Pooping and Peeing in the Boundary Waters


The following is a never before published article, a guide to pooping and peeing in the Boundary Waters. It was rejected by the women in the office of the Boundary Waters Journal as being too indelicate, but I think it’s an essential guide and a fun read. Enjoy:

Pooping and Peeing in the Boundary Waters

By Rob Kesselring

I will tackle a delicate topic, a topic not often addressed but often a stumbling block, particularly for prospective female clients on my guided trips. This concern usually only surfaces after a lot of small talk over the phone about sleeping bags and rain gear. When the question does emerge, it usually pops up with some nervousness but underlying sincerity. “How do you poop and pee in the wilderness?”

Before we go too deep into this topic, there are many euphemisms for these bodily functions. Using the terms “poop” and “pee” I have tried to strike a balance between synonyms that are too clinical and words that are too graphic or coarse. No offense is intended, but some of you may want to take a deep breath before we open the bathroom door.

Poop and pee are two different breeds of dog. In a healthy individual, pee is a sterile solution. In some situations, I have even seen urine used to cleanse wounds and to disinfect. Poop, on the other hand, can harbor nasty bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Poop pollutes, pee, not so much.

Despite being an equal rights person and the father of five daughters, it must be acknowledged there are some biological gender differences. Mother Nature built boys’ liquid disposal terminals to look like the map of Florida and girls’ to look like a Grand Canyon topo map. Those differences create some challenges unique to women when it comes to peeing, but they are surmountable. Female readers may question my ability to empathize with these challenges. I want to assure you that I have collaborated on this article with my paddling partner, Sue Kennedy Plankis, who has over a half-century experience in traveling and living far from modern facilities. For men that may scoff at the challenges women face peeing in the wilds? I challenge my male readers on their next hike with a full bladder, to first, scan the landscape for voyeurs, then pull your pants down to your ankles, squat and pee while avoiding hitting your shoes, and when you are not entirely done, find something to dry yourself with! For men, it is easy. All they need to remember is not to pee upwind of their friends.

One solution women can employ to avoid baring their bum and squatting when they pee is to purchase a female urination device (FUD). When needed, women insert these funnels inside their pants with the spout protruding from the fly. Lady J, Tinkle Belle, GoGirl are three brands of FUDS available on the Internet.

The pee rules. Out on western wilderness rivers, the rule is, pee in the river! On heavily used riverside campsites evaporated pee leaves behind significant enough salt deposits to entice hoofed wildlife to eat the dirt. Fish and Game officials do not want to encourage this animal behavior. At campsites in the BWCAW, most women prefer to walk down the narrow footpath to the USFS latrine. With big groups, I leave toilet paper and hand sanitizer in a zip-lock plastic bag at the start of the latrine trail. If the bag is missing, other campers know that the latrine is in use. This prevents a camper from traipsing down the trail into an embarrassing situation. Men usually pee in the bushes surrounding the campsite. It is unnecessary to walk a long distance from the lake to pee. However, it is best to avoid peeing on the tent sites, and it is disgusting to extinguish a campfire by peeing on the grate — appalling, but it happens. I always sniff the grate before laying down a steak.

At the campsite, both genders can pee without any issues. When nature calls while out hiking or at lunch stops peeing can present a minor problem for women. In a million-acre wilderness finding a private spot is not difficult. As Jeff Goldblum remarked in the classic 1983 film The Big Chill, “That’s what’s great about the outdoors: It’s one giant toilet.” For finishing up, most women find it reasonable to carry a little toilet tissue in a pocket, but there are some problems with that process. Sue has a different solution. She carries a cotton bandana – a “pee cloth”. She utilizes this during the day, and when we camp, she rinses it well, wrings it out, and hangs it in the wind to dry. Sue claims this is a simple, straightforward solution with several benefits.

