When You Gotta Go
Straight Poop on Backcountry Sanitation
By Tamia Nelson
July 22, 2003
Ah, the good life on the water trail.
The sun has sunk below the horizon, painting the western sky in hues of gold
and scarlet. To the east, the tips of the tallest pines are bathed in the
glow of the last light. Best of all, the whole scene's reflected in the
mirror-like surface of the lake. And there you are. You've got a ringside
seat for the show. A steaming cup of
tea warms your hands, while a comforting sense of fullness tells you that
supper was a success. The day's paddling is just a happy memory, the camp
chores are finished, and now you're pleasantly weary. As Pop Larkin was wont
to say, everything is simply perfick.
Then, just as you're beginning to think about bed, that "comforting sense
of fullness" takes on a different quality altogether nagging,
demanding, urgent. There's no ignoring the message, let alone
misunderstanding its meaning. When you gotta go, you gotta go. So you stir
your reluctant limbs into motion.
You can't pretend to be surprised. As Isak Dinesen aka Karen
Blixen, the Danish aristocrat who left Elsinore to flirt with romance and
disaster on a coffee plantation outside Nairobi once wrote, "What is
a minutely set, ingenious machine for turning
wine of Shiraz into urine?" Of course Dinesen skipped over half the story.
There's more to the human plumbing than waterworks. Yesterday's beef stew may
play tortoise to the red wine's hare, but the transformed meat and potatoes
will always finish the race in the end. Depend on it.
Tonight, though, you're compelled to put philosophical reflection behind
you. It's time for action, time to do what everyone knows that bears do in
the woods. And what could be more natural? This doesn't mean we paddlers
enjoy the same freedom as the bears, though. Far from it. We're the
thinking animals, right?
Location, location, location. Even a bear won't foul his own den. So when
you gotta go, hit the road out of camp. If there's a privy nearby, it should
be your destination. But be prepared to hold your nose. Few privies near
popular campsites are beauty spots, particularly in places like the
Adirondacks, where managers place rustic kitsch before function. No soulless
(if sanitary) concrete or fiberglass throne set in the open air for them. Oh,
no. Instead, you're likely to find a stifling, fly-ridden wooden cell. Open
the door assuming that it hasn't already been broken up for firewood,
that is and you'll be welcomed by a splintery slab with a rough-sawn
hole, set so high that even six-footers will find their legs dangling in the
air. Don't bother bringing something to read. You won't be staying long, and
the rustling of foraging creatures in the pit beneath you will be all the
entertainment you'll need. Bring your own bum-wad, though. Toilet paper is
not provided. (Special note for men only: spiders like to make their
homes in the dark corners of privies, and in warm climates the resident fauna
may include the notorious black widow. During the years leading up to the
dust-bowl days, nearly half of all reported black-widow bites were, in the
staid words of Medicine for Mountaineering, "inflicted on the male
genitalia by spiders on the underside of outdoor toilet seats." Don't say I
didn't warn you.)
If there's no privy, you're on your own. Your motto? Have trowel, will
travel. Dig before you dung, in other words. Of course, you don't have to
have a trowel. A sharp stick works, after a fashion. Commandos can use their
Ka-Bars. Sometimes you can even make do with the heel of your boot. The
important thing is to dig. Where? Any out-of-the way place at least 150 feet
from water. (How far is 150 feet? About 30 paces. And don't forget that a
pace is two steps. Count each time your left heel strikes the ground. When
you get to 30, you're where you want to be.) Use your common sense, too.
Avoid animal burrows, ground-nesting birds, wildflower gardens, and poison
Now dig. But not too deep: six to eight inches is usually plenty. If you
find yourself in sterile mineral soil, you've gone too far. How big a hole do
you need? That's a hard one to answer. How good's your aim? How large was
yesterday's dinner? Experience will teach you how big is big enough.
Toilet technique is also best learned by doing. (It's probably not a good
idea to practice in your backyard, though.) Here are a few practical tips. If
any clothes get in the way, take 'em off. You may come to appreciate the
kilt. If deep knee-bends aren't your thing, bring along a robust paddle to
help you get back on your feet, or choose a spot near a handy, sturdy branch.
Clean up just like you do at home. In wet climates, small amounts of toilet
paper will decompose when buried. Large quantities should be packed out or
burned in a fire-pit. (Don't burn soiled paper in place. The risk of
starting a forest fire is simply too high.) Whatever brand of toilet
paper you usually favor, it's good to buy unscented, single-ply bum-wad for
the backcountry the kind that typically comes in 1000-sheet rolls. The
fastidious may also want to bring along a 500-mL plastic laboratory
wash-bottle. When filled with clean water, it makes a perfect portable bidet.
