Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Backpacking and the Humbling Art of Burying Your Poop

John Muir: The reason we have to bury our poop. 
I have to admit, hiking 60 miles of the John Muir Trial (JMT) in the forest over 5 days with a backpack was not my idea, it was my dad’s. I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I’d been camping before, I’d even been backpacking before, but not for this duration or length of hike. For some reason, I was not intimidated. (I’m typically convinced I can do everything.) Even amidst my father’s repeated warnings about being “in shape” enough or the need for bug nets, water filters, and “Bear Mace,” (yup) I had visions of camp fires, swimming holes, meditating on rocks, and mornings spent writing in my journal, creekside, with my steaming hot Starbucks Via. A relaxing escape to become one with nature. Well, I was wrong. (If I was right, this post wouldn’t be any fun, would it?) Any second you’re not hiking or sleeping, you are pooping, looking for a place to poop, or figuring out what to do with your poop after you’ve pooped.  And I did become one with nature, but not in the way I expected. Nature and I are closer than any two entities can possibly be now. Nature has literally watched me with my pants down, angle it just right, and hard squeeze, (because I'm trying to do it as fast as possible for lots of reasons) to get a poop in the 6 inch hole I just dug in to Nature, with a stick, while I lean against a tree or rock (because my legs are so fatigued, they have literally become noodles in protest, rejecting their host body,) and try, TRY not to let anything coming out get on your one pair of pants, socks, or shoes. Nature has some serious dirt on me. (Real, sad pun.) It will be a while before I can look a tree in the eye. I realize I am not the first person to do it, nor will I be the last, still, the entire experience changed me. If you ever feel like you’re getting a little too big for your britches or you’re finally at that place where you’re handling with ease all that life is throwing at you and you need to feel challenged, I suggest the humbling experience that is backpacking.

Day 1. I started the first leg of this hike with confidence. I left the reading of the topographic maps to the experts, my father
and cousin, who assured me that while we would be doing “a little climbing” this day, this would surely be the worst of it for entirety of the 60 miles. So, we began. We climbed out of Yosemite Valley toward Half Dome. It was one of those cute, little uphill climbs that lasted forever, had a set of never ending stairs like an M.C. Escher painting, and forced me to call into question whether or not life was worth living. It was very sweet. After approximately 7 miles, I volunteered to watch backpacks while the other 3 members of my group ascended the Half Dome cables. (See photos) I totally would’ve done it, but SOMEONE NEEDED TO WATCH THE BAGS. They went another 1 ½ miles round trip while I waited. We then hiked the additional 1 ½ miles to our campsite. We set up our
tents in the late afternoon at a beautiful spot next to a creek. I had not yet pooped, and I began to think I could, quite possibly burn exactly enough energy per caloric intake to never poop again or maybe have one of those mind-over-matter experiences and I could just hold it in for 5 days. Which was going to have to be the case for at least the evening because there were no bathrooms in this particular campsite. Confident and energized, I took a whore bath in the creek like a good backpacker and ate my Mountain House beef stew. A few hours later, as we retreated for bed, it hit me. Hard. I was
Dad and cousin, Tyler on top of Half Dome.
not a super human and I was going to have to use nature’s restroom. It was dark so this meant choosing a location was going to be challenging. You must go far enough away to find privacy, but not so far that a bear eats you before you can pull your pants up and call for help. Keeping my poop training in mind, (no joke, they train you, those crazy national park people,) I found a tree and began to dig my 6-inch hole. I looked around one final time to ensure privacy. There were some lights from some guys at a campsite across the creek, but they were too far away to see me in the dark, for sure. So, I went to work as swiftly as possible.  I should mention here that I was wearing a head lamp.  A hands-free flashlight experience is ideal for nighttime restroom use. HOWEVER, because of the nature of wearing them correctly, they illuminate everything in the direction you’re looking. I looked down at my situation to make sure it was all going well and IT WAS. Just then, I heard some light laughter off in the distance. I shot a glance in the direction of other camp to find 4 bright headlamps shining in my direction. OH SHIT. (Literally.) I HAD JUST USED MY OWN HEADLAMP AS A SPOTLIGHT AND I JUST POOPED IN FRONT OF 4 STRANGERS. I quickly turned my headlamp off and began rustling my pants back on in horror! Hearing this fussing and rustling, my boyfriend, the 4th, and not yet mentioned member of our party, began to walk with his flashlight in my direction to make sure I was ok. I hadn’t told him I was going to the bathroom, dammit! Thankfully, I had my pants back up before he could light me up for our neighbors to see again,
"Leave no Trace" is a real, important thing, I guess.
but I had not yet buried my poop! (Part 2 off the “pooping in Yosemite” lesson.) Furiously, I began to bury, but I was too late. He was there. Shining a flashlight upon my handiwork. We’ve been together a long time, and I like to think we still have a little spark, but whatever was left of that spark was permanently extinguished as we looked at each other, then at my poop, and then at each other again, and all I could think to say was, “That’s not mine.” He made sure I was ok and left me to my work. I buried it, in shame, in the dark and came back to the tent. I slept surprisingly well despite the evening’s events. I had conquered the first day and it was hard, but this “was the worst of it,” so I was not worried.