Before we move on to pooping, there is something almost everyone, at least everyone over fifty, uses but nobody talks about: the tent pee bottle. I have listened to pundits recommend that paddlers stop drinking fluids in the late afternoon to avoid the need to pee during the night. This suggestion is ridiculous. Effective hydration is essential to keep in paddling shape, but without a pee bottle, there are two eventualities. A camper wakes up with the urge and suffers in silence until daybreak, or the camper wakes up, unzips the mosquito netting with predictable results, and stumbles out of the tent. Shoeless, pine needles and dirt will stick to feet. Raining? The camper will get wet. By the time feet are brushed off, and all mosquitoes are killed, the camper and everyone else in the tent is wide awake. With a pee bottle, in a few moments comes relief and almost a seamless night of sleep. Most campers use a wide mouth Nalgene bottle for a pee bottle. It’s a good choice unless you mix it up with your wide mouth Nalgene drinking bottle. Sue and I have great success with a super-wide mouth plastic Costco cashew jar. Although we have a friend who claims she can pee in a wine bottle, down sleeping bags are slow to dry, and I recommend for women the widest mouth plastic container you can find.

Pooping is straight forward in the BWCAW. Every campsite has a USFS latrine. I have noticed the rangers are gradually moving the cans further and further into the bush, but unless your timing is poor, you should be able to make it. Your poop and toilet paper, but nothing else, can go into the commode. It’s a system that works, but the protocol is different from riparian Wilderness areas and parks in the West. On those river trips, all poop must be packed out, either en masse in a groover or in individual plastic or mylar bags. This system works okay, especially on raft trips or on rivers with few portages or trips of short duration. The USFS likes to standardize policies nationwide. There have been murmurs for years to remove the latrines from the BWCAW. Before they do this, I hope they first insist the muckety-muck who approves that change in policy paddles a 10-day July canoe trip portaging a plastic bag jammed with the hot poops of nine paddlers’. Or at least the boss has a conversation with Trevor Gibb, Quetico Park Superintendent. Gibb is going in the opposite direction by installing latrines at some of the most heavily utilized campsites in Quetico.

When it comes to pooping in Quetico, or a mid-day poop away from camp in the BWCAW, it is tempting to parrot the rules and recommendations of the USFS, Leave No Trace Foundation, Ontario Parks, and just about every modern guidebook and webpage. Unfortunately, these guidelines and regulations are a bunch of bullpoop. For practical reasons, campers seldom follow them. Before you poop, you are supposed to walk 200 feet from the nearest water source. They mean in the Boundary Waters, you are supposed to find a place to poop 200 feet in any direction from a lake, creek, or marsh before you dig a “cathole” 6-8 inches deep and poop. That really means you have to walk 400 feet and then double-back because if you only walked 200 feet from one lake, you might have come within 200 feet of another water source. If I asked some of my clients to walk 135 yards away from camp into the bush, I would likely never see them again. One website suggests that if you cannot get 200 feet away from the water, you could alternately thinly smear your poop on a flat rock and then angle it toward the sun like a solar panel. People that advocate this nonsense have their heads up their… well I won’t go there. Maybe they have just never been on a two-week canoe trip in the Boundary Waters.

Here is what responsible paddlers do when there is not a latrine in the vicinity. They walk away from the lake or river and out of sight of camp with a trowel, dig a hole, about eight inches deep, poop, and cover the hole, making an effort to camouflage the deposit. From what evidence I have observed, that would significantly improve the pooping strategy many people are currently employing. If everyone pooped and covered their poop, a fair distance from the lake, although usually much closer to water sources than 200 feet, we would have clean lakes forever. There might be campers who want to follow the law’s exact letter and feel guilty if they are not out there smearing their poop on a rock. This is a shame and does nothing to encourage respectful use of the wilderness or minimum impact camping.

Now let’s talk TP. Toilet paper, that is, the white lilies of wilderness campsites. The pee cloth solves the need for TP for female peeing, but how about clean-up after a poop? Decades ago, I began a wilderness fishing guide business in the Northwest Territories of Canada. My competitors were all building lodges on pristine unfished lakes. The problem with that approach was, it wasn’t long in these cold, barren lakes before all the trout were fished out, and guides had to motor farther and farther from the lodges for terrific fishing. My idea was to fly-in, by floatplane, tent camps and inflatable Zodiac boats and outboard motors. That way, I could honestly promise anglers mind-blowing fishing on “virgin” lakes. It was a good idea. Unfortunately, I went bankrupt. More money than I took in went to pay the bush pilots to move my camps and boats around. I did learn a few things. One June, I put in a camp at the narrows on Taltson Lake. It was great fishing and a lovely sandy beach camp. For pooping, everyone went back in the bush about 75 feet from the lake and buried their poop and toilet paper 8-10 inches deep in the sand. When I packed up camp and flew away, I was proud of what wasn’t left behind. No rubbish, no saw cuts, no ruts or fire rings.

The fishing was great there. I brought another group to the same campsite a month later. Even before I stepped off the float of the Single Otter, I could see toilet paper blowing around like tumbleweeds. When I walked to our sanitation site, wolves and foxes had dug up all the poop and toilet paper. Humans eat more nutrition than our bodies can use. Leftovers come out the back end. What is waste to us is a nice snack for our furry friends. Apparently, however, they are not fond of toilet paper. I guess that would be like us going to McDonald’s and eating the hamburger but not the wrapper.

Whether animals are digging up our poops or people are not actually burying their toilet paper, the result is one of the most stomach-turning landscapes in the North American Wilderness. Toilet paper, sometimes frosted with poop, is often one of the first sights you see when checking out a campsite in Quetico, along with just about any wilderness area that, unlike the BWCAW, does not provide latrines or except on wild rivers where packing out poop is practical.

Toilet paper solutions have been tried. Years ago, the preferred method was to carry a lighter, and before filling in the cathole, you burned the TP. One big problem with this strategy is it rarely caused wildfires. But what does rarely mean? People poop a lot, and even if only 1 in 100,000 TP burnings causes a wildfire, that could mean a lot of wildfires. In extreme drought conditions, it is incredible how flammable the forest duff is. I cannot think of many nightmares worse than creating a runaway blaze with your pants down. If anyone out there is still burning their TP, stop immediately. It is dangerous.

Another solution is to toss your used toilet paper into the campfire. This method, unfortunately, can at least temporarily put a damper on the marshmallow toasting. S’mores have a way of quickly becoming no’mores. Burning paper is also against USFS rules. Another idea is to stuff used toilet paper in sandwich baggies. But then where do you store the baggies? I am not sure, especially after a few days, that I want those sandwich baggies in my tent. But hanging them in the trees stuffed in the food pack with the Fig Newtons and bacon is revolting.

I just learned another paperless way to wipe from a thru-hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail. Use your right hand for eating and your left hand for wiping. I think this advice stinks. My whole life I have been directional challenged and I don’t want to get half-way through my sandwich and catch a nasty wiff only to realize the sammy is in my left hand! Do I need more revulsion from this idea? Okay, there is a difference between smearing and wiping. Depending on the consistency and stickiness of the poop I am not sure either my ass or more hand would be clean enough.

The best solution is to do what people have been doing for thousands of years. Abstain from using your hands or artificial wipes completely. Avoid poison ivy leaves, but there are lots of natural materials out there for the gooey stuff, and if you can time your poop with a morning dip in the lake, you will remain squeaky clean. Toilet paper sticks around for a long time, years sometimes. Poop disappears quickly. Animals eat it, fly larvae eat it, it dries out and turns to dirt. Even if some TP abstaining slob drops a poop close to camp and fails to bury it, or some animal digs it up, or your youngster, while checking out the campsite, discovers it, without the telltale TP, there is no problem. Depending on the size of the poop, respond to the inquisitive child with, “Oh, yes, look Honey, a fox, lynx, wolf, or big bear has passed through here!’ An accompanying wad of soiled toilet paper would make that story hard to swallow.

Please don’t dread peeing and pooping in the Boundary Waters. Don’t let the lack of fancy toilets keep you from canoe camping. I am always a little disappointed when I come out of the wilderness and I am confronted with the return to the hum-drum of a stinky urinal or porcelain toilet. I look forward to peeing and pooping in the wilds. There is a certain freedom and joy to it all.

I will be speaking at Canoecopia in Madison, Wisconsin, on March 11, 12, and 13, 2022.  After a two-year Canoecopia COVID hiatus, it will be a great event this year. I look forward to seeing many of my former crews and current blog followers. Please come on down after my talks and update me on your paddling adventures. It is an honor to be asked to return and speak again this year. I will be flying in from Aspen.

Here are my shows:

  • “The Noatak Watershed by Canoe, Alaska’s Untouched Arctic Jewel”
  • “Travel Like a Wilderness Guide, Tips from a Thousand Trips”
  • and teaming up with BWJ Publisher Stu Osthoff,
  • “Two Veteran Boundary Waters Guides Share and Spar on What Works for Them”

I cannot wait to share what I know and connect with my blog buddies; be there or be square.

Find details here:  https://www.rutabaga.com/canoecopia

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