Going in the great outdoors

By Colin Hogarth

For decades bothy users and backpackers have been encouraged to 'do their business' in as considerate and an environmentally-friendly a way as possible out in the wilds. This means taking a trowel to a quiet spot well away from streams and paths and digging a little hole in the ground for excrement and the accompanying toilet roll (better still use moss). Most bothies are equipped with a spade for this purpose.

Unfortunately some people don't bother to think of others when launching the old battleship out of doors. If it's cold, wet and windy, you'll often find people taking the easy option of squatting down against the back wall of the bothy, rather than venturing a little further afield. You only have to visit Corrour at the south end of the Lairig Ghru to see the damage this does - little piles of human waste and toilet paper scattered over the hillside. Aswell as being unsightly, this presents a very real health problem to walkers and animals and also upsets landowners. Human waste disposed of insensitively can lead to other people coming into contact with it, infection of water courses, visual pollution and odour and animals picking it up and further dispersing it.

In a bid to combat the problem, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland has taken the unusual step of publishing a leaflet entitled: 'Where to go in the great outdoors'. Broaching what is often regarded as a taboo subject was broadly welcomed by outdoor enthusiasts and organisations, despite some negative press from the tabloids.

This free publication gives advice on best practice for crapping in the countryside and also highlights some of the potential health risks presented by carelessly placed human waste. The potentially fatal E. Coli 0157 bug is just one pathogen which can find its way from the human gut into watercourses, and then into other people.

For a number of years the Mountain Bothies Association has been working on ways to address the issue as bothies come under increasing pressure from users. More and more people staying overnight means more and more people likely to go to the toilet in the immediate environs.

Members experimented with various ideas initially. As an example Allt Sheicheachan has a makeshift toilet set into moorland a hundred yards or so from the bothy. It's no more than a wooden box with a round hole cut in the top and a big pit below. It's far from perfect and prompted a more cohesive approach to the problem.

A number of bothies now have their own toilets, plumbed into septic tanks and run-off systems. One is Gelder Shiel on the Balmoral Estate. Last year I attended a work party where the final phase of the project was undertaken.

The squat toilet had been created several months earlier. The septic tank was dug into the ground below the bothy using a JCB. Pipework was laid over a series of workparties, one section linking the tank to the toilet and another to the underground network of pipes providing the soak away for liquid.

The toilet itself is very much in the style of a French public loo - a concrete base with a hole in it. This leads to an access chamber, then down to the tank. The base was built during the winter of 1998 against the rear wall of the bothy. The toilet hut arrived at Gelder Shiel in October 1999, in flatpack form. Area organiser Alastair Lings had prefabricated some sections and measured and cut timber for the rest and the package was transported from Galashiels to Gelder Shiel in a Luton van which negotiated the track to the bothy in the dead of night without incident.

We were on site shortly before midnight on Friday and a cold night ensued before the team was up bright and early the next morning to make a start. The first task was to assemble the walls and roof of the hut and then creosote the tops, bottoms and edges before they were moved into place. As this continued, brackets were set into the concrete base to secure the walls. By lunchtime the first wall was in situ and, after soup and rolls, the side wall was all set to go in when disaster struck. One of the base blocks set into the concrete cracked where one of the brackets had gone in and a hasty re-assessment had to take place before construction could continue. However, the second wall was soon in place and internal and external timber treatment began in earnest. In the afternoon the estate factor pulled up in his Land Rover Discovery to cast an eye over the work in hand and to test the toilet drainage (not personally, though). With the squat hole exposed to the elements, pine needles, leaves and twigs had caused a slight blockage in the U-bend but this was quickly flushed out with a few buckets of water and he seemed impressed by the work in hand. The estate recently installed a spring-fed water tap at the bothy (on the north gable) but this has since been relocated to the rear of the building.

The next morning, battle commenced with the mortar in the solid granite rear wall of the bothy to enable a support beam to be erected. Meanwhile the wooden roof was felted and a door. Efforts were also made to drain and rebuild the muddy path round the south end of the bothy to provide an access route to the 'throne room'.

By mid-afternoon the shed walls were complete, a perspex window had been fitted and it was time to hoist the roof on. This was manoeuvred into place and secured and, as darkness fell, the job was largely complete. With the final touches added - a small shelf for toilet rolls and a couple of coat pegs - the Balmoral Throne Room was ready for business and fit for royalty!

All users have to to do ensure the system operates efficiently is to flush at least two buckets of water down the squat hole once they have finished conversing with nature.

While some argue developments of this type go against the basic 'getting away from it all' ideals of outdoor adventure, most realise growing problems surrounding the issue of human sanitation in the outdoors has to be addressed at some and commend the MBA for their decisive action.

So far only a handful of bothies have toilet facilities but more - particularly the popular ones - are being considered for the same treatment in the future.

Ten top tips for going in the great outdoors:

1. Defecate at least 50 metres from paths and 200 metres from huts and bothies.
2. Defecate at least 30m from streams.
3. Dig a hole at least 15cms (6ins) deep, do your business then fill the hole back in.
4. It you can't dig a hole, spread your waste out thinly (not a pleasant task, we know) and cover with soil or leaf mould to help it decompose faster.
5. Urine is less harmful than 'numbers twos' but it smells unpleasant. Pee out in the open and avoid caves and the back of bothies.
6. Squashing excrement with a boulder is far from ideal - this slows the decomposition.
7. In snow, dig down into the soil below. Burying excrement in snow will only serve as a temporary measure until the thaw.
8. Never miss an opportunity to use a proper toilet.
9. Consider using biodegradable toilet paper, or better still moss (it's quite pleasant, actually).
10. And finally one for the ladies. Use a secure container, such as a self-seal bag, to carry out tampons and sanitary towels as they take a long time to decompose, even when buried.

For a copy of the leaflet 'Where to go in the great outdoors', send an A5-size SAE to: The MCofS, 4A St Catherine's Road, Perth, PH1 5SE.