Zen Backpacking Toilet Use






Toilet Use



Those traveling to foreign lands may be in for a memorable experience when visiting the restroom.  Basically, outside of the US and Europe, porcelain sit down type toilets and toilet paper are uncommon.  Most of the world squats over a toilet that is not much more than a hole in the floor or forgo the use of toilets altogether.  And if you are a first time traveler away from your country of origin, you may be in for a big surprise.


Squat Toilets

They are not as bad as they seem and are commonly found in France, Italy and much of Asia.  Yes, you will not be able to sit and relax; yes, the floor may be very wet and muddy; yes, the stall may be poorly or unlit; yes, and it may smell really really bad.  Despite the obvious disadvantages of the squat toilet to those that have never used them, they are preferred by many that feel they are more sanitary since there isn't any skin contact with the toilet and no splash back after defecating.



You simply role up the bottom of your pants (or tuck them in you socks) if they tend to drag on the graound, pull out your stash of toilet paper or wet wipes, drop your pants so that they don't touch anything wet, squat and do your business.  Hopefully there will be a can or bag for your paper.  Your paper or wipes should go there.


After you have done your business, pull up your pants and figure out how to flush the toilet.  There may be a pedal, pull cord, lever or bucket of water and a plastic cup for flushing.  Flush.


Find your way out and do a good job of washing your hands followed by wipe wipes or hand sanitizer.  Don't forget to unroll or untuck your pants and go get some fresh air.  Your done.


Sit Toilets

Sit down toilets are designed so that you can sit down on them.  This allows you to relax while emptying your colon or bladder, but does apply increased pressure on your rectum and can make defecation more difficult for those accustomed to squat toilets.  By design, you will also have skin to toilet contact between the seat and your buttocks if you use these toilets as designed.  You of course still have the option of squatting (aka hovering) over the toilet if you have an issue with sitting on something that others have sat on.  Yes, toilet seats most likely have a nice assortment of bacteria on them.



Toilet seats are more or less safe to sit on.  It is only remotely possible that you would catch a disease from skin contact with a seat or splash back from water in the bowl.  If you are the paranoid hypochondriac type concerned about toilet seats, then there are a few steps you can take to potentially decease the amount of your skin contacting the toilet.


Preparing a toilet seat for use by the paranoid:

  1. Flush toilet to dilute amount of bacteria and solid mass in the toilet bowl
  2. If toilet paper is provided, do a quick 360 swipe of the seat with enough toilet paper rolled up to protect your hand.  If the seat is the horseshoe type, make sure you wipe the exposed front part of toilet rim
  3. Use an antibacterial wet wipe to wipe down toilet seat and the front part of toilet rim if exposed
  4. Lay down just enough toilet paper in the bowl to cover the middle surface of the water.  This will decrease the amount of splash later on.
  5. Put down two seat covers.  If you don't have seat covers, carefully lay down two layers of toilet paper over the seat.  Do so with several long strips instead of trying to follow the contour of the seat with a continuous strand of paper.
  6. If you can squat without touching the toilet, squat.
  7. Do a single wipe and move away from the toilet.
  8. If you have a trash bin/bag in your room/stall - finish wiping and throw waste in bin/bag.
  9. Flush and finish wiping if needed.
  10. If your buttocks came in contact with the toilet or water splashed on you - wipe with antibacterial wipes.



If you have what appears to be two toilets in your room, then one is most likely not a toilet.  The one that looks more like a cross between a sink and a toilet is a bidet - which is used to wash your genitalia.



These work either by pushing a button (sometimes on a remote) or by twisting knobs like on a sink.  Some sit toilets have these built into them, to take care in determining which lever or button is for flushing and which is for spraying before using these toilets.


Some backpackers will use these to wash their feet, clothes and even small children, which shoulder be fine, since it is basically a floor sink.  Just remember that there may be an area under the rim that doesn't get cleaned (if it gets clean at all) and this "sink" is mostly used for washing genitalia and anuses and not hands and faces.  So feel free to wash up here - but yuk.


Flushing a Toilet

This can be trickier than you thick.  Look for a button or lever on the back part of the toilet.  If you can use your foot to depress this.  With some toilets, you will need to hold the button or lever all the way down until the toilet has emptied its contents.


If you don't see a button or lever in a usual place, look around the stall.  There may be a foot pedal, hidden lever, motion sensor or even a pull chain.  Look on the floor, behind the toilet, and even above shoulder height.


Some toilets even come with multiple levers.  One is often for minimum emptying of the bowl with urination and the other lever is for empting a bowl after defecation.  Beware of knobs, control panels and electric push buttons that operate the wash feature (bidet) of some fancy European and Japanese toilets - or you'll be in for quite a surprise.


High tech toilets.  Some toilets will warm the seat, preflush, deodorize and flush after you are done.


Toilet Paper

Most of the world does not use toilet paper.  This is something to think about the next time you go out to eat and even more important to remember when packing.  Pack your own toilet paper (in a freezer bag to keep dry) or wet wipes and make sure you have some with you (in day pack) at all times.



Pipes in Asia are often narrow and not designed for toilet paper.  Using toilet paper, even at "good" hotels is a good way to get a clogged toilet or worse.  Because of this, you need to either place your used paper in the trash can/bag generally provided somewhere in the bathroom or take it out with you.


