact of the human race is better than doing nothing at all.”
This post has been updated to clarify the laws surrounding hazardous waste disposal.