What happens when nature calls on a camping trip? Well, you use the park-provided facilities—that is, of course, what they’re there for. When you’re backcountry camping or deep into the forest, you may be tempted to just go when and where nature calls. But just because you can pee anywhere doesn’t mean you should. Using a public restroom protects you, wildlife, and plants. However, when there are no other options, there are some dos and don’ts of how to go to the bathroom while you’re out enjoying the great outdoors.
When you’re going to the bathroom in the woods, it’s important to follow the leave no trace principle to care for the environment, local ecosystems, and future visitors. Disposing of human waste properly doesn’t just benefit the people that come after your trip, but it avoids potentially polluting water sources, killing plants, and spreading disease.
It’s best to go about 60 metres (or more) from any campsite, hiking trails, or waterways. Why? The salt in urine attracts animals like bears and other unwanted cottage creatures, according to Stephan Herrero’s book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. So, unless you want Yogi Bear visiting you in the wee hours of the morning, make sure you go as far away as possible from your campsite.
Choose your spot wisely
Once you’ve found your natural biffy, avoid peeing on the plants. While you may have heard the old wive’s tale about using human urine as a fertilizer, there’s another reason to avoid it: animals have a tendency to dig up plants that have urine on them, according to the National Park Service—and these plants and local ecosystems may have otherwise not been disturbed. According to the NPS, another option is to urinate on rocky surfaces to avoid animals kicking up the terrain.
After number one comes…
So what about going number two? If you don’t have a bag that you can use to dispose of human waste properly, the best practice is to bury your left behinds under dirt and stones, allowing it a chance to decompose, according to Leave No Trace. Also, consider using portable sanitary reusable toilet systems.
When it comes to burying your business, think like a feline and dig a cat hole, recommends Leave No Trace. This is one of the most common ways of properly disposing of human waste—it allows the waste to decompose, minimizing the risks of attracting animals. Dig a hole six to eight inches deep and four to six inches wide. Then cover it with dirt and other natural materials—preferably under a sunny spot, which helps it to break down quicker. If you must use this trick more than once, be sure to go to in different spots. Overuse can damage vegetation and local ecosystems.
What to do with toilet paper
Let’s not forget about toilet paper. While human waste can decompose, most toilet paper cannot, according to Leave No Trace. The perfumes and other materials make it difficult to degrade, so it is non-negotiable that if you bring it with you, you need to dispose of it properly. Alternatively, grab a roll of natural toilet paper, which will break up eventually.
Watch out for the water
What if there’s a lake nearby? Can you urinate in our fresh waters? Although you may find this the easiest solution, you should never pee in the lake. Human pee contains nitrogen, which can increase algae growth and can be toxic to fish, according to the Rich Earth Institute. When algae dies, bacteria decomposes and deoxygenates, killing fish and other aquatic ecosystems. Water treatment plants prevent these toxins when dumped back into our waterways, but you bypass this process when peeing straight into the source, especially when the water is stagnant.