The stalls at the campground where we stayed were way too small for a parent and child to squeeze into, so I had to squat in the doorway while encouraging my 3-year-old to give the potty a try. Then the automatic flush went off early, scaring my already-uncomfortable kid so much that she would no longer sit. Meantime, the environmentally-friendly-but-oh-so-loud hand-dryer was blowing, another sound she finds frightening.
What’s a parent to do?
We hadn’t thought to bring diapers, or a potty seat or travel potty. In familiar places, our daughter is fine using an adult toilet. Somehow, we had thought that skill would transfer to all the other potties she would encounter on our trip.
We had crying. We had tantrums. We had a peeing accident in the middle of a convenience store. And one morning we woke in our tent to the unmistakable smell of poop.
I wished we had chosen a more wilderness-oriented camping trip, since our daughter doesn’t mind squatting in the bushes to pee. The peace and quiet of a cat hole in the woods probably would have been fine. Or a private bathroom at a hotel would have worked. Instead, we had chosen a home base with a noisy shared restroom, and daily bike outings all over the island that would force us to rely on other facilities, the kind of catch-as-catch-can pit stops that we adults take for granted but we suddenly realized our child wasn’t quite ready for.
Neither my husband nor I was a happy camper the morning of the poop-filled footie pajamas, when we ended up taking a family shower together in order to get our girl clean. But we weren’t about to pack up our tent for this.
As primary bathroom buddy, I tried to stay upbeat. After all, I knew my daughter could do it. The first night at the campground, after showing amazing bladder control for hours, she woke in the middle of the night needing to pee, and was just fine when she and I and our headlamp were the only ones in the bathroom. So I just kept trying to get her to go whenever we had a chance.
In the course of a few days, she was peeing in restaurant bathrooms and at the campground with only mild concern. And when I brought her with me into a port-a-potty near a playground, she surprised me by saying she wanted to use it after me. She was fascinated by looking down at all the deposits left by previous visitors. “Maybe that poop is from the boy who was in here before us,” she said. Then she looked around and asked, “Where is the sink?”
I’m grateful to the mom at the convenience store checkout who saw my daughter standing in a puddle of pee and smiled, saying, “It happens.” And I’m grateful to all the other parents who brought their kids to the campground, showing us it could be done.
Most of all, I’m grateful to the resilience of 3-year-olds. The few rough moments of “I’m too scared” quickly passed, switching to “Will you push me on the swings?” or “Can I have a milkshake now?” By the last few bathroom stops, we had started a much more fun routine, involving a series of stories I invented about fairies named after flowers.
My daughter sat happily on a strange new potty, asking, “Can you tell me another one about Rose and Violet, and a birthday party?”
If you’re navigating the early days of outdoor travel with your kids, you may find that what worked for me and my daughter doesn't work the same way for your family. Every kid is different, and even the same child can change dramatically over the course of a few months.
Here are a few places to find practical tips for using the potty while camping.
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics offers seven principles to minimize impact on the natural environment when you’re out hiking or camping, including disposing of waste properly. Their website explains how and where to bury your poop.
You can find step-by-step instructions for how girls (and women) can pee in the woods without getting pants and shoes wet, courtesy of blogger Jen Johnson (of Backcountry with the Kids) in If A Girl Pees in the Forest...
Blogger Alyssa Erickson (of The Kid Project) offers her tales and advice in When Potty Training Invades A Campsite.
And Kathleen Meyer has written the classic book on the topic, How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art.
Photos by iStock.
Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog written by Heather Stephenson.