Stopping for a poo break in the Boundary Waters of MN

Everybody Poops: Digestion in the Outdoors

In my last post I discussed making your own backpacking food, so it makes logical sense to post about what to do with that food when it comes out!

If you are going to backpack, you’ll need to get over any squeamishness you may have about bodily functions.  They happen and they are hard to hide on the trail.  There are definite, clear-cut rules regarding how the process of elimination should be handled, and then there are personal choices.  I’ll try to cover both.

Peeing is pretty simple, especially if you are male.  There are things to consider, however, regardless of your genitalia.  You should never pee near a water source. Although specific park rules and regulations may vary somewhat, be sure you are at least 200 ft. (about 70 adult steps) away from any water source when you pee.  This protects the water and the organisms and animals that live in it.  Remember – you filter or treat water to drink and you don’t want people peeing in your drinking water!  So don’t pee in someone else’s.  By the way, the 200-foot rule also applies to poop (and bathing and washing dishes or clothes).


Women and peeing

There is much discussion as to how this is best handled.  Most women remove their packs, find something to hide behind, pop-a-squat and let loose.  Me? I rarely take my pack off because I want the extra challenge of doing the squat (and standing back up) with my heavy pack on. Or perhaps I’m just lazy.

Some brave women use a device designed to let a woman pee like a man.  That is: standing up and through the fly.  There are a surprising number of products on the market to make this happen, and women who use them debate as to which is better. I tried the pStyle, and it was not pretty.

I tried. But I failed to pee with this without embarrassing (hilarious) results!

 

Like the box recommended, I first tried it in the safety of my own home. Easy enough.  No problem.  I peed standing up and it all went into the toilet!  I was an expert after just one try …

… or so I thought.  On day 2 of my John Muir Trail trip, I was hiking with two male strangers quite a bit older than myself.  I had to pee really badly, but we kept meandering through open meadows with nowhere to hide.  So I finally used my pStyle.  I ducked behind a skinny tree for some semblance of privacy, unzipped my fly and attempted to replicate my one use of the device at home.

Things seemed to be going OK for about 4 seconds.  Pee was funneling down the pStyle like it was supposed to.  Suddenly, I felt that signature, unwelcome warmth down both legs.  Uh oh! I had only been getting some of my pee into the pStyle!  The rest was flowing down my legs.  Flowing.  Did I mention both legs?  My hiking pants were soaked.  My legs were wet.  I stopped, mid-stream, and resorted back to the tried-and-true squat to finish, no longer caring if my new friends saw me peeing.

Then I did what any self-respecting woman stuck in the wilderness with two strange men would do: I stepped out from behind my tree and announced that I had pissed all over myself.  Oddly enough, they seemed unfazed and we continued on our way. I washed my pants that night and ditched the pStyle in a trash can at Tuolumne Meadows.  I wasn’t going to carry that extra couple of ounces all the way to the top of Mt. Whitney!  I don’t blame the pStyle, and neither should you.  Practice, practice, practice.

My terrible sister catches a photo of me doing the deed.

Wiping is another issue women must decide on.  Some women do a little post-pee ‘twerking’ move to drip off as much as they can, and that’s it.  Others carry a pee rag.  Yes, a pee rag.  This is actually what I do.  Liteload makes these nifty 12″x12″ compressed towels that open up and expand with water. They’re disposable, but durable.  I wet one slightly to decompress it and use it throughout the day to lightly dab myself.  Some women hang their pee rag on their packs to let the UV rays kill the germs and keep it sanitized (which is a legit method but is just a little too “in your face” for me).  I just fold my pee rag in on itself after each use and keep it in my pocket.  I wash it at the end of each day.  On longer trips, I break open a new Liteload towel every few days.

 


Pooping, for both sexes, gets a tad more complicated.  You can’t hide the fact that you are going to poop. Go ahead and try, and good luck to you.  You know what’s up when you see a fellow backpacker wander off into the woods, alone, with a bag of “supplies”.  They are going to poop and everyone knows it.  So get over any worries about privacy real fast.  It ain’t gonna happen.

