Exploring the Berkshire landscape.

Field Notes: Deep Sh*t

Now more than ever, people need to learn wilderness skills. Planning on hiking and walking more than usual? Learn how to sh*t in the woods.

“Now more than ever” seems to be the phrase of the pandemic. It’s everywhere – in every news cast, in every other TV advertisement, on the fundraising page of the Audubon newsletter. I would like to add another one: If you never learned how to sh*t in the woods, now, more than ever, is the time.

It’s heartening to see so many people out on the trails. People are listening in, some are learning to identify songbirds for the first time. Bicycle purchases and fishing license sales are up.  Trailheads are filled with parked cars.

There’s an awakening going on, and that’s a beautiful thing, for the most part. But with public facilities closed, the normal luxury of being able to use a toilet in the woods does not exist right now. Alas, that doesn’t stop the bowels from moving, and the woods are filling up with them. It doesn’t look like the composting toilets and restrooms in state forests and other public lands will be opening any time soon. “The woods are lovely, dark, and…” a bit stinky.

How do I know we have a problem? My dog. He finds it all. People are pooping too close to the trail and not burying it sufficiently. On a recent walk around Benedict Pond, my dog had a smorgasbord feast. What was supposed to be a walk of solace ended up being just plain gross.

I find it, too – the toilet paper poking out of the half-heartedly leaf-covered piles. As if a pile of sh*t needs to covered delicately. I have seen several of these piles within 5 feet of the trail, within 10 feet of waterbodies, some with swimming beaches. These piles come home with me, in my dog’s belly, on my dog’s breath, which means I’m cleaning up after you.  The excrement eventually, inevitably gets deposited in my yard, and therefore, I am scooping your poop.

Now more than ever, people need to learn wilderness skills. Planning on hiking and walking more than usual? Learn how to sh*t in the woods. Familiarize yourself with the “leave no trace” ethic. Please.

The perfect hole, 200 feet from any trail, waterbody/wetland, and campsite.

Here are the specs:

  • Go at least 200 feet (70 steps) away from trail, water body, and campsite.
  • With a camp trowel, boot heel, stick, or rock, dig a hole at least 6 inches deep. Eight is better. How wide, you ask? Four inches in diameter is the standard recommendation, but only you know your aiming abilities.
  • A great trick is to find a rock and lift it out of its hole. Voila – there’s your hole!
  • When you are done voiding, bury your output with soil (not just leaves!). Put the rock that gifted you with a hole on top.  Or, if you dug your own hole – camp trowels are great! – find a rock or some sticks to put on top. My dog is not the only human poop eater out there. Think about wild critters.  Keep them wild.
  • If you want to be a true a rock star of the wilderness – if you want to poop transcendentally – either don’t use toilet paper, or pack it out. Leaves and sticks can be effective wiping tools. If you strive to be that rock star but can’t stand to see the used TP in your sealable plastic bag (I know, the plastic bag is not very transcendental), you can line the bag with foil, or use an opaque inner bag.
  • If you are not comfortable using leaves and sticks to wipe, use only toilet paper. Some of the piles my dog finds contain disinfectant wipes – yuck. Those greatly increase the impact you are having on wildlife and water quality.
  • Click here for REI’s “Expert Advice: How to Go to the Bathroom in the Woods,” which includes an informative video.
  • Click here for the 7 Principles of the “Leave No Trace” land ethic.
Pandemic preparedness: camp trowel, mask, water, companion.

The other well-worn phrase of the pandemic is: we’re all in this together.  That includes the landscape. It includes the birdsong that keeps us company in this time of isolation.  The soils that feed the trees that support the insects that feed the birds. The wetlands that house the microbes that decompose the detritus that feeds the shrubs that produce the berries that depend on the pollinators that lay eggs in the soil.

Think about the lakes, ponds, and brooks we are swimming in this summer. Imagine a stay-at-home-order during a heat wave, when the water bodies are closed due to unsafe E. coli levels.  Imagine fecal coliform levels going undetected and clusters of people falling ill as a result, at a time when the medical community is already spread thin. Imagine a swim in Benedict Pond with the smell of human feces wafting in the breeze, or on your dog’s breath.

Now, more than ever, we are all – humans, canines, Baltimore orioles, American toads, trilliums, ramps, sugar maples, mountain laurel, ovenbirds, yellow warblers  — in this together.