Miles hiked: 8 ½

Total Poops: 1

Pride: All time low

Lessons Learned: 1- Turn off headlamp during nighttime outdoor restroom use. 2- Tell people you’re going to the restroom so they don’t try to come find you.

Day 2. I poked my head out of the tent to see if our neighbors who got the hilarious show from the night before were still there and thankfully, they were not! I could eat breakfast with my dignity intact. We had a long day ahead of us. Today, we would be hiking 17-18 miles. That is crazy, I know, but according to our topography experts, my father and cousin, it would be “relatively flat.” I’ll interject an early lesson learned here and tell you that they are both liars. There were not 1, not 2, but 3 different climbs that day. Sure, 11 miles of it was flat or downhill, but the other 6-7? Big, fat, annoying climbs. Fine. No problem. Surely this was the worst of it. At about mile 8, we came upon High Sierra Camp and it had a bathroom! Do you have to poop? I thought to myself. I did not, but that was ok because that evening, we were staying in the well-developed campground in Tuolumne Meadows, where I could surely have a peaceful movement with a stall and flushing toilet. I just needed to hike 10 more miles. Upon arrival and further reading of our map, we realized that the ranger station where we had cached our food for the remainder of the trip was actually 1 mile FURTHER than our campground. Now, I don’t know what super-human strength came over me, like the kind where people lift cars off of other people who are trapped and the like, but like a true hero, I said, “Not to worry, Father. You stay here and relax. I’ll go get our food so that we might eat.” (Truth: My dad was done, so my cousin and my boyfriend volunteered to go. In delirium told my cousin I’d go instead because I was “feelin’ it” and I stumbled like a freshly walking baby, 50 paces behind my boyfriend for 2 more miles.) But I did it! We finally got back to camp and happily ate our bean burritos, provided by my dad. (Quickest way to my good side: Beans.) Full and happy, I waited for my bowel movement to come. It would be a lovely evening walk to the restroom and undoubtedly a good sleep. But it never came. I went to the restroom and stood around the toilets, looking into each stall to encourage my body to take the opportunity, and to my ultimate dismay, I didn’t have to poop. Dejected, I went back to camp and crawled into bed. Surely that bean burrito would work its magic over a good night’s sleep and I could poop in the morning. Just as I drifted off, a drunken group of campers began to play the guitar and sing. (The worst kinds of people are those who bring guitars to campsites.) The star of the show had a heavy (comical) accent and was from Poland (I would find out later) and was a BIG fan of American music of the 90s. After a version of “Santeria” that surely had Bradley Nowell turning over in his
"Oh, maybe yuf heard VunderVall?" 
grave, I broke my cardinal rule of cool and like a very old, very tired lady, I reached my head out of the tent and screeched “SHUT UUUUUP!” at the top of my lungs. I would’ve gone over in person and asked them nicely, but it is A LOT of work to get in and out of a sleeping bag, especially when it’s cold. I’m not proud, but I have no regrets. Shortly after, another camper backed me up with some similar verbiage, and the music quieted. But my night of sleep was already ruined. Tomorrow would surely be a bad day.