You'll find that you use a lot less bum-wad, too.
Once you've done your biz, cover it up and go on your way. This is easiest
if you've saved the sod intact, a job that's much simpler with a trowel than
a stick. Finished with your cover-up? Good. Piece of cake, wasn't it? Of
course. So why are there so many crap
cairns along backcountry waterways? Beats me. It's too bad, though, and
it's one reason why the water
under your boat is often fouler than the stuff that comes out of a city
Deserts and seacoasts impose special requirements. In truly remote desert,
you can let the dung beetles do the work for you, though they'll turn up
their noses at toilet paper. In most desert parks, however, you'll have to
carry your waste out. Plan ahead. Sea-kayakers often use the intertidal zone
as a toilet, relying on the incoming tide to remove the evidence of their
passage. It's a sloppy solution at best, and it certainly won't win over the
hearts and minds of nearby beachfront homeowners. In any case, it's not for
me. I prefer to trek inland. When that's not possible, I use a pot or a
zip-lock bag as a temporary holding tank, emptying it later in a toilet or
cat-hole well away from the water's edge
Back to the red wine of Shiraz for a minute. Urine isn't as much of a
public nuisance as "Admiral Brown," but it pays to be careful where you pump
ship, nonetheless, particularly if you'll be occupying the same campsite for
more than a day. The 150-foot rule is still a good one. If this is too far to
walk, however, just improvise a urinal and dump it only when full. Any
wide-mouth bottle works fine, and there are several commercial alternatives,
as well. (We've used one called the "Little John" from time to time. Be sure
to check that all the molding seams are sanded flat, though. Sometimes they
come from the factory with razor-sharp edges in all the wrong places. Ouch!)
And if dodging sharp seams isn't enough, women attempting the bottle trick
for the first time will probably find that their anatomy doesn't lend itself
to the necessary pinpoint accuracy. Fortunately, this needn't be a problem.
With the help of the "Lady J" and similar aftermarket prostheses, women no
longer have to answer all of nature's calls sitting down. We, too, can stand
and deliver with élan and precision. Liberating, ain't it?
Whether your stay in camp is long or short, however, if you're traveling
with a large group you'll have big problems. The reason is obvious. As Colin
Fletcher once observed, "A big party camping in any kind of country
automatically imposes a dense population on a limited area." The best
solution is probably a smaller group. The second-best solution is a dug
latrine see older camping texts and military handbooks for details
or a portable toilet. An increasing number of popular waterways now
mandate the latter alternative, requiring paddlers to carry all solid waste
out with them. Here do-it-yourselfers will find yet another use for the venerable
ammo can. Well-heeled paddlers, on the other hand, need only pick up a
catalog and make their choice. The sky's the limit. "Portable self-contained
toilet systems" now abound. Many even have privacy cabanas.
Still, even the best-prepared paddler can get caught with his pants up now
and again. That's when you have to improvise. Farwell, in the grip of an
unrelenting dysentery, once paddled a long stretch on the lower Moose dressed
only in chaps and a loin-cloth. He wedged a large cooking pot under the stern
seat, where he could twitch it out at a moment's notice, even in the middle
of a drop. I've had my share of embarrassing days, too, including an endless
afternoon in a Québec marsh when I made frequent recourse to our bailer.
Desperate conditions demand disparate remedies.
The bottom line: bears do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. And
so will you, sooner or later, even if you limit yourself to day trips from
your camp dock. You might as well do it in style. Don't neglect ordinary
everyday hygiene, either. Be sure to wash your hands after taking care of
business. This is particularly important for anyone handling food, of course,
but it makes good sense for everyone. If it seems hopelessly fussy, imagine
yourself in Farwell's place on the lower Moose, running a rapids seated on a
cooking pot, wondering what sort of bug had made itself at home in his gut.
But what if the whole business sounds like too much trouble? Are you
tempted to leave your trowel at home and join the bears? Before you do,
listen to what my grandad
had to say. He wasn't a great talker, but he loved the woods and waters
around his Adirondack cabin. Whenever he caught me making a mess, he'd shake
his head in disappointment, pause, and then say, "What in hell you think
you're doin', girl? You keep my mountains clean, hear? You're gonna want ta
come back someday, you know."
You were right, Grandad. We'll all want to come back someday. And
that's the straight poop.
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights