Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dan Crane: The Art of the Adirondack Dump

Imagine hiking for hours, and the nearest thing passing for a restroom is miles away. And then you feel it. Some call it the spike, others the turtlehead. It means one thing; it is time to answer nature’s call and there is no other choice but to poop in the woods.

One of the most awkward aspects of enjoying the Adirondack backcountry, and consequently one that elicits the most curiosity, is just how does one poop in the woods. My answer is always the same with regards to the Adirondacks: very carefully and as quickly as possible.

Pooping in the woods can be a dangerous endeavor, as it leaves one vulnerable to a whole host of possible attacks. A mischievous fellow hiker with a camera, a black bear with poor judgment in search of something good to eat or even an innocent snake minding its own business but in the wrong place at the wrong time. Worst of all, and probably the most common hazard, is a horde of any of the assortment of biting flies.

A bare butt hanging out as one takes care of business is like a giant bull’s-eye in the forest to a hungry female mosquito, black fly or deer fly. For that reason alone, it is of the utmost importance to get through the entire process as quickly as possible. Always wait until the very last minute before going, as this minimizes the amount of time where one’s butt, and other stuff, is exposed for as little time as possible. Prevent any possible biting by waving a free hand around the more sensitive parts to scare off any hovering flies. Take it from experience; getting bit on one’s privates is definitely something to be avoided!

The mechanics of taking a poop in the Adirondacks are pretty clear. If an outhouse is available then do your business there; it is way more comfortable and a lot more convenient. Keeping the door open while going may be necessary given the popularity of the area, and the time and potency of the last occupant. Afterwards, throw a handful of leaf litter onto your deposit to facilitate decomposition and control the aroma.

When no facilities are available, find a private place 150 feet from water, trail or campsite, and dig a cat-hole 6-8 inches deep. Do your business, throw a few leaves on it and then bury it with the soil from the hole.

Throwing leaves in the hole helps to aid decomposition, especially in the slight case where the mineral soil may be close to the surface. This is usually not likely within the Adirondacks unless you happen to be in an area where the mineral soil is located near the surface (e.g. an old tip-up mound or near a rockslide).

Luckily, no special equipment is necessary for pooping in the Adirondacks backcountry. Some outdoor enthusiasts swear by using a plastic trowel for digging the cats-hole, but this is usually unnecessary with the deep, damp organic layer typically found in the Adirondack soils. A nice sturdy branch, located as I scramble to find an adequate place, always works well for me, except for the few times they break during the my furious digging.

Once the wiping is finished, the toilet paper can be tossed in the hole with your waste. Following strict leave no trace guidelines, the toilet paper should be packed out. In the Adirondacks, I find carrying out the toilet paper to be unnecessary with the moist conditions present in the Adirondacks; toilet paper should decompose rapidly. It is best to use white, cheaper, 1-ply paper, preferably without all the added chemicals of the popular brands. Peeing on the used toilet paper afterward, or poking it with the digging stick, helps to compact it and prevent it from working itself up to the surface.

The best place to deposit your waste is a raised area with little vegetation in an upland habitat. A raised area avoids the possibility of the waste sitting in a pool of water after a heavy rain, and therefore retarding decomposition. Digging your cats-hole in an area devoid of vegetation reduces the amount of disturbance, which is always a good thing in the backcountry.

Positioning during the dirty deed is crucial. There is nothing worse than getting waste on yourself, or falling back into it. My preferred position is the traditional squat. This position requires strong ankles and a good sense of balance. Without those two, there can be some disastrous results. For those needing additional support can position themselves in front of a small tree, holding the tree’s stem for added support. Unfortunately, this limits the number of possible sites. Using hiking poles, stuck in the ground, can be substituted for the tree stem and therefore providing my choice in locating an adequate place.

Some people swear by using a log as a seat, with their butt sticking over the log and the cats-hole dug below. This really limits the number of possible places to go, and in an emergency situation could be a real problem. Sitting on a wet log or having the log break or fall apart in the middle of your bathroom break are just two of the additional hazards that could possibly upset what should be a relieving experience.

Most of these suggestions are only applicable during the warmer months of the year; a winter dump is a whole new ballgame. With the ground usually frozen, and most likely buried under feet of snow, makes a different method of fecal disposal necessary. And unfortunately, it requires packing out the poop.

A good choice for packing out your fecal material is a commercial product such as a WAG bag. These kits are often required in very high use areas where rich, moist soils are rare or nonexistent. The kit consists of an outer, puncture resistant zip-closed plastic bag, a poop bag with a gelling substance for those runny occasions (it also facilitates decomposition and reduces odor), toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Another option is to make your own waste disposal system. Sometimes this method is referred to as a poop burrito. Twenty inch square pieces of waxed paper and brown butcher paper are placed on the ground with the waxed paper between yourself and the butcher paper. After doing your business, roll up the paper burrito style and place the burrito in a paper bag.

A perfect container for this fecal package is a piece of PVC pipe, threaded at both ends with screw-on caps. Just screw off one cap, place the fecal bag inside and screw the cap back on. This prevents the contents from coming into contact with any other equipment. The PVC pipe can be carried strapped onto the outside of one’s backpack too. The contents can be conveniently disposed of upon returning to civilization.

There is no denying that pooping in the woods is one of the least appealing aspects of spending time in the backcountry. But, unfortunately, it is a biological necessity that must be attended to and planned for if civilization is to be left behind for a few days. Instead of dwelling on the negative, imagine the sweet relief afterwards, not to mention it is the only time it is socially acceptable for an adult to play with their own waste.

Photos: Shoulder of Greenfield Mountain in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.


Dan Crane

Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




4 Responses

  1. Pete Nelson says:

    Well Dan, this is pretty surprising and fortuitous timing, I must say. My next Lost Brook Dispatch comes out on Saturday and it is a perfect bookend to your subject, as you will see. Enjoy!

    Everyone should read this and follow it, so no one ever ever ever has to find a used TP on the ground again!

    I bury in the winter too, rarely is the ground too frozen to preclude that. I always mix with organic matter.

  2. Ron Vanselow says:

    Good information. However, there are stories out there that caution against using white toilet paper during hunting season, for obvious reasons. Not that any thoughtful hunter would mistake toilet paper for a white flag, but, not all hunters are always as careful as we wish they were.

  3. Brian Whittemore says:

    Dan, You omitted the best “pooping pose”: standing. Once performed, an aha moment occurs; so that’s the way it should be done. After all, we’re animals too, so get the squatting paradigm behind you.

  4. Dan Crane says:

    Standing? Wouldn’t that require taking your pants completely off? Uh, I don’t think I’ll be trying that anytime soon….