This post may contain affiliate links.

How to Shit in the Woods: Mentor Others!

Bitterroot Range

Spring is full on—even here in the Rockies, the snow melting, wildflowers popping, bees buzzing—and it’s a gorgeous season to venture into the outback. Which means . . . hmmm . . . it’s also time to brush up on wilderness toilet skills. Maybe even engineer your first-ever backcountry squat?

Let me begin by talking to budding trekkers, which the rest of us were once and can easily slip right back to, if not in a literal physical sense, surely in vivid memory. This is a good thing! (As you’ll see.) So, here you are, a wild-country novice, having enjoyed day hikes and plunging now into an overnight. Unlike Bill Bryson’s school chum Katz in A Walk in the Woods, you’ve gotten in shape. Of course. Propped by the front door is your borrowed or brand new backpack, bulging and ready. And any minute, the friend who’s been cajoling—“I promise, you’ll love it!”—or badgering you—“Come on, don’t be a wimp.”—you into this adventure is scheduled to arrive. Indeed, you’ve spent the winter conjuring up maybe that gentle switchbacking mountain trail, that tranquil riverside camp, that towering red rock canyon, that night sky brilliant with stars. And yet, the larger picture, the one you can’t quite wrap your mind around because it dominates the whole frontal screen of your imagination—a non-vision really, more a freight train of panic—is that ol’ scrunching into the bushes with your pants pulled down. Disasters plague your thoughts. My balance is lousy. I could get stuck in this position. Deep-knee bends aren’t my forté. I could topple over, land in it. And the branch? The one they say to grab to steady yourself—what if it snaps? I could get gucky, get bitten, get stickery. Get SEEN.

Yeow! The dreary particulars look endless.

But, in fact, nowadays, with a little preparation and equipment and the support of a kindly coach, all can be overcome. The learning curve is no longer a hush-hushed, trial-and-error ordeal, the way it was when I began. Granted, there is a lot to learn in the way of “reading the landscape”—its terrain, water courses, and soil types. But roaming everywhere are empathetic experts. Plus, I’ll supply you right here with your first two hints—beyond the basics—for a superior, even revelatory, experience. Start by stepping off the trail, far enough from the flow of other hikers that you won’t be interrupted, won’t be tripped over. Then locate an inviting view, be it a panoramic vista or a close-in paradise. I find almost anything can suffice. Such items as spiny devil’s club or monotonous talus are fascinating when quietly studied.

Once you’re in position, the spiritual is close at hand. Nobody has settled in behind the lock, to read War and Peace. No one is banging on the door, “Hurry it up!” Rather, it’s peaceful. Enchantment is on the way. Mountaintops on the horizon suddenly come into focus. A bird warbles. A flower smiles. Allow your weary soul to sink into this spell of calmness away from modern frenzy. Heave a sigh. Unwind. Let the sun and the breeze tickle your bum. Meditate. It’s your spirit you want soaring—you’ve come for the view, the serenity, the communion with magnificence.

Now I want the ear of all old hands (notice, I’m not calling us old-timers), you, with the mastery and finesse, have your work cut out for you. I’m enlisting our gang to offer guidance and assistance to those just beginning. But first, a story.

Taking up the mantle of “savior to someone in otherwise dire-shitty-straights” brings to mind an episode imparted over a Guinness at our local Scottish pub. It issued forth from friend, neighbor, and adventure-guide-extraordinaire Skip Horner (Worldwide Adventures, Inc.), who has been leading creative, remote, and extreme adventures for decades. Were he not, at this moment, gliding over ice-cream snow to someplace like the North Pole, I’d be sure of my details. Yet I’m compelled to share the story here, if only from hazy memory, because Skip’s generosity and humanity brims with the inspiration we need.

One year, two mountaineering teams from different countries were making an ascent on a high, hairy, majestic peak somewhere in the Eastern Hemisphere. They were camped at an elevation riddled with ice crevasses, when a man on the other country’s team landed at the bottom of one of these yawning chasms, along with the sloshing contents of the communal potty, a rudimentary affair that had—until that second—been straddling the gap. His countrymen turned up their noses at the stink of hauling him out. It was Galahad Skip who tossed him the end of a beautiful climbing rope, and in so doing bolstered international relations beyond the dreams of any head-of-state.

OK mentors, here we go. You know the ropes of where and how to dig, when it’s best to pack-it-out. You’re painfully acquainted with how fast embarrassment descends. And fully aware of the importance of personal comfort, proper sanitation, and respecting Mother Earth. Super-schooled you are, in the know, and poised to guide. Now take a minute and scroll back over your outdoor life and supply us all with a teaser: Where’s the grandest place you’ve ever crapped?

Now take a minute and scroll back over your outdoor life and supply us all with a teaser: Where’s the grandest place you’ve ever crapped?

