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These Open-Air Toilets Are a Backpacker’s Dream

by Staff

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Tap, tap, tap, my foot drummed against the cool sand. Shifting anxiously from one leg to the other, I peeked at my watch. It was just after 6 a.m. and I really needed the loo. Because of the early hour, I’d expected to have the facilities to myself, but my husband had taken advantage of my coffee addiction and snuck off to the toilet while I was firing up my Jetboil. Now, with my situation becoming increasingly dire, I considered scurrying off to find another option.

Just as I was about to do so, I heard the whoosh of a flush and my husband emerged. With a victorious smirk, he circled the single stall to wash his hands in warm, running water at the sink, and I sped toward my prized potty. The plastic door swung shut and I let out a sigh of satisfaction as my cheeks hit the seat.

The backcountry accommodations in New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park boast flush toilets with running water. (Photo: Julia Renn)

The toilet with the starring role in this memory is not located at a beach resort, public park, or for that matter, any location accessible by car. This pristine privy lives smack in the middle of a dispersed campground, a three-day hike from a trailhead in New Zealand.

When I’d floated the idea of dressing up our Kiwi adventure with his first multi-night backpacking trip, my hotel-loving husband wrinkled his nose and said begrudgingly, “I don’t mind the camping part, but I’m not really into spending a week without a bathroom.” His reaction didn’t surprise me. When I’d moved to Colorado a decade prior and looked into the whole backpacking thing, I had taken a hard pass. I’d grown up camping and hiking, but the thought of traipsing into the woods with my IBS and no bathroom for days was terrifying.

Poo with a view? You’d never know a toilet was hiding back there. (Photo: Julia Renn)

As it turned out, I needn’t have stressed so much. Squatting over a cathole, I learned, is actually an optimal way to move stubborn bowels, and few things are more satisfying than a poo with a view. Perhaps the thing that surprised me most, though, is how often pooping in the woods can actually involve a toilet. From the trail up Mt. Whitney to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, hikers can find fabulous facilities boasting anything from a humble hole in the ground, to composting commodes smelling of sawdust, to actual flush toilets (like this wonder down under) with a hefty supply of two-ply. My favorites, though, are the ones that pop up in the woods out of nowhere, like a mirage in the desert.

Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail is home to some of the most magical forest toilets. (Photo: Jon Abbott)

There’s a certain cognitive dissonance that comes with spending so much time, money, and effort to shed the conveniences of civilization, only to delight upon encountering them on trail. For me, that is part of the beauty of backpacking: the way being outdoors, away from the structure and clutter of my life, imbues an appreciation—even fondness—for the simplest comforts.

This portable toilet seat at Colorado’s Gross Reservoir was a pleasant surprise. (Photo: Julia Renn )

Outside of their unique context, these toilets are nothing special. In fact, if you encountered them at a highway rest stop or a front country campground, you’d likely be appalled. Even the tidiest can boast a stench to rival that of the hikers who use them, their seats are often smeared with all manner of dirt, and their contents have been baking in the sun. When it comes to the open air variety, those who choose to use them can quickly find themselves on display when passing would-be poopers stumble upon them.

But no matter how many trips I have under my belt, my pulse always quickens at the sight of a magical forest toilet, and I just have to give it a go. Maybe it’s the respite their elevated seats provide my screaming quads, the chance to forgo packing out a WAG bag, or the exhilaration of trying to do the deed before being discovered. No matter the reason, I expect to continue to delight in their existence as long as I’m exploring the outdoors.

An open-air outhouse at Crabtree Meadow on the John Muir Trail. (Photo: Julia Renn )

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