Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Poo Papers

By golly now we got a lightweight topic. Every time you're out in the woods and you make a short side trip farther out from there, you come back lighter. And you're feeling better too.

The good feeling might wear off if you don't take care of yourself though. Monkey butt is so serious a problem that there is an entire company devoted to fighting it. If you are wondering, yes, it's called the Anti Monkey Butt Corporation. And it has a colorful web site. With real products. Like Anti monkey butt powder available in six-packs. And ladies' tank tops with the Anti Monkey Butt logo (oh, god, how sexy is that). And (temporary) monkey butt tattoos.

Getting to monkey butt country is a little beyond where we are right at the moment. Right now we are at one of the earlier stages in the process, before the rot sets in. You can easily do a lot to stop things from getting ugly by doing things right, from the beginning.

As for the standard party line, you already know it. First you dig a hole, 200 feet or 70 paces from surface water (streams, ponds, lakes), and away from traveled places.

Look for dark, soft organic soil. This kind of soil is already natural compost and is full of roots and bugs, fungi and bacteria. They will love what you leave them and quickly take care of it. Given all that, try to pick as your spot a place that gets lots of sunlight, to keep all those busy bodies warm and active.

Dig a hole six to eight inches deep and four to six inches across and use it, then fill it in with the original dirt and kick some debris over the top to disguise it.

Done, except for a couple of details.

One is that if you leave paper (which is getting to be frowned on more and more), it may hang around for a very long time, even if buried correctly. Sometimes for years, long after your own bodily waste is part of the local vegetation (and that can take a year or more in some cases).

Paper is cellulose, a long polymer made of zillions of sugar molecules strung together. Bacteria can break down these molecules only by eating them from the ends, one atom at a time, and that's slow.

Think of a fallen tree. Trees are cellulose too, and they take forever to decay. Sometimes new trees sprout on fallen ones and grow up over them. That's how long it can be. Toilet paper left behind won't last quite that long, but it could be a couple of years before it's all gone, even in a moist forest environment.

One approach is to use tougher paper.

Sounds odd.

But instead of taking traditional toilet paper, which is thin and flimsy and sometimes disintegrates during use, before it can do any good at all, try using less of something stronger. Maybe? In 2004 Ryan Jordan of was recommending blue, disposable shop towels (Home Depot and auto parts stores sell rolls). These are are just paper but tough enough to use as wash cloths, though they wear out fast. But we're talking about the other end.

Jordan's technique: cut a full sheet into quarters. "One ounce of these tough babies (you can get three wipes with some ingenious folding) will get you through a week of nasty intestinal adventures." Some readers complained about the blue color and the toughness of the paper -- that it would take even longer to decay. But the point for Jordan was to use less and leave less.

You want to get cleaner faster with less, and maybe two quarter-sheets left in a hole are better than six or eight feet of traditional TP.

Another option, less brightly colored, is to use thick, tough paper towels, also cut into quarters. They are thicker than the blue stuff, as tough, and cheaper.

One trick, no matter what you use, is to herd the used paper into a stack with the tip of a trekking pole, and then shove it all straight into the soil as one wad. Sometimes you can get it down four or five inches, and it will stay put.

If that was the light option for paper, then there is an even lighter option: using no paper. This takes practice. Practice with snow, smooth stones, lichens, grass, moss, leaves, and pretty much anything else that's handy. Eventually you'll work out a system, if you really want to.

Mike Clelland, an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School, is a proponent and teacher of toilet paper free expeditions. In case you pursue this option you don't have to worry about paper. Bury whatever has come to hand and it will continue on its course through time as though you never had been there.

Clelland is fond of wooly lamb's ear: "It's a rather homely plant with a dull purple flower, but the leaves are like the wings of an angel. They are big, thick, strong, fuzzy and satisfying."

For the non-squeamish even a bare hand and a full water bottle can do the job, but usually you don't want fingers as the first line of attack. You save them for the second phase. A dribble of liquid soap and some rinse water will finish your cleanup and leave you feeling sparkly clean. Gelled alcohol hand cleaner or a few drops of alcohol from your fuel bottle serve as a final disinfectant for your hands, and you're set.


Anti Monkey Butt
Backcountry Hygiene for Ultralight and Long-Distance Hikers by Ryan Jordan (requires paid subscription)
How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art (Paperback) by Kathleen Meyer
Leave No Trace
Toilet Paper Free Expeditions by Mike Clelland! (requires paid subscription)
Trail Hygiene by Sgt. Rock