By Tom Brown III:
One of the hottest commodities these days is toilet paper! Just before sitting down to write this piece, I got a call from one of my co-workers who was out checking on one of our properties where we run programs. They went to use the Porta-Potty only to find out that sometime in the night, someone scaled a 12-foot chain-link fence to steal the two rolls that were inside. I don’t know about where you live, but around here, it is still challenging to find TP in the grocery store. Luckily, many alternatives can be found in nature. Before it comes to having to use a natural source, it’s always a good idea to practice conservation. I think in general, people tend to use way more TP than they need to. Keep in mind that TP is made from trees! The less we use, the better for the environment.
Lately, I have been thinking of a story my grandpa used to tell. He was Scottish, and during World War II, he was in the British Royal Navy and was an engineer on a destroyer. Of the many war stories I heard as a child, one that always stuck with me had to do with toilet paper. When they were out at sea, they were only allowed to use one square of toilet paper when using the bathroom. I have personally experimented with this, and I can tell you for sure that it is possible. It takes a bit of creativity (and folding) but is doable! While you still have access to toilet paper, I encourage you to conserve whenever possible.
What happens when you run out and can’t buy any more? Humans and our ancestors have been going to the bathroom for far longer than we have had toilet paper. Having spent a lot of time in the woods, I have used all sorts of things in place of toilet paper. Everything from various leaves, mosses and even pine cones. My goal here is to direct you to a few common plants that work great. A quick side note, if you are going to use some of the natural materials I list here, DO NOT flush them down your toilet! It will plug it up, and if you have a septic system it could damage it. I will leave it up to you to decide how you dispose of it. If you have the option it may be a good idea to do your business outside. Make sure you do it safely and correctly. There is a great book out there called, How to Shit in the Woods, by Kathleen Meyer.
One thing I have noticed in my nearly two decades of teaching survival skills is that many people are afraid of going number two in the wilderness. By day two or three of class, it’s easy to tell the people who are scared to go in the woods. They squirm in their seats, have a pallid complexion and look very uncomfortable. Once they finally go, they realize how silly it was they waited so long to go!
If you are going to go outside, it’s essential to follow some guidelines. You never want to go near a water source. You can pollute it with harmful bacteria that could make you sick should you ever need to gather some of it for drinking. It’s also important to dig a hole to use and cover it after. It will help to break down your waste, and you won’t run the risk of you or someone else stepping in it. Toilets are a relatively new invention. We are not meant to sit when going to the bathroom. We are meant to squat. Squatting actually better aligns your large intestine, and tilts your pelvis in a way that makes it easier to go. You will also find that you need less TP when you go while squatting. When we sit on a toilet it compresses your backside, which can make things a bit messier. You may have noticed that Squatty Potty stools are pretty popular these days for the reasons I mentioned earlier.
Now, let’s talk about some natural TP alternatives. Here in Oregon, moss grows on just about everything and is available year-round. Moss is always a good option. To be ethical in harvesting moss, be sure to not take too much from any one spot. Moss is vital to the health of a forest. It’s a good idea to shake the moss out before using it, as there may be spiders or other things hiding inside.
Next up are leaves. One note of caution, it may be wise to research the poisonous plants that grow in your area. If you are not 100 percent sure what things like poison ivy, oak and sumac look like, do some research! I have known several people over the years that have used one of these for wiping, only to regret the decision later on. As a general rule, you should avoid using any plant leaves that have a milky sap that shows up when you separate the leaf from the plant. It could cause you to have an allergic reaction anywhere the sap touches. Also, beware of stinging nettle. You will not be a happy camper if you choose that one, although you will most likely feel the sting on your hands long before it reaches your backside!
My favorite leaf to use is that of the Mullein plant. They are very soft and get quite big. I also like to use the leaves of certain types of berry bushes. Thimbleberry and salmonberry are especially great! Other broadleaf plants that work great are members of the dock family. Burdock, red dock and curly dock are a few that I have used. Dock leaves tend to be quite big compared to other plants.
Green leaves from trees are also good. I like maples, especially. But any broadleaf tree species will work. Some trees have very stiff waxy leaves, and I will avoid those in favor of softer ones.
Another good option is using clumps of grass. A word of caution though, some grasses have tiny serrations on them. The serrations are designed to channel water from the blades of grass down to the roots. It’s wise to run your fingers up and down a blade of grass to make sure they aren’t sharp. Some of you who fish saltwater may have come into contact with Razor grass before. Razor grass can be so sharp it will cut you. Most grass that you find in the average backyard should be useful, but still check!
Now for some of the lesser-known options. You can collect smooth, round river rocks, and use those. Do not put them back in the river, though! You can also use the cones of certain conifers. This is another one to be careful with and inspect before use. Some cones can have barbs or sharp parts on them. Those are best avoided. One of my favorites are cones of the Douglas fir.
If none of these options are available to you, there is always the option of using your hand! There are many places around the world where this is the norm. If you are going to use this method, it’s essential to thoroughly wash your hands afterward.
Another option is to take any old T-shirts or clothing you have around, and cut them into squares. You can throw them away after, or wash them if you like. While this may sound gross, there are plenty of people out there who choose to use reusable diapers for their children. You can rinse the fabric swatches outside with a hose, or in a bucket with a bunch of soap, and then put them in your washing machine.
In closing, I would also remind you that no matter what you choose to use for your bathroom needs, make sure and wash your hands properly. The last thing any of us needs these days is to have to go to a hospital for something that is easily preventable! Be well, everyone!