This is a delicate subject. Definitely. Basically off-limits. Which is strange given that virtually everyone uses toilet paper, multiple times, every day. Unless your home or office is connected to a septic system rather than a sewer system, you probably never give it a moment’s thought. But if you’re going to go camping or long-distance walking, it’s something you really ought to think about.
On a typical Camino day, there will be at least a few opportunities to relieve the bowels and the bladder. Businesses all along The Camino are well aware of this particular human need and they usually provide facilities. Ask for aseos (pronounced ah-say-o’s with the accent on “say”) or servicios (pronounced sair like hair-bith-ee-o’s with accent on “bith”). Many times you can stop in at a bar and use the bathroom without purchasing anything but be mindful that a constant stream of users amounts to significant expense in water, paper products, and general wear and tear. It’s really only fair to purchase something, if only a bottle of water, if you’re going to use the restroom.
Purchasing a bottle of water is, in fact, an excellent practice. Rather than carry a full day’s complement of water, carry a small amount. When you stop to relive yourself, buy another bottle. Drink it before your next rest stop, and start the process all over again. It cuts down on weight in your pack, it ensures that you drink adequate water during the day, and it fairly compensates the business owner who provides you with bathroom facilities. Win-win.
Now then, sometimes, perhaps often, a bathroom along The Camino will be without toilet paper. Many times I heard pilgrims complain about the lack of toilet paper in bathrooms. Think about it, there’s a steady stream of users throughout the day. It stands to reason that the toilet paper roll needs to be changed several times each day. Rather than assume the establishment has no intention of providing paper, for goodness sake, tell someone. Each time it happened to me, I brought it to the attention of the barkeeper or the owner or any employee I could find. Every single time I did, the response was, “Oh, thank you. I’ll change the roll right away.” Of course the business wants to keep the bathroom stocked with toilet paper. They know full well that if they don’t, people will put paper towels, newspaper, and all manner of other things down the toilet…resulting in the need for a plumber.
Ah, but because you’re already in the bathroom when you realize there is no toilet paper, and perhaps because there is a line of people waiting to use the toilet when you’re finished, you might want to do your business before going to inform someone of the lack of toilet paper. Precisely for that reason, I carry a supply of toilet paper with me. Before leaving home I buy a roll of one-ply toilet paper (more on this later) and make a few dozen little packets of folded paper. Then I put the stack in a ziplock plastic bag and stash the bag in a conveniently reached pocket of my pack. Before entering a restroom, I pop the plastic bag in my pocket. Just in case.
Let’s face it, though. Sometimes Mother Nature calls when you’re nowhere near a restroom. If you must relive yourself in the great outdoors, there are some simple rules that will benefit you, everyone else who uses that path, and the general environment. Firstly, to do your business, find a place well off the path. Don’t presume that just because you’re male and you only want to urinate that you can go wherever you like. Urine odors are pervasive and can be quite offensive on a hot day. What’s more, urine contains nitrates in sufficient quantity to kill plants. Think about the grass verges around the entrances to apartment complexes. The grass is always devastated there because when a dog owner gets home for work and takes the dog out, the poor creature relieves itself at the first available spot…right by the entrance.
If you’re going to do more than urinate, by all means, go well off the path. Once there, make a little effort to dispose of your waste. I’m not goofy enough to think pilgrims will be carrying a tiny, portable shovel for such moments, but certainly it’s possible to kick a small hole in the dirt. When you’ve finished, cover it up with the dirt you kicked aside. Use leaves, pine needles, and stones. Whatever is at hand. You can be sure that if the spot looked good to you, someone else will come along looking for the same opportunity. It’s frankly disgusting to come across an area that is littered with feces and toilet paper left completely exposed. It doesn’t take much effort to cover your “tracks.”
Some more precautions: DO NOT hide behind a hay stack at the side of the trail to do your business. It’s mighty unsanitary and encourages flies, rodents, and other pests. DO go at least one hundred feet (30 meters) away from a water source such as a pond, stream, or river. Human waste is extremely hazardous to open bodies of water and remember that you will be in an environment where many people will be looking to do the same thing. In the aggregate, it can add up to significant environmental degradation.
Now we come back to toilet paper. Inside the ziplock bag with the stack of folded toilet paper, I keep another ziplock bag for disposing of used toilet paper. But if you haven’t got a bag just for disposal, Folks, it’s not that difficult to simply fold up the toilet paper after you’ve used it and stick in your pocket. You can throw it away at the next trashcan you come to. It’s indecent to leave your used toilet paper scattered about. Period.
Here’s where one-ply toilet paper comes in. If for some reason you absolutely must leave your toilet paper behind, one-ply paper decomposes much, much faster than two-ply. (Go here to see the results of a paper decomposition in the outdoors experiement. http://hikethru.com/hiking-information/backyard-science/toilet-paper-decomposition) If you bury it, one-ply paper will decompose much, much faster than one-ply paper left exposed. Just do it.
What’s more, many bars and albergues along The Camino are on septic systems, not public sewer systems. One-ply toilet paper is much easier on their facilities.
Clearly most people don’t think about what they leave behind them as they’re walking along, but everyone is obliged to consider what others before them have left behind. Doing the right thing makes The Camino a happier and healthier experience for everyone.