Sanitation in the great outdoors is a topic that many folks, understandably, don’t like to talk openly about but it is something people need to know how to approach. You're unlikely to find too many outhouses along your hiking route, that is for sure 🙂
Photo Credit: Greg Westfall
The Great Outdoors is by its very nature a very delicate ecological balance and so when enjoying it we, as humans, need to be as careful as possible to not damage it. This is important not only for fellow outdoor enthusiasts today but also to help ensure we leave it in as best a condition as possible for future generations to enjoy.
The fact of the matter is that any human movements in wilderness will always do some kind of damage to it. That is just an unfortunate fact. The goal then has to be to minimize that damage as much as humanly possible. This is where Leave No Trace and so on plays such an important role.
Sanitation is of course something that can have a significant impact on both users enjoyment of the trail and the outdoors as well as damaging the delicate ecological balance. Too often I have come across human excrement just off trails. If it’s in plain sight, it’s a problem not only from an aesthetic point of view but from an ecological one too.
Animals and so on will be attracted to faeces and so it can easily lead to problems in many ways. As already mentioned, it is impossible to not have an impact of some kind on the local environment when you have to go to the toilet and no-on denies the fact that nature will call and so must be dealt with. However, there are a few simple things you can do when dealing with sanitation in the great outdoors to try and minimize any impact you have on the wilderness you are hiking through.
When you gotta pee, you gotta pee 🙂 This is of course easier for men to deal with than women but the general rules in terms of sanitation of course apply to both genders. Firstly, you want to try and be as discreet as possible. So if you’re on a clearly marked trail, try and find a place where there are a lot of trees or bushes where you can go into out of the way to do what you need to do.
Be sure that are at least 50 meters away from any water source, for example a lake or stream. You don’t want to mix anything with a local water source that could be a source of drinking water for animals or even humans.
OK, this one is of course the trickier of the two when it comes to sanitation as there is much more involved. The first thing to do is again, of course, be discreet and find somewhere well out of sight, so well away from the trail or any thoroughfares.
Next up you want to be sure you again go at least 50 meters away from any water source. To move onto the next step you will need the help of a well known and loved camping implement, a trowel.
A trowel is of course typically made of steel and used as a gardening implement. While you can of course use a standard one of these if it works for you, it isn't ideal in terms of weight. A Camping and Backpacking Trowel is more designed for use in the Great Outdoors and so is made from tough plastic. While still tough enough to dig into the ground it is lighter in terms of weight and so easier to carry in a backpack than a steel one.
When you have found a suitable location satisfying the first requirements take the trowel and dig a sod up from the ground. Ideally you can cut out a square or rectangle, about 30 * 30 cms. Where possible, lift the sod or topsoil away first and set it to the side.
Next up, start digging down into the hole scooping out the soil underground. You want to get down at least 6 inches but this could be more depending on where you are. You want to be sure animals can’t smell anything as they will potentially dig it up so some animals in certain places may be more acute to smells than in others so a deeper whole will be needed.
When you’ve dug out your hole in the ground, do what you need to do. When finished, put the lower soil back in on top first and then replace the sod you removed at the very start back on top. If done well, it can look like the ground was hardly disturbed at all and so you’ve done your best to return the visible environment back to how it looked before you came along. It can also help to roll a rock on top of the site so if an animal does happen come along after smelling it, it just can't get at it.
Doing this in a deep hole and covering it up isn’t only for ascetic reasons. It is also to ensure the feaces is surrounded by soil. The various enzymes and what not will help break it down over time. Also, as already mentioned, in a deeper hole, it should keep animals from smelling it and so digging it up.
With regards to toilet paper you can use bio-degradable toilet paper but that isn’t always ideal as it’s not from the local environment. It can be a good idea to burn the toilet paper in the hole after use, before filling the soil back in, to help with the degrading process. Another option is that if you can use certain leaves or moss as toilet paper, that will be even better as it is local to the area and so nothing new for the local ecology to deal with.
With regards to cleaning your hands afterwards, carrying a little bottle of hand sanitizer and or using hygienic wipes should do the trick but ideally pack that out with you rather than dumping it after you’ve filled up the hole.
Sanitation for Women
When it comes to women’s sanitary and tampons towels, they should be packed out in a suitable bag. These are not suitable for burying as the scent of blood to an animal can be very enticing. With this in mind some planning in advance on how best to carry this out is required. Some airtight packaging is the most desirable to avoid attracting animals as you hike.
Foe cleaning hands, as already mentioned, I think a little bottle of hand sanitizer is great. Having some hygienic wipes are also a good option but remember to pack them out.
When it comes to washing yourself, clothes or cooking equipment, it should never be done directly into a water source. Instead use a pot or other vessel for washing by filling it full of water first. Then do your washing or whichever directly in the pot and when finished dispose of the dirty water away from the river or water source.
Again, bits of waste food or other chemicals can contaminate the water source so keep your washing away from it. When it comes to food, going down the boil or heat in a bag route definitely is a great option as in minimizes the need for cleaning afterwards and the water used isn't mixed with any food so it keeps it uncontaminated from external sources.
OK, we did it 🙂 We just covered the topic that no-one really wants to talk about! I can’t think of a better way to address this actually than in a blog post. Easy to read at leisure.
The above are general guidelines to follow and should be suitable in most locations but it does assume that there is woodland or ground with soil, vegetation, bushes and so on, on your hiking route. However, if you’re going into a very different and / or extreme environment, say very rocky terrain or the Arctic as an extreme example, then you need to educate yourself as to what the best way to handle sanitation in that local environment is.
If you’re planning to set out on a long hiking trek or backpacking trip, it is worth adding sanitation as a research topic for the area you will be hiking in and travelling through. Someone will have gone before you so there should be information and tips on the best sanitation practices for that particular area which only local folks and people who have hiked there before you will know.
There may also even be religious or spiritual things to consider, for example, if you pass through a patch of ground sacred to a specific tribe of people, going to the toilet may be a huge no-no in places. I haven’t come across that yet on my own travels but it wouldn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility. The general idea though is just to educate yourself in advance.
Well, I hope you found this post on sanitation in the Great Outdoors useful. Please share it round and leave a comment 🙂