Any time you’re adventuring for more than a day, there’s a pretty high chance you’re gonna feel the call of nature – and I don’t mean the wind rustling through the treetops. Kate’s been there and done it all and she wants to share with you the right way to keep hygienic in the bush.
Hiking Hygiene Shouldn’t be Taboo
My family has a way of having the most inappropriate conversations whilst eating. Tonight’s dinner topic was ‘How to poo in the bush’.
‘You what now?!’, my brother asked, choking on a huge mouthful of food.
‘I don’t poo in the ACTUAL tube, I poo in a plastic bag and then put it IN the tube,’ I explained casually.
Hiking hygiene is an important issue to consider when out exploring, not just in terms of personal care and health but also to protect the environment. However, for some reason, the ‘Three Ps’; Pooping, Peeing, and Periods are an unspoken topic, almost taboo to talk about in public.
We’re here to change that stigma, and start the conversation about keeping yourself and our parks clean when exploring in the wild. We’ll try to keep the potty talk to a minimum but this is your official warning.
When hiking in the wild you may be lucky enough to have a couple of backcountry huts or designated campgrounds with a drop dunny around (aka a pit toilet) along the way; this is not always the case.
It’s important to always have an ‘emergency poo plan’ for when nature calls unexpectedly on the trail. Pooing in a pile of leaves may work for the animals, but is unsuitable for human poo for many reasons.
Firstly, it’s pretty disgusting stumbling upon a pile of human faeces when out hiking, believe me, I speak from experience. Secondly, we want to avoid contaminating water, and spreading human diseases further. So, there are two main options for pooing in the wild:
Dig a hole
This is the most common option, although not always allowed in sensitive areas like the alpine region of Australia and narrow river canyons. Cat holes (as they’re known in America) are the best way to maximise decomposition in a sanitary way by burying your poo in the ground.
Ensure you’re far away from any water source, trail or camp. ‘Leave No Trace’ suggests 60 metres, or 70 adult paces away from these areas to avoid contamination. With a camp trowel, dig a hole 15-20cm deep and wide enough to fit everything in – use your judgement and personal experience here. When finished, cover it back up with soil.
Remember! If you’re digging a cat hole in areas where it snows, dig past the snow layer through to the soil, to avoid dung bombs from popping up when the snow melts away in spring.
Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like; a tube for your poo. Although, you don’t necessarily have to poo directly into the tube. Whilst there are many different types of poo-tubes, usually they’re made from a PVC piping tube with a sealed lid at both ends, although I’ve seen the use of washed-out SPC jars, or a designated poo-tube stuff sack. No matter the device, ensure the poo-tube is clearly labelled, and a very dark colour.
If you ask any guide or poo-tube expert there’s a number of techniques to using a poo-tube, including laying a plastic bag on the ground, or for the daring, catching it in the bag as it comes out (too much information? I warned you).
Whatever the method, once finished place the toilet paper into the plastic bag, close it up and place in the lined poo-tube. I recommend using compostable doggy bags to reduce your impact further. Most people choose to store their poo-tube outside of their pack to reduce contamination and keep it on the outside of the tent overnight as well.
Thankfully, peeing in the wild is far less complicated. You don’t need to catch your pee in a tube unless you really want to. As long as you’re 60 metres away from the trail or small streams you’re free to pee wherever you want. I like to choose a scenic spot, and make the most of the experience of releasing your wee and worries at the same time.
The big issue with urinating is toilet paper. Unless you enjoy the ‘drip-dry’ method, toilet paper must be carried out, which is simple enough; just pop it in a zip lock bag.
Another option used by some thru-hikers is the pee-rag, which personally, I’ve never tried. It’s a small towel that you use to wipe after weeing as a substitute for toilet paper. It’s rinsed with water immediately after use, then hikers will usually hang it on the outside of their bag to dry as they walk, and give it a good wash at the next available laundry.
On a thru-hike, getting your period on the trail is pretty much inevitable. It affects you in more ways than just the bleeding.
For me, I was hungrier, less motivated, my legs felt like bricks, and of course, the backpack strap around my waist pressed in all the wrong places. But hey, we’re menstruating folk, and we do this almost every month no matter what life is throwing at us, so of course we power through it.
Don’t let your period hold you back from an overnight or multi day hike – there are plenty of methods to help manage the issue of menstrual bleeding on the trail.
I find tampons the least practical method on the trail. Disposing of tampons on the trail can be difficult, with most backcountry toilets not allowing sanitary item disposal. Burying them in a cat hole is also not recommended due to decomposing difficulties.
This leaves the only option to be carrying used tampons out in your poo-tube, which can add extra weight to your pack depending on the duration of your cycle.
This is my current go-to as they’re lightweight, can be reused, and are very easy to clean. Menstrual cups are like using a tampon, but without the hassle of waste to pack out.
Simply boil for the cup five minutes in your camp pot at the start and at the end of your period to ensure sterilisation.
During your period on the trail empty out the contents of the cup in either your cat hole, poo tube or toilet, clean with water, wipe out with toilet paper if needed and reinsert.
If you haven’t used one before I highly recommend practicing at home, and reading the menstrual cup instructions for insertion and removal tips.
Period-proof underwear is the newest period management kid on the block, and another great alternative to pads and tampons on the trail. Not only are period underwear super absorbent and comfortable, they’re usually sweat wicking and odour reducing as well. Similar to a menstrual cup, they require rinsing into a cat hole to dispose of the blood properly.
I cannot stress enough the importance of staying clean on the trail. When you see someone walking up to you and they start wrinkling up their nose, it’s a solid indication that you’re in need of a shower.
Keeping your body, clothing, and camp kitchen clean also reduces the risk of infection and illness, as a festering cut on the trail will be the last thing you want when you’re 300km from civilisation.
The simplest way of cleaning your body is swimming in a river or stream whenever it’s available, however it’s important to not introduce any type of soap or shampoo directly into freshwater.
If you do want to clean yourself with soap, boil up a little water in your camp pot and wash yourself down with a cloth and a little soap at least 60 metres away from any water source. I typically use an ‘Enjo’ wipe and castile soap as it has so many different uses; body soap, laundry soap, and dishwashing liquid.
Now it’s your turn to continue the conversation about hiking hygiene and the ‘Three Ps’. Start chatting about your own toileting techniques and swap tips on period control around the campfire. Every conversation you have about hygiene in the wild may help someone to have a better experience and aid in protecting our national parks.
Feature photo by @rubyclaireee