When does one of the most private acts become a social activity? Ironically, when you go to an isolated place to do it. Even in a large public restroom, taking a dump is largely a private activity. There are stalls with high walls, and a toilet to easily dispose of all the evidence. Yes, there are noises that everyone can hear, but for the most part these are easy to ignore.
In the woods, however, the entire dynamic is changed. You are warned before you even enter the woods that you have obligations to others: “ALL HUMAN WASTE MUST BE BURIED AT LEAST SIX INCHES UNDERGROUND.” What, are there shit police in the woods, running around measuring this stuff? If you only bury it five inches deep, will your wilderness permit be revoked? And why only human waste? The horses make ample use of the trail itself, and nobody’s pressuring them to bury anything. Of course, there are no shit police, and everyone acknowledges that horses really are exceptions, but somehow we all feel obligated — for the sake of others — to bury our own waste, six inches deep. You certainly don’t want to be wondering around the woods and come across someone else’s steaming pile of crap. You see, taking a dump in the woods has become a social activity before you even hit the trail.
So you prepare a “bathroom kit,” a stuffsack with toilet paper (in a ziploc bag), a small shovel (really just a plastic trowel), and God forbid, a flashlight, which you will strive to never require for the purposes of taking a dump in the woods. Dealing with all of this in the daylight is bad enough. The other secret dread of all hikers is running out of toilet paper. You know that toilet paper is a rather recent innovation, replacing the Sears Catalog, the sunday paper before that, and before that, I don’t know, leaves. But now we’re all very attached to our nice, soft, two-ply tissues. Our asses have become soft, too, and you recoil from your backup plan of ripping up our hiking guide and cleaning up with its unused pages (after all, you brought the whole book of 97 hikes, but you’re only going on one of them right now).
When you’re not in the woods, there are delicate ways of announcing to your companion that you need to take a dump. You can simply say “excuse me,” or in many cases, just head to the bathroom without even a word. Your partner will never know what you’re doing in the bathroom, either. You might just be combing your hair. But when you’re hiking along the trail, and your partner is the one carrying the bathroom kit, you have to announce your intentions. Your partner will even know what type of bathroom event is occurring, based on whether or not you request the bathroom kit — and if you do request the kit, your partner will secretly start worrying that you will use too much toilet paper. Even if you’re at camp, resting, the announcement must still be made, because one camper must always remain near the food to protect it from the critters. Taking a dump in the woods is a social event long before it even occurs.
When you’re taking a dump in the woods, selecting the site, too, is a social event. First, you must balance the urgency of the situation with the proximity of other hikers. Hikers tend to congregate near certain natural features — they must camp near a water source, on flat ground, where there’s not too much underbrush. There is social pressure from the park management service not to create a new campsite, but to camp where others have camped before. You’re not supposed to build a new fire ring, for example, or pitch your tent where vegetation is growing. Even in the vast wilderness, it’s quite likely that you’ll be camped near others. It’s not terribly improbable that they’ll be looking for a spot to take a dump at the precise instant you are, and even that they’ll be headed in the same direction. After all, you’re supposed to take a dump at least 100 feet from the campsite, and 100 yards from any water source. If everyone’s camped along a creek, for example, they’re going to be heading away from it to find a place to take a dump. Already, half of your 360-degree search has been eliminated. Obviously, you’re going to avoid open spaces, or spaces with stickerbushes and other nasty undergrowth. By this time, while the number of suitable sites within a reasonable distance has diminished, the necessity of taking a dump has likely become quite immediate: given the social issues we’ve already discussed, and others yet to come, you’ve probably put it off as long as possible.
So the balancing act begins: you find a relatively flat bit of ground, but it’s exposed from three sides. Will some other hiker spot you in the act while searching for her own spot? Better not risk it. You find another spot, well protected from view, but it’s so rocky that you wonder whether you’ll be able to dig the requisite 6-inch hole. As your search progresses, you begin to realize you’re not going to be able to hold out much longer. Now spots you never would have considered before start to seem like viable options. When you finally do find a place to take a dump, there’s no possibility of digging the hole in advance: it’s all you can do to pull down your pants, squat, and hold your underwear out of the way. Though you believe you’ve found the most private spot within six miles, mosquitos and flies find you almost instantly. Now you must decide whether to keep holding your underwear or swat at the bugs. You decide to swat only if they threaten to bite your private parts. Mercifully, they don’t.
The act of taking a dump itself is easier than you think it will be, and considerably quieter than you’re used to. Noises which normally are amplified by porcelain of the toilet are quickly muted by the pine needles and dirt of the forest. You remind yourself that even if someone does spot you, they’ll probably quickly turn away, instantly recognizing what you’re doing and wanting to respect your privacy. You wipe, using as little toilet paper as possible, and then begin digging your ex-post-facto hole. You worry that you’ve chosen a spot someone else has used recently — dealing with your own shit is bad enough, but dealing with someone else’s shit is downright revolting. After all, you’ve located the best spot within 400 yards of the campsites. Isn’t it possible that someone else might have chosen this same spot? Again, mercifully, they haven’t. Naturally, about four inches down, you run into a rock. Surely four inches is deep enough, you tell yourself. But then you think about the possibility of someone else running into your shit. You have an idea. After using your soiled toilet paper to scoot your pile into your marginally adequate hole, you cover the evidence with dirt, and then, in a stroke of genius, place a large rock over the whole project. No one would think of digging a hole where there’s already a large rock, would they?
Finally, sheepishly, you return to the campsite with your bathroom bag. You hope your companion isn’t the type to ask you how it all went. And then you begin thinking about how long you’ll be able to put off taking your next dump in the woods.