You’re walking along a trail and all the sudden, you have to pee. There’s not an outhouse in sight. We’ve all been there. So what do you do?
The answer is simple. You pee in the woods. But there are a few things to consider when completing this necessary task.
Find a good spot
First, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics suggests walking at least 200 feet from water (such as streams or ponds), trails and campsites to find a spot to pee. That distance is equal to about 70 big steps. Creating this buffer prevents your urine from polluting water, coming into contact with other people and attracting wildlife to places such as campsites.
“It gives [urine] plenty of room to decompose and for the natural bacteria in the soil to take care of things,” said Tom O’Brien, Leave No Trace advocate for the state of Maine.
This is also a guideline for pooping in the woods.
Next, look for a place that is free of vegetation. This is ideal for a few reasons. First, it may reduce the amount of damage you do to the natural environment. Urine — especially large quantities of it — can kill plants. Have you ever noticed dead grass along the edges of a heavily-used campsite? What about an unpleasant odor?
Secondly, urine can attract wild animals, from butterflies to bears. That’s because a variety of animals look for sources of salt and other minerals that can be found in urine. As a result, animals will sometimes eat any plants you pee on. In addition, it could lead to wildlife-human conflicts at a place like a campground.
“We’re trying to not disturb any of the natural wilderness.” O’Brien said. “It’s just trying to minimize the damage to any species.”
Choosing a plant-free location to pee will also ensure that you don’t brush up against any harmful plants, such as poison ivy. And it can reduce your chances of coming into contact with disease-carrying deer ticks, which are more abundant in dense vegetation such as tall grass.
Tips for those who need to squat
For those who can’t simply pee while standing, the logistics of peeing in the woods can be a bit tricky, at least until you establish a method that works for you.
“If you’re ever played baseball or softball, the way a catcher goes down into a stance is a great way to [pee or poop in the woods] while keeping your bottom away from your shoes,” O’Brien said.
Yet for many, squatting low for several seconds can be challenging, and you certainly don’t want to topple over mid-pee. To help, O’Brien suggests finding a small tree trunk that you can hang onto. With one or two hands, grip the tree trunk in front of you. Then lean back and squat, as if you are sitting on a toilet, but a bit lower.
If trees are scarce, you could enlist the help of a friend or partner to give you support by holding your hands or under your armpits. If you have children, this method might be a good one for teaching them this important skill.
And one more option is to find a fallen tree that you can sit on with your rear end hanging off one side.
If you are worried that you might accidentally pee on your pants, take them off, suggested Hawk Metheny, Northeast regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. In fact, having your pants around your ankles can often prevent you from placing your feet far enough apart to comfortably squat.
“Or you can keep [your pants] around one leg,” Metheny said. “The goal is to be comfortable and prevent an accident.”
If you can’t or don’t want to squat to pee, then there are urination devices such as Go Girl on the market that are designed for females and function like funnels or chutes, allowing them to pee while standing.
Going to the bathroom is a part of daily life, and it doesn’t just disappear in the woods.
No toilet paper flowers, please
If using toilet paper in the wilderness, remember to dispose of it properly. Not only are clumps of used toilet paper a major eyesore, they’re unsanitary.
“One common mistake a lot of people make whether it’s peeing or pooping [in the woods] is leaving behind what I call toilet paper flowers,” O’Brien said. “In places where you can bury the toilet paper, you should be digging a hole and burying it. Otherwise you need to pack it out.”
O’Brien and other Leave No Trace instructors teach people to carry out their used toilet paper in a FOPO (Fear of Packing Out) bag, which is simply a ziplock bag that is covered in a layer of duct tape. The duct tape hides the bag’s contents from view while also making the bag more durable. The tape may also help prevent any bad odors from escaping.
If you decide to bury your toilet paper, you’ll need a trowel for digging the hole. Also, it’s best to use unscented toilet paper, which is less likely to be dug up by a wild animal, Metheny said.
You could also opt to wipe with natural materials, such as leaves or snow, especially if you’re simply going pee. Just be careful that you don’t use the leaves of any plants that could be harmful to your skin such as poison ivy and stinging nettle. If this method appeals to you, then prepare by learning how to identify harmless big-leafed plants in your area. Also, learn how to identify any potentially harmful plants so you can avoid them.
As is always the case with outdoor pursuits, planning and preparation is key. By reading this story, you’ve already embarked on that process. Hopefully next time you’re in the woods and have to go pee, you’ll have all the knowledge and supplies to do so responsibly and with ease.