I can't pee in the woods
May 29, 2021 10:19 PM   Subscribe

Anonymous due to embarrassment. I've recently taken up hiking. Absolutely LOVE it! I am still working on increasing daily mileage, but would eventually like to do a backpacking / multi-day hike. I tell people I don't like camping, but the truth is more embarrassing: I can NOT force myself to urinate outside!

Several years ago, I made my first attempt at tent camping. It was supposed to be a 5-6 day trip, but I had to cut it short when, after 3 days, I became toxic due to an inability to relieve myself. This was ten years ago, I'm now 37, and tired of turning down camping invitations, and inventing reasons that I just "don't like camping".

It probably matters that I have a vagina (but don't identify female), and I drink a LOT of water when outside in the heat and/or exerting myself. I've tried standing, squatting, even squatting while using a fallen log for support. I've tried being near enough to hear human noises, and far enough not to. I've tried near a rushing river. Nothing but straining and pain and no relief.

If it matters, I've not had the urge to defecate while outside, but assume I'll have similar issues when/if it ever comes up.

A friend suggested I may have had a bad experience as a kid. We did live near a forest, and do a lot of hiking (mostly toddler years), but I don't remember any related bad experiences.

Is this just something I have to live with? Will I never be able to take long walks in the woods for days without finding a hotel every night? I *never* have a problem in an indoor restroom. I do believe I could enjoy camping, if it weren't for this embarrassing issue.

Have you, or someone you know, had this issue, and overcome it? I have my eye on sections of the Appalachian Trail, but it seems medically impossible. Any help, tips and/or resources will be greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (31 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Is it the vulnerability or the physiology (or both) that’s causing problems?

Are you able to pee standing up in the shower? I guess if I were you, I’d try to start peeing in the shower, and then work up to peeing outside standing up (not even in the woods! maybe just your/a friend’s backyard), then try peeing while hiking.

And, have you already used one of these a P Style funnel? Using one has changed my life and made hiking and car trips so much more enjoyable! I always felt too exposed and vulnerable when I had to squat and pee while hiking/camping but with the P Style I just pull my leggings down a bit in the front, put the funnel in place, let my top hang down almost to the top of the funnel, and pee. Nothing gets on my clothes, no skin is exposed, and I can stop peeing and move quickly if people come.

It definitely takes more inner core strength to pee standing up if you have a vagina (imo) but it’s doable. Feel free to memail me, I could sing its praises all day!
posted by stellaluna at 10:44 PM on May 29, 2021 [32 favorites]

That sounds frustrating. Here is one (naive) idea - assuming this is some kind of learned behaviour thing and nothing else is going on: if you can comfortably pee in a restroom setting, but not outdoors, maybe you could try to "train" or densensitive yourself to being relaxed while peeing in other settings that are incrementally less and less restroom like, and more and more in-the-great-outdoors like. E.g. pee into a bucket in a restroom, work up from there.
posted by are-coral-made at 10:50 PM on May 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

FWIW I think concerns about bathroom access are not unusual, especially amongst a subset of 21st century folk accustomed to indoor plumbing.

I do think you have more options than only sticking to day hikes. It sounds like you would be able to successfully camp if you had a home base of a campground with flush toilets or a secluded Air BnB cabin (with the appropriate toilet type). Or perhaps RV camping would be more your thing.

If you can (work your way up to) portapotties then a luggaboo loo (or some other portable camping toilet) + privacy tent may be an option.
posted by oceano at 10:57 PM on May 29, 2021 [10 favorites]

