This is one of those topics that everyone wants to know about, but no one really wants to ask. Almost no one, anyway. This spring I was a substitute teacher, and I always introduced myself with a much abridged story of our Appalachian Trail attempt: “At the end of last school year, I left my position as a science teacher to try to hike the Appalachian Trail. Who knows where the Appalachians are?” (The most common responses to that question were ‘Asia’ and ‘the west coast’, by the way…) And then I’d ask how long they think the hike might take, what kinds of things we carried, if they know what a stress fracture is (a stress fracture in Andy’s foot is what ultimately doomed our hike)… and move on to whatever we were supposed to do for the day.
|A privy on the Appalachian Trail
Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli
A few weeks ago, though, I was subbing for a middle school science class that included a girl who knew my AT story from earlier in the semester. She must have put some time into wrapping her mind around the 6-months-of-hiking concept, because she launched straight into the dirty details: Did you smell? [Definitely! Most hikers don’t even wear deodorant.] How did you, like… go? [Well, the technique is pretty much the same, except you’re outside…] No but like, did you have to go in the woods? Like, near the trail? Did you have to dig a hole?
I don’t know if a class has ever been so intensely quiet, unwilling to ask these questions themselves but itching to see how I would respond (maybe to know the answers, or maybe to see if I would flip out?). But the thing is, these are really important questions to know the answer to before setting out on a longer-than-an-afternoon hike. So in the spirit of that famed children’s book (minus the illustrations) I’m going to give the answers to you (and ask the questions for you, too). Ready?
Where do you go to the bathroom?
It depends on the trail. On the AT, there were privies (outhouses) pretty frequently, but they almost always smelled awful and were infested with bugs, especially spiders. The trade-off, though, was that most locked from the inside so you could be ensured much greater privacy than being out in the woods. Most of the time, though, you just walk off the trail a little way.
Can you just go… anywhere?
There are definitely more logistics to work out when you go in the woods. You want to be far enough from the trail to not be seen (extra hard when the trail is curvy or vegetation is thin), and not too close to a water source. The rule for solid waste is at least 200 feet from water.
There are… RULES?
Sort of. I mean, no one is watching you do this (hopefully), but everyone–even day hikers–should follow Leave No Trace Principles (click here to see the full LNT list).
Do you have to dig a hole?
Just like the title says… everyone needs to dig a hole sometime, right? LNT states that catholes should be 6-8 inches deep and that the hole should be covered when you’re done (many hikers use a hiking pole, and many others carry a trowel). Any hiker who has had the misfortune to run across a place where someone didn’t do this will never wish it on someone else. Except maybe the person who did it.
What do you do about toilet paper?
|Similar signs are in most AT privies
Photo by Bill Ruhsam
Most hikers carry re-rolled toilet paper. Re-rolling means you can decide how much TP to carry and that you can ditch the cardboard in the middle. Though most outhouses/port-a-potties at the base of popular trails will have toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and maybe even running water, most privies along the AT had none of these (we did luck out with a couple that had TP, but this is rare–on the chance that someone is thoughtful enough to put it there, odds are other hikers will use it up or take it pretty quickly). Carrying baby wipes is also a really good idea (plus you can use them to ‘shower’ before bed).
If you read through those LNT principles, though, you know another not-so-lovely truth: if you pack it in, pack it out. That includes toilet paper and tampons. I recommend a zip-sealing bag (a separate one from your general trash bag). I think I made my mom a little queasy when one of our conversations derailed down this question track.
What if you run out of toilet paper?
This had happened to me a couple times. Once Andy gave me some of his and once he left me with his pack and jogged an extra mile or so down a side trail that led to a day hiker parking lot and snagged some TP from the outhouse there (whaddaguy).
There are plenty of hikers that don’t carry TP do begin with, though, especially ultralight backpackers. Instead, you can use vegetation (just make sure you know what poison ivy looks like o_0)–and as an added bonus, you don’t have to pack any of that out with you.
What was the worst privy experience you’ve had while hiking?
If you watch The Office, you may have heard the term ‘upper decker.’ If not, Google it. Or better yet, don’t Google it and retain some of your faith in humanity.
|Spiders and bugs love the dark, damp interiors of those privies|
And since it’s about time for dinner, I really need to stop writing about this. But I’ll leave you with more places to continue your research:
- WhiteBlaze Female Forums: Ever wonder about tampons vs. Diva Cups? Or whether those devices that are supposed to let women pee like men actually work? There’s a discussion thread for everything.
- Backpacker Magazine: “Going to the Bathroom in the Woods 101”: Step by step instructions.
- Husky Hiker: “Backcountry Bathroom Breaks – Pooping in the Woods”: If you thought I overshared, don’t go here. If you were wishing my post included more illustrations, on the other hand, this is your site.