Where do you go to use the bathroom? That’s one of the main questions vanlifers get asked whenever they explain that their vehicle is, in fact, their home.
Many people were surprised to find out that we actually fitted a toilet under the sofa bed in our camper van.
But when we go on long hikes however, the need for a bathroom visit grows every minute. And that’s not just on hikes. What about when our toilet is full and we cannot find a latrine?
So this got us thinking; What are the effects of open defecation and urination? How bad is it to pee and poop in a forest?
We probably won’t come up with the perfect solution to the bathroom issue. We first wanted to delve into the environmental and health consequences of open defecation and urination. And to get you thinking about it for a bit too.
Traveling without a bathroom
I bet that every single one of you reading this will have had an extreme urge to pee without a bathroom in sight at some point in their lives. There are many situations in which peeing in the open – and yes, pooping too – seems to be the best, if not only, solution.
We love to explore the nature around us. This has resulted in many long hikes in forests, day trips through nature reserves, and weeks of backpacking in several countries. But what all these adventures had in common was the lack of access to bathrooms.
Without possible effects on the environment even crossing our minds, Jordy has peed against numerous trees and bushes. During our three-week trip to Norway, we had to get used to doing everything outdoors. But we didn’t research the matter before our trip. That’s ironic, considering the deep love and admiration we have for this planet.
We’re sure that the travel fanatics among you have been in a similar situation before.
Both human poo and pee are high in nutrients. Urine is actually a high quality fertilizer, which is used in crop production within several countries around the world.
Peeing and pooping in a forest (but also in bushes along the highway, or a hedge in your parents’ backyard) are a form of fertilization. The addition of extra nutrients leads to the eutrophication of the area. This is currently one of the most important issues in nature preservation.
Eutrophication is found to be most damaging in aquatic environments, but can also cause extensive damage in terrestrial ecosystems.
The excess of nutrients can result in the explosive growth of phytoplankton. We all know of the little streams and lakes where you can no longer see the water. The whole surface is covered in algae and has turned green.
The algae block sunlight from penetrating the water column, which causes the aquatic plants below to die off. And without plants, there is no oxygen in the water, but also no food for herbivorous fish. No plant eating fish means no fish to eat for the larger fish. In short, everything dies.
In terrestrial ecosystems the result is not as disastrous as in aquatic ecosystems – well, at least not everything dies off that is. Eutrophication on land leads to major changes in especially nutrient-poor ecosystems. The addition of nutrients causes certain fast growing species to dominate and suppress the naturally occurring vegetation. You can think of heathlands for example. Large fields of heather are currently being overrun by purple moor-gras and birch due to nitrogen deposition.
Even if you take a wee in an industrial area, the nutrients can leach with the water into adjacent nature areas and eventually have similar effects.
Although urine is used as a fertilizer in crop production (and successfully so), both pee and poop can have negative effects on human and animal health if not properly composted.
When used as a fertilizer, one has to spread the urine directly onto the soil as to keep things safe.
But wherever you decide to pee or poop, you will create a breeding ground for bacteria if you do it outdoors. This will attract insects that carry the bacteria to other people or exposed food of fellow hikers. That ‘quick wee’ can actually make someone else sick!
If you poop relatively close to streams and lakes, it can leach into the groundwater over time. In many national parks, the groundwater is contaminated with giardia, an intestinal parasite that induces diarrhea.
Human poop takes about a year to degrade if not composted properly. So over time, the amount of poop found along our beloved hiking trails will build up. Not only does this increase the effects of eutrophication, it also really stinks, quite literally.
Many people therefore tend to bury their number two. Considering health, this is probably a good thing to do. Considering the decomposition of your poop, it often isn’t a good idea. In order for poop to decompose you need air. If you bury it, you easily compress the soil, which prevents air from penetrating it. As a result, it doesn’t compose as easily.
An offensive act
Aside from health hazards and negative effects on our surroundings, there are some ethical subjects to consider, as well.
In many states and countries, open urination is illegal. It’s not simply the act of urinating, but genital exposure is also an act of indecent exposure. Imagine peeing in a forest when suddenly a child comes walking by. That’s incredibly indecent.
Holding back the urge to ‘go’
If there is no bathroom available, you can try to hold back the urge for a little while longer. In general, occasionally holding back the urge to pee isn’t harmful. Keep in mind however, that doing so regularly could cause a urinary tract infection!
Holding back your poop isn’t healthy, either. Spending more time in your intestines, more and more water is taken up from your faeces. This causes the poop to harden and can eventually result in unnecessary constipation.
We know, this doesn’t make things easier!
Living in a van
We have been living in a camper van for a while now and are incredibly happy to have installed a toilet. We knew beforehand that we would spend days on end away from highways, cities, and other places with access to public bathrooms, so a toilet was a must for us. Public toilets can also be quite expensive (50 cents per visit, several times a day). And don’t forget about how incredibly unsanitary they tend to be!
Our toilet separates solids and liquids. This literally means that we pee in one bucket and poop in another. It has a passive carbon filter that keeps our home from smelling like shit.
During the first few weeks, we used a compostable bin liner to collect the solids. Currently, we are experimenting with coconut fiber and hope to compost our poop – that’s a story for a different time, though! We’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Where do you poop?
So, when you’re on the trails, where do you go number one and two? We’d love to know your thoughts, it’s quite a difficult topic!