I'm a person who, because of a health issue, once had to give a jillion urine samples over the course of a few months. By the end I felt like I could give a urine sample in the middle of the sidewalk with no care whatsoever, so I agree that you should try to ramp up to peeing outside by starting with something easy and then working up. Peeing in the shower, perhaps? Peeing into a cup first thing in the morning (presumably when you awaken and really need to pee). You can try peeing into a cup while standing pantsless in the bathtub, so misses or messes aren't an issue. And then yeah, if you have access to any protected outdoor area like a yard, I'd try peeing in a cup out there eventually, and then moving on to just peeing on the grass if you can.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:59 PM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think peeing in the shower is a great start. I have also tried the P Style but I didn't have a lot of success with it. Strangely, I had just as much success with a cheap kitchen funnel from IKEA. But I know a lot of people with vaginas who love the P Style. This may sound nuts but, maybe you can try standing in the shower with nothing but a pair of underpants on and, well, pee your pants. Maybe learning to let go in a situation where we are definitely trained not to will help you tap into that muscle release. Once you can pee in the shower, I hope you have some sort of outdoor space of your own that you can pee in for practice. If all else fails, you can always jump into that rushing water - that one time I slipped and fell on my butt into a stream of glacier runoff, I totally pissed my pants from the shock.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:26 PM on May 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

For what it is worth this issue is common enough that when my sister was in the military reserves and they took the new recruits on outdoor maneuvers for the weekend they checked that all of them could and were urinating. I gather that for some people the urethra spasms and clamps shut and when they attempt to urinate in a location that feels wrong they can't get the flow going.

The treatment is usually desensitization, and CBT. If you have trouble peeing in the shower, try peeing while sitting in a tub of hot water. If there is something other than urethral spasms causing you to fail to release, such as scarring in the urethra, the hot water is likely to be relaxing enough that you can let go, and you can work your way from there to peeing while standing under a hot shower and eventually out into the back yard and into a camping trip.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:30 PM on May 29, 2021 [10 favorites]

I don't have a vagina nor do I have trouble peeing outside. But, when I was younger, after an operation, I could not pee and had to in order to be discharged. I just couldn't go. Maybe it was all the nurses and my friend waiting for me to go in the bed bottle. I couldn't go in and bottle nor in the bathroom, but I knew that I was full and needed to go. They showed me a catheter and explained that it was going in and I was still required to go on my own.

Any way, after a day of this, a new nurse came on duty. They came in to the room with a small bottle of essence of peppermint. I was told to smell the peppermint. I laughed, but tried it. Friggin peed the bed right away.

Maybe it was psychosomatic, maybe not. I can say it worked again with one of my children years later.

I agree with most of the above to work up to it incrementally, but I would add a bottle of essence of peppermint to the process.

If you search for peppermint oil and urination you will find ample legitimate medical sites saying it is a possible solution.
posted by AugustWest at 11:39 PM on May 29, 2021 [18 favorites]

Any way, after a day of this, a new nurse came on duty. They came in to the room with a small bottle of essence of peppermint. I was told to smell the peppermint. I laughed, but tried it. Friggin peed the bed right away.

Maybe it was psychosomatic, maybe not. I can say it worked again with one of my children years later.

I read years ago that peppermint is known to be effective in relaxing the pyloric sphincter at the bottom of the stomach, which offers an interesting perspective on after dinner mints, and also seems to me to make its action in your case less likely to be psychosomatic.
posted by jamjam at 1:43 AM on May 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

Alongside the above, try "environmental factors" when you are outside trying to have a pee - have friends keeping a lookout, to make sure no one comes along, if you're squatting try draping yourself in a big poncho/cloak type thing and/or a hood to feel less exposed, hum or whistle or play music/white noise from your phone, or even listen to sthg to distract yourself...

listen to the sound of running water when you need to pee but can't might tip you over the edge, even just the sound of yourself pouring water from one cup to another...
posted by runincircles at 2:57 AM on May 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

