There’s an unwritten rule that all campfire conversations eventually lead to a round-robin of bathroom disaster stories. During an interview with Tim Ferriss at SXSW this year (which was, up to this point, about the creative process and not at all about pooping), Cheryl Strayed, the renowned author of Wild, said, “The diarrhea stories—they’re our best travel stories…If we locked the doors and made everyone get in a circle, and we spent the night going around the room, everyone telling their poop story, you would all have one, and it would be very fun.”
It is fun. But the truth about all those disastrous stories is that they’re the exception. No one’s trying to go on their shoes, inside their climbing helmet, on a friend, in a city park, or in their 8,000-meter suit. No matter the sport, there’s a clean, quick way to take care of business, and no one should allow a fear of poop to keep them from trying something new.
I have personally gone in some amazing places, from the summit of Mount Whitney (once) to the bottom of Grand Canyon (30-plus times). I have carried my own waste in metal boxes, inside backpacks, up snowy peaks, and down rivers, and I pride myself on being a 100 percent Leave No Trace shitter. Over the years, I have learned a thing or two about doing it in the wild and in the process have assembled a guide on how to take care of business when you’re truly out there.
How to Do It: The best way to take care of business while hiking is so no other hikers, present or future, know you did it. In other words, follow the Leave No Trace protocol: Find a spot 200 feet from water sources and trails, dig a small hole six inches deep, and poop in it. Clean yourself up with rocks, pinecones, sticks, leaves, or toilet paper. If you use natural elements, bury them in your cathole, as it’s called. If you use toilet paper, carry it out with you, and bury everything else using the dirt you originally dug out of the hole.
Problems You Will Encounter: Like everything else in the outdoors (sleeping, cooking, sitting), comfort is the biggest obstacle. Try squatting over your hole and placing one hand behind you for balance—this is called the Tripod Method.
Best Options for Wiping: Toilet paper might seem like the best idea, but that means you have to pack it out, which is not great. It’s best to learn to manage without it. Use flat rocks for the first pass (or passes) and leaves after that.
Horror Story: Nick McEachern, graduate student, University of Utah
The summer before I went to college, I was on a solo camping and hiking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was mid-August, and I was nearing the summit of Mount Tecumseh. I had an urge for number two and decided to wait until I reached the summit—I have always looked for creative places to enjoy my poop. So, being a teenage boy, I found a 15-foot cliff and dug a big hole at the bottom of it. I then climbed to the top of the cliff and hung my butt over the edge. Mid-poop, I heard some voices coming closer. About 15 seconds later, a family of five French Canadians, including three children and two dogs, came into plain view. The dogs ran over, and the family followed. They gasped, gave me a nervous “bonjour,” and continued on their way. I rushed through my business, scampered down to the hole, buried my feces, and hustled down back to my car.
Pro Tip: A lightweight trowel makes things a lot easier when you’re digging a hole and doesn’t take up too much room in your bag.
How to Do It: On a big wall—or a multipitch climb of a steep rock wall, which often takes several days—you’re carrying everything with you, including your poop (and your partner’s). You’ll do it in a bag each day and store it in a Waste Case, a small haul bag designed to carry exactly that, or a poop tube, a section of PVC pipe with screw-on caps at each end. You’ll haul it up the wall with the rest of your gear and empty it into a dumpster or toilet once you’re back in civilization.
Problems You Will Encounter: Wind, close proximity to your partner(s), vertigo, acrophobia—all while trying to relax your sphincter several hundred feet off the ground.
Best Options for Wiping: Toilet paper and flushable wet wipes. You’re packing it all out, after all.
Horror Story: James Lucas, associate editor at Climbing Magazine
My friend Jamie and I were climbing the Prow, a 1,200-foot Grade V in Yosemite Valley, in 2001. It’s a popular route, and previous climbers have duct-taped a few edges and roofs to protect climbing ropes.
One morning, I led a pitch, and I could hear him moaning beneath me. I fixed the line and yelled down. Jamie responded slowly: “Um, dude—can you come down?” I descended back to the small ledge, clipped into the anchor, and smelled something that instantly made me gag. Jamie’s bowels had exploded all over the third-pitch ledge, coating the entire area in foul excrement. I looked at my partner and saw duct tape hanging from his butt. Jamie chuckled nervously and gave me a weak smile. “No toilet paper, had to grab some off the edge,” he said. “And the storm’s still brewing.”
