Dear Umbra,

When at a beach with no bathrooms, is it better, environmentally speaking, to urinate in the ocean or behind a sand dune?

Greenville, N.C.

Dearest Tom,

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A good, silly summer question to consider as regards our impact on the natural environment. There are non-environmental concerns with beach urination as well, such as disgusting your fellow sunbathers and your fellow readers. Who, however, will cast the first wad of toilet paper and say she or he has not had this dilemma?

Come on in, the water’s warm(er).

Photo: iStockphoto

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The answer will vary a little depending on where you are and what restrictions are in place, but in general Leave No Trace is the outdoor ethic we should be striving for, whether we are in the wilderness or on Atlantic Beach. Leave No Trace principles concerning human waste include doing your best to avoid polluting water sources, minimizing social and wildlife contacts, and maximizing decomposition.

Happily, urine is not the problem that feces are. The main trouble with our practically sterile urine is its smell and saltiness, both of which can attract wildlife. The wildlife may then look around for something tasty near the smell, digging into soil, nibbling plants, and what have you until they are disappointed and depart. Hence, when urinating on land, it’s best to target less sensitive sandy or rocky areas. Which sounds just like a dune — but wait. Dunes are notoriously sensitive, and let’s also keep in mind avoiding social contacts, i.e., being careful not to leave a stinky location for fellow beachgoers to encounter. Given all this, I think ocean water would be the preference. If the water is too cold or you are too wimpy, just make sure you go below the high-tide line (though still out of sight of your fellow beachgoers) — then nature will flush your liquid waste away.

I realize you didn’t ask about freshwater, Tom, but there are river, lake, and quarry-side beaches we must consider. In a river canyon setting, for instance, it’s hard to get 200 feet away from water and trails, so I guess the common practice is to pee in the river. But in other wilderness-type situations, in which we can get 200 feet away from water and publicly used places, we should urinate on a rocky or sandy area, feeling confident that it is not the exact stinky place where everyone else is urinating, and that a curious critter won’t do too much damage. (In an actual wilderness area, follow human waste instructions from the nearest ranger station.)

Now, I have something special for the ladies as regards public urination. We now have the go-ahead to pee in the water in a river-canyon-type situation. What of the wilderness-type situation and the problem with pulling down your pants to squat while guys get to pretend they are intensely studying shrubbery? It’s awkward, and I am here to tell you about a few products that can help us urinate standing up and fully clothed. I have not used these products, but I know people who have and swear by them in situations from hiking to farming to portapottying — I know you can think of an occasion when you would have preferred to remain standing and pretend you were studying the shrubbery. These are all funnel variants: The pStyle is plastic, 7.5 inches long, and comes in a variety of tasteful colors, the Shewee is for the British ladies — these both fit into your pocket or purse and are reusable. There are disposable versions, such as the Whizzy, the Urinelle, and the P-Mate, but you know how we feel about disposable items. Try ’em if you think you’d like ’em — and let me know how it goes.