Pooping in the wilderness is a joy.  Haven’t done it?  Just wait – you’ll see.  The views are frequently incredible and the birds chirping while you squat and do the deed make it sublime.  In case you didn’t know (and why would you?), science says that squatting to poop creates a better, more nature angle in your colon, making elimination easier and more “complete” (Be sure to watch this Squatty Potty commercial for proof!).  Also, your entire digestive system is working like a champ because of all that walking and healthy food (assuming you made it yourself).

My husband is a meanie!

All poop must be buried and you’ll need a tool for digging the hole.  Some people use thick sticks, but what if none are available?  Instead of buying a special pooping shovel (called a “cat trowel” or “cat-hole trowel”), just buy a tent stake designed for snow camping.  They are super lightweight, incredibly cheap and take up very little space. Plus, they just work well.

 

Make sure you dig the hole at least 6 to 8 inches deep.  Make it deeper or wider as needed (only you know how big your hole needs to be).  Your waste should be truly buried when you are done.  In most places, your hole must also be big enough to accommodate your toilet paper, so keep that in mind when digging.

In some wilderness areas, TP must be packed out.  No burying it.  There are several reasons why, but it’s important enough that I pack out my TP on ALL trips, even if it isn’t required, because it’s just the right thing to do.  Where do you put your used TP? In a zip-lock bag.  And then put that bag into another bag.  Want to be super environmentally conscience? Wipe with what the good earth provides – leaves, sticks, stones.

What about biodegradable TP, you ask? In areas where TP must be packed out, that goes for biodegradable TP as well.  No exceptions.  Don’t be the selfish ass-hat who breaks the rules.  Despite all those participation trophies, you’re not special.

Make sure you have hand sanitizer and please – for the love of God, PLEASE – use it every time you go to the bathroom.  Most stomach illnesses on the trail are due to poor hygiene among hikers.  Gross.  Giardia sucks.  Don’t spread giardia.  Read my post on backpacking equipment for a nifty, homemade sanitizer hack.

In some heavily-protected areas, you have to pack your actual poop out, not just your TP!  These areas are rare and usually you are given a special WAG (waste and gel) bag to put your poop in.  Don’t think about this too much (it’s gross).  And it’s rare, so moving on …

Here’s another tip: don’t burn your used TP!  This happened to me once. A woman was running out of room in her zip-lock bag for TP, so she just started burning it on the group’s fire, without telling anyone first!  Don’t do that.  TP “embers” can also drift and start wildfires.

So there you have it! Everything you never wanted to know about pooping and peeing in the wilderness. Life skills, people. Life skills.

Next up: I’ll cover more Leave No Trace principles.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. – William Butler Yeats

Women in Backpacking, Part VI: But, I’m a Man!

If you are of the male persuasion and follow my blog, you may have ignored my Women in Backpacking series. Or perhaps you read the posts and thought to yourself, “Hmmmm – what can I do to help the situation?” If so, then Bravo! If you have not read the five-part series, I encourage you to do so now.

Today I want to focus on how men can be a part of the solution. That’s not to say you are part of the problem, because, for the most part, you are not.  Many of us women have been conditioned over time to fear strange men, especially if we are all alone in an isolated place.  That’s not YOUR fault, but the fault of society, our culture, poor parenting, prior experiences, the one-in-a-million really bad guy and more.  No matter how you slice it, though, many women fear striking out into the wilderness alone because they might run into, well … you.  After all, how many female rapists and serial killers have you heard of?

Stanislaus national forest
A lone male hiker. Also my husband!