One thing to consider, that might help give you a taste of backpacking sooner while you work on the desensitization methods suggested above: can you successfully use outhouses or pit toilets, like those found at many trailheads or campsites (even in the backcountry)? If sections of the AT are your goal, and if it is specifically the peeing-directly-onto-the-ground-outside issue that is causing trouble and not an issue with lack of indoor plumbing, you may be in luck! Many, many of the shelter sites along the AT have pit toilets or outhouses at them, so if you plan to camp at or even near shelters (there are often many tenting sites in the vicinity of the established shelters) you could have access to those outhouse facilities once you get in to camp for the night, in the morning, and at many of the shelters you pass during your hiking day. Shelters are spaced frequently enough along the trail that I imagine you could pee/poo exclusively in outhouses for your entire section hike without ever having to hold it so long that it becomes uncomfortable or unhealthy. The sections of the AT I am most familiar with are in the NC, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia regions of the trail, so this may not be true in the northern sections, but should be easy info to find out. The cleanliness of these toilets varies considerably from site to site and I personally always prefer to pee outside rather than use them, but if the mere presence of walls and a roof and a seat to squat on are enough to mitigate the issue you’re having, then you could absolutely get some backpacking in healthily while you continue to work towards outdoor peeing freedom. Good luck!!
posted by Dorinda at 3:18 AM on May 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

Is it literally being outside? The combination of a pStyle or similar product1 and a collapsible nalgene bottle allows for in-tent peeing at a low weight penalty.

1 Of the available options, pStyle seems to be only one that acknowledges the existence of non-women as potential customers, and I try to reward that, but the unfortunately-named Go Girl does offer more of a seal and has a funnel structure that's more easily routed into the bottle.
posted by teremala at 4:36 AM on May 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

I have had unfortunate occasion to get lots of advice from nurses on peeing when you can't seem to; most of their suggestions have already been covered or you've already tried. But this was the list:
- water sounds
- be well hydrated
- try in the shower
- take a break and try again
- sniff peppermint oil
- patience/distraction (listen to music/watch something chill)
In my case the issue was nerve damage, so none of these did any good, but this is clearly not the case for you since you're fine under normal circumstances. But if you have a doctor or even a therapist you trust, it might be worth getting their suggestions. I wonder about bringing a disposable single use catheter (and tiny hand mirror and disinfectant wipes) as a backup just in case - they're deeply annoying but not painful, less difficult for people with vaginas than penises, and better than going into shock. Even if you never use it, it might help the situation to know you have a plan in case of emergency. But, doctors would probably worry about creating a dependency, and they do carry some risk of UTIs.
posted by february at 4:54 AM on May 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

From the point of view of practicalities, I walk in the woods a lot and sometimes need to pee. I've found that the easiest way to do it and not pee on my shoes or clothing is to rest my back against a tree trunk and squat down into a sitting position with my knees at a right-angle, as if I was sitting on the toilet.

This provides an element of privacy, as my butt is shielded by the tree trunk from anyone who might pass by, although I usually find a fairly secluded spot if I need to go. It also means that the pee flows straight down to the ground rather than in a frontwards direction.
posted by essexjan at 5:10 AM on May 30, 2021 [7 favorites]

That sounds so frustrating. I had the same problem, and sometimes still do. It really takes the fun out of hiking.

What's helped me improve my ability to pee outdoors: address the issue of "breeze hits my butt and all systems shut down" and the issue of being anxious that others are waiting or could possibly hear or see me.

Butt Breeze: I think you might be on to something when you said you squatted on a log. Have you tried leaning up against something larger? On preview: essexjan has the same strategy. Find a big tree to hide behind. If it's not covered in anything that will make you itch and bark isn't going to end up in your underwear, lean on the tree when you squat to pee. Knees at right angles, like on a toilet.

People are waiting/watching anxiety: fortunately, It seems like this may be less of an issue for you. This one's harder. I've had some success having the group meet me at a waypoint down the trail, and then finding a tree or a rock to hide behind to pee. I still can't do it if they wait on the trail, and I wander into the woods to pee.

Last ditch outdoor pee effort: find a body of water that's clean and slow enough to swim in. Strip from the waist down, wade into the water, and pee. This is less successful if the water is ice cold, though it is the only way I've been able to get myself to pee outside sometimes.

Good luck!
posted by Guess What at 5:55 AM on May 30, 2021

straining and pain and no relief

The main exit valve from the bladder isn't actually under direct conscious control. There's another set of musculature just downstream of it that is, but the sphincter generally responsible for keeping us from leaking most of the time is not.

