When I led my first international tour in Bali twelve years ago, Surya Made and Judy Slattum, our on-the-ground organizers and guides, schooled me on the basics of leading a tour. They let me know that the first and most important thing you have to pay attention to is feeding people before their blood sugar drops and knowing exactly when and where they’ll get to pee. Bathroom stops, meals and snacks are essential considerations. You must tend to peoples’ basic physical needs before implementing any other aspect of your tour/program design.
Every group leader has to stay on top of the urination and defecation needs of their group. On our Creative Camino, this is just as true as it was in Bali and on every other trip I’ve led ever since.
When Andre, Brenda and I first got together in Madrid, Brenda stressed that we always need to pay attention to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Bodily needs come first: Are you too hot or too cold? Do you have to go to the bathroom? Are you starving or thirsty? Is the sun in your eyes? Is it so loud you can’t hear anything? If these basic physical needs aren’t taken care of, participants can’t focus on anything else. And they certainly can’t think about higher level needs, like being creative or self-actualization.
This is why in planning our daily route on the Camino, figuring out where fifteen people can pee and poo continues to be a huge, serious topic of conversation between Brenda and Andre every single day. The Camino isn’t like hiking in the mountains or on a deep forest trail. You can’t count on being able to step off the trail to squat and pee. We spend much of our day walking through villages and towns, passing private lands, walking alongside roads and over bridges. For the most part, we are not walking through wilderness. We are walking through farmland, settled land, places where people live. We’re often in public.
Some days, there are multiple public places where we can stop and use the facilities. And some days, there aren’t. Restaurants and stores on the Camino usually mean a bathroom available for pilgrims, but there’s a downside to these stops: every time we pause at a restaurant or store for a bio break, we have to buy something. So, a bathroom stop for couple of people who feel the urge can suddenly lead to half our group taking off their packs (and often their shoes—that would be me!), ordering coffee or something to eat. And since this is Spain, service takes time, and suddenly, two peoples’ need to urinate has turned into an hourlong stop. Not to mention that the coffee people imbibe only necessitates another urination stop a bit further down the road.
If you’re one or two people companionably walking the Way, dealing with physical necessities is easy to negotiate, but traveling with fifteen is a whole other matter because everyone has to pee at different times of the day.
That’s why Brenda talked to us about using “the green door.” A green door is place along the trail where a country path leads off the Camino, a place likely to be a good, private spot to squat and pee. Our first day hiking, Brenda handed us each a Ziplock bag, what she called a “green door kit,” with the instruction to carry it with us at all times. The kit contains a packet of tissues (to be replaced with rolled-up toilet paper pilfered from our hotel rooms), a green Ziplock to put soiled tissues in, and the suggestion to add a small bottle of hand sanitizer, an item on our basic packing list. Brenda’s instructions were to empty the green bag at the end of every day and then to stick it back in the kit to reuse the following day.
The basic principle of elimination while hiking is “Leave No Trace.”
Brenda also told us that when one person needs a green door and several others decide to join her, it’s okay to head into the woods simultaneously, and pee spread out in a line. “We’re all doing the same thing,” she insisted. “No one is looking at each other.” Waiting for fifteen women to take turns peeing in a field as if they’re at the movies waiting for a bathroom stall is an unnecessary waste of time.
So now, as we hike, someone calls out, “I need a green door,” and then everybody steps to the side of the path and waits or scrambles up the green door path, because Brenda’s other dictum on the trail is, “Never forego an opportunity to pee.”
An hour later, after walking through a more populous area into a wooded stretch, someone might gesture to a path leading off the trail and call out, “Hey, that looks like a great green door. Anybody need to go?”
As a system for taking care of people’s biological needs, green doors work well and keep our group moving forward. Peeing in the woods or in a field behind a hedge takes a lot less time than stopping to order a coffee or a tortilla (a baked potato/egg combination common to the Camino) or a sandwich for the privilege of using the bathroom.
That doesn’t mean we don’t stop at cafes or restaurants during the day, we just don’t do it every time nature calls.
It also became evident to all of us right away that it’s a good idea to carry your “green door kit” everywhere you go, because there is rarely toilet paper in any of the “official bathrooms that flush” and dripping dry can lead to soggy underwear and even a yeast infection.
There is a modern alternative to the green door kit that I became aware of earlier this summer when hiking near the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington. Many of the women, especially young women, we saw hiking on the PCT had these brightly colored fun triangles hanging from their packs. What the hell were they?
I soon found out and ordered one right away.
Andre and I both brought this new peeing technology with us. It’s called a Kula Cloth—and it’s a reusable antimicrobial pee cloth. A toilet paper substitute, the Kula Cloth is a perfect companion for backpacking, camping, trail running, spelunking, sailing, snowmobiling, hunting, orienteering and on and on. It’s a way to stay comfortable and have a positive impact on the environment at the same time.
The Kula Cloth is a specially treated square that snaps to your pack using a durable plastic snap. It also folds in half and snaps to itself, forming a triangle with the “used side” inside, while featuring a bright, cheerful design on the outside. (If I’ve done a poor job describing it, you can check it out in the pictures below.)
Kula Cloths are designed only for pee, not poo, and preclude the need to carry and dispose of toilet paper. You squat, pee, unsnap the triangle, wipe carefully, then resnap the triangle so only the patterned outside shows. There’s a handy cloth handle that keeps you from every getting your fingers soiled or wet. When you’re done, you snap the closed triangle back on your backpack, where it dangles ready for the next green door or bathroom that has no toilet paper. At the end of the day, you rinse out your Kula Cloth in the sink with a little soap and let it dry, so it’s ready for service the next day.
Andre carries two, one that stays dry and fresh while the other dangles from her pack, drying.
While I’d never think of hanging wads of toilet paper from my pack (although some people, like my daughter-in-law, do—just scroll down to see the photo), I don’t hesitate to showcase my Kula cloth. It’s clever, trendy, and cute, something I want to display rather than hide. It signals that I’m a hip, experienced, with-it female hiker. I think it’s fun and very practical.