I pulled the ropes and set up to bail off the wall. As we descended, a couple who were watching us from the ground and, it turned out, were planning on climbing the same route, asked us how the third-pitch ledge was, where they intended to spend the night.
Jamie, without missing a beat, responded: “It’s pretty shitty.”
Pro Tip: It’s not a bad idea to keep a wag bag near the top of one of your haul bags while climbing, just in case of a midday emergency.
How to Do It: If you have to go while running, it’s probably urgent. Often the best outcome is simply “not in your pants.” Beyond that, if you can find a place with some privacy, dig a hole and follow LNT protocol. Rinse your hands with a small amount of water from your water bottle, if you can spare some—or just make sure to eat your gels with your other hand for the remainder of your run. If you’re running in a city, do your best to convey the urgency of your situation to the nearest Starbucks barista or 7-Eleven clerk.
Problems You Will Encounter: Unlike when you’re hiking or backpacking, you usually don’t carry a trowel while running. Do the best you can with a rock or stick.
Best Options for Wiping: Rocks and sticks, but many runners have sacrificed a sock.
Horror Story: Emerson Fuller, EMT, Missoula, Montana
One cold, icy February morning, after eating a large pizza the night before, I went on a run at the end of my shift. I’m clipping along and start to have a few gurgles. Then more. Then a few more, accompanied with a feeling of terror. There’s no Porta-Potty in sight, and I realize that I have a few seconds to make a decision. I see a tree far enough off the path to provide cover and make a sprint. I’m 6'10", and, in my distress, I accidentally ran headfirst into a tree branch. And it started coming. Luckily, I got my shorts down, but my trail runners didn’t fare so well, taking a pretty big splatter hit. I used snow and and a puddle to clean up the best I could and made my jog of shame home.
Pro Tip: If you run long enough, you’re probably going to have to poop someplace you don’t want to. Plan ahead, and don’t ignore those warning signs—the rumbles in your digestive system don’t usually subside on their own while running.
How to Do It: Use the groover, a portable cubic metal toilet usually made from an army surplus rocket box with a toilet seat on top. Every afternoon or evening, when you stop to make camp, pull the groover out of your boat, find a private spot with a good view, and set it up. That will be the group’s toilet until the following morning, when you lock the top lid back on and stow the box back on the boat. Unfortunately, there is no magic place where you can drop off your full groover for disposal after a trip—but there are facilities where you can empty them and spray them out yourself. Ask the land managing agency where your trip is taking place for information, and then draw straws among your group.
Problems You Will Encounter: You can’t pee in the groover—it will fill way too quickly and weigh a ton. It is, of course, pretty difficult to hold one and not the other, so pee nearby before sitting down. (Bring a bucket and place it adjacent to the groover for the ladies to use.)
Best Options for Toilet Paper: Since you’re packing it all out, you can use plain old toilet paper—but do so economically. No one wants to run out of TP on the last day of the raft trip.
Horror Story: Mike Fiebig, associate director of the Northern Rockies at American Rivers
A few years ago, I was leading an outdoor education course along the Salmon River in Idaho. We had recently replaced our old 20-millimeter ammo can groover with the new Jon-ny Partner model, which has a bleeder valve to relieve building pressure from the waste. But on one particularly hot day, when the temperature was nearing 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the bleeder valve stopped working. By the time we reached our camp that afternoon, our groover was noticeably bulging at the sides. In fact, it was so pressurized that three instructors, pulling from a distance on a strap attached to the lid’s collar, were not strong enough to remove it.
After some deliberation, we decided to have our largest expedition member—a 6'3" linebacker sort—stand on the cover to try to relieve pressure from the collar while four people attempted to pull the latch open with our strap. And the scheme worked. After a few tugs, the collar exploded off, and the releasing pressure knocked the linebacker off the top of the groover. A stream of highly pressurized, aerated poop shot out at high speed from around the lid toward the circle of watching students and instructors, painting most with a horizontal brown stripe at about waist height. Chaos ensued. Screams and gagging could be heard as all 16 people made a mad dash to the river, scrubbing frantically. I heard someone scream, “It’s in my mouth!”
Pro Tip: Groovers can be somewhat unstable, especially when placed atop rocks and roots, so be careful when shifting your weight and find the flattest possible spot on which to set it up. Nothing is worse than flipping over a container of your entire party’s waste onto the ground—except flipping over the entire container and then falling into it with your pants around your ankles.