If you have a gentle tush, you may need to pack your own soft paper or go with baby wipes from home.  Some outback trekkers will want to pack paper towels since they are less likely to fall apart when damp or wet.


Wet Wipes and Baby Wipes

Even if your skin usually does fine with toilet paper at home, you may experience problems during your travels.  You may be forced to use rough, abrasive paper or even newspaper to wipe with.  This in itself can cause a lot of problems.  And since you are likely to get diarrhea at some point during your travels or have chronic severe diarrhea, you are looking at an increased frequency of wipings over skin weakened by the moisture and enzymes found in your diarrhea.  Basically, wiping sensitive raw skin following a couple of days of diarrhea can be really uncomfortable or even damaging.


Johnson's Baby Wipes are a real luxury to have


Baby wipes make cleanups much less traumatic on your skin and does a better job of cleaning everything off.  They can also double as wet wipes for your face, hands, armpits, tables, and toilet seats when you are not in short supply of wipes.  Because of this, many travelers don't travel without these.


Flushable wipes are available but should not be flushed down toilets if this can be avoided, particularly in Asia.  Regular wipes should never be flushed down a toilet.  They may not clog the toilet right away, but you can get severe plumbing problems further down the pipes.


Note that not all wet wipes are made equal.  Some will leave a soapy residue, some have antibacterial and herbal additives, some are scented, some are pretty wet, some are rather dry and some need to be folded (making a double layer) to prevent leakage onto your fingers.  You may also wish to fold used wipes in half so that you can use both sides at one sitting.  This doubles the usable life of each pack.


Toilets in Europe

These are usually paper friendly since Western Europe plumbing is more likely to have pipes designed for toilet paper.  But if you are using wet/baby wipes, these should be placed in the trash since they tend to clog plumbing.  They may not plug the toilet immediately, but they may back up the pipes further down.


If you notice toilet paper dispensers by the sink, you may need to grab some prior to going into a stall and it may be sans paper.


In some places, such as in France, men and women may share the same unisex bathroom.




Automated public street pay stalls (aka Sanisette and superloos) can be found in several European destinations and work like a giant vending machine...actually more like an automated carwash that opens up, plays music and sanitizes itself afterwards.  If you see these in a city you are visiting, you should take a little time to figure out how to use it, that that if you later find yourself in desperate need of one, you can figure it out.  It's also important to note that if you spend too much time in an automated stall, the door may automatically open on you.


For some reason, Italians seem to like to remove toilet seats from their public restrooms.  If you find a toilet like this, you'll need to sit directly on the rim, pad the rim with paper, hover or find a better place to do your business.


Toilets in Asia

Asian plumbing is not always prepared for toilet paper and may cog and overflow if toilet paper is flushed down the pipes.  This is true even if you are using a nice clean sit toilet.


Toilets in the US

Public sit type toilets can be found on just about every city street in the US.  You won't find too many "W.C." signs identifying restrooms but you can usually find a restroom in any establishment that serves food, department stores and most offices and hotels open to the public.


Roadside Relief

In many parts of the world, it is ok to relieve yourself on the side of the road.  Proper etiquette differs a bit from country to country and between women and men.  Play close attention, but not so close that you look like a voyeur, to how others are doing it.  Notice if locals attempt to hide behind a tree or rock, squat when urinating or kick dirt over moist areas.  In some places, urinating is ok in town as long as you are facing away from traffic.  You should avoid doing this if possible.


Field Defecation

If your are in an area frequented and used by locals for defecation - take care in where you step.


It is important to understand that surface defecating is performed in many parts of the world this is still a major source of disease.  Not only can you step on feces during your walks and bring it back home (a reason why many cultures prefer that you remove shoes prior to entering a home), bacteria from feces can enter drinking water with rain and runoff, be carried by flies that land on your food, or be spread by the wind after the feces dries.


If you are defecating in a area where many people have surface laid, just do your business and move on.  Try to walk in some clean grass prior to heading home if possible to clean your shoes off a bit.


If you are in a virgin area, you have the option of site selection.  Choose a site away from water and down wind if you are staying nearby.  Either dig a hole (can be done with shovel, large knife, sturdy stick or by kicking with your boots), or find a depression if possible.  After you have completed your bodily function(s), fill in you hole or at least kick some dirt over you waste.


Finding a Toilet

Finding a good toilet can be both challenging and frustrating when one is needed.  Nice ones are often found in American fast food establishments, Westernized hotels, museums and the top floor of department stores in many countries.  You can usually find them hidden in the back of most European restaurants.  Look for a sign with "W.C." on it or a silhouette of a man, woman or toilet.


Read "American Food and Western Toilet"


In parts of Asia and Europe, in may find pay restrooms - if you need one, politely pay up and feel lucky you found it.  If there is a tip cup at the entrance, throw in a small coin (quarter US dollar equivalent), even if it just has larger Euro coins or bills in it (a common trick).


Some fast food establishments may lock the bathroom with a code key.  If you purchased something there, look at your receipt for the pass code or wait until someone else opens the door to get in.


Restroom Patrons and Employees

While in the restroom, you may see female workers cleaning up while you are doing your business or notice that the patrons or even kids are staring at your groin area when using urinals.  Just pretend they are not there, relax, finish up with what you are doing and move on with your travels.



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