Life's Pilgrims

Life is a journey, and we are all pilgrims traveling its varied paths.

Answering Nature's Call
The Bare Essentials

By Karen Anderson

Original Article December 7, 2014 - Updated April 29, 2018

One of the questions that I get asked, when talking about our outdoor adventures is, "Where do you go? No, not locations, but where do you go?" The outdoor lifestyle is not for everyone and here is one of the biggest reasons why. When out in nature you will at some point find yourself having to answer the call of nature. This piece is intended to educate those who are inexperienced to this situation. 

Please note that this is based on my own personal experiences, as a female. We went on a base camp type hiking trip with some people who actually took a nursing home toilet chair with them because she absolutely refused to hug a tree and wanted something to sit on. In most backpacking and hiking situations this is impractical, so here are your options: cat holes, port-a potties, moldering privies, or if you’re very lucky you might find a cinder block outhouse. 

Cat Holes

Yes, cat holes are a real thing. The first time Chris went canoeing with the scouts on Peace River they took a long weekend in January, set out on Friday and returned on Monday. Sunday night a couple of the scouts came up to him, "Mr. Anderson we gotta go. Where are the port-a-potties?" Chris looked at them and replied "You remember when we talked about digging cat holes?" Their eyes suddenly widened in surprise "You mean those are real? We really have to do that?" Doing "that" is relatively simple and only involves a few steps.
  • 1. You need to pick a tree, this may be the one you will be hugging all weekend so be happy with the one you pick. This is probably the most important and difficult step for the following reasons: 

It needs to be one that is free of weeds around the base because you don’t want poison ivy rubbing your sensitive body parts.

You also need a tree with good solid bark to hold on to. In Florida, we have Cabbage Palms all over the place and these would seem to provide the perfect leverage needed because when the leaves or palm fronds fall off they leave a section on the trunk that look like "handles" sticking out from the trunk. DO NOT USE THIS! Those wonderful "handles" will break free at the worst possible moment as a friend of mine discovered the first time she went backpacking with us. She fell on her butt not once, but twice before figuring this out. I personally favor Oak trees.

Last of all, your tree needs to be far enough from camp, water sources (200 ft.), or any trails so no one can sneak up on you and you don’t create contamination issues. 

  • 2. Dig the hole. This sounds easy, but there is an art and tactic to this simple sounding step. It doesn’t have to be really deep, only six to eight inches, and just wide enough for your aiming ability. You do not need a large shovel, even though the tree roots can be hard to dig through. You just something need something that is small and transportable. We prefer to use a small garden spade or Chris’ Ipood. Yes, that is a real product. It is made by Sea to Summit, NOT Apple, no batteries needed and no USB port either.
  • 3. Take care of business and make sure everything, including the toilet paper, makes it into the hole.
  • 4. Take the soil you shoveled up and carefully place it back over the hole. You can cover the location with leaves to hide everything a little better.
Now, the hardcore Leave No Tracers who believe the best way to answer nature’s call in extreme backcountry situations is the use of a Poop Tube. And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like AND they want you to put the loaded tube back in your backpack. So, needless to say, I’ve never seen one used. Chris has stated that when you can get the bears to quit pooping in the woods, he MAY consider this. Don’t hold your breath for him to try this any time soon.


You will find these in some campsites, and every one pretty well knows what they are all about and how they work. But a little known fact about port-a-potties in the woods, they seem to be luxury resorts for tree frogs, especially the rolls of toilet paper. So it is imperative that you give the port-a-potty a full inspection before dropping your drawers. I learned this lesson the hard way. Chris and I were doing a campground inspection when took a phone call from a customer. I decided to take advantage of the delay and make use of the port-a-potty. I stepped inside, looked around and saw no frogs. But I failed to inspect the toilet paper roll. When I pulled on the toilet paper, I suddenly found this cold, slimy, bony frog monster with bulbous red eyes on my bare thigh. My reaction was to start screaming as I opened the door and launched myself out of the small space. Thoroughly embarrassed, I composed myself and my clothes back together. Chris was laughing so hard he could hardly explain to his customer, who thought he was laughing at her problem, that he was really laughing at me and not her. 

Moldering Privies

Out of everything I have discussed, moldering privies are the ones that I have the least experience with, therefore no stories. I guess it has something to do with the water table in Florida being at ground level. These can be found near shelters on the Appalachian Trail and therefore warrant mentioning. They are open air out houses with a true toilet seat placed over a hole in the ground, or an above-ground enclosure with chicken wire around the base. You take care of business and if anything is left that will not absorb immediately into the ground you should cover it with the mulched wood or dead leaves that is sometimes placed nearby. Normally, like I saw at the Hawk Mountain Shelter, it works pretty well and the smell is minimal. Unfortunately that was not the case at Stover Creek, which seemed to receive much more use. I resorted to using the trees instead of dealing with the smell of the moldering privy. 

Cinderblock Outhouses

Just imagine a concrete, permanent port-a-potty, and you have your cinderblock outhouse. In my opinion, these are luxury accommodations - the next best thing to running water. These are just privies, but with fancy concrete sides, and a vent stack that is supposed to get rid of the smell. The function the same as a port-a-potty, but you are in a really "nice" building. Enough said.

So now you have all the information you need for your next backpacking trip or day hike. When you find yourself where you just can’t hold " IT " anymore, you now know your options and what procedures to follow. Oh, one more important fact: When your hanging out there and you hear some huge animal rushing towards you, just remember it’s amazing how loud a lizard can sound running through dry leaves – there’s no need to scream. 

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