COVID-19 has made it harder to find a clean toilet these days. This is a tiny inconvenience compared to virus’s terrible impacts in the hardest hits areas. But whether you’re in a big city on lockdown or rural town that’s not yet felt the disease’s impact, our normal bathroom routines are anything but normal these days.
Maybe you have some essential errand to run—as I did last week—and discovered that the number of available bathroom stops along the highway has sharply dwindled. Or maybe your boatyard or yacht club keeps public areas, even the bathrooms, locked. Or maybe you are an essential worker who is strictly self-isolating in your tent, trailer sailor, or camper van where bathroom facilities are not easily accessible.
Sanitary Sanitation Comes First
Whenever possible, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 it is safer to use a sanitary, plumbed bathroom that is disinfected regularly (taking all precautions for washing hands, etc.) and used by as few people as possible. However, for situations that demand a portable place to poop, a waste alleviation and gelling bag (WAG bag) can help solve the bathroom problem.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The CDC has reported that 2019 novel coronavirus has been found to persist in feces (even long after some patients have tested negative), so a WAG bag—as well as marina and campground waste-pumpout hoses—should always be handled with proper protection (gloves, at least) followed by a thorough sanitizing hand and glove-cleaning (or disposal) afterward. (The CDC offers complete guidelines on donning and doffing gloves.)
Our tester, Technical Editor Drew Frye’s first introduction to WAG bags was a spring ice climbing trip to Grand Teton. The hike-in to the base of the climb takes all day, the camping area is relatively high-traffic in season, and waste doesn’t decompose efficiently above the treeline.
Park rangers there give you a heavy duty bag with a little absorbent gelling agent in the bottom, and a warning to hang it away from the marmots, because they will make a mess of it and you have to pack it back out.
Our boating introduction came when we realized that lugging the porta-potty on and off the boat and across icy docks during the winter season was going to be a big pain. You can flush with antifreeze solutions, but overall, it’s a problem. We also realized that we practically never use the head in the winter, because our outings are shorter, but that we needed something for emergencies.
There are a few brands of WAG bags widely available at outdoor retailers like Cabela’s and REI, as well as Walmart and Amazon. They are also sold through some military surplus houses. We tested at two different products — the Cleanwaste Toilet in a Bag and the slightly more expensive, Reliance Double Doodie Bag.
The bag vendors recommend using one of their purpose-built seats or a bucket with a seat, and say that they are incompatible with a portable toilet. Strictly speaking, that’s not true. Although a bucket will give more capacity, simply laying the bag in the dry bowl of a portable toilet worked fine for a single-use. On a long back country rafting trip I once took on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the WAG bag was fitted like a garbage bag over a metal Army ammo box. Several of these portable commodes followed us downstream, each one nicknamed “The Groover,” no doubt because of the lasting impression they left . . . on your derriere.
Portable Potty Odor
We found the absorbent volume to be rather limited if much urine is introduced. We can only assume that the makers expect most users will make other arrangements. (Some makers sell separate urine bags.) If that is not the case, be sure to use an extra scoop if you need to pee.
Don’t believe the “neutralizes odors” claims; poo stinks bad until you seal the bag. That done, you can go back to sailing; it’s much better than sweating out the long ride back to the marina.
You can buy WAG bags as a complete kit (with hand wipes and toilet paper!) or alone. We think buying the bags separately makes more sense for sailors, since they likely won’t need these extras.
For more on WAG bags, contact information and pricing, see our report “Controlling Porta-potty Odor.” For more information on how to protect you, your family, and your community from coronavirus and answers to common questions, visit the Coronavirus Resource Center, brought to you by Harvard University and Practical Sailor‘s parent company Belvoir Media Group.