Dealing with toilet hygiene in the backcountry is complicated enough when the temperatures aren't below freezing. Add in high winds, thigh-deep snow and temperatures in the negative double digits, and it can be seriously discouraging for people who menstruate. I have often found myself outnumbered by men on winter outings and expeditions and have had to mostly troubleshoot my winter hygiene systems on my own.

Here are my top tips for backcountry nature stops for poos, pees and periods, for anyone from skiers on multi-day missions through the Arctic to ice climbers and snowshoers out for a weekend without easy access to a washroom.

winter adventures out in the outdoorsTaylor Maavara

Always Follow the Leave No Trace Principles

When there isn't an outhouse available, how you pee and poo depends on the environment. In super cold, windy Arctic environments like Akshayuk Pass on Baffin Island, the recommended winter practice is to poo right on the ground. It will freeze immediately, and the wind will blast it into tiny particles in a short period of time. Conversely, if you’re on a rural ice climbing outing in eastern Ontario near cottages, bring a WAG bag and pack everything out. I always pack out my toilet paper, regardless of the environment. Stuff it into a brown paper bag so no one has to look at poopy toilet paper, and then put everything into a big Ziploc bag. Label it so you don't accidentally open it unintentionally. Bring a small bottle of hand sanitizer and when in doubt, pack it out.


Be Deliberate and Take Your Time

If my tent is set up and it’s well below freezing, I dig out a trough in my vestibule and pee to stay out of the wind and be a few degrees warmer. I initially thought the idea of peeing in my vestibule was gross, but if it’s cold enough, the pee freezes immediately. If you’re going outside for a poo or period change, get some handwarmers out and wait around 15 minutes for them to warm up before leaving the shelter of your tent. Find a protected spot and if you need to, stomp down a flat area to squat where you won’t sink into the snow. You might need to put your gloves back on to warm up your hands a couple times if you’re pooing and changing menstrual supplies. That’s fine; your bum will be much more comfortable out in the cold air for longer than your hands, so take those few extra minutes to warm up your hands inside your gloves with the handwarmers.

outdoor adventure winter backcountryTaylor Maavara

Keep Menstrual Supplies Warm

In cold temperatures, the glue on pads will not stick. There are few things more discouraging than a pad blowing away in -30 C in the time it takes you to pull up your pants. It’s sometimes nice to bring a few baby wipes in a plastic bag to properly clean up. They will also freeze, so warm them up inside an inner layer before use as well. With tampons and Diva cups, you won’t have to deal with ineffective glue, but if your usual menstruation system involves using pads, winter backcountry trips aren’t the best place to troubleshoot new approaches, so just keep your pads warm and stick to what you know and are comfortable with. You could also consider using reusable pads, which are fabric and use a snap instead of glue to secure. When you’ve used one, fold it into a small square and pack it out to wash at home.


Wear a Panty Liner Even if You’re Not on Your Period

In the cold, you’ll want to pull up your pants quickly after a pee, so a panty liner can catch any drips you didn’t want to wait around for. On longer trips, I usually only bring a couple pairs of underwear, so I change the panty liner at the end of the day and this approach keeps my underwear feeling fresher for a few more days.

in the mountains outdoor adventureTaylor Maavara

Invest in Easy-to-Undo Gear

Choose a climbing harness where the leg loops undo so you don’t need to take the entire thing off, which is especially annoying if you’re wearing crampons or skis. There are also hard-shell pants that zip right to the waist on both sides so you can easily flap the bum down. Bib-style pants are a real pain because you’ll also have to take your coat off to get them down.


Urination Devices

I’m not a huge fan of pee funnels (urination devices that allow you to pee standing up) in cold environments where I’m trying to minimize the amount of time that I have my gloves off. The last thing I want to deal with is an overflowing funnel into all my warm layers early in a long expedition. I’m much more comfortable exposing my more cold-tolerant bum to the elements for a half-minute to pee than fumbling with my gloves off for usually more time and risking a much more serious wet layer situation and exceptionally cold fingers. That said, I know some folks who have their funnel system dialed down to a science, so if you’re interested in troubleshooting in the shower a lot in different layer combinations and experimenting to find the best funnel model for your flow and dimensions, more power to you.

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