Not long ago I returned from an amazing bikepacking trip in a remote region of Patagonia. I carried days of food on my bike, camped alone beneath gorgeous starry skies, and saw very few people.
There weren’t many public restrooms out there in the wilderness, and once I got used to an outdoor routine, I was fine with that.
It seemed things had gotten a little weird, though, when I finally spent a night in a hostel in town. When nature called, I actually felt annoyed that I needed to leave my room and walk all the way down the hall to pee in a real toilet. Just peeing behind a tree or wherever would have been so much easier.
Good news, I’m home now and house broken once again, much to my husband’s relief. But this experience inspired me to round up all the techniques I’ve ever used to pee outdoors when there’s no toilet around for miles or days. As a hiker, trail runner, bikepacker, occasional climber, and off-the-beaten-track traveler, I’ve had plenty of practice.
The main thing I want you to take away from this is that peeing outside as a woman is no big deal.
Ladies, we deserve to enjoy the outdoors with proper hydration and an empty bladder! No more holding it in, no more dehydrating ourselves intentionally.
The sooner we get comfortable taking care of our universal bodily functions without shame or disgust, the sooner we can fully enjoy getting wild in the great outdoors.
Before we talk about how to get clean, which is probably what you really want to know, let’s first talk about positioning.
This is how most of us first learned to pee in the woods. Pull your pants down, feet hip width apart or wider, squat all the way down (hips below knees) and do your thing. Can be challenging with tired legs, inflexible hips, or certain types of pants.
If you have trouble balancing in a deep squat, try to orient yourself with toes pointing slightly downhill; your hips and calves don’t need to be as flexible this way. This also helps the pee run downhill and away from your feet.
Tips for clean execution (these apply to many of the other methods below too):
- To minimize splashing your feet and legs, get lower and move your hips further back.
- For even less splash, dig a small hole or aim between rocks or logs.
- If it’s windy, figure out which way it’s blowing and make sure you’re not angled sideways to it (been there).
- Don’t dribble, commit. It’s more likely the stream will go straight (instead of dribbling places we don’t want it) if you let it out fast.
An improvement on the classic variation: find a rock or tree trunk to rest your back against, or a tree to hold on to in front of you. Takes some weight off tired legs or creaky knees, and doesn’t require as much flexibility. Less chance of falling over.
Ideal also for going #2, but that’s a whole different post for another time (or just grab yourself a copy of this classic and informative guidebook).
Another solution for those who can’t get comfy in a full squat: squat only halfway down, pushing your hips as far back as possible while leaning your torso forward.
Can be splashy if you don’t get low enough or don’t push your hips back far enough. All bets are off if it’s really windy.
No Squat / Trail Runner Style
The quick and dirty option, literally. We trail and ultra runners are not exactly known for our cleanliness and class when we’re on the run. Sometimes just not puking on our shoes (or anyone else’s) is a victory.
If you’re running or hiking in short(ish) stretchy running shorts, simply pull the crotch aside, spread your legs a little bit and go. If you’re running in a trail race it’s totally normal to do this just a few steps off the trail as others run by (it’s polite to face away from the trail).
Potential hazards: Pee running down your legs, dirty running shorts. Not recommended for multi-day trips.
Traveler Sarong Style
I learned this from the local ladies while traveling in West Africa. We used it for quick road-side pee breaks in crowded areas.
Hikers don’t usually carry the required big piece of fabric and don’t hike in such crowded places, so it’s not that useful for backpacking. But if you do some off-the-beaten-track travel you might thank me later.
Face away from the area with the most people. Lean forward a bit and drape a big piece of cloth over your butt and around your waist, like you’re wrapping a towel or sarong around your hips after a swim.
As you squat down with the cloth covering your behind, lower your pants and wrap the cloth closer around you. You should end up in a classic squat with the cloth covering all the critical bits.
Obviously doing this in the open works best in areas where it’s culturally acceptable and common (definitely not the US), because people will still know you are peeing.
Lady Fly Style
For a much more practical take on the sarong coverup idea, women-led company Zip Hers makes shorts and pants with a full-length front-to-back zip fly.
It makes a ton of sense, when you think about it. Men get to use a fly… Why not women? It’s an innovative idea, yet once I thought about it I found it quite intuitive and wondered why it’s not more common.