Bitterroot Range

About Kathleen Meyer

KATHLEEN MEYER is the author of the international bestselling outdoor guide How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art that’s been widely embraced by the outdoor community, with more than 2.5 million copies sold in eight languages, and recently released in its fourth edition.

SectionHiker is reader-supported. We only make money if you purchase a product through our affiliate links. Help us continue to test and write unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.


  1. Hi-ho, everyone!

    The caption for the photo above is: “One of my spots was near here, with a seventy-mile sweep of the Bitterroot Range off the tips of my toes.” Get out there, and “go!”

    • Still being a novice hiker, I will take your lead and muster courage into stepping off
      the trail, far enough, to locate a majestic site allowing concentration while in the process of “taking care of business” . And I promise to follow the rules to protect
      Mother Earth.

      Thanks for all the wisdom in your book.

  2. Okay, I’ll expose myself first. As many of you know I’m not exactly a backpacker. My car camping expeditions so far have included the convenience of a composting toilet.

    But I do have some experience with needing to go when the available accommodations were quite primitive and much less appealing than those described by Kathleen. Egypt was very educational. Even when there were public facilities it was often a squat toilet. This is a hole in the ground where there are outlines of feet on either side indicating where to put yours. It was hare that I learned that the deeper you squat the happier, and cleaner, you will be in the end. A timid American squat is the worst choice.

    The most beautiful and awe inspiring place I ever went was in Tanzania in lion country. You would get out of the jeep and try to go quickly, because this was after all lion country. The guides would also get out and watch for lions and other danger, but try not to look at you. And the other passengers would stay in the open jeep and pretend they couldn’t hear anything. But it was a most amazing trip and we saw lions, and elephants, and giraffes, and…

    • I know those holes in the floor, too. Awful places, when you have no balance gene.

      But I’d take pooping with the lions. Wow! You have to be brave, and then braver (or is it “more brave”)!

  3. Although i’m one who prefers the comfort of a toilet/head, i guess i would have to say that sitting on a bucket in the stern of a gillnetter in Bristol Bay Alaska surveying the fleet would be my grand? place.

  4. First, Kathleen, I must tell you that the first time I read your magnificent book was in the bathroom of a hostel near the Appalachian Trail, and it brings tears to my eyes to recall what joy and relief it gave me! You’re going to heaven for your book and the blessings it has bestowed on generations of outdoor adventurers. As far as the grandest place I’ve ever crapped, I’ll share that the happiest place I’ve ever crapped was my first time in the outdoors, three days into a 1500-mile tandem bike trip, on the West Texas desert. I was as triumphant as a newly potty-trained toddler, safe in the knowledge that my outdoor adventure career was now up and running!

    • Gail, you wanna to be my new publicist?

      As for the potty-trained toddler—I feel that way every time I get it right!

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. Thanks for highlighting this topic. It becomes more critical every year…but nobody talks about it!!

  6. Thanks for the post! I’ll have to admit my first camping adventure, that wasn’t with family, I too suffered from the embarrassment factor. Being a middle schooler at the time and pooping around fellow classmates was far out of the picture! Some how I managed to tell myself I didn’t have to go the whole trip. Horrible!

    The grandest place I’ve ever propped my checks is in the bottom of the Grand. It was definitely grand! With every inch of the canyon being different it drove home how important it was too take it the beauty of the surround.

    • Thinking you can hold it for a week seems to be a common notion. I’ve met many who’ve tried and a few who’ve succeeded. The latter will probably never be the same. And they’re generally the folks who never venture forth again . . . unless I could manage to spot them soon enough and offer some technique.

      The Grand, you bum! I haven’t the chance yet.

  7. After the 1978 apple picking season I drove my hippy van up to Ione, Washington to a relatively new phenomenum called a “barter fair”. I imagine there had been other similar events, but it was the first one I’d attended. Kind of a precursor to the Rainbow Gatherings that sprang from that same era and demographic. Lots of young folks like myself as well as a fair amount of what we called middle-aged folks at the time (mid thirties). Big party out in a wide open meadow surrounded by mountains, is what I remember, which is good, considering. The organizers (probably the owners of the land) had set up a few “squat pits” for people to use in place of communing with the surrounding woods, which a bunch of people did anyway which made for interesting walking experiences. I of course wanted to do the right thing, and when my time drew near I headed for the pit, which as far as I could see from the outside consisted of a makeshift wooden privacy wall with a long co-ed line outside, to which I attached myself and waited as best I could. That was interesting enough, and the scenery WAS beautiful. The real kicker was when it got to be my turn to go “behind the wall” I found myself standing on an open-air rough wood platform with two openings in the boards roughly five feet apart. I hadn’t known until this critical moment that it was a “two-squatter” and that if I wanted to do my business in privacy–which I think most people generally prefer– I better hurry up–which, everything being equal, is neither natural nor preferable. Nevertheless, there it was, and I fell to in speedy fashion as best I could, hoping the next person in line was too stoned to move in too quick, which I thought she was. However, when I was only getting started, so to speak, in she came, lifted her skirt, and joined me. I had been standing in front of her for the previous twenty minutes without having thought of anything witty to say because I was single and shy, and she was very cute. I found that this new situation not only didn’t help my flirting skills at all, it seized me up. I also shut down on my appreciation of the scenery. What could I do? I continued squatting, red-faced, she finished and left a brush of a tie-dye skirt and a smile, and I was constipated for the next two days. I figured I had been some kind of smitten, but to this day I’m not sure what kind it was, or if I ever recovered from it. I did recover from the constipation after a two days of eating one Red Delicious apple every two hours, a cure I would recommend to alleviate the various symptoms, such as constipation, stomach pains and precipitous declines in self-confidence, that arise from Failed Flirting Fatigue (FFF).

