Sunday, October 5, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 4

Do bears “go” in the woods? Of course they do (and may I never witness it). Only the bears in the Charmin commercials use the toilet. When we humans are in the woods, we adapt to our surroundings and “go” in a way that will leave no trace. Unlike the forest animals, we must bury our waste and pack out the paper we have used. One finds all kinds of uses for zip-style plastic bags on a hiking trip.

I didn’t want to do this. However, stuffing oneself at dinner with two helpings of reconstituted Chili Mac doesn’t leave much choice in the morning. Our backpacking meals were packaged for two, and we were encouraged to eat both helpings; otherwise, Mr. or Ms. Bear might want to finish our dinner.

Our guide told us what to do when it’s time to find a private spot in the trees. Before I tell you, I will advocate for taking along a shovel, which I had to borrow. Many hikers recommend skipping that piece of gear to save weight and using a stick instead to dig the required six-inch “cat hole,” but I’m not one of them.

A toilet area must be 200 feet (about 70 adult paces) away from any fresh water source as well as cooking and sleeping areas. Along with paper and the waste-paper bag, one should carry hand sanitizer to the designated spot.

It is wise to assume the position beforehand while clothed in order to correctly place the cat hole for solid waste. Then dig. Afterward, replace the dirt, making sure the shovel touches only dirt. You may want to mark the spot with a stick in the ground so that other hikers will know to choose a different location.

Now you know.

We left the shelter, hiking upward. This middle day would be our longest on the trail, and I had wondered if I’d have the stamina for it. Fortunately, a night off my feet--even without much sleep—and a Mountain House instant breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon had restored my energy. I was grateful to have gained a second wind.

I’d hit a low point the day before, believing I would never hike the Appalachian Trail or write a book about it. Maybe I’d write a book titled My Year of Hiking instead, and end it with the present trip. But that was yesterday. My perspective was constantly changing. Hiking has its challenges, but hiking in a group of women had replaced many of my fears with fun. I wondered how I would feel when our Smoky Mountain hike was over.

It was another gorgeous day in the woods. The temperature was perfect, and I have always loved the way sunlight dapples the forest floor. In late September the leaves had begun to turn and fall. Every curve, every waterfall, every vista was  a photo waiting to be taken, and the phone cameras were out. Mine was out, too, just not in the same way. The battery had died the night before.

“Did you put your Smartphone in Airplane mode?” our guide asked. No, I hadn’t even thought of it, and I’d left my camera at home after deciding it was too heavy. No pictures for me.

TIP: A phone camera is as good as a standalone if the battery is charged.

We hiked that day until we reached our campground, located in a valley beside a rushing stream. It was time to pitch our tents. Darkness comes quickly beneath a canopy of trees.

As I unpacked the components of my tent, I broke out my little bag of Tylenol to ward off the soreness I had come to expect and quickly popped two tablets into my mouth. Hmmm, they certainly tasted good. I was puzzled for a second before realizing that I had downed one Tylenol and my rogue breath mint from the night before! 

To be concluded…


  1. Jane, I feel you are committed to your goal of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Although we have become good friends on FB, we really didn't get to know one another in HS. With your "finishing to completion" your tasks/goals, it leaves little doubt in my mind you will achieve your goal (I hope it is with a pack of hikers though and not alone). I enjoyed this blog and honestly, had never wondered about the potty situation before; which for me, gives more credence as to why I would NOT be too successful an overnight hiker. Kudos to you, my friend.

  2. Thanks, Betty. At this moment you are more certain than I am about my AT hike. I am praying for the answer to become clear as to whether I should go. I also pray for a hiking partner to emerge if that's meant to be. We'll see.