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A loo with a view

Many of you will have come across the ‘SheRaces’ campaign in the last couple of months. Founded by ultra runner Sophie Power, it aims to encourage race directors to consider how inclusive their races are, and to evaluate whether more could be done to ensure that women feel welcome on the start line of all events. It’s a great campaign that has already sparked all kinds of conversations across social media and in person. The focus of my blog today isn’t the SheRaces campaign directly, but if you’re interested (I hope you are!) you can read more about it in this Runners’ World article, and women can take the survey about your own experiences here. Sophie acknowledges that there are some broader societal issues around caring responsibilities and leisure time which the survey doesn’t address, but I still think it’s a great start that is already sparking change; for example the statement here from Impact Marathon.

The specific topic that has come up a lot in my chats in recent weeks has been ‘bathroom stuff’. Issues highlighted by SheRaces include not having enough loos available at race starts or on the course, lack of supplies of sanitary items for unexpected periods, and men using women’s loos because they’re available or have shorter queues. Sophie also makes the point that if you don’t have male anatomy you may feel less comfortable for example weeing behind a bush, simply because you’ve got to be a lot more physically exposed to be able to do so without getting pee all down your leg – not an ideal scenario at the start of a race. Everyone has different comfort and confidence levels for what they feel happy doing and what they don’t – and it isn’t anyone’s place to tell you what you ‘should’ feel able to do. There’s also a world of difference between being caught short because of a lack of portaloos at the start of a major city road race and needing a wee behind a rock on a long training run in the mountains.

While I’m not writing today to comment on these issues generally, I do have some expertise on the options available for doing your bathroom business when you’re running, hiking or generally enjoying the outdoors, and don’t have access to indoor loos. I’ve written this mainly with female bodies in mind, but some of it is relevant to chaps too.

To start with, you can just be blunt about it! Runners are notorious for talking about their bodily functions in a way that we’d find quite strange in most other social contexts. I think it’s something to do with the disinhibition that comes with getting hot, sweaty and full of endorphins together – most people have experienced the peculiarly rapid intimacy that develops with a running or hiking buddy. Nobody is going to be surprised or horrified if you matter-of-factly mention that you need to go for a bathroom break.

Peeing practicalities

For most people the preferred option for a wild wee is to find a suitably opaque bush, rock, tree or wall, and squat behind it. If none of these features are present, I’m always surprised by how quickly you can find yourself out of sight of people just by popping down a hill – the photo up above is one of my best-ever wild wee views! You need to make sure that you’re well away from any paths, and not near any ponds or streams that your wee might end up in. Even if you personally feel comfortable having a wee in sight of people, give thought to how other people might feel at the sight of you. I’m not particularly modest or body-conscious, but I still make sure that I’m well out of sight when having a wee, out of consideration to other people enjoying the hills.

Once you’ve chosen your spot, squatting down makes it easy to aim your flow between your feet so that you don’t get either wet shoes or wet pants – there’s a knack to this, but practice will help you find the position that works for you. My top tips are to angle your hips backwards a bit, and to position yourself on a hill so that the pee flows down and away from you. You’ll also want to keep your pants/shorts fairly high up (somewhere around your knees) to avoid weeing on them.

When it comes to wiping, I’m a fan of the ‘shake it off’ approach (yes, I do sing Taylor Swift to myself in my head as I have a little wiggle), so I tend not to carry any loo roll. If you do, you need to take the loo roll away with you (lots of people say ‘pack it out’, if you’ve seen that expression and wondered what it means). To do this, the easiest option is to carry two zip lock freezer bags, one inside the other. The first bag also contains your clean loo roll. Put the used loo roll inside the second bag, seal it, and place it in the first bag. When you get home, you can just throw away the inner bag with the waste in it. If you wanted to be a bit more eco-conscious, you could potentially carry something like a small plastic jar that could be washed and reused.

Pooing possibilities

Pooing in the outdoors is a bit more complex, but still perfectly achievable. You can use the same squat position as you do for a wee, although you might find you want to look for a tree or rock that can give you a bit of extra support for balance.

There is a bit of debate on this topic around what you should do with your actual poo. It used to be the case that the generally accepted procedure was to carry a small trowel with you. You’d use this to dig a hole around six inches deep, poo into the hole, and then cover it over with soil and a bit of loose vegetation. As with a wee, you need to dig the hole a good distance away from water and paths. These days, as certain places and routes have become increasingly popular, there is a problem with high levels of human waste – see for example this article about poo on the Llanberis path to Snowdon. This has led to a growing school of thought that you should pack out your poo, as well as any loo roll used.

I think that the best option is to aim not to need to poo on a training run or day-long hike. I pick start and end points that I know have public toilets (most of the ones in the Lakes cost between 30p and 50p per go, and almost all of them now accept contactless – although take 30p in coins if you’re going to Elterwater). If I do really need to go (perhaps on an overnight hiking trip) I will generally adopt the digging-a-hole approach as long as I’m in a remote area, which I’d prefer to be in any case if I’m pitching my tent for the night. You still need to pack out your loo roll, whatever you choose to do with your poo. I haven’t ever been caught short in a busy area with no public toilets, but if I was, I’d like to think I would carry away my poo. If you were planning to take that approach, you could take something like this - designed for dog poo, but surely would work just as well for people!

Period permutations

If there is now some debate over the rights and wrongs of an outdoor poo, period products are much more clear-cut. If you are using disposable period products (pads or tampons), you absolutely need to pack these out. I just add tampons to my zip lock bag kit – used tampons go in the second bag along with used loo roll. If I’m on my period, I make sure that this bag is stashed somewhere handy in my vest or rucksack, so I’m not hunting around for it when I need to stop. Changing a tampon tends to be easiest in the same position as you’re comfortable having a wee. If you use a cup or a disc on your period, you can either empty it into a (heavy duty!) zip lock bag and pack it out with you, or empty it into a hole, following the same principles as you would for a poo. You’d ideally use some clean water (from your flask, don’t dip it in a stream!) to rinse your cup before reinserting it.

A final option here would be to use period pants. There are several options now available designed specifically for sport. I’ve never tried these myself, but one friend has used them as back-up on days when she knows her pad won’t last the duration of the run.

Although none of the tips and tricks I’ve outlined here solve the fundamental problem alluded to at the start of a lack of female facilities at some races, I hope that I have at least reassured you that there is nothing you can do in a bathroom that you can’t do outdoors (quiet at the back, there!), with just a small amount of forward planning and practice. Most of all, I want to emphasise the normality of all of it – I hope that knowing that other people do these things helps to make 'loo anxiety' less of a barrier to enjoying time outdoors.

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