  8. What a riot! I realize can say that cuz it wasn’t me. We all thank you, Bill, for having the courage and talent to pass that story along.

  9. Terrific story Bill. And Katheen thanks for your storytelling rays of sunshine (about drak holes and other places) on a (welcome) rainy day

    • We’re having big boomers in the Bitterroot, too. Not much rain, but enough lightening that I keep having to unplug the computer. Enjoy the wet.

  10. “Thinking you can hold it for a week seems to be a common notion. I’ve met many who’ve tried and a few who’ve succeeded. The latter will probably never be the same.”

    Guess what, you have met one.

    A Shau Valley (1968/69). I was much younger then. Up and down those hills/mountain sides, walking consumed so much energy. Nature’s scenery was gorgeous and when the moment arrived lots of pleasant thoughts.

    “The latter will probably never be the same.” How did you know?

    • Vietnam? God, I would have had the opposite problem—NOT holding it. Constantly.

      Be well, Billy.

  11. I’d like to chime in on the “Thinking you can hold it for a week…” As a camp counselor and trip leader for a number of years, I met numerous campers who insisted that not only could they hold it for a week, but that they really didn’t have to go because, due to the hard hiking/paddling/outdoor work, their bodies were using every ounce of fuel put into it, so they couldn’t have gone if they wanted to! I sincerely hope their biology classes later in life debunked them of that theory.
    As counselors, we instituted a ‘mandatory pooping rule’ to ensure that everybody was on a healthy cycle, and made sure to make a game of it, cheering on successful poopers and tsk-tsking the shy ones. We never had to make an intervention though we came close a couple of times with diehard hold-outs (or hold-ins?) In any case, your article brought me back to the fond days of poop rules and camp counseling. Thanks Kathleen!

    • Sam, this my first acquaintance with a rule for mandatory pooping. How creative! Way to go, changing sensibilities.

  12. The grandest place I ever went was the last place. It just keeps getting better. I can hardly wait till tomorrow-the next place

  13. On the subject of holding it for a week, “How do you go to the bathroom” is the reputed to be the most asked question of astronauts. Along with developments in propulsion and computer technology, space potty tech has advanced quite a bit during the last half century. In the days of Gemini and Apollo, the astronauts had to flypaper a plastic bag to their backsides and clean up with an attached integral glove, which worked about as well in weightlessness as your worst fears are able to conjure. The spacecraft generally reeked of a locker room afflicted with a sewer leak upon return from the moon. The whole process was so noxious that one astronaut managed to go a full eight days without a bowel movement, from earth to the moon and back. In addition to smashing all distance records, I guess you could say he was full of it when he returned… and he’s probably never been the same since!

    I think the grandest place I’ve ever assumed the “Thinker“ position was the top of Boulder Pass in Glacier National Park in Montana–and it actually had a rudimentary open air throne to preside upon. It’s the only time I took binoculars and a camera with me to use while tending to business. Usually, when you attempt to take things like that into a public rest room, someone will try to get you arrested!

    Probably the most unsettling experience was about a year and a half ago when backpacking with my grandsons in Arkansas. We were camped in dense woods on the top of a mountain in heavy fog. During the night, I needed to do something about the JetBile I’d cooked earlier in the trip and I moved a couple hundred feet away, found an appropriate spot, unloaded, handled all the government paperwork… and then couldn’t find my way back to camp in the fog. Everything looked the same–trees, rocks, and brush in all quadrants, and I didn’t want to keep looking because I was afraid I’d wander the wrong direction. My voice wouldn’t carry far in the soup, and after a while I was afraid I’d be spending the night out in the wet and cold. I finally perceived a very faint glow off in the distance and followed it to the tarp where my two grandsons, (thankfully) afraid of the dark, had left a headlamp on.