Kayak Camping: A lesson in leaving no trace and how to poop in the woods

kayaking in florida keys

See that island in the distance? The one surrounded by mangroves. Unlike other mangrove islands, the center of this one was all sand instead of clay. It also had a sandy beach that faced north with a view to the distant Seven-Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys and a view towards the setting sun. With the tide out, the beach extended about 100 feet. For sunrise, tidal pools formed in old coral reefs or limestone bedrock. The center of the island raised far above the tide. The open nature of the island meant that the breeze would help keep the no-see-ums away after the sun went down. It seemed like the perfect place to land.

Then we landed and found this:

trash on a beach

Earlier in the day, a group of motor boaters boated out to the island and had a picnic. Instead of bagging their trash, they left it all on the beach. It was starting to blow around the island. Worse still is that sea turtles often confuse plastic for food and sea turtles often die from ingestion of plastic. We didn’t have trash bags with us, nor the room in our kayaks so it was a dilemma. We tried to decide if we were going to stay on the island or go to a larger key back to the east which was typical with a clay center and a ring of mangroves. Finally, we decided to stay. (Seriously, motor boaters? You couldn’t clean up your picnic? I usually don’t get too upset, but this one was hard to believe. This is why we can’t have nice stuff.)

And then we found this:

poop on the beach


Unburied crap back from the beach. Now, when we take a crap in the woods we all feel like Bill Bryson did when he wrote, “I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, ‘Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.'” But, you don’t leave it like this and arguably on a small island such as this, it’s better to bag it and pack it out.

Seriously, who does this? There’s even a book written about How to Shit in the Woods. Not only does it contain great info about crapping in the woods, but it also makes a great gift for your paddling friends. It’s not the first time that I’ve seen this nor do I imagine that it’s the first time that you’ve seen it. I often see it near beaches that have easy access for motor boaters. Maybe, boat stores, boat manufacturers, etc. need to start a campaign on how to shit in the woods. They can start with the book. Here’s the link again if you missed it:

Leave No Trace Principles

If you read this website, I suspect that you already practice Leave No Trace principles, but if you don’t, here are the seven principles:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Here’s the gist of how to poop in the woods:

  1. Pick a spot about 150 feet away from any fresh water and out of the flood plane.
  2. Dig a hole that’s 6 to 8 inches deep. If you can preserve the top few inches of the soil in one piece like a piece of sod, do so.
  3. Do your duty.
  4. Wipe.
  5. Burn the TP.
  6. Stir some dirt from the sides of the hole in with the poop. Find a stir stick on the way to the hole.
  7. Fill in the hole and cover it with the sod you made.
  8. Sanitize or wash your hands. The most common contamination in the woods is from not washing your hands after you poop.

What should you carry in your shit kit?

  1. A trowel: I’m old school and use a Coghlan’s Backpackers Trowel that I’ve had forever. It’s exactly 6 inches long.
  2. TP
  3. A lighter
  4. Hand sanitizer
  5. Dry bag: a lightweight dry bag such as Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Sack in the two liter size to keep the tp dry. Or a Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Outhouse.

On our trip, we were so disgusted about the lack of sanitation on the island that we packed up our stuff and paddled back to an island to the east. It was clean. It looked like it had been used for camping, but not by motor boaters, which is probably why it was clean.

Note: Our kayaks were jammed packed with expedition gear, multiple computers, food and we couldn’t carry the trash off the island. We arranged to have the island cleaned up, and shortly after we visited the entire island was cleaned up.

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  • Yup. I have seen that, always with motorboaters, too. Never with the people that have to work at getting out there. Beer cans in didn’t a pile behind some tree. Maybe some broken gear they didn’t want to carry back to the boat. Places like these should have No Motorboats Allowed signs, but I am being a bit reactionary.

    We don’t talk about sanitary practices. Thats is a given. Really, would anyone like to camp there? Talk about destroying a nice site…

  • […] How to: poop in the woods […]

  • I’m a little disappointed that you just left all that there. You rant about someone else’s garbage and crap but did nothing about it. You don’t even list in you carry kit an extra bag for just such a purpose. You know others are going to leave garbage behind, you’ve seen it many times, so why wouldn’t you come prepared? Plastic shopping bags cost nothing and fold up to the size of a Loonie, they also weigh nothing.

    I’m always reading about kayakers and canoests ranting about the garbage left behind by someone else and then read that they themselves did nothing but bitch about it. So what you just did was to leave garbage behind for someone else to find and deal with. That is not Leave No Trace.

    You could have used a little plastic shopping bag to pick up the litter, your Coghlan’s Backpackers Trowel that’s 6 inches long to dig a cat hole and bury the crap, washed your hands with your hand sanitizer and enjoyed your time on the perfect place to land. And in doing that make it better for the next person, which could in all likelyhood be you.

    If we, as kayakers and canoests don’t pick up after others, who does? I think you may have felt a little better about yourself and your environment if you’d done something to make it better. There’s not a paddle that I go on that I’m not picking up some garbage, I can’t get it all, but I’ve made it my business to clean it up a little each time so that next time I go there, it’s just a wee bit cleaner. And I set an example for the people who paddle with me, they end up taking a moment to grab some garbage, and I didn’t have to say a word.

