Hiking trails in state parks and on other state lands opened this week, reintroducing cooped-up Seattle to outdoor recreation. Woo-hoo! But since social distancing requirements still stand, there's a big privy-shaped question mark at the trailhead.

Some state park facilities may reopen—not all will—but the idea of sharing anything is regressing us all back to preschool levels. So how do you use the public bathroom in a pandemic? Some tips:

  • Don't turn to rural gas stations, stores, or restaurants for bathroom use. Not only are many closed, but small communities need protection from virus spread. That means no stops for fuel, food, or powder rooms.
  • If using an open trailhead privy, bring your own toilet paper. It cuts down on touching shared surfaces, and given the early season, many facilities may not yet be stocked. BYO hand sanitizer, obvs.
  • Peeing outdoors is a good idea! Peeing right next to a popular parking lot is not. It smells. Try hiking at least a few hundred yards up the trail before veering off to find a secluded spot. Head off trail, taking care to disturb plant life as little as possible—but don't travel so far you get lost. Try to leave one member of your party at the trail to help you Marco Polo your way back.

The locally designed Kula Kloth can replace backcountry toilet paper.

  • Use your own toilet paper, but don't bury it in the woods (or toss it on the ground, geez). Thick two-ply doesn't decompose nearly as quickly as people think, and most who bury it do it improperly, which leads to visible toilet paper along popular trails. Gross. Bring a ziploc bag—dog poop bags work well too—and pack it out.
  • Since avid hikers will likely do a lot of peeing outside this summer, consider picking up a reusable cloth to use in place of toilet paper (on a number one). The Kula Cloth was developed by a local woman and features artwork from Northwest artists (and uses antimicrobial fabric).
  • When going number two in the woods, walk at least 70 steps from trail, per the Leave No Trace guidelines from the Center for Outdoor Ethics, and stay well clear of water sources. Use a trowel to dig what's called a "cat hole" (sorry, cats); it should be at least six inches deep. Do your business, pack used toilet paper in your own trash bag to carry out, and refill the hole with dirt. And, yeah, hand sanitizer time. 
  • If that sounds intense, it pales in comparison to the poo plan in snowy landscapes. When the ground is too frozen or snow-covered to dig a cat hole, best practices require packing out waste in what's called a "blue bag"; rangers sometimes provide materials near popular high alpine trailheads, but any sturdy plastic bags work, as long as it's several layers thick.

Feelin' queasy about all this elimination au naturel? Use this very quandary as a guiding principle. Current directives advise staying local for outdoor recreation but don't strictly define what "local" means. Consider using "close enough that I won't have to use the bathroom until I get home" as your own personal travel limit.

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