All of us are subjected to quite intensive training at very early ages to make sure we don't ever let a bladderfull go except when sitting on a toilet; if we were overnight bedwetters as kids that training can also get reinforced by super strong internal motivators as well. The result is that our brains get strongly wired to go on high alert at the first sign of any leakage past that first sphincter (there are loads of nerves to detect that leakage) and trigger a WAMP WAMP WAMP BATTLE STATIONS UNSAFE UNSAFE cortisol spike that tightens everything down again.

If you're straining to piss, what you're actually doing is trying to put enough pressure on your bladder to force the upstream sphincter to open; in effect, you're trying to bring on deliberate stress incontinence. This isn't going to end well because you're making the various bits of yourself fight with each other. What your body needs to be doing instead is relaxing through that tiny feeling of the very first drop making its way past the involuntary upstream sphincter and letting the bladder empty itself. But this is going to involve deliberately overriding training that's been in place for a very long time.

The way to start is to pay very close attention to how urination feels when you're doing it on a toilet as usual. Start as soon as you've sat down. What you're looking for is the train of sensations that immediately follow the decision to let the urine go.

Do this every time you piss, for at least a week. Get intimately familiar with your own process. Then, and only then, should you move to trying to replicate the same train of sensations in the shower. Then while squatting in the shower. Then while squatting in the shower recess with the shower not running.

Practice that last one until you achieve good control over where the stream goes with respect to your feet. And once you've got a lock on that, try taking it out into your back yard.

This is totally a training issue, and you can re-train to widen your brain's notion of acceptable contexts for taking a long, relaxing leak. Look forward to watching the steam rising from the frost at crack of dawn. It's quite a thing.
posted by flabdablet at 6:00 AM on May 30, 2021 [20 favorites]

Another useful method for rapidly getting familiar with your own urination process is also best started in private on your own toilet: once a stream is going, deliberately stop it again and pay very close attention to the sensations that happen as you do so.

You will probably find that initially stopping a running stream requires some form of deliberate internal clenching, which will need to be held for long enough for the plumbing to drain, but which can then be relaxed to some extent without provoking an immediate further flow.

What you're looking for is the set of sensations that happen between fully relaxing to get the flow re-started and the start of the actual flow. That's the feel of your involuntary upstream sphincter opening up again, and the more familiar that is to you, the easier it will be to catch your brain in the act of evaluating the context for that sensation for acceptability, and teach it some additional, consciously chosen contexts that it should also judge as acceptable.
posted by flabdablet at 6:14 AM on May 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

- Is this happening when you're alone, or just with other people? If the latter, try hiking alone (probably, as mentioned above, with oil of peppermint along).

- If it's something to do with leaving your stuff in nature: there are special shovels/kits available (try REI if you're near one) that might make it seem more normal/manageable/environmentally friendly. They may also have a hiking expert that can suggest something helpful.

- This is a serious enough problem that looking for professional help -- a chain of referrals starting with a hiking store employee or three might get you there -- or maybe just a psychologist specializing in phobias/desensitization.
posted by amtho at 8:28 AM on May 30, 2021

I am on the teams of a) learn how to do it at home first b) eventually with a funnel and yes they are not very gender-inclusive but just focus on finding a shape and density that suits you. (And that might actually be a kitchen-type funnel to start with, but that's harder to carry hiking than the silicone ones for urination.)

I do think spending a week or two just concentrating more on the movements and sensations of urinating on the toilet is a good first step. Become more familiar with the mechanisms of starting and stopping the flow, you're going to want to recall the sensation of re-starting when it comes time to do it in an unusual location.

But I think the shower is the second step - if you have some kind of weight-bearing ledge you can try sitting on the edge of it, but if your goal is to do it (much more easily, from a position standpoint) standing with a funnel you can just start with a slight crouch and resting your arms on the wall (if that helps - it did for me, I guess one less part of my body to think too hard about). Yes, you will pee down your legs, it's fine.

When you get closer to being woods-ready, maybe treat yourself to a Kula Cloth or similar, as a sort of graduation present.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:09 AM on May 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm . . . tired of turning down camping invitations, and inventing reasons that I just "don't like camping".

