The Trail Is Not Your Toilet: Bathroom Hygiene When You’re Out on the Trail

Whether you’re experiencing a menstrual cycle or need to go number one or two, here are the current sustainability guidelines and etiquette for ‘business’ on the trail.

Photo: Getty Images

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As outdoor spaces become exceedingly popular, private bathroom routines become a public issue. While you might feel alone and far out there, trail runners play a vital part in the big picture. 

Beyond foul odors and unsightliness, human waste and bathroom trash piling up in the backcountry presents serious issues, including water and soil contamination, influencing wildlife behavior, and vegetation impacts. Poor hygienic practices can also lead to severe illness or infection. 

“Tissues for going to the bathroom have gone up in prevalence, which I’ve seen behind rocks or 10 feet off the trail in the Italian Dolomites, Patagonia, and Iceland—the world’s most beautiful places,” says Run Wild Retreats founder Elinor Fish, who has running in international destinations for more than 20 years and leads retreats in 10 countries.  “Trail running and hiking is becoming more popular. Not everyone knowing how to do ‘it’ responsibly leads to impact.”  

To point, Colorado is pouring resources into solving this giant poop problem with the 2023 “Doo” Colorado Right Campaign, providing education and 3,500 complimentary outdoor PACT Lite Bathroom Kits—a new easily packable 120-gram travel case with potty supplies and mycelium tablets to help poo decompose—via visitor centers and trail organizations. Mycelium is the root system of fungi and decomposes organic material in soil, breaking down feces ten times faster and adding nutrients through the conversion. Whether you’re exploring California’s John Muir Trail, the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests in Wyoming, or the Dolly Sods in West Virginia, the burden of poop is widely publicized—and visible. We can help change that predicament. 

RELATED: What Your Poop Might be Telling You

Get Ahead of Bowel Movements

As trail runners, the first step for going to the bathroom outdoors is getting ahead of the curve. “Do a routine to go to the bathroom before your run—like drinking coffee, eating breakfast, or stretching. Before you go outside, note if the bathrooms are at the trailhead, nearby trailheads, or on the way,” says Faith Overall, Community Engagement Manager of Leave No Trace (LNT).

Run Wild Retreats, an LNT corporate partner, asks participants to use restroom facilities versus going outdoors, a guideline facilitated with a little creative route-planning foresight. Bathrooms are often outlined at the start and end, as well as throughout the day at public mountain huts, such as Italy’s rifugios, with fee-based toilets. 

“The cleanest way to poop in the woods is to not poop in the woods. If you can prepare and take care of business before you get on trail, it’s easier all the way around,” agrees Forrest Boughner, founder of Montana-based Alpine Running Guides, which offers guided trail running trips across the West. 

So, About #2

But…what if you need to defecate on the run?

“Inevitably, people have to poop in the woods,” adds Boughner. On each trip, Alpine Running Guides carries a single ziplock baggie for the group with a 2-ounce hand sanitizer bottle and a folded row of toilet paper—two full wraps around a hand per person—plus two spare opaque bags: one for used TP and the other for used menstrual products. 

“Walk 200 feet—a happy 70 big steps—away from water, trails, and camp, which helps you to not contaminate water sources or be stumbled upon by other visitors,” says Overall.

Find a tree or bush to crouch behind. Dig a 6- to 8-inch cathole in the ground, do the deed, and cover the feces with the soil that was removed. “If you’re in a desert environment, dig a cathole that’s 4- to 6-inches deep, because the soil composition isn’t as rich for decomposing human waste. It’s helpful for the poop to be closer to the sun,” says Overall. 

RELATED: Once And For All: Here’s How You Should Poop In The Woods

Rather than carrying and digging a hole with a latrine trowel, “we use knife-shaped rocks, stiff sticks, hiking and running poles, the latter of which easily breaks through layers of dirt. When I walk off trail, I’m looking for supplies to dig a hole,” explains Boughner. 

