Surviving summer: Getting privy to basic outdoor bathroom etiquette makes things better for everyone

Because Inland 360 wants you to have the best summer ever, we’re arming you with tips in Surviving Summer, a series of stories about staying alive while living large in the Inland Northwest.

For most of us, spending a few nights in the woods without indoor plumbing isn’t that complicated.

But if you’ve encountered smelly outhouses buzzing with flies or taken toilet-paper decorated trails, you know that not everyone knows how to “go” in the woods. Thanks to flush toilets, outdoor bathroom etiquette seems to have gone the way of cursive writing -- only the privileged few know how to do it. 

Whether you’re using an outhouse or going for a more primitive experience in the bushes, doing your business in the forest doesn’t have to be miserable for yourself or those who follow in your path. All it takes is basic know-how and a tiny bit of courtesy.

Take the outhouse: It’s more than just a toilet that doesn’t flush. The modern outhouse is an engineering marvel that diverts smells outside the small four walls that surround the toilet.

Fresh air is drawn into the bathroom through a vent at the base of the structure. The pressurized air is forced down the toilet into the vault, causing odors to exit through the screened vent pipe that leads out of the vault. The process is facilitated by a black pipe which heats in the sun and draws air up out of the vault. Thanks to this process, you’re more likely to catch a whiff of the magic at a nearby campsite than in the outhouse itself. 

But the success of the system depends on two crucial steps: Users must close the toilet seat lid and close the door when they’re done.

That means the well-intentioned toilet user who props the door open with a rock has just invited smells and flies into what would otherwise be a reasonably clean outdoor toilet. Don’t be that person; close the lid, close the door.

But sometime outdoor adventures take us where no outhouse has gone before. Fortunately, bathroom convenience in the great outdoors is unrivaled. You’re often surrounded by scenic options -- do you prefer a setting near a fallen log, or will you go with the more traditional bushes located off the trail? 

Whatever you choose, there’s no excuse to leave the place looking any different than when you arrived. Toilet paper takes one to three years to decompose and hardly makes the place more inviting in the meantime. And what it’s used to clean up after can be a health risk: poor bathroom etiquette in the woods just lead to disgust, it can also cause disease and attract unwanted wildlife, such as bears and wolves. 

How to “go” in the woods 

  • Find a spot off the trail. If you’re simply urinating, you don’t have to go too far, just enough to be away from spaces where people will be and where you can find privacy for your lower half. If your business is more involved than that, find a spot 200 feet away from trails, water sources and campsites and dig a hole six to eight inches deep.

  • Make sure there’s ordinary ground underneath you. Leaves and flat rocks have a handy way of diverting urine to unwanted places.

  • Face downhill. Even the most experienced can end up with wet shoes if they aim uphill. 

  • Make sure your clothes are out of the way. Strategies for this vary by age and gender; women may prefer to squat and keep pants up from around their ankles. 

  • Get down low. If you squat to do your business, minimize the distance to the ground -- avoid “the hover.”

  • Shake it off. Once you’ve taken care of No. 1, do a little shake to release lingering droplets if you are going without toilet paper. Both genders can use this strategy. Air dry for a bit if desired. 

  • If your business requires the use of toilet paper, pack it out. Should you find yourself without it, be cautious about what leaves you might apply to your more sensitive under region. Mullein, a fuzzy, large-leafed weed that grows on roadsides and other disturbed sites, is known as “pioneer toilet paper” and is a suitable substitute for most people. If you do this, know what plant you’re using; you wouldn’t want to confuse it with poison ivy. 


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