There are things you can do (or not do) to help ease your female fellow backpackers’ fears. I’m not suggesting your run up to the nearest solo female and explain that you aren’t a rapist, because there are subtle ways to show the women you run into that you are who you are: a kind, like-minded compadre out in the wilderness for the same exact reasons as women are.  Some helpful tips:

  1. Do not hit on her! At all. Ever. She doesn’t want that and it will creep her out. This might seem self-explanatory, but it’s not.
  2. Do not compliment her appearance. This will also creep her out. You certainly may compliment her gear choices, though!
  3. Don’t be overly pushy about trying to make camp with her for the night. You yourself might be feeling a bit lonely or apprehensive about backpacking solo, but be sensitive to her feelings.
  4. If you are going to be setting up camp in the same area, make sure you place your tent as far from hers as you can to give her space and privacy. If you get there after her, ask her if she minds you setting up camp there. Just asking first shows a level of respect and politeness.
  5. Try to gauge her feelings and read her cues. Does she basically say hello and then move on to making camp and cooking dinner? She is probably not interested in companionship. Or is she chatty and conversational? Then she might be more willing to hang out for a bit around the fire or eat a meal together.
  6. Watch your body language! Don’t be a close-talker. Do not touch her in any way, even if that’s just the kind of guy you are. Even a simple pat on the back from a stranger can be off-putting to many people.
  7. Do not tell her you are hoping to find a woman out on the trails! I know that male backpackers often times would like to date female backpackers – and vice versa – but this is neither the time nor the place.
  8. Don’t ask overly personal questions, like, “Do you have a boyfriend?” Again … creepy.
  9. Do not take pictures of her. Also falls into the “creepy” category.
  10. If you are with a group of men, all of the above pertains to each of you individually, and as a group.
Arroyo Seco River
Forming groups in the wild.

Women account for over 50 percent of backpackers now, and we are entering the wilderness solo more often than ever before. A modicum of extra sensitivity and empathy for how your fellow female backpackers might perceive you would go a long way towards alleviating those fears! The problem of women mistrusting strange men is often due to misconceptions and myths, but sometimes reality, too.  A perception problem is a problem, nonetheless.  The good news is that it can be increasingly combatted by men being cognizant of their actions and how they might come across AND by women checking their overblown fears at the door.  My favorite encounters with other backpackers while out solo have primarily been with men – men who either naturally or purposely made me feel safe in their presence.

Next Up: My Big Announcement!

The old school of thought would have you believe that you’d be a fool to take on nature without arming yourself with every conceivable measure of safety and comfort under the sun. But that isn’t what being in nature is all about. Rather, it’s about feeling free, unbounded, shedding the distractions and barriers of our civilization—not bringing them with us.” – Ryel Kestenbaum

Women in Backpacking, Part V: But, I Might Feel Lonely!

In the last post, I discussed the fear of getting lost or injured while backpacking alone in the wilderness.  Today, I tackle my own personal fear – the fear of loneliness.

Yes, you will probably feel lonely from time-to-time while backpacking solo.  If you’re like me, it’s the biggest challenge of them all and I rarely end up solo, even though I may have started that way.  My purpose with this post isn’t to try and convince you loneliness won’t happen, but rather that it probably WILL happen, and that you shouldn’t let it stop you from getting out there.

There are levels to loneliness, ranging from extreme, depressing feelings that no one in the world understands you, to just a minor feeling of wishing your friend was available to have a movie night when she already has plans.

IMG_0596.jpg
A tired selfie on a solo stretch of the John Muir Trail.

The type of loneliness one feels when backpacking solo is not the deep, scary kind (Note: feeling alone is somewhat different from feeling afraid of bear attacks or being assaulted, which tend to elicit strong fears).  For most people, myself included, it’s more of a longing to share stories at the end of an amazing, but tiring day.  It’s a manageable feeling.  For most people, it’s entirely beneficial to spend some quiet, quality time alone with your id, your ego and your superego.

When I backpack, my magic formula is hiking alone most of the day, but meeting up with people for lunch and also to make camp at the end of the day.  I’m extremely extroverted and enjoy storytelling over lunch and dinner.  I like hearing what others saw during their hikes and marveling at their stories.  I also like being with others to watch the sun set and the moon rise.  A refreshing dip in an icy alpine lake is more fun, to me at least, if there are others there enjoying it, too.

But other times, I head out into more of a no-man’s land; places where I know I will likely be entirely alone.  It’s not creepy, per se, but time seems to drag a little slower after I set up my camp and sit down to eat and wait for night to fall.  The first night is the toughest, although “tough” isn’t really the right word.  It’s more that I’m a bit bored.  And yes, the strange sounds of the forest do somehow seem louder when it’s just me out there.

