If you’re in the middle of an overland trip and need to go immediately, please skip ahead for helpful tips and much-needed relief. If, however, you’re instead in the preparation phase, please take your time and digest this entire article.
My wife and I have been traveling around North America in a van full time for more than two years. We’ve been asked a lot of questions during our travels. None are more common than questions about our bathroom habits.
Nearly everyone asks, “Where do you poop?”
It is important to have the essentials on an overland trip, like adequate food and water. It is equally important to know when, where, and how to eliminate waste — from traveling down the interstate to crawling along a backcountry trail.
In order to preempt further scatalogical inquiries from the public, I’ve created a condensed guide on how to do your business while traveling overland. This includes using public restrooms, bringing along a portable toilet, or digging a cathole.
PUBLIC RESTROOMS ARE EVERYWHERE
When we moved into our van and hit the road with no real bathroom plan, I was a little worried.
I had heard horror stories of buckets, bottles, and pans being used by fellow travelers. These fearsome images rattled around in my mind, keeping me awake at nights, before our trip. And, at the time, if I’d be forced to do my morning business in a five-gallon bucket, I wasn’t sure that #vanlife was for me.
I have been backpacking, paddling, and hunting in remote areas most of my life. I have a very healthy knowledge of Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, as it applies to doing my business in the woods. But this was different.
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Almost at the immediate outset of our trip, my wife and I learned that public restrooms are nearly everywhere. By using a few simple tips, we were able to find public restrooms in many places that we did not expect — and make using them much more bearable.
Even though Overland Expo events prioritize training for what to expect while traveling in your vehicle, the portable toilets at our events have likely ruined attendees’ expectations of what real-world public restrooms are actually like. A lot of times a public restroom kit in a small bag or satchel will make your experience in a public restroom or portable toilet much more pleasant. This seems over the top, but this recommendation is built on a wealth of experience going to the restroom in less-than-stellar public restrooms.
My public restroom go-pouch, a Patagonia Black Hole Cube, consists of the essentials that might not be present in every public restroom or vault toilet such as toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer, and a flashlight. Although most public restrooms are well stocked, bringing your own small roll of toilet paper and a little bottle of sanitizer gives you peace of mind that you won’t be the victim of TP thieving perma-campers or a government shutdown.
When using a vault-style toilet common in U.S. public lands, always remember to bring a small Ziploc baggie (freezer style preferably) to pack your wipes out with you as they do not break down the same as toilet paper and can cause clogs with the pump trucks that service the toilets. I use Sea to Summit wipes and have zero complaints about their performance.
Although most people don’t associate a flashlight with using public restrooms, having an easy-to-operate headlamp like the Princeton Tec Sync 200 in your bathroom bag is very useful when bathroom lights. A flashlight is a downright necessity out on public lands where you are in a vault toilet or out in the bush.
INCORPORATE A TOILET INTO YOUR VEHICLE BUILD
Overlanding vehicles are getting larger and with all of that extra capacity comes the option to include a cassette or composting toilet inside your vehicle, camper, or trailer.
A cassette toilet is a compact solution that includes a small holding tank with a seat on top and a valve that separates the tank from the bowl. When you are ready to dump the tank, simply detach the seat from the tank and take it into any public restroom or RV dump station and pour it out.
Oftentimes, travelers add a chemical pod to reduce odor and help breakdown waste. A composting toilet works similarly, but the holding area houses varying organic materials that help convert solid waste to compost that can be easily and legally disposed of. Urine is diverted into a separate holding tank on composting toilets.
Like anything involved with vehicle-based travel, there is no perfect solution. With an onboard toilet you face challenges associated with effective storage and disposal of waste. Plus you must endure the constant sloshing of tanks or, worse yet, composting medium inside your vehicle. However, the benefits are apparent after one use.
READ MORE: HOW MUCH WATER DO YOU NEED FOR OVERLANDING?
In our van build, we opted to include a cassette toilet in our layout. It was one of the best choices we made while designing the interior. There were a number of times per month that we were camped in an area that made doing our business outside difficult to say the least. While skiing in New Mexico in January, temperatures fell to a brisk zero degrees Fahrenheit (-17°C). Hiking out into the snow to take care of business was not a pleasant experience. Moments like this made us happy to have the toilet on board.
In our build, we opted for a Dometic cassette toilet that fit in our build. The seal between the tank and the bowl was always solid and we never experienced problems, even with a lot of off-road jostling. The capacity of our toilet gave us five to 10 days of storage before needing to find a dump station or toilet.
Another option for a permanent or semi-permanent placement in your vehicle is a composting toilet like the AirHead Composting Toilet. The AirHead works like a traditional toilet, but the solid waste is delivered to the agitator bowl where it is mixed with organic material and eventually turned into compost. Urine is diverted into a holding tank that needs dumping roughly once every four or five days. The composting toilet is a great choice if you are planning extended travel or living out of your vehicle.
DIG A CAT-HOLE OR, WHEN IN DOUBT, WAG IT OUT
On occasion, you will find yourself in a situation where there are no toilets available and your only solution is to poop in the woods. Doing your business in the woods should always follow Leave No Trace Principles to protect our wild spaces and public lands from being trashed or closed to recreation because of overuse.
Digging a cahthole is a simple process and all you really need is a small shovel or spade, toilet paper, and depending on the environment that you are in, a wag bag. Find a location that is 200 feet from a water source with soft ground, dig your hole four to eight inches, wipe, and fill your hole with the same dirt that you removed initially. Check with your local ranger station to determine if you should bury or pack out your toilet paper.
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A valuable tool that you will often find in most overland vehicles is a good shovel.And there isn’t a better designed shovel than the Delta Shovel from DMOS. Made in the USA of cold-rolled 14-gauge steel and sporting a lightweight aluminum shaft, the Delta Shovel is built to handle anything you throw at it, including cathole digging.
If you are looking for a more budget-friendly digging solution, a lightweight trowel like TheTentLab The Deuce might be a good choice for you. Made of T6 aluminium, The Deuce is strong and easily sharpened with a rock or other hard object around camp.
If you are in an environment that has hard ground or is otherwise sensitive, simply use a wag bag to pack out your waste and toilet paper. Wag bags can take many forms, from the classic zip-lock bag and other commercially available products to more severe DIY applications like PVC pipe canisters used by river rafters. Although the idea of hauling fecal matter around isn’t glamorous, keeping our natural spaces clean and healthy should be the highest priority when we travel into the backwoods.
The following graphic from Leave No Trace can help make poop decisions while adventuring:
We stick with the tried and true zip-lock bag when we travel, but they are not always the most discreet of solutions. Wag bags are widely available at most outdoors stores and can be ordered in bulk online so you always have one in your vehicle when nature calls. Leave No Trace, in conjunction with the National Forest Service, recommend Cleanwaste GO Anywhere waste bags. With a built-in “poo powder,” the GO Anywhere bags begin breaking down human waste and can hold up to 32 ounces of material.
If you aren’t sure if you are in a sensitive environment or not, err on the side of caution and haul your waste and toilet paper out with you. There is nothing worse than traveling into the woods and finding that someone else has left their waste and trash behind for you to enjoy.
Continue to do your part and if you want to get more involved with keeping our wild spaces clean and healthy, check out the many opportunities that organizations like Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly offer.
Header image credit: Leave No Trace
Written by Zach Elseman. You can follow Zach @okienomads