Brad has to do it. So does Angelina. Oh, and the Queen of course. Going
to the toilet is humanity's great leveller and a necessary frequent
reminder that we are all a lot lower than the angels.
The miracle of modern plumbing does allow us to keep some of the basics
at a certain distance. Unlike the 1.1 billion people forced to squat on
the ground because they have no access to any kind of toilets, let
alone flushing ones, the rest of us can magically whisk the evidence
away in a torrent of whitewater, Toilet Duck and pine air freshener, as
if it had never been.
This is one of the primary reasons the Great Outdoors presents such a sharp and valuable learning curve to many.
Pooshrines, portaloos and other exit strategies
hiking the Fish River Canyon, which boasts zero ablution facilities and
requires carrying your life necessities on your back for five days, I
met a young man with a toilet seat strapped to his person. He explained
it was the only way his group had been able to persuade some of the
“ladies” to come along, and gallantly offered my all-female hiking team
the use of it too.
We were indignant. I for one am a veteran of the art of the carefully
constructed “pooshrine”, something I'd had opportunity to perfect some years
ago in the Andes when stricken with a spectacular case of Gringo Gallop.
The shrine is a simple but substantial rock cairn, complete only when
all signs of the deed are neatly hidden. It marks the spot in an
unobtrusive yet unmistakeable manner and keeps everything in place, so
The other Ladies in my group seemed similarly conscientious,
disappearing at intervals with matches to incinerate their used toilet
There's nothing that detracts from the wilderness experience quite like
a piece of soiled tissue waving at you from the corner of an otherwise pristine vista. But aesthetics aside, human waste can pollute water
sources and pose health risks.
“Waste” here also includes litter, food waste and grey water (from
washing), but it's the sewage element that's considered most problematic
by both wilderness visitors and managers, such as those who
considered it serious enough to organise an international conference on
the issue called “Exit Strategies: Managing Human Waste in the
As it turns out, shrines and pyres have their merits, but they are not exactly best practice models.
First, a note on a lesser evil
urination out of doors is OK. Urine from a healthy person is pretty
sterile, and the risks it poses to health and the environment are minor.
You still don't want to expose others to it unnecessarily, though, so
choose a spot well off the main drag. Occasionally, urine atttacts
wildlife which can damage plants and dig up soil, so rather pick a rock
or gravel surface, and dilute the urine with a little water.
Faeces (let's just get over ourselves and use the word shall we?) pose
problems of a quite different order of magnitude. Unlike urine, faecal
matter contains harmful bacteria and pathogens, and these can remain
viable for a long, long time in the environment.
Pack it in, Pack it out
Movements like “Leave no Trace” (LNT) espouse exactly that –
what you pack / take in to the wilderness, whether toilet paper or food,
you also pack / take out – regardless of the different form it may have
acquired in the interim. If you are truly madly deeply Green, you will
move through nature as lightly as a phantom. No one should be able to
tell you were there.
Packing out your intimate solid waste is not a lunatic green fringe
idea; it's been familiar outdoor lore in several wilderness areas around
the world for a few years now. In some national parks overseas, hikers
and climbers are offered special “carry out” containers specially
designed for this purpose, including such innovations as poo pots, poo
tubes, clean mountain cans and WAG (waste alleviation and gelling) bags,
which contain urine-activated powder to deodorise waste.
Poo Pot sold at Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park, New Zealand
out is more crucial in some areas than others – deserts have very slow
rates of decomposition, and narrow river valleys are easily
contaminated, for example. In high alpine areas, climbers are being
discouraged from tossing their waste into crevasses or placing it in
“snow holes”, as this has made some of the more popular areas seriously
distasteful (especially in summer when the snow melts), and the polluted
snow has caused several gastrointestinal upsets.
If, like me, you still need time to get used
to the idea of packing it all out, then Leave No Trace lets you off the
hook somewhat with a second-best option wherever there's no designated
facilty on the horizon: the “cat hole”.
This is not a perfect solution. Burying faeces may in fact slow down
their decomposition; studies have found that in some areas, pathogens in
buried faeces can still be viable two years later!
Smearing faecal matter thinly over a rocky surface in strong sunlight
(a seriously considered and sometimes practised option in expert
circles) is often a more effective means of disinfecting it. This is
obviously Not Nice to perform, besides being highly anti-social unless
you're somewhere so remote there's no chance of other humans coming
across your experiment for months.
