Finding a spot and poppin’ a squat

The first time I had to pee outside was … an experience. I had grown up in the city and other than a handful of overnight trips at posh campsites with my girl scouts group, I hadn’t spent much time outdoors in the heart of nature. For my first field job as an undergrad, I was working at a waterbird colony in Canada with day trips to our small study island. I was pretty good at timing my bathroom breaks to occur when we were on the mainland – but one particularly long workday changed up my schedule. Of course on that day, I was working with two guys and I didn’t quite feel that I could ask for their advice on how to handle my business. Finding even a semi-secluded pee spot was a challenge – the vegetation was patchy early in the field season on the relatively flat island. Most spots were easily visible to eager birders on the mainland equipped with spotting scopes or to the curious boaters that missed the large signs instructing them to keep away from the colony. I urgently had to go and return to my work, so I crouched next to the tallest cluster of vegetation I could find – which happened to be part of a territory occupied by a very large and opinionated Herring Gull (who was, understandably, not pleased with my decision).  


Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) having a lively conversation.

So this week, we’re featuring several contributions highlighting potty break stories and advice. We’re featuring experiences by an anonymous contributor, Heather Herakovich, and myself – all with differing backgrounds of bathroom commodities.

Submitted by: Anonymous contributor

I was doing field research in Alberta’s boreal mixedwood forest. My thesis topic looked at the responses of boreal songbirds to a range of forestry treatments. My research site had a permanent camp with indoor plumbing and a full kitchen – so I was definitely spoiled.

My daily routine during the breeding season was to wake up between 2:30-3:00 AM in order to hit the road no later than 3:30 AM. Then, a drive down logging roads in the dark, the trip taking about twice as long as it did during the day because the road were usually wet, it was often foggy, and there was just enough pre-dawn light to throw the ditch into shadow and make deer that much harder to spot. So I was a white-knuckle driver in the mornings for sure.

We would reach our ATVs and get those started and warming up, then head to whichever section of the study area we were tackling that morning. Then, my field assistant and I would split up (we had radio check-in procedures to try and decrease the riskiness of that situation as much as possible), then each do a route of usually 10-13 point count stations, starting around 5:00 AM and with a cutoff of 10:00 AM or earlier, if it got windy or started to rain (can’t hear birds over swaying trembling aspen or creaking spruce). Camp life was quiet since we were in bed by the time the other researchers staying at camp got back from the field.

The bathroom situation at camp was a co-ed bathroom with stalls, showers (with a curtained antechamber for changing), and a urinal with a small privacy wall. Having grown up with two brothers and a small house, the co-ed bathroom was no problem for me, but fortunately my experience was always with men at camp who never made me feel uncomfortable (and indeed I think they would avoid using the urinal when women were in there). My number two schedule was very convenient because at 3 AM no one hears you poop.

For a newbie my advice for a co-ed bathroom is to know and respect your own comfort level – if that means you time your bathroom visits for when the opposite sex isn’t using it, then that’s what you do. But in a busy year with a full camp I think my other advice would be find some strategies for increasing your comfort, for example to work with the camp manager to block out some times when you can shower, etc. But it’s definitely everyone else’s responsibility to respect one another’s boundaries, and it’s a situation where having a camp manager who will intervene if anyone behaves inappropriately in the space is essential (as I knew my camp manager would if it had been needed during my summers).


By: Heather Herakovich

I have always been lucky enough to not need to worry about bathroom accommodations at any of my field sites. My current field site is a tallgrass prairie restoration in northern Illinois. I am currently finishing up my PhD looking at the effects of prairie management (fire and bison grazing) on grassland birds. You can equate my current field site to “car camping.” You are very rarely far enough away from your car that you cannot see it. I drive 45 minutes to the site every day, only spend ~6 hours at a time in the field (6AM-12PM), and then drive 45 minutes home. The bathroom accommodations were probably some of the best, as you are usually in driving distance to at least three accessible bathrooms. That being said, to make things run faster in the beginning and not have to make a separate trip to the bathroom, I would relieve myself right before I started (squatting behind a tree or my car). This was easier said than done, as mosquitos were everywhere, and lack of appropriate cover was lacking. Prairies don’t have many shrubs or trees. It was doable, but a struggle. When I had help that day, I would hold it. Most of the time it didn’t bother me. However, on period days, it was very uncomfortable near the end of the day. At the end of two seasons, I gave up trying to pee in the field and used the bathroom. If you get anything from this blog, please don’t ignore any accommodations you have. Your bladder and your body will thank you. My research didn’t suffer from the break and neither should you.


By: Christy Wails

Fast-forward a few years after the gull incident – I went on to pursue my MSc which involved studying seabirds in the delightfully dreary Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Unlike my previous field adventures, this experience meant I was effectively stranded on a remote island for several months with a handful of people I had just recently met. And, because this was an otherwise uninhabited island, there were no pre-existing structures. Everything we could possibly need had to be hauled ashore – including the ‘bathroom’. Fortunately, one of our crew members also happened to be incredibly skilled at constructing field shelters that could be easily disassembled into maneuverable pieces and reassembled in the field once the hole was dug (away from and not facing camp, and not close to where we collected our glacial melt water). 


The assembled camp biffy, anchored against the strong Aleutian winds.

And while it lacked a door, it did make up for that in the view. 


The view of our nearest island neighbor.

We had a few general rules we followed for our bathroom experiences while in camp – mostly centered around the need to respect eachother’s privacy. If the roll of toilet paper went missing from our shared living quarters, that meant the biffy was currently occupied and we patiently waited for the roll to be returned. 

No matter where you are, it’s important to know what accomodations are available to you during your fieldwork – chat with the folks you trust. Establish rules and boundaries with your campmates, consult with your camp leaders to ensure you’re respectful of the landowners’ wishes and cultures, and follow any guidelines to prevent bioinvasions that could result from potty breaks.

Have insight you’d like to share? Join us on Twitter (#FemFieldSecrets and @FemFieldSecrets) to continue the conversation!

Interested in telling your whole tale? We would love to hear from you!

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