You can also opt out of traditional TP. “Depending on what terrain you’re in, you can use leaves or appropriately shaped rocks and sticks to wipe, then drop it all in the hole,” says Boughner. Alternatively, he says “put the used toilet paper in the opaque bag,” which is better long term than burying the TP, even if a land management agency doesn’t require packing out used tissue. Lastly, “hit the hand sanitizer and keep running,” says Boughner.

RELATED: The Science of Hydration

Taking a Pee Break

To go number one, likewise, walk 200 feet off the trail, away from water sources, and discretely squat or stand. A cathole isn’t required. An alternative to packing out TP is an antimicrobial, reusable pee rag like the Kula Cloth. “In alpine areas or sensitive vegetation, we recommend folks pee on rocks or durable ground. We don’t want wildlife digging up plants: some get nutrients from licking human pee,” says Overall. Squat lower to avoid splash back.

Grab a spritz or dollop of hand sanitizer after you pee, too. Keep a tiny travel container in the front pocket of your running pack or belt, or apparel waistband, next to your SPF chapstick.   

“For anything bathroom-related, have hand sanitizer handy, especially in a group setting where you could be helping someone adjust their pack or reach into the group food. It doesn’t take much bacteria exposure for people to get sick,” says Boughner.

For runners experiencing a menstrual cycle, start the run with a freshly changed tampon, pad, liner, or empty menstrual cup, advises trail running guide Sarah Boughner of Alpine Running Guides. If you need to replace a menstrual hygiene product on the trail, grab the aforementioned bathroom baggie and head 200 feet off trail. Sanitize your hands before and after handling menstrual hygiene products.

“The big thing is to be mindful of how clean and sanitary you’re being. You don’t want to mess with your menstrual cup if your hands are really dirty,” says Overall.

Put used artificial waste in an opaque bag, and pack out wrappers from new products. To empty a menstrual cup, dig a cathole six to eight inches deep and bury the fluid like you would feces. Afterward, try to rinse your hands in water, if possible, before sanitizing that second time.  

Here’s How To Go To The Bathroom Outside

Finding a toilet spot 200 feet off trail isn’t always straightforward, especially if the surrounding ecosystem is sensitive or if you’re on a narrow, steep route with exposure. Traffic patterns also create spur trails and the impact accumulates. 

Be careful to avoid alpine tundra in the mountains and living biological soil crust, also called cryptobiotic soil crusts, in the desert. Biological soil is a sponge-like and knobby black-hued crust that takes several decades or more to recover, reports the National Park Service

“To find privacy off-trail, walk on durable surfaces like flat, slabby rocks or up a dry wash, so you’re not trampling delicate flora,” says Fish. 

In limiting or technical terrain, other restroom etiquette could mean looking the other way for your run buddy. Pee downslope from the trail, so a pool doesn’t collect on the singletrack, notes Sarah Boughner. If you’re in a group and on a route with minimal vegetation, position someone on either end of the trail to intersect incoming traffic while the runner relieves themself.  

RELATED: Running Etiquette Is Simple: Let’s Be Kind

The caveat to outdoor bathroom guidelines is that, if you visit a location like, for example, Lake Powell’s shoreline area in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, that requires a W.A.G. bag (waste alleviation and gelling)—which is for poo and soiled TP—it can also be utilized for emptying a menstrual cup. 

Find waste requirements on the land management website where you plan to travel or give the ranger station a call. “Ask, ‘Do you have any regulations around how I need to dispose of human poop?’ which is helpful to distinguish from human trash,” says Overall. 

She adds, “It might feel weird at first, but plan ahead as best you can to be successful. For Leave No Trace, it’s not about what you did right or wrong—it’s about doo-ing as much as you can to lessen your impact.”

[Products Sidebar]

PACT Outdoors PACT Lite Bathroom Kits

Kula Cloth

Reliance Double Doodie Toilet Waste Bags

Coghlan’s Toilet Tissue

Dr. Bronner’s Organic Hand Sanitizer 

GoGirl Adventure Pack

Trail Essentials Feminine Personal Disposal Bags 

Restop 2

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