I hope you find a solution because it sounds as though you do like camping. Lots of good advice above. The peppermint sounds promising.

But if you don't find a solution, you do not have to invent reasons or make up excuses. "No thanks, I don't like camping," is all you have to say. I don't like camping because I don't like camping. I've never offered any reasons when I decline invitations to go camping.

But again, I hope you can solve the problem.
posted by Dolley at 9:43 AM on May 30, 2021

This would appear to be a variation of paruresis; knowing the official term might help you find additional resources (like this one).
posted by carrienation at 10:02 AM on May 30, 2021

Is the issue you can't pee standing, but might be ok sitting? Because if you're hiking and already carrying gear, maybe something like this portable toilet might work?

If I was camping (and didnt have my campervan, which i bought specifically so I could have my own toilet!) I'd get something like the above (or a toilet seat on a bucket) and a tent like this and basically build my own outhouse. There's tons of products to try to solve for this problem if all you need to do is solve for the "not peeing in the woods" issue specifically.
posted by cgg at 10:03 AM on May 30, 2021

I would also say as a medium-step, if you live in an area with day use/state park areas with bathroom blocks, that could be a progress-point in your journey. From a neuro-psych standpoint, when you're spending a lot of time outside and then peeing in a real-ish facility that is still right there close to nature, it might help break the seal (so to speak) on wild urination. If you've got bathroom-block campgrounds that are adjacent to trailheads, you could plan some short hike legs and come back to the bathrooms the first time, try going on the trail the second time, see if the knowledge of a bathroom you could use if you had to helps you relax on the trail. (If you happen to be in the Los Angeles area I can vouch for the Sycamore Canyon and Sycamore Cove campgrounds in Malibu, though reservations are a beast now. Cove has a day-use area though.)

You may have to break down and recruit a couple of hiking friends in your campaign. When I first started camping as an adult I couldn't really go without someone to be my "lookout", because my thing was a fear of being seen, and one of my friends would cheer me on with stories of waterfalls and roaring rivers if my bladder was being super shy. I imagine most enthusiastic hikers would want to help you get past this so you can enjoy hiking more. As an alternate to state parks, you can find a lot of hiking-adjacent camping on Hipcamp, and the listings are really specific about available facilities.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:30 AM on May 30, 2021

I did actually come across this tweet yesterday:

I am just drunk enough to share this very weird but very accurate tip:

If you ever need to pee and you can't, tickle the top of your butt crack. I don't know why it works, I don't know who discovered it, but it never fails.

And I was not expecting to need it, but I'd trust the author, so I expect it's something worth trying.
posted by ambrosen at 10:34 AM on May 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

This also sounds like something that might be helped by pelvic floor physical therapy. I had a really good experience with this for other reasons, but I learned that there's a lot of complicated muscles involved (and for me, it was associated with stress and needing to actively relax certain muscles). I would recommend starting with a trans-friendly physical therapist or doctor for referrals though.
posted by Paper rabies at 11:49 AM on May 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

This sounds really challenging and I sympathise with you.

It does not seem like this has much, if anything, to do with the woods, physiology, camping, etc. but rather your thinking and anxieties about it. And that is 100% OK.

Two insights that may help:

1. A phrase that I've found useful lately is, "I am safe and I have everything I need to [X]." In my case, it's been 'I'm safe and I have everything I need to fall asleep.' Yours might be something like 'I am safe and I have everything I need to relieve myself in the woods.'

If you feel resistence about this phrase, that's something perhaps to notice. What about it doesn't feel true or believable? What do you need to make it true for you?

2. Sometimes when we have a thing we're trying to do or achieve, we need a ladder to get from our current thought to the goal thought. It's just too great of a height from where we are now. For example:

Current thought: I can't pee in the woods.
Goal thought: I can pee anywhere, no probs (and that of course includes the woods)

Rungs on the ladder might be:
- I am open to the idea that things could be different.
- I am open to the possibility of putting some effort into this.
- I am willing to put at least some minimal effort into resolving this.
- I don't know how to do this, but I think it's possible.
- I can imagine being able to in the woods some day.
- I could do some research on this.
- I know how I might start to work on this.
- I can try X, Y, Z and see if anything helps
- I know I'll get there somehow (even if X, Y, Z doesn't work)
- I'm making progress on this
- and on...