Camping in Ventana Wilderness
Just me, myself and I camping before a solo trip in search of lost hot springs in the Ventana Wilderness.

It’s worth noting that there are plenty of people who find that they absolutely love being solo – entirely solo – for days on end.  That might be you! But you won’t know until you try it.

No matter how you think you’ll feel about backpacking solo, you shouldn’t let any concerns stop you.  I’ve rarely heard of a woman who backpacked solo and regretted it.  I’ve written in other posts how to do your first solo trip: start out short; stay close to home; pick a place with cell coverage; try listening to music, etc.  Those tips apply here.

But other tips also apply:

  • You can choose trails that are known for being popular.  Sometimes you can tell a trail is going to be popular based on the permit application process, if there is one.  Permit processes usually indicate a trail is popular enough that the park has limited the number of people who can go in each day to minimize damage to the areas on and around the trail.
  • You can do research online or in books to see how popular a trail is.  Most resources will list that information.
  • Call a park ranger and ask!

Once you’ve chosen a more popular trail, you can at least camp in the vicinity of others if you want.  But more than that, you will likely meet people and make fast friends along the way.  This is a phenomena of backpacking that is widely known: making friends is easy and happens fast.  One day spent with your fellow backpackers on the trail can feel like an eternity and bonds can become very strong in a short amount of time.

Lower Cathedral Lake
Amongst new friends met on the John Muir Trail. Photo cred: David and Steve Szmyd

Case in point: I met two brothers on my second day of the John Muir Trail in 2015.  I was solo and had just had a very scary bear encounter as I was packing up camp that morning.  Needless to say, I was feeling a tad stressed and very alone (and very small).  I met these two brothers just after I set out from camp for the day and they invited me to hike with them.  By lunch, we were fast friends.  By dinner, we had made a lasting bond.  By the next morning, when we parted ways, we were practically lifelong friends!  Fast forward two years – we’ve kept in touch and I’ll be joining them for their annual brothers’ trip to Wyoming this August.

Even though I was supposed to be solo for parts of the John Muir Trail, I never once spent a night completely alone.

Another tip is to bring books or podcasts.  These give your mind something to do if it’s feeling restless and lonely, and they help pass the time.  You could also do guided meditation or bring along a deck of cards for a game of solitaire.  Try bringing a journal and writing down your thoughts as they happen.  If you have cell coverage and feel extra lonely, call a friend or loved one for a quick check-in!  Consider exploring the area you are camping in (if you aren’t too tired).  Walk the perimeter of the lake or climb up that close peak.  Lastly, go to bed! Backpackers need lots of sleep, so don’t be afraid to hit the sack way earlier than normal.

As with everything, preparation is key.  You can’t rely on anyone else when you’re solo, so be prepared with the necessary gear and essential items.  And consider carrying a satellite messenger like a Garmin InReach (formerly Delorme InReach).  If you have the right mindset, are prepared to confront minor to moderate feelings of loneliness, and understand that’s not a bad thing, you’ll have a wonderful time filled with scenery and adventure that is all yours, and only yours.  Try it!  You just might like it!

Women in Backpacking, Part II: But, I Might Get Raped!

Women don’t usually articulate this particular fear with these exact words.  It’s almost always stated in more “washed out” terms, like, “What about strange men?” or, “What if I get attacked by a man?”  But what they are really worried about is getting raped.  It’s a sad fact that many women fear men, or some men, when they are alone.  All women fear the worst-case scenario.  And those fears are exploited via shows like CSI, Cold Case Files and Podcasts like My Favorite Murder and Somebody Knows Something. And don’t forget the news!  These nightmarish crimes really do happen on occasion, and so the news feeds our fears as well.   Add a dash of social media to turn things into viral fear-storms.

Finding peace and solitude is easy in a place like this.

Now throw in extreme solitude.  Feeling like you’re all alone in the world.  Being far from civilization where no one can hear you scream.  Vulnerability.