How to Do It: It’s common for triathletes to pee on their bikes—no matter what you think of that practice, peeing on your bike is a far different than pooping on your bike. The good news: While pedaling, your insides don’t jostle quite as much as when you run. Plus, you can ride to a nearby convenience store or coffee shop a lot faster than you can run to one. If you’re not within a reasonable radius of an indoor toilet, however, make do behind a tree or other tall vegetation off the bike path or the shoulder of the road.
Problems You Will Encounter: The worst thing about going while biking is that, afterward, you have a bike seat pushing up into you, and any foreign material you don’t catch during cleanup can cause or contribute to saddle sores. Immaculate wiping is paramount, especially on multiday trips.
Best Options for Wiping: If you stop at a Starbucks, plain old toilet paper. Otherwise, follow the LNT protocol.
Horror Story: Joe Hanrahan, Salt Lake City–based sales director at Rotor Bike Components
After a night of adventurous Chinese takeout ordered off a menu with no English, I began to feel a nervous urge while out on a ride the next morning. I was on a fully rigid bike, which caused extra agitation compared to my usual cushy mountain bikes. I started calculating the closest public bathroom and soon realized there wasn’t one that I could get to quick enough. Riding faster only meant more shaking and agitation of the rebellion in my GI tract. I eventually had to abandon the trail for a secluded venue, made more challenging by the late-fall lack of leaves. I made the tough decision to sacrifice my beloved “Harden the Fuck Up” socks, which I found a fitting end. In such circumstances, I’m reminded of the end of Legends of the Fall: “It was a good death.”
How to Do It: Unlike the snow you’re skiing on, poop does not melt come spring. And snow, although wonderful for schussing down, does make it hard to take Leave No Trace dumps. (Digging six inches deep in snow doesn’t count.) So the best—and by “best” I mean “best for the environment and future users of that environment,” not “most fun”—practice is to use a wag bag in one of two ways: Go directly into the bag, or go on the ground and use the wag bag to pick it up like you would with your dog. Put all your used TP in the wag bag, seal it shut, and, of course, give it to your ski partner to carry out.
Problems You Will Encounter: Getting far enough off the skin track to get privacy is always difficult, but on the other hand, winter traffic tends to be lower in the mountains—you won’t have to flee from five dozen sightseeing hikers. Also, there’s the danger of getting lost in the trees or falling into a tree well, so be careful while looking for a private spot that is still within shouting distance of your friends.
Best Options for Wiping: Toilet paper. You might be tempted to use snow, but snow turns to water when it gets warm, and leftover fragments plus melted snow equals liquefied poop, which is less than ideal.
Horror Story: Amanda Batty, pro downhill mountain biker
I was on a high school field trip with 32 other students, learning to cross-country ski in Diamond Fork, Utah. After a couple of my classmates told me I couldn’t ski down a large hill, I decided to prove them wrong, despite my lack of any alpine skiing experience. So I pointed my skis downhill, and away I went. And I kept going. Unfortunately, cross-country skis aren’t made for descending above a certain speed, and I wiped out hard. As I fell, I kicked myself in the side of the head with the end of one of the skis, breaking my favorite sunglasses and giving myself a mild concussion. Jumping up, I acted as though everything was normal, and we continued on our way back to the buses.
The body does funny things under duress, though, and about an hour after the crash, while we were still cross-country skiing, I felt some unease in my digestive track. But Diamond Fork is a sparsely vegetated area with high-altitude desert foliage, which means scrub oak and sagebrush. I held it for as long as I could, which wasn’t very long. Still two hours away from the bus, I decided to go behind a small hill, and just as I reached the other side, my body had had enough. I was unable to get my long johns down in time.
With seemingly no other options, I stripped off my T-shirt, tried to clean myself up best I could, buried my base layer for some unsuspecting posterity to find, and put my pants back on before making my way back to the group. As we skied back to the bus, I made sure to stay in the back of the group. Once we were back on the school bus, however, it became pretty obvious what happened. I sat at the back of the bus with windows open in January and pretended to not notice the comments of “what smells?” from my classmates for the next two hours.
Pro Tip: You’ll most likely still be clicked into your skis. Be sure to get into a stable, comfortable position before you go so you don’t have to move around and accidentally step in it, which is bad if it’s just skis and terrible if it’s your climbing skins.
Brendan Leonard is the author of the new book The Great Outdoors: A User’s Guide, which covers, among other things, how to poop in the outdoors.