Miles hiked: 20

Total poops: 0

Pride level: Non-existent

Lessons Learned: 1- Do not believe a word my dad or cousin says about a topographic map. 2- I need to learn how to read topographic map. 3- There is a Polish guy on the John Muir Trail that needs to die.

Day 3. I emerged from my tent very groggy. In fact, this morning was somewhat of a blur. If I had to poop, I had forgotten how and never did. The stench on my clothes had become potent but was still in the “you like your own scent” stage. I put on a fresh pair of socks and my dad assured me today would be flat. Whatever. In this case, thankfully, he was right. This hike was pleasant. We stopped for lunch by a creek and I finally got to get in a “swimming hole.” I splashed around and soaked my feet and happily ate my trail sandwich while I dried off. Re-energized, I finished the day’s hike with ease. We stopped to camp by another creek. I paused for a moment to admire the beauty around me, and it HIT me. Before I could get my bag down, I knew it was finally time. It was still daylight, so I had to walk pretty far off to do my business. “I’m going to the bathroom!! Do NOT come find me!!” I called to my boyfriend. I walked with haste, scurrying to find a good tree or rock, all the while checking the sightlines of my group. If I go here, can they see me from the waist down and am I okay if they see me from the waist up or if we accidentally make eye contact while I’m pooping? I was not. Thankfully, there were no other hikers around because that would have made this even more difficult. After about a ¼ of a mile, I
Me, pooping in the woods. 
began to set up. Without going into even more detail, that bean burrito had, in fact, worked its magic. In a desperate attempt to protect my clothes, I hoisted myself in a position no human should have to ever have to be in to use the bathroom. Not an inch of it made it into my freshly dug hole. I tell you that so you know, so it’s clear, that I had to scoop it in. All of it. With a stick. Because a scary ranger lady told me to “leave no trace.” It was one of those surreal moments where you wonder what terrible things you did in life that lead you to this exact moment. I 
The beginning of the Donahue Pass climb. 
cleaned up and headed toward camp. During that walk, I decided right then and there, that at this point, it would be impossible to assimilate back to normal, toilet using society so I might as well get used to this. We set up camp, ate, talked, and went to sleep. Tomorrow was Donahue Pass day. It would be a hard day.

Miles hiked: 11

Total Poops: 1

Pride level: There will never be measurable pride again.

Lessons Learned: Only 1- Bean Burritos are not a good hiking meal.

Day 4. Consider this the "montage" paragraph. I could not yet read a topographic map and my dad and cousin are still liars. Mountains appeared out of nowhere. I would celebrate the summit of a climb only to be met with an even bigger, dumber mountain. I pooped upon waking, on the trail, and
Me. Because I pooped outside once. 
upon arrival at that evening’s campsite. My holes got shallower out of sheer fatigue. I was so sore and smelled so bad that I wondered if I should burn my clothes and just Jungle Book/Dances with Wolves this whole thing. I decided to sleep on it, but not before one more poop.

Miles hiked: 12

Total poops: 4

Pride level:

Lessons learned: 1- Four days is plenty for a backpacking trip. 2- Four poops is plenty for a backpacking trip.

Day 5. The last day. The only thing that got me out of bed on this morning was knowing that I was near the end. We packed up, and headed out without a morning “movement.” Maybe I’ll make it to the end where I can use a real toilet?! I hiked so fast and so hard, I surprised my group and myself. However, about 7 miles in, hiking and chatting with my dad, I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Of course not. Now nature was just one big toilet with running streams everywhere and beautiful big rock and tree toilet seats, and my body knew it.
Me. Between poops. 
 In broad daylight on the trail, I had to stop my dad, and go find what would be my last bathroom. This time, I didn’t care. I was looking for waist down coverage only. I angrily dug my dumb hole, and tried to hurry. I heard my dad call, “Hey, Andrea! There are people coming!” I closed my eyes and sighed. This is a process you can only rush so much and at a certain point you can’t interrupt. I looked over my shoulder and saw them coming. I didn’t care. Who was I trying to impress at this point? I thought about picking it up and throwing it at them, like our ancestors did, but I didn’t. I just waved and turned to look vacantly into the distance. I used to have dignity. I thought. I used to be somebody. They passed in awkward silence. Everyone knew what I was doing. It was the pits. We finished the hike at Devil’s Postpile where again, with a beautifully functioning bathroom, I did not have to go. I had blisters on my feet, dirt caked on my body, a weird rash on my legs (that went away after a shower,) a slight sunburn, and no feeling in my legs. I sat for a second, looking at my car, my beautiful car, trying to figure out if I remembered how to drive it. And then, for a moment, I looked back at the trail, at the trees and majestic mountains. And I whispered, “Sorry I pooped all over you.”

