Book Review: How to Shit in the Woods

September 25th, 2013



Kathleen Meyer’s book How to Shit in the Woods is a classic — a masterpiece — for a reason! I came across this book at my local library and had to give it a read. Although it was never on my specific list of books to read, I instantly knew I had to get it. Written in the 80’s and first printed in 1989, it’s a great resource for anyone who spends time in the woods, on the river, or on the trail.

Meyer takes a pleasantly-irreverent look at our ugliest — and smelliest — of creations. In the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, she explains how the book had to wait from its first idea until the word shit could be used more easily in print. She explains at length her choice of the word, comparing numerous terms: crap, bowel movement, poop, Number Two, etc.

How to Shit in the Woods is full of excellent information on the need to poop carefully, techniques for sitting and squatting, suggestions on the best locales for relieving oneself, and the dangers of giardia and raw sewage. She discusses water filters, toilet paper alternatives, and importantly, how, where and why to dig a single-use hole.

Although I am no newbie when it comes to living in the wilderness, even I learned several new things about the need to pack it out in many environments. I am most familiar, of course, with the Boreal forest, and had not given much thought to hiking in the desert, rock climbing in soilless areas, or the extreme problem that can arise when too many people use too small an area. I did not know that paddlers using the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon had to pack all human waste out, due to the volume of people using the river and the sensitive environment. I am not sure if this still applies — the book is over 20 years old — but it makes good sense. I can imagine this regulation being applied to parts of Canada, such as the Kilarney Park in Ontario, where campgrounds are full each and every weekend and even reserved a year in advance (it’s hard for me to imagine… true wilderness is so accessible for me). This book is a huge reminder to Leave No Trace, and that includes leave no shit.

I love Meyer’s writing style! She is verbose, descriptive and a phenomenal spinner-of-phrases. Let me quote a small sample, as she explains what to do when there’s no toilet paper:

Before picking be sure to examine leaves carefully; they can sometimes be sticky (as though covered by a thin layer of syrup), scabrous (having a rasp-like surface), annoyingly prickly owing to small bristles and barbs, or, more seriously, hispidulous (covered with sharp hairs stiff enough to penetrate the skin). Stay away from reeds, bamboo, and some grasses — in effect, slicing leaves — that can cause agonizing wounds like paper cuts. With a little care you’ll learn which ones to avoid and be on your way to becoming a connoisseur of fine leaves.
– Kathleen Meyer in How to Shit in the Woods

Humourous stories sprinkled throughout, Meyer has found the perfect balance between levity and instruction. On page 8, she tells the story of one very unlucky hunter.

Coming upon a log beneath a spreading tree, Edwin propped up his rifle and quickly slipped off his poncho, sliding the suspenders from his shoulders. Whistling now, he sat and shat. But when he turned to bury it, not a thing was there. In total disbelief, poor Edwin peered over the log once more but still found nothing. It began to rain, and the pleasant vision of camp beckoned. Preparing to leave, he yanked up his poncho and hefted his gun. To warm his ears, he pulled up his hood. And there it was on top of his head, melting in the rain like so much ice cream left in the sun.
Poor Edwin will not soon forget this day; he walked seven miles before coming across enough water to get cleaned up. Though I fear he was in no humor to be thinking much beyond himself, we can only hope he did not wash directly in the stream. It’s important to use a bucket to haul wash water well above the high water line of spring run off, to keep pollutants from entering waterways. But I digress, and this topic is covered thoroughly in the next chapter. For now, back to techniques.
– Kathleen Meyer in How to Shit in the Woods

In case you never read this book, let me review what I found to be the most pertinent points, especially for river trekkers. As Meyer says, it is essential that you do any of your business, especially the solid type, above the high-water line of the river you are paddling. It is best to go away from paths or trails and dig a hole 6-8″ deep where you will bury your deposit. If you are in a pack-it-out situation, because of a lack of soil, heavily used area, or for winter excursions, you need only go away from camp for privacy and do your pooping in a bag or other container. If it’s cold out, you can even do it in a tent! Make sure to pack out your TP if there is any question whether it will biodegrade properly, even when buried with your waste.

As for techniques, you can sit back over a log, rock, or simply squat. Hold on to a tree for stability as you squat, and in all cases, don’t put your hood up if you don’t see the pile! Peeing is infinitely simpler for men and complicated for women. Suffice it to say, practice makes perfect, and if all else fails, ladies, pee in a container and pour it out.

No matter how remote you may be, you can no longer assume the water you are drinking is clean. Giardia is extremely prevalent in water throughout North America, and indeed around the world. In fact, beavers are not the only culprits for spreading this nasty parasite — humans can be carriers and depositing solid waste too close to a waterway can spread it to that source — another good reason to always shit up high.

One other short-but-important point, from Meyer: “… we are capable of spreading odd, new diseases as fast as we take vacations. What animal other than Homo sapiens can swallow rogani gosht in India or Kalya e Khass in South Africa and shit it into the Colorado countryside?” When the customs people ask you if you’ve been to or will be visiting a farm, this is what they are concerned about — passing dirt from one place to another on your shoes and infecting the Canadian countryside. For this reason, it’s good practice to clean your shoes (and other gear) thoroughly when you travel and go to/from a rural area or the wilderness.

How to Shit in the Woods is a great book, and it has inspired me — maybe my next book will be Strange and Unusual Places I Have Peed. I could tell a story or two, which I do in York Boat Captain, but there are lots of other tales to tell! 🙂