These might not be right for you, or even in the right order. The important part is recognising what the options are and breaking things down into small, manageable and meaningful steps. And then focussing on ONLY the NEXT STEP. Once that's second nature, you repeat again, focussing only on the NEXT STEP.

I don't believe in luck, but I do 100% believe in your progress to do this. So, Good Progress to you!
posted by iamkimiam at 2:56 PM on May 30, 2021 [6 favorites]

I was unable to pee outside until I got one of those funnel things. Even then it took practice figuring out which muscles to flex, because sitting on the toilet the pee just sort of falls out but standing I have to push the pee out. Like when you make yourself pee faster.

Maybe get one of those funnels and practice using it at home. If that doesn't work, there are toilet seats with little folding legs that you can take camping. And pop-up privacy canopies.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:33 PM on May 30, 2021

I thought of a few more next rung goal thoughts you might want to try:

- I am willing to accept that this is difficult for me
- I accept that this is difficult for me
- I am willing to make adjustments for myself, such as giving myself extra time, bringing extra equipment, or changing my routine to make this work
- I accept that this may take time and trial and error before I get it right
- I am open to asking for help with this
- I am prepared to say “xyz” to my hiking friends about this if/when it comes up
posted by iamkimiam at 12:20 AM on May 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you are open to trying another peeing in the woods method, (if it's somewhat about the method as well as psychological), I also have a vagina and use a pee-on-all-fours method that I prefer. When I'm squatting, I can never be sure if my pee is going to go forward or backward, and I'm anxious it's going to get on my pants/shorts/shoes. So, I find a slightly downward slope, pull down my pants/shorts/undies, rest on my knees and hands like I'm going to do a pushup on my knees, and then tilt my pelvis toward the ground. Make sure your head is toward the downward slope, so the pee rolls in front of you. Spread your hands far apart so the pee goes through the space between them. Dust off your knees when you stand up, and you are good to go!

It feels freeing and kinda like being an animal, in a good way, to me. But I can also see it feeling more exposed, because your bare butt is kinda up in the air with this method. Haven't peed on myself with this strategy, though!
posted by shortyJBot at 5:08 AM on May 31, 2021

Also, remember that there is no one true way to camp. The only requirements are 1) You can do it reasonably safely 2) You tread lightly on the planet. Something else to keep in mind is that sometimes stressing out or overthinking something can make it harder to do the thing. So please have patience and compassion for yourself.

Finally, I would encourage you to consider explaining what accommodations you need to your future camping buddies. (E.g you could say something like "I would love to join you, but due to a current medical situation, I need access to [a flush toilet/ an out house/ etc.]. Is there a way we can make this trip work for me or can we plan a future trip that I would find accessible?"). While this internet stranger wouldn't dream of telling you how to feel, I think it is possible that you may underestimating your friends here.
posted by oceano at 2:18 PM on May 31, 2021

There is hope for you! I suffer from paruresis, which means I've had a hard (nearly impossible time) urinating with other people around. I'm a guy, and one time at an event in a baseball stadium I was horrified to find out that men's restroom just had a long trough with every guy whipping it out and peeing in a row. I literally left the stadium and went to a porta-potty in the parking lot to pee.


I've learned a trick that has helped immensely. I think I read it online somewhere about 10 years ago. All you do is distract your brain so you aren't consciously thinking about peeing. For me, I double numbers in my head whenever there is another person near me and I have to go.

One. Two. Four. Eight. Sixteen. Etc. By the time I get to the mid-thousands, the problem takes care of itself and I go. For me, I just need a reason to concentrate on something worthless, but also something requires real thought.

I can't guarantee it will work for you, but I've been able to pee in public ever since. Or at least at urinals with someone directly next to me. I'm still not sure about the whole trough situation though.........
posted by tacodave at 7:10 PM on June 1, 2021

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