Miles hiked: 12

Total poops: 2 (1 came later on at home.)

Pride level:

Lessons Learned: 1- I can hike 60 miles. 2- California is beautiful. (See Photos.)  3-Pride is overrated.

Idiots on Half Dome.

More Idiots on Half Dome. 

Me. Between Poops. 

Me. 18 hours since last poop.


Campsite # 1

Me and Tyler. Morning of last hike. 

"Trees are Dyin'"

Two lucky ducks.

Cookin' future poop.



  1. Nice of you to share your story with all of us cowards who do not have the courage to tell openly about our more or less embarrassing moments out there on the trail. I have been hiking for over 40 years now, and one could think that after so much experience it is easy to find the right spot and answer the call of nature the right way - with pride and self esteem preserved. But no, it does not function in such a rational way. Almost two years back I hiked the JMT myself. At Lower Palisades Lake my wife and I had set camp for one night. It was in the beginning of August, lots of campers, tents at every tiny patch of grass giving us many nice persons to chat with in the evening. But turning into a real challenge in the morning, even for well experienced hikers. The amount of people was simply so big that it was impossible to find a place guaranteeing sufficient privacy. I thought that I had found such a spot, but it turned out to be false. I shall refrain from going into many details but when about to finish my duty somebody came up just around the rock which I had tried to hide behind. I immediately got a disaster feeling standing there with trousers at the ankles exposing everything from the waist and down to a young woman. But luckily she just smiled and went away. Laster I told my wife. She just laughed and said that probably almost everyone had such experiences there as she was approached by a man when she was squatting the same morning. Perhaps pride actively should be left at home when hiking?

  2. Thank you for reading and sharing! I've begun leaving my pride at home for most activities these days. Ha!

  3. Leaving the pride at home seems to be a sensible thing when going to hike. If trying to do it in a decent way, finding at least some cover and not deliberately expose the most private parts to the trail, I guess that no experienced hiker will react negatively. When I think back of the times I have seen fellow hikers squat outdoor it has been in situations when I have been walking away from the trail to find a suitable place to get things done. Last summer I had a somewhat awkward experience. My husband and I was out hiking. I had found a nice spot behind some bushes well away from the trail. But I had not become aware of the minor path passing just behind and when sitting there a patrol of boy scouts came up just behind me. I was in the middle of the duty so I cound not do more than just turn around but that did not make it better, sitting there face to face to them. They smiled and waved. I tried to smile back. When they were out of sight I heard that they were laughing so they for sure had got a funny story to tell. Back on the trail I told my husband. He just smiled and said shit happens has a double meaning!

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  6. Yes, a great article! I am always making some kind of a log when hiking, but I have never thought of logging my "toilet visits", even though I have had to squat behind a bush or a boulder lots of times. Be sure, I will do from now on! And, yes, I have been spotted by bypassers too, so you are not the only one. By the way, do hikers loose their dignity when pooping outside? I think most outdoor people will understand a fellow hiker squatting to answer the call of nature. We have all been there.

  7. So the arrangement is set and you need to go outdoors overnight or make a broadened climb. Well you are positively going to require a quality and tough edge backpack to convey the provisions you require.

  8. Amusing! And familiar to many of us, I guess, even though we will not necessarily admit it. I guess most hikers have some similar experiences. I have also been caught (by my father in law!!) when squatting in the willow with a bare bum. None of us have touched the issue afterwards, but that does not mean it is forgotten.

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