Peeing: More Than A Feeling

Besides way too much airplay being afforded to the repetitive synthesized guitar riffs of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling,” few things peeve me more than spotting white puffs of toilet tissue scattered in the woods. From a distance, the delicate rain-drenched lacy remnants look like flowers. Except, they’re not.

While I’ll pluck up discarded wrappers and even cigarette butts, I draw the line at picking up another’s biohazard waste and the middle finger it intimates to the backcountry.

This practice appears to know no personal—or even international—boundaries. I’ve discovered toilet tissue stuffed into the hollow end of a log. Right. By. The. Campfire. I’ve seen it strewn along a trail encircling Dove Lake Loop Track, a temperate rainforest located within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area in Australia. I’ve had to navigate obstacle courses comprised of puffs dispersed behind well-used campsites in Quetico Provincial Park and lean-tos along the Northville-Lake Placid trail in upstate New York.

Under no circumstance should toilet paper ever be left unburied. (An even better practice is to pack it out.) First of all, duh, it is clearly leaving a trace. There is nothing more disturbing or disgusting than setting up camp in a beautiful spot only to find a minefield of toilet paper scattered in the woods or field behind it. Although, right now, somewhere in the world, another classic rock radio station sees fit to spin a 35-year old Boston song for the umpteenth time—and there isn’t a darn thing anyone can do about that

Second: While you might think toilet paper will simply dissolve and disappear during the course of a sizable rainstorm—you know, like it does when you try to use it to wipe toothpaste from a wet bathroom sink—there are a number of variables that affect the rate of decomposition. Mostly it does not disappear fast enough. Biodegradable does not mean paper quickly melts away into the soil.

Like trash left behind within campfire rings, ignorant or oblivious behavior serves only to attract uninformed others to act the same. Those puffs can multiply like Tribbles, which, as we know, are native to the planet Iota Geminorum IV and therefore should be considered an invasive species.

With ever increasing pressure placed upon southern Appalachian Trail states, rogue toilet paper becomes not only an eyesore, but also a potential health issue.

For the geeks in the group, there is a compelling backyard science study posted on HikeThru. The author conducted tests comparing decomposition rates based on weather conditions, how paper is buried (or not) and different brands of toilet tissue.

Toilet Paper Decomposition Graph

Copyright 2009

Paper left on the surface and exposed to the elements showed the least decomposition during periods of low precipitation. It was only when rain fell during this study, between 1/17 and 1/22,  did rapid decomposition begin. Not surprisingly, burying toilet paper in a cathole is the most effective measure (within the wetter environs of the Appalachian Trail), if you aren’t packing it out.

Unfortunately, the burden of this behavior falls largely on the lasses. How many women are willing to take the time to dig a hole just to pee? Those left-behind puffs generally are not covering a pile of moldering poo, which in itself qualifies as another equally and hugely unacceptable practice.

File This Under TMI

Which then begs the question: Why are we even using paper for number one in the first place? In addition to producing burdensome trash, it means we are carrying a few extra ounces hiking it in. I won’t go as far to say toilet paper should never be packed, but let’s talk potty talk.

There are a number of options that women practice when it comes to peeing without the benefit of toilet paper. These include the drip/dry method, leaves or other organic materials (euphemistically referred to as “nature’s toilet paper”) and devices such as GoGirl or P-Style. You can read more details about these methods here.

And then there is the humble Pee Rag.

Simply put, a pee rag is a piece of cloth you use (and reuse and reuse, then wash) in lieu of toilet tissue.

Women hang them from the back of their packs where they ward off evil spirits and bad 80s rock bands. Okay, that last part was just wishful thinking. But their use should not be confused with anything else. When nature calls, grab it and go. An old bandana works well and the sun will dry it out between uses. Wash it with the rest of your laundry. It won’t be any worse than week-old undies—especially if you are employing the drip/dry method. Just sayin’.

If we can get used to the idea of wearing the same pair of panties (or none at all), for days on end, we can certainly get used to the idea of letting a freak flag fly from our packs. (Yup, sorry mom, I’m not changing my underwear daily.)

If however, you can’t stomach the idea of a pee rag, there are best practices you can do limit your environmental impact, if you absolutely must use toilet paper at all times.

  • ALWAYS dig a hole or PACK IT OUT
  • Use single ply (the rolls contain more paper, are less voluminous resulting in less giant-size puffballs per use and it is the fastest type of toilet paper to decompose)
  • Use as little as necessary to get the job done
  • Only carry one-third of a roll of TP (start collecting partially-used rolls at home and plan on including them in your resupply boxes)
  • Remove the core and flatten, which allows the roll to fit in a sandwiched-sized Ziplock® bag
  • Keep the bag or a smaller stash handy in your gaiters
  • Finally, you should also know that disposable (baby) wipes are made from thick non-woven material, and are not biodegradable as advertised. They must be carried out rather than buried, burned or left in privies.

Yes, pee rags aren’t for everyone. But then neither is Boston.

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Comments 4

  • MorningLori : Feb 1st

    Great post and lots of helpful information

  • Robert Sutherland : Feb 2nd


  • Jim Fetig : Feb 2nd

    One of my biggest gripes as a ridgerunner is “Charmin flowers, ” especially when they are within feet or inches of a water source. Tampons and applicators are found less often, but they too must be fished out of privies and off the trail along with wipes and all the rest.

    I supervise five ridgerunners in the mid-Atlantic region. I think we all agree that our biggest gripe is people who defecate near shelters, privies or right on the trail. We see it at least once per week everywhere.

    Any or all of this really enhances the outdoor experience of those who see it. Please practice Leave No Trace.

  • Matti : Feb 2nd

    Thank you! What a funny, well-written post. Love your arch tone and the tons of truly useful-to-noobs information here!


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