It’s no wonder so many women have concerns about being alone in the wilderness.  We also know that at least half of backpackers are men, so running into them is pretty inevitable.

But how realistic is this fear of sexual assault?  How do we put things in perspective so that this fear doesn’t hinder our ambitions, goals and joys?

You’re never REALLY alone on the trail!

I was a sexual assault/domestic violence detective in California in the past.  Stranger rape* is so incredibly rare! If you don’t include date rape, rape is rarer than even murder.

*The vast majority of rapes are either a “date rape” or an “acquaintance rape”.  In both cases, the victim knows the attacker in some way, sometimes quite well, and is with him by choice before the assault occurs. Stranger rape is when someone you do not know on any personal level suddenly attacks you. I want to be clear that I am not minimalizing the trauma that date rape victims experience, but rather trying to minimize the debilitating fear that many women have about stranger rape.

Our wilderness areas are incredibly safe.  Take a look at crime stats and you’ll notice an obvious trend: the higher the population, the higher the number of crimes.  Think LA, NY, Chicago, Miami – these big cities experience more reported rapes because there are so many more people.  So many more opportunities for an attacker to find a victim.  So many places to blend in and go unnoticed.  So many women carrying on with their business and paying zero attention to their equally-busy surroundings.

Not many people and not much going on. Peaceful!

Put yourself in the mind of a serial rapist.  What are rapists looking for when they stalk their prey? They’re looking for an easy target.  They’re looking for someone who isn’t paying attention to her surroundings.  They’re looking for a woman who appears weak, and perhaps meek.  Someone who doesn’t have the confidence to make eye contact with strangers.  They’re looking for someone who they think won’t fight back.  Or will succumb easily.

Now think about what rapists want to avoid.  They don’t want to attack a strong, confident woman.  They don’t want to attack someone who they’re relatively certain will fight back – and fight back hard!  They don’t want someone who exudes confidence.  They don’t want someone who appears to be athletic and strong.  THIS type of woman is their worst enemy.

Think about how a serial rapist finds their prey.  Would they hike 13 miles into the wilderness to find a victim?  Or do they stand outside of a bar and watch for solo, intoxicated women to come stumbling out?  Does the rapist hike for days just to find ONE solo woman, or does he cruise around the most marginalized areas of a major city in his car to find down-on-their luck street workers?

Strong. Capable. Confident. And armed with an oar!

Think of who you are, as both an outdoor adventurer and backpacker.  You are strong; you carry a 35 lb pack on your back for miles and miles!  You are remote; you’re off the beaten path and away from the masses of people.   You are confident and independent, and even if you don’t feel that way, that’s how strangers will perceive you.  To get to you would be difficult.  Taking you without a massive fight would be impossible.  You are probably armed; hiking poles make great weapons and most backpackers carry a knife of some sort, not to mention that massive bag you carry around (it’d be like swinging a massive purse at a bad guy’s head!).  You, my friend, are the opposite of what a rapist would be looking for!

With all this in mind, here are six steps you can take to lessen your risk and increase your own confidence:

  • Get out there!  Just doing solo trips increases your confidence.  Start small.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings (easy to do in the wilderness).
  • Make eye contact with every stranger you come across and say hi (if you are new to backpacking, this is also basic trail etiquette – we are a friendly bunch!).
  • Be aware of possible weapons you have, like hiking poles, folding knives and tent poles.
  • Take a self-defense class.
  • Always keep your fears in perspective.

Listen to any woman who has done a solo hike and she will tell you the experience was entirely worthwhile.  She will also likely tell you that the first one was a bit tough, and it got easier from there.  It’s hard to find like-minded people to backpack with, and when you do find a crew, coordinating schedules can be next to impossible.  So take matters into your own hands!  Become one with nature, and with yourself.

Next Up: Women in Backpacking, Part III: But, An Animal Might Eat Me!

I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” – Lucille Ball

 

Islesboro Maine Coastline

Women in Backpacking, Part I: Lions and Tigers and Bears (and Men)!