So the winner is the humble cat hole, which is pretty much as it
sounds, except on a larger scale for human needs. LNT recommends making
it 15-20cm deep and 10-15cm in diameter, so a small garden trowel is a
good implement to carry. Dig your cathole at least 60m (about 70 steps)
from water sources, paths and campsites, and it goes without saying that
it's best to choose a spot away from other cat holes. Several small cat
holes (the further apart the better) allow for faster decomposition
than one large pit latrine.
Sea to Summit's sturdy Pocket Trowel, designed for
digging cat holes in hard ground. (It was previously named the IPOOd!,
but Apple's lawyers failed to see any humour in this.)
Where possible, choose an elevated site in which water is unlikely to
pool when it rains. The faeces will percolate down through the soil, but
you want that process to be gradual so that maximum decomposition
occurs before a water source like a river is reached. Avoid areas of
likely heavy water flow, such as sandy washes, even in dry season.
Soil with high organic contact, which generally appears dark and loamy,
is better for decomposition than sandy soil. Ideally you also want
somewhere that the sun reaches, because heat and sunlight aids in
breaking down and disinfecting waste. In desert or semi-desert areas
like the Fish River or Richtersveld, the soil is low in organic content
and decomposer micro-organisms. In such areas, make your cat hole
shallower (10-15cm deep) to allow sun to penetrate.
You should also preferably convert the cat-hole into what the Backcountry Sanitation Manual
calls a “mini-composting pile” with the following recipe: “break up the
wastes with a stick, mixing them thoroughly with duff within the cat
hole before covering with a mound of leaves and duff.” Duff is
partly-decayed leaves and twigs, but failing that soil will have to do.
For the finishing touch, I think the Shrine can still play an important role. To my mind, this is one instance where you should
leave a trace: a nice, naturalistic, but nonetheless unmistakeable
cairn to show future cat-holers this is non-optimal digging area. In
fact I'd be all for the development of an international cat hole symbol
to mark such spots. It is uncanny how everyone tends to head for the
same “discreet” spot, only to find it festooned with bits of toilet
paper (or worse) from those who went before.
From the dustjacket of 'How to shit in the woods', the classic bestseller on the topic
Toilet paper and others
LNT would like us to pack out our used toilet paper of course,
or use “natural” toilet paper, by which they mean handfuls of leaves and
smooth stones and sticks and things. I'm not so sure about the wisdom
of this, unless perhaps you're a trained botanist. What if the handful
of leaves includes some blister bush? For example.
If you're not up to packing out the soiled paper (no, I'm not quite
there yet either), then at least use a plain brand – unbleached if
possible – and just a few squares. Burning it isn't a good idea if
there's any vegetation about, because you risk starting a wildfire.
I'm afraid tampons and sanitary towels really should be packed in a
plastic bag and packed out... Ladies. They don't decompose (or burn)
easily and animals may dig them up.
Temporary pit latrines
Cat holes are generally a better option than digging one large
hole for a communal latrine (perhaps adorned with a portable toilet
seat), but the latter may be appropriate if, for example, you have a
large group camping a few nights in one spot, or there are young
Follow similar guidelines for choosing a cat hole location when you establish your latrine. Add a handful or two of soil (and duff, if available) each time the latrine is used to speed up decomposition and reduce odour.
The best sanitation tip of all
know this one: wash your hands after going to the toilet and before
touching food. For the outdoors, especially where water is scarce, I'd
recommend a waterless hand sanitiser (e.g. Hand Sanz from Cape Union
Mart) for use post- cat hole / poo pot.
This may seem a bit gross
and burdensome at first, but it's yet another aspect of how we keep
producing waste of all kinds, and assuming the environment will
somehow handle the fall-out. And how we like to pretend we're somehow
separate from nature, to the extent that we even deny a connection with
our own bodily functions much of the time.
Making that species-saving
paradigm shift towards a more mindful way of moving through the world
may simply involve getting used to good new ideas and straightforwardly
translating them into action.
As Miki Stuebe of the US
National Parks Services Denver Service Center said pragmatically after
the "Exit Strategies" conference: "It’s a matter of changing what is
considered common practice, like the way disposing of one’s pet’s waste
in city parks has become accepted practice".
- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor
Backcountry Sanitation Manual, Green Mountain Club and ATC, online edition.
Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (2010) official website
Meyer, Kathleen. (2011) How to shit in the woods: an environmentally sound approach to a lost art.
UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Annual Report 2011