I had the opportunity to try a pair of Zip Hers shorts, and I can say they work as advertised. They’re comfortable, convenient, and well designed. You’ll still probably want to find a hidden spot to do your business, but they help reduce the anxiety of being spotted at the wrong moment. I think runners and climbers in particular would find them very convenient.
Zip Hers generously gifted a pair of shorts for testing, but I received no compensation, all opinions are my own, and honestly I would have mentioned them anyway if I had found them sooner.
Guy Style (Female Urination Device / Pee Funnel)
This is a flexible funnel that allows you to basically pee like a dude. I bought a GoGirl a few years ago and thought it was well designed, but I rarely feel a need for it on outdoor adventures and therefore it’s failed to find a regular place in my bag of tricks.
However, some women swear by them. See this pee funnel review for some crucial tips on how to use it (it’s definitely possible to get it wrong, with unfortunate results). I can imagine it being super useful if you do a lot of rock and alpine climbing trips.
The only time I use my GoGirl these days? Peeing into a bottle. Don’t judge. When you’re waiting out a dust storm in a yurt at Burning Man, a snowstorm in your tent on an alpine climb, or a night of stealth sleeping in your car in an urban area, you’ll understand.
Safety is the top priority on the wall, but a climbing harness does complicate things. Here is an excellent overview of peeing in the middle of a rock climb. It’s pretty much what you’re probably picturing. She also recommends a pee funnel as another option, and I would guess a Zip Hers fly is another great way to go.
Now that we’ve covered squat styles, let’s get down and dirty with the details of how to clean up.
Toilet Paper: Pack it out!!
Many newbie female backpackers use toilet paper for wiping after a pee. I did when I first started. But spend enough time outside and you might start to get tired of TP, especially since it’s awkward to carry around a big bag of used TP on multi-day trips.
If you do use TP – which is perfectly fine – I beg you, please PACK IT OUT. No one wants to see your used toilet paper. I don’t know you, but I’m guessing you don’t want to contribute to turning our planet’s most beautiful places into the equivalent of a dodgy public restroom.
Even buried toilet paper takes forever to break down and animals can dig it up. Just pack it out in a ziplock bag. Please? Thank you.
Air / Drip Dry Method
Just what it sounds like. Basically, you just shake around a bit and wait for the drips to stop.
If you don’t feel quite clean enough afterwards, supplement with one of the other methods below. If you do use this method I would make sure you’re cleaning thoroughly each night on a multi-day trip, either with baby wipes or water, and rinse your underwear each night.
And for the love of all that is clean and good, invest in some breathable stink-proof merino wool underwear.
While we’re on the subject of getting clean, if you’re in the mood for luxury these “shower wipes” are amazing. Yes they’re more expensive than regular baby wipes, and they’re marketed to guys, but they really get the job done. Start with your face and work down.
Natural Materials Method
I’ve used this method a lot while backpacking and trail running. The great outdoors is basically full of natural toilet paper. In order of effectiveness (least to most): smooth leaves, fuzzy leaves, rocks, wood, particularly dry and porous wood.
Potential hazards: poison oak, cacti (know your local flora!), splinters (just kidding, but be gentle).
Let’s be honest, some of these methods can leave things a bit less than pristine down there. Especially in an area without plentiful water sources at camp each night, it can be hard to keep clean – both ourselves and our underwear – despite our best efforts.
For short trips I used to bring a stack of those little pantyliners that you can use for light days on your period. I would wear one per day, remove it each night after cleaning up with water or a baby wipe, and pack the used ones out in a plastic bag. It worked well but I wouldn’t want to carry enough of them for a longer trip.
Pee Rag Method
This one is popular with long distance thru hikers. We’re often obsessively focused on keeping our backpacks light, and commonly hike for many days without seeing a trash can, so carrying loads of used toilet paper isn’t a good option.
Simply wipe with a bandanna and then attach it to the outside of your pack so it can dry.
Seem gross? Just remember, urine doesn’t usually contain dangerous germs like poop can (anyone else ever had giardia?). If you let the bandanna dry in the sun and wash it periodically on a long trip, there’s nothing to be squeamish about.
Squirt Water Bottle Method
I discovered this after putting the pieces together from two recent adventures: travel in Southeast Asia (where toilets have squirt hoses instead of toilet paper) and bike touring (where I carried a typical squirt-nozzle water bottle in my bicycle bottle cage).
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this… While squatting, squirt water onto yourself, then optionally follow up with any of the methods above if you want to feel drier.
