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It happens on a hike: sometimes you just gotta go. And for kids, the need can be immediate, making trekking back to that bathroom in the parking lot in time impossible.
We talked to Julia Oleksiak, the Outreach Programs Coordinator with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, for her tips on how to help little ones do their thing in the woods.
“There is bacteria in our pee and poop that we don’t want to get into our water,” she says. “We wouldn’t want to ingest those things, and we don’t want wildlife to ingest them either.”
Oleksiak, who also works with the Girl Scouts Outdoors Program, says she likes to show groups of kids bear scat full of bearberry (berries from the kinnickinnick plant, a favorite delicacy of bears), and ask them what they think would grow from that pile of scat. (Answer: more kinnickinnick plants). “Then I ask them what they think would grow if we planted our poop and our pets’ poop,” she said. “It’s a good way to teach kids that our poop doesn’t belong in the wild.”
Here are Oleksiak’s tips for helping kids relieve themselves in the woods in a way that’s gentle on the environment, and on them.
1. Talk about it. “Girls tend to be more shy about the topic than boys,” says Oleksiak. “Talking about toileting in the outdoors ahead of time helps make it a comfortable topic.” She adds that it’s important to have conversations beforehand about how it’s not healthy to hold it. “And giving them the science behind why it’s important to properly dispose of waste in the wild can help get them past the ha-ha-ha aspect.”
2. Go before you go. Though it’s good to remind kids that it’s not healthy to hold it, it is also really important to teach them that it’s much better for the environment to go in a bathroom. Make sure all kids (and adults, for that matter) use the bathroom before starting a hike.
3. Have the proper tools. Prepare by having the right toileting tools—a trowel, toilet paper, a pack-it-out bag, and duct tape—in your pack. The Center recommends WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) bags, found online and in outdoors stores, but says that a bag wrapped in duct tape “eliminates some shame” for kids since the tape blocks out what’s inside the bag and cuts down on odor. Packing out poop is ideal, and imperative to the health of the environment in sensitive areas like deserts and alpine regions. (Read on to learn how to bury waste in other areas.) “Always pack out diapers and wipes,” says Oleksiak.
4. Follow the 200-foot rule. Leave No Trace suggests walking 200 feet from the trail and any water sources, like a river or lake, to pee or poop. For adults, that means about 75 steps. “For a shorter person,” says Oleksiak, “we say about 100 big steps.” Getting far enough away from rivers and lakes ensures bacteria doesn’t contaminate water sources, and moving away from trails is common courtesy.
5. Choose a good spot. To create the most pleasant outdoor toileting experience possible for your child, look for an area that’s not super buggy, has good footing, and, if you’re digging (see item 7), where the ground isn’t too hard. “It can be fun for kids, also,” says Oleksiak, “to choose a spot with a nice view.” When peeing, Oleksiak says that in sensitive environments, it’s best to urinate on rocks or in crevices.
6. Be catlike. For doing number 2, the Center says the best practice is to dig a cat hole that is 6 to 8 inches deep. If you don’t have a trowel with inch-marks on it, know that an adult hand, when in the “hang loose” position, measures roughly 6 to 8 inches from the end of the thumb to the end of the pinky. “And dig the hole wide for kids, since their aim isn’t always good,” advises Oleksiak. Unless it’s a dire situation, allow the child to dig the hole, and explain to them that when they’re done pooping, they’ll “act like a cat” and bury their poop.
7. (Maybe) make a “surface deposit,” if needed. Especially with kids, there will be times when the need to go is immediate. “In that circumstance,” says Oleksiak, “we say that a ‘surface deposit’ is acceptable.” But, she warns, it’s imperative to then move the deposit 100 steps off the trail to dig a proper hole and bury it.
8. Help them brace themselves. Some kids can simply squat, aim, and poop. Others will need help getting as comfortable as possible. Oleksiak recommends helping them hold onto the trunk of a tree to leverage themselves and allow for better aim. Hanging a bottom off the back of a log can work, too.
9. Make “poop soup.” The phrase “poop soup” conjures up giggles among kids, (and let’s be honest, adults) but taking a stick, stirring up what’s in the hole—including toilet paper—before burying it is the best way to start the decomposition process. “Everything that has touched the poop goes in the hole, including sticks, etc.” says Oleksiak. Then you bury all of it with dirt and replace any natural surroundings, like rocks, sticks or leaves. “Make the area look as natural as possible,” says Oleksiak.
Pooping and peeing is always going to be a funny topic for kids. But moving past the humor with and educating them on best practices while helping them comfortably relieve themselves helps everyone involved, including the environment.