We were pulled up riverside, chairs out, reading after breakfast—the rare no-rush camping morning when you’re out of phone service and the only thing you have to do is make it home before tomorrow. I had almost, temporarily, forgotten about the coronavirus. Then my boyfriend, T., turned to me. “Did you,” he asked, sheepishly, “happen to bring a blue bag?”
Suddenly, the kind of dried-out eastern-Washington terrain where you don’t want to dig a cathole, located an unknown number of miles from the nearest open public bathroom, felt like a trap. If I hadn’t found an emergency WAG bag stashed in the medical kit, we would have been in for some type-two fun, if you know what I mean.
This has been happening not infrequently. In the first, say, 50 days of the COVID-19 shutdown, T. and I were good at staying home. We planted a garden in pots, practiced wheelies around the block, and didn’t stray far. But I’m bad at sitting still. So as close-by public land slowly opened back up and our summer plans crumpled around us, we started trying to figure out how we could safely, socially distantly be outside. With a van to sleep in, and a very high tolerance for meals where the main ingredient is tortilla, I figured we would be fine car camping on open BLM land and avoiding other people and public amenities.
That lasted until right after coffee the first morning, when we realized just how much gas-station bathrooms and trailhead pit toilets were part of our dirtbag routine.
We are not alone. As the pandemic has limited other kinds of recreation, more people have turned to camping. Categorically, none of us are doing a great job about planning for bathroom breaks. Across the country, rangers have had to re-close public land because of poop. The state of Utah had to build a website outlining where and how to relieve yourself, because catholes and human feces are dotting the landscape. We are literally leaving our shit everywhere.
Like wearing a mask, appropriately dealing with your waste is not about your personal experience. It’s about the collective good of the rest of humanity and about not turning our planet into a public-health crisis.
We need to do better. Portable bathroom options, which range from simple bag setups for fast and light backpacking to fancy full-flush contraptions for long-term campground stays, can help. After two months of backcountry bathroom breaks, here are some of our favorites.
Best for Minimalist Camping
Cleanwaste Toilet in a Bag ($31 for 12)
I’m a minimalist, by which I mean I’m lazy and have low standards, so my most used backcountry bathroom is the Cleanwaste Toilet in a Bag, formerly known as a WAG bag. This is essentially an extra-strength garbage bag sprinkled with a proprietary mix of kitty litter for humans, which makes your waste solid, less stinky, and OK to deposit in a trash can. Upsides: It’s cheap and fits in a pack, so it’s great as an emergency backup. It also has no parts to clean afterward. Downsides: Using this takes some quad strength and aim. It also has to go back in your pack after. As with any bag you pack out, you can chuck the whole thing in the trash when you return to civilization; that said, because you’re be dealing with human waste, make sure to check local regulations around trashing it.
Best for Camping with Kids
Kalencom Potette Plus ($18)
Perhaps you, like me, are at the age where many of your adventure buddies are now parents of small children. Perhaps you have mentioned your camp-bathroom woes in conversation, and perhaps all of your friends, almost without fail, have said, “This might sound weird, but I have definitely used my kid’s potty-training toilet in an emergency.” We’re not saying that this is your everyday camp toilet. But we are saying that the Potette Plus, which comes with disposable bag liners, is officially rated to 50 pounds and has stood up to some parent-size emergencies. It’s compact, light, and probably already in the car if you have young kids.
Best for Basic Camping
Reliance Luggable Loo ($25)
Is this essentially a five-gallon bucket with a lid? Yes. Is it really all you need? Also yes. The Luggable Loo, which comes with optional Double Doodie Bags, wins no points for its cutesy name, but it does have some design details that put it ahead of your average Home Depot bucket. We like the snap-on seat and lid and the handle that slides over the top to lock everything in place, to minimize the potential for spillage and leakage during cleanup and transport.
Best for River Trips (Or Anywhere You Really Don’t Want a Spill)
NRS Eco-Safe Portable Toilet ($205)
Boaters, who have long hauled their waste out in spill-proof containers, are way ahead of the pandemic pack-it-out trend. The traditional “river groover” is an ammo can with an airtight top, which cuts ridges in your behind if you sit on it for too long—hence the name. That’s definitely an option, but the Eco-Safe Portable Toilet, equipped with a seat and a cleaning hose for use at the end of your trip, is an upgrade. Some crucial features include a gasket that seals tight when not in use and a pressure-relief valve that allows for venting when the box has been baking in the sun on the back of your boat all day (so you don’t wind up with a waste-bucket explosion). Both assure nothing is going to spill out, even in Class V whitewater.
Best for Privacy
Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Total System ($267)
You don’t want the whole national forest to be able to see you when you’re at your most human and vulnerable? Weird. Cleanwaste, the maker of our dirtbag-favorite Toilet in a Bag, also sells a kit that comes with a seat, tent-style shelter (which you can opt to buy separately for $150), and backpack to carry the whole operation. If you’re going to be posted up at the same campsite for several days and want something with walls, it’s a packable, low-frills option that weighs in at 18 pounds. The seat is rated to 500 pounds, so it’s bombproof, too.
Best for Bougie Camping
Dometic 972 Portable Toilet ($120)
Does the idea of flushing your waste make you feel better about taking a dump in public? Great! Mind games are important at this stage in a pandemic. The Dometic 972 has two chambers, one that holds eight liters of water to clear the bowl with the touch of a button and one for waste storage (the latter seals tight during transport and detaches for cleaning). It’s 12 pounds when it’s empty, and takes some forethought to load and set up, so it’s not the most mobile of bathrooms, but it feels the most like an indoor toilet. And since it’s one square foot, it’s compact enough to fit in a vehicle pretty easily.