*Note for male readers: Sure, this post is geared toward women, but you can definitely learn something, too! It’s a reality that most women have a least a little bit of fear of men while out backpacking. Simply being aware of these fears and understanding them can make you a more empathetic, female-friendly stranger out on the trails!  I encourage you not to skip these posts. And pay attention, because my final post in this series will be geared toward you!*

At the half-way point of the John Muir Trail is Muir Trail Ranch. It’s a very remote outpost accessible only by foot or on horseback.  It’s a haven for weary backpackers who can resupply there, as well as soak in their hot springs, sleep in a REAL bed, do laundry and have amazing meals cooked for them, but only if they are willing to shell out a pretty penny.  And shell out those pennies I did when I was there in 2015 (trust me, it’s worth it)!

Muir Trail Ranch on the John Muir Trail
Muir Trail Ranch: A needed respite for weary thru-hikers on the JMT

In the ranch’s library is a whole host of old books. In one of those old books I found a chart listing how much weight men, women and children should carry in their packs, respectively.  Women were instructed to carry less weight than an eleven-year-old child! I almost snorted when I first saw it.  But that was how we women were viewed back then.

1950's recommended pack wieghts for women.
A 1950’s book showing recommended pack weights for men, “wives” and children.

Women were not historically big backpackers. John Muir didn’t exactly have women shouting, “Pick me!  Pick me!” when he was putting together his exploration groups (though he frequently explored alone).  And even in the 1950’s, when women did go backpacking, they were often considered meek and weak. A double whammy!

Fast forward to today, and women are now dominating the entire outdoor arena!  Don’t believe me? Just check out the latest issue of Outside Magazine (May 2017 issue), with all those strong, independent female icons on the front cover. Women like Melissa Arnot Reid are not just killing it “for a woman” but killing it across genders!

May 2017 Outside Magazine Cover
What an inspirational group of women!

Women are now taking over backpacking. Well, maybe “taking over” isn’t the right term, but our numbers are growing at astronomical rates. We make up 51% of the outdoor industry consumers now.  More and more companies are making women-specific products. We still have a ways to go, but we’ve made huge strides since the 50’s.

But I still can’t believe how often I hear women say they could never backpack solo. Or that they constantly worry about men and/or animals attacking them if they are alone.  Every time I hear these statements, I practically shed a tear.

And you know what’s worse? When I tell non-backpackers that I’ll be heading out solo, I get WAY more statements of worry and concern from women I know than men I know. Seriously? Men are less concerned for my safety than women?  Oh, the irony.

Perhaps it’s because I was formerly a sexual assault detective and have a firm grasp of the realities of sexual assault, or perhaps it’s because my parents raised me to be entirely unafraid (or maybe it’s even genetic, who knows?). Regardless, I’m unafraid to backpack alone.  Of course I have fears that occasionally enter the picture, but they never get in my way.  I’m also not oblivious when I’m out there and I take precautions and work hard to stay safe.  I remain aware of my surroundings and I make a point of looking strong and confident when faced with an unknown man on a remote section of trail.  But isn’t that the picture of a backpacker anyway? Aware, strong, confident; that’s what we backpackers are!  So why do we let ourselves forget it so often?

Solo Selfie
Entertaining myself on a solo backpacking trip.

Here are the concerns I hear most often from women on the topic of backpacking solo:

  • I might get raped (they don’t always say it exactly this bluntly, but this is what they mean).
  • An animal might attack me in the middle of the night.
  • I’ll be too lonely.
  • I’ll get hurt (or lost) and no one will be there to help me.

To help combat these fears, I’m going to do a series of posts tackling each one of these concerns individually. None of them should prevent us from chasing our dreams, accomplishing our goals and enjoying the Great Outdoors on our own terms.  But we also don’t have to be complacent, and there are things we can do to boost our own confidence and make the chances of any of the above ever happening even more remote.

Next Up: Women in Backpacking, Part II: I Might Get Raped!

Marry an outdoors woman. Then if you throw her out into the yard on a cold night, she can still survive. -W. C. Fields