But it doesn’t have to be this way, as I learned after spending two weeks car camping in some of New Hampshire and Maine’s most well-trod mountain and beach towns. Relieving oneself in relative comfort while traveling on a tight budget isn’t easy, but like most aspects of budget travel, it’s achievable with a little research and an intrepid mind-set. So before hitting the road, memorize these four steps for a tension-free trip to the toilet.
Consider your options
If you won’t have access to your own commode while traveling, then your shared-use venue will either be a solo bathroom or a multi-toilet bathroom that can accommodate several people at once. If you’re concerned about covid-19 transmission inside bathrooms, this could be the crucial factor to consider. Scientists have established that covid-19 spreads more effectively in indoor settings where people are congregated, especially if the room where they’re clustered has poor air ventilation. You might be able to keep six feet away from your fellow bathroom occupants, but what if they aren’t wearing masks?
Then there’s the toilet itself. We’ve seen those stomach-turning studies that show that flushing a toilet may blast aerosolized fecal particles upward, where they linger in the air for up to half an hour — and many shared or public bathrooms have flush toilets without lids. While it hasn’t been conclusively proved that inhaling fecal aerosols can result in a case of covid, this is another reason to wear a mask, and to remember to wash your hands after touching or removing it.
“Wearing a mask is the best protection that people have from the aerosolization and transmission that can happen inside,” says Robbie Goldstein, an infectious-disease doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital. “You don’t know who was last in the bathroom, and our old understanding of how viruses were transmitted through the air seems to be wrong. We thought the droplets that people were breathing out hung in the air for seconds or minutes before dropping to the ground. But it turns those aerosolized droplets probably stick around for a lot longer and can travel farther.”
A solo-occupancy bathroom can offer some protection from people and aerosols, especially if the bathroom is an outdoor facility with a non-flush pit toilet like an outhouse or even a porta-potty. (“There’s no one else who may be in a stall next to you,” Goldstein notes.) It may be a grimier venue, but this was a problem before the coronavirus, and protocol remains the same. Plan to hover, or to wipe down the seat with some kind of disinfectant. When you’re done, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer, which should also take 20 seconds.
And if you can, try opening the door before your bathroom visit and consider keeping it partially open while you’re inside. “Letting air flow through the porta-potty is going to be the best ways to flush aerosols out,” Goldstein says.
Know before you go
Before booking any lodging, pick up the phone and find out a bit more about their on-site toilets. It might be a little embarrassing to ask about, but you want to know exactly what type of bathrooms are available at your campground, hostel or rental before you commit. Campgrounds that cater to outdoorsy folk often have eco-friendly composting toilets, which won’t spray aerosolized particles. And the stand-alone pit toilet is still very much a thing in rural areas, where time moves patiently.
If you can’t come up with lodging that offers your preferred bathroom venue, then it’s time to tap into the thrift and adventurism of budget travel and locate a few serviceable public toilets near your destination. These will most likely be porta-potties and you can often find them at recreational spaces such as public parks, beaches, boat launches, trailheads, scenic pullovers like waterfalls or vistas, or even athletic fields. Check out Google Maps to see if there are any spots like this within 20 to 30 minutes of your lodging. Try calling the Department of Public Works at the town closest to your lodging and ask them where their public restrooms are.
If they’re cagey about this, proceed to Step 3.
As you approach your destination, don’t head straight to your lodging. Trawl around town in your car and do a drive-by of recreational venues, to see if there are on-site bathrooms or porta-potties. (Again, take a look at a map before you hit the road to find these recreation spots.) Once you’ve stumbled across a few prospects, pull over and make sure the bathrooms are open. Take a look inside to assess their cleanliness. You might check to see if the bathroom has any signage indicating when it was last cleaned or, if it’s a porta-potty, when it could be hauled away. If the facility checks out, consider return trips as necessary. When I’ve found a suitable toilet within reasonable driving distance of my campsite, I plan to use that restroom first thing in the morning. Earlier in the day is your best bet for avoiding crowds — especially if the toilet is near a space where communal events like farmers markets or football games are held. You don’t want to wait in line.
Finding a nearby public restroom or porta-potty is a wise step to take even if your lodging facility has bathrooms that are acceptable to you. It’s good to have a Plan B, in case your primary bathroom ends up trashed, or if you find yourself unexpectedly in need of a restroom while you’re out and about, enjoying your day.
That latter scenario — an unexpected call from nature — can be dire. And if you are caught in a place where no suitable venues can be found, then it’s time for the nuclear option.
Back to the earth
Consider traveling with a trowel, TP and sealable plastic bags. These tools are your last resort, and they should only be used if you can’t locate any bathroom that satisfies your needs. Follow “leave no trace” guidelines for eliminating: Find a secluded space outdoors, at least 200 feet away from any water sources, and dig a six- to eight-inch-deep “cathole.” Drop your drawers, do your thing, and place any used toilet paper inside the plastic bag, for packing out to a trash receptacle. (You cannot bury TP; it takes months to decompose, and in all likelihood, animals will dig it up.) Cover your “deposit” with soil and perhaps some stones. (Ground too hard to dig a hole? Consider procuring some “Go Anywhere” toilet kits.)
Finding a suitable restroom as a budget traveler is even more fraught during a pandemic. But once you have found your venues and a routine, there’s a liberation to it. Knowing you have solved the predicament while practicing covid-19 safety measures will make that windswept ridgeline hike or that farm-fresh blueberry pie all the more satisfying. Because you’re still traveling, despite everything. The road remains open.