Important: squirt from the front / above if you intend to also drink out of the water bottle! Experiment with the angle, you’ll get it eventually.
You can also make this work with a hydration pack hose, but personally I always bring one of these collapsible water bottles when backpacking. They make this method easier, and I also like them for brushing teeth and drinking out of in the tent at night (no risk of rolling over onto my hydration pack nozzle and drenching my sleeping bag).
Left Hand Method
If you have water with you but no squirt bottle, this works well if you can get used to it. It’s perfect for hikers, long distance cyclists who don’t use bottles, adventurous travelers, and basically a substantial portion of the world’s population.
While squatting, hold a water container in your right hand. Make a cup with your left hand and pour some water into it, then splash it against yourself.
It takes a bit of practice but works well once you get it. As with the pee rag, it’s not actually a major sanitation issue, but why not wash your hands or squirt on some hand sanitizer before eating.
In countries where this is normal, it’s even used for #2. I cannot say I’ve made my peace with that yet, but more power to those who have. Travel etiquette tip: this is also why it’s considered rude and gross to eat, shake hands, or basically touch anything with your left hand in those countries.
Skier / Snowboarder Method
Have you ever needed to sneak off into the trees mid-run? Then you know how this works. A handful of snow is all you need. Brrrrr…
Now that you know how to do the deed, what about where? Choosing the ideal spot requires a bit of experience and a good eye. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Ideally, leave the trail in a place that leads to a hidden area, perhaps behind some rocks or bushes, but doesn’t trample delicate vegetation or erode the trail.
Watch out for switchbacks and sharp turns! Many of us have learned this the hard way. You might think you’ve moved further from the trail only to move closer to a different part of it. The best places are often just past the corner of a switchback, where the trail turns back the other way.
Don’t pee within 200 feet of a lake or stream to avoid affecting water sources and the delicate life in them.
If forced to choose a spot on a relatively busy trail, head uphill instead of down. People have a tendency to notice what’s below the trail more than what’s above it.
In flat open areas like desert, sometimes cover just isn’t available. In these cases your privacy comes from distance. No one will notice you way over there, I promise.
If you do leave the trail, look behind you periodically to note landmarks and make very sure you can find your way back. It’s all too easy to get turned around. Especially if hiking alone, bring your pack with you. If you do get lost, you’ll be in a much better position to find yourself if you have food, water, and your navigation tools with you.
A Note On Modesty
No matter how hard you try to find a hidden spot, if you spend enough time in the outdoors, some day it will happen. The trail will be too busy and too exposed to guarantee privacy. Or, perhaps you’ve seen no one all day but the moment you pull your pants down, someone appears out of nowhere. Disastrous, right?
I was raised to value modesty, so for a long time going to the bathroom outside made me really tense. What if someone sees?!! But as I’ve gotten older and a bit more comfortable in my own skin, I care less.
Of course I make an effort to not be blatantly visible or very near the trail (seriously, watch out for switchbacks). But if I’m obviously trying to hide and someone sees me anyway, guess what, they don’t have to look! And if they do, well, that’s weird but I can deal. My body belongs to me, and nothing about it is changed by someone else’s eyes.
Adventuring with friends? It’s perfectly acceptable, no matter their gender, to ask them to hike ahead a bit and look away. You don’t need to waste valuable time and energy bushwhacking to the perfect spot half a mile away from your hiking party. Sometimes that’s not even possible or safe.
Just request a little privacy to “use the ladies’ room” and then find the best spot you can. Everyone will understand. When you gotta go, you gotta go.
While some of this might be TMI and not every method will appeal, I hope it’s at least convinced the ladies out there that you have plenty of options.
Don’t hold it, don’t intentionally dehydrate yourself, and don’t stress. If you’re out in nature when nature calls, just take care of business and get on with your adventure.
Since you seem to be an outdoorsy lady, you may also enjoy these other resources:
- How to lighten your pack for more comfortable backpacking: things to try leaving at home next time, how to minimize food and water weight, and where to find the best lightweight gear.
- Hiking in trail running shoes: why the majority of experienced thru hikers don’t hike in boots, and whether you should try it too.
- Backpacking clothes to lighten your load: how smart clothing choices can shave pounds off your backpack weight and keep you more comfortable outdoors.
- Using a menstrual cup: how to almost completely forget about your period on the trail or at home
- More hiking and backpacking resources for outdoor adventurers.
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