Everybody does it, some more than others, but it takes a certain nonchalance to do the doo in the woods. Heck, a lot of people shudder at the mere thought of having to make do with a funky public restroom.
And though all of us have sometimes mimicked other animals’ behavior—flapping our arms like birds, growling like tigers, devouring our food like wolves etc.—we simply cannot convince whatever’s left of our primitive psyches that it’s OK to just squat anywhere and take a dump.
Some control freaks out there have their biorhythms timed to perfection. These fortunate few wake, quake, break and shake in the luxury of the home stall, while the rest of us are left at the mercy of the bowel balloon and can only hope it doesn’t decide to spring a leak during our 15 minutes of fame.
Because when it does, the experience is always unforgettable, as Floyd Coleman can attest:
“I had the runs on this 26-mile hike in Florida back in 1997. Paper? It was a day hike, and I had no plans to do No. 2. The first time, I was in luck: There were these lichens growing all around. They are greenish-grey, round, spongy-looking things that turned out to be really soft—did a great job. The second incidence, a couple hours later, I could find no lichens. However, there was Spanish moss conveniently hanging from the trees. Can you spell ‘red bugs’? Not nearly as soft as lichens, but they left this dreadful itchiness that lasted for days. The third time, the only things around were these pine trees. Have you ever looked at pine needles under a microscope? They are triangular in shape and have sharp, serrated edges. I found out the hard way. It made micro cuts all over my very tender spot. And you know what else? Pine needles have turpentine. And turpentine burns when it gets into cuts.”
Even when you think you’re well-prepared, things don’t always work out the way they should. David Pryor remembers a three-day climbing school he attended with Alpine Ascents of Seattle back in 1999.
“We hiked into the Mount Baker National Recreation Area, up the Railroad Grade moraine, learned the basics of ice ax and crampon use and, two days later, summited,” he says. “Well, we started at 11 p.m. and, of course, had to stay harnessed and tied-in the whole night going up the glacier. By the time we got to the relative safety of the summit, I had to go so bad I could hardly walk. I don’t think there were “blue-bag” rules on Mount Baker at that time. If there were, I broke them. Without a tree to hide behind, and with no way to get any real distance between me and the other nine members of my party, I had no choice but to drop my wind pants and Capilene right there and then.” Although Pryor faced his inner demons and survived an embarrassing peer-refereed battle, the real loser was the pristine mountaintop, which was forced to trade its white blanket for a brown one. But through it all, Pryor did make one breakthrough discovery: “Snowballs make pretty efficient, if soggy, toilet paper.”
And just because you’re in no man’s land, don’t assume that someone hasn’t beaten you to the punch, warns Alan Muskat. “I’ll never forget one time—I think I was still back in college, leading a backpacking trip—and I went off one morning to fertilize the woods,” he recalls. “I came across the perfect pooping spot: a large, tall, flat rock—virtually a wall to lean against—well away from the campsite. I began to dig my hole and sank my trowel into fresh dung! I wasn’t bold enough to go where someone had gone before, so I backed off—dug a fresh, more difficult hole beside a more prickly pine tree and left one for the next guy.”
The most accomplished backcountry bombers have learned by trial and error. Sometimes it may be appropriate to carry a special bag and follow the “pack it in, pack it out” strategy. Other times, you can just rely on your trowel if you know it’s OK to “drop and bury” (at least six inches deep, please, and mix contents with the surrounding debris). But there are other rules, too. Mary Standish reminds us to “learn to identify poison ivy before you need a handful of leaves. Her father-in-law had an urgent situation many years ago while hiking in western New York state, and his “paper” of choice turned out to be poison ivy. “He was in misery for the next two weeks,” she says.
Tom McGinnis advises eating a “high-fiber diet, as nothing beats a swift movement for minimizing the time your butt is in the wind.” And remember, McGinnis adds, “Always face uphill.”
But just because you’ve assimilated these simple rules, don’t think you’re out of the woods.
“I was on a hike last fall, stepped behind a tree a few yards off the trail and started to pee, looking up to make certain I was discreetly out of sight,” remembers Don McMahill. “I looked down to make sure I wasn’t peeing on my shoes: I discovered I was peeing on a yellow-jacket nest. Yikes! Kinda stresses the importance of the old term ‘Ready, aim, fire!’”
[Jonathan Poston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]