It was the night before my five-day backpacking trip with five tough teenagers from East Palo Alto when someone asked about toilet paper, and we discovered we hadn’t been issued any. This was most of the kids’ first time in any sort of backcountry outside the Bay Area, and each seemed to have a different solution to the problem.
“I’m just gonna hold it for five days,” Eric said. The kids all seemed to know another guy who had gone on a similar backpacking trip, and legendarily “held it” until he got back to a proper commode with some soft, fluffy white tissue paper.
“I bet that thing came out with a fist on the end of it,” I said. “You guys will just have to use rocks and sticks.” This suggestion was met with denial, disbelief and shock. Two minutes before, I was Friendly White Hippie Dude. Now the kids were looking at me like I was a creepy guy with a strange fetish they wished they didn’t know about.
That first shit in the woods is a pure rite of passage for any mountain person. Sure, you can be a casual day-hiker for years and avoid it, and maybe even last through a few overnight trips. But sooner or later, you’ll need to confront your ancestral self and drop one amongst the evergreens, without your favorite magazine, scented candle or plush bathroom rug under your toes.
Nowadays, we bury it under the ground when hiking in the backcountry. On raft trips, it goes in the groover, an ammo can fitted with a toilet seat. On the side of El Capitan, it goes in bags and gets stuffed in a PVC pipe with two screw caps — the “poop tube” — and hauled up the wall with the rest of the supplies. On some glaciers in Denali National Park, you go in a bear canister-esque Clean Mountain Can (try not to pee in it) that you carry out with you. On some boats and float houses, it’s heated in an incinerating toilet until it turns into ash (about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit), and then it’s dumped in the ocean. On Mount Shasta, the Forest Service issues poop bags complete with paper targets for aiming, and after the magic happens, you pick up the target, roll it up and bag it, and carry it down the mountain. In the Grand Canyon, mules carry it out after a couple of dudes in HazMat suits shovel it out of the pit toilets at Indian Gardens.
In the 1979 “Book of Strange Facts and Useless Information,” author Scot Morris writes: “Australian aborigines, who usually go naked and are unconcerned if a stranger sees them defecating, are deeply ashamed to be seen eating.” Our society is far from comfortable with it, requiring complete privacy, flushing the evidence out of sight as soon as possible, and covering our tracks with fans, sprays and matches. Some teenage boys maintain that women don’t do it at all. Parents of newborn babies will change an average of 2,800 “dirty diapers” in the baby’s first year, but we panic at the thought of having to squat in the forest. And we can’t imagine wiping our ass with anything other than toilet paper.
But it’s not so bad. A breeze blowing through the Ponderosa pines, maybe the noise of a creek trickling by at the speed of nature, and no constipated ad salesman grunting one out in the next stall, farts echoing off the inside of the toilet, squealing like angry ducks. We can take our time. Get away from the trail as far as you need to feel comfortable — at least two feet. Dig a hole at least six inches deep (this can sometimes be aided considerably if you can find a large rock embedded in soil, and you can pry it out, leaving a large hole). Pull your pants down to your ankles, line yourself up over the hole, squat, hug your knees and relax. Poop like the perfectly normal human you were 300 years ago, before we got all soft and had to drink bottled water and have someone else kill our food.
Some folks pack a roll of Charmin Ultra Soft, but I can’t bear to pack it out once it’s used. Some of us choose to use rocks, sticks or leaves, which have the advantages of a) leaving nothing to pack out and b) an unlimited supply of wiping material. The two criteria to keep in mind when hunting for potential rocks and sticks are a) smoothness and b) ability to fit the rock or stick between your butt cheeks. The best, of course, is a summer snowbank in the mountains, which provide infinite refreshing snowballs. When you’re finished, bury your rocks and sticks in the hole, and off you go down the trail.
You miss the comforts of civilized shitting when you’re in the backcountry, but also the discomforts. No filthy toilet seats, no public restroom doors that don’t lock, no senators from Idaho propositioning you with foot Morse code from the next stall, and no lines. Few things can go wrong in the woods, usually.
But things can, in fact, go horribly wrong. On Mount Rainier once, as the story goes as told to me by a friend who heard the story from a guide who at that time worked for Rainier Mountaineering Inc., a client left his team and guides to go take a dump. On Rainier, of course, climbers are required to “blue bag” it and pack it out with them (or toss it in one of the receptacles on the mountain, which are removed by helicopter once a year). Most folks unclip the leg loops of their harness, pull their pants down, plop one in the snow and pick it up with the blue bag, as you would do with your dog’s poop in a municipal park.
After a few minutes, the Rainier climber returned to the group, frantically repeating to the guide, “I can’t find my shit!” In the ensuing search, the poop was located in the man’s climbing helmet, still clipped to the back of his harness while he enjoyed one of the most scenic restroom views of his life, near Rainier’s summit crater. I was not told the rest of the story, but suffice it to say the guides didn’t let the man continue without wearing his helmet, and everyone else in the group retold the story to as many appropriate audiences as they could for the rest of their lives.
We can remove many of the historical discomforts of human life through science — air conditioning, pharmaceuticals, better/lighter/warmer/cooler outdoor gear and apparel — but when it comes down to taking a dump in the woods, we are back as our ancestors were. Except sometimes we have to put it in a blue bag and carry it around with us for a day or two.