    Please stop bitching, expecting someone else to clean it up, and next time bring a bag. You know there’ll be garbage there. Why not do something about it? How many turtles, birds or other wild life, dined on the garbage you left behind?

    • Hi, Jan,

      I appreciate your perspective, but not your tone. The tone is uncalled for. Particularly, the “bitching” comment. My expectation is that whoever did it should clean it up, and that’s not a wrong expectation to have.

      As I already stated, there was no way that we could have fit the trash in our kayaks which were completely full of camping gear, electronics, food, etc… It was an open water crossing and having garbage bags on deck just wasn’t an option even if we had garbage bags with us. Had we had a garbage bag we would have bagged up the trash, but it was unexpected and big garbage bags aren’t something that I’ve ever had to carry.

      Personally, I don’t think that kayakers should be expected to pick up after motor boater’s trash. Is it a good thing to do? Sure, and I applaud you for do so. I don’t buy the argument that kayakers and canoeist should clean up after everyone else. We’re not the world’s garbage trucks.

      Now, just to clarify, we were able to notify someone connected with sea turtles rescue and research and they went out to the beach to clean up the mess in a boat. I didn’t have the exact details of who we contacted, because Dave and Amy took care of it, so I didn’t put it in the post. At any rate, shortly after we visited the entire island was cleaned up.

      In all reality here, the blame lands squarely on the people who did it and not on those who stumbled upon it.

      • My tone is one of being fed up with other peoples garbage and as I read it, you left garbage behind. You never said that you’d done anything about it in your article, only that you left for another island. Had you mentioned that you arranged for it to be picked up I would have had a different response. One of applauding your effort to keep our environment cleaner.

        And yes the blame is definitely on the shoulders of the people who left garbage in the first place. But it IS our responsibility in the end. This planet is not divided into two separate parts and we have to live with the pigs that abuse it. If we don’t take responsibility for cleaning up and trying to educate, who will?

        I’ve read hundreds of articles all over the web where people are bitching (or ranting, whichever you prefer) about other people leaving garbage and other undesirables behind, but don’t see very many articles on how they help.

        Bryan, you are fortunate that you have a large following and a real chance to make a difference. All I’m saying is that it is your responsibility, as well as mine, to make that difference.

        I’m glad the island was cleaned up, I’m happy you and your paddle mates did do something about it.

        • I think education is part of making that difference and this post was intended as an educational post wrapped in a real-world experience. The more people that understand LNT and know how to bury their poop, the better.

          As far as cleaning up the trash, I’ve picked it up when I can. When I’m guiding or on day trips and I see a some trash, I throw it in the day hatch. On this trip, I did the same in a few places.

          Now, let me ask you this? When you’re driving around town or across country do you stop and pick up every soda bottle and candy wrapper that you see on the side of the road? If so, I commend your dedication. If not, isn’t there a bit of hypocrisy expressed here?

          In reality, one has to do the best you can to clean up after others, but sometimes, the circumstances make it impossible to do so and still accomplish goals.

          • As I’ve said, “I can’t get it all, but I’ve made it my business to clean it up a little each time so that next time I go there, it’s just a wee bit cleaner.”

            No, I don’t stop my car to pick up pop cans, but I do pick them up when I stop.

            I’m not arguing with you Bryan, I’m agreeing with you. Obviously, my ‘tone’ was misunderstood and now you’ve taken offence. That’s too bad, I’d thought this was an open forum for followers of your posts to voice their opinions. This was a really good topic for discussion.

            • No, I haven’t taken offence with your points — just with the original post’s tone. You’ve explained the tone and I accept that explanation. I agree with you that’s this is a good thing to discuss. And it’s a hard thing to know what the right answer is in a situation like we faced. We were lucky to be able to find someone that could go clean it up, but that isn’t always possible nor is carrying it out always possible as it wasn’t for us.

              I thought that I’d move the conversation forward by relating a non-kayaking example to kayaking. In life, it isn’t always ideal to pick up other’s trash and in kayaking, it isn’t always ideal to pick up someone’s trash. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I always look at things as the ideal and the real and in my reality the two hardly ever line up.

              I can’t see myself carrying a heavy duty trash bag around with me for something that I rarely see, but I would consider something lighter and small. Do you have a specific product suggestion?

              • Welcome to South Flariduh! Sadly this is the reality of 5 million people living here. Trash is particularly bad in Miami, the islands of Biscayne Bay are literally covered with trash of all types. One of the saddest things I’ve seen was a fried chicken bucket and soda cups left right on a little island beach .. with tiny footprints around it. The problem is the mentality – then “teaching” the next generation that it’s ok to just leave trash wherever~
                I’d say that even deep in the Everglades interior, you will still find trash, usually party balloons – I’ve picked up many of those in the unlikeliest places! In the middle of Florida Bay it’s still pristine, thankfully until you approach the Keys when you start seeing old 5 gallon buckets, styrofoam and fishing line .. as pointed out in my
                Across Florida Bay: Flamingo to Long Key Roundtrip Adventure.
                So yes, I do carry extra trash bags every time I head out, but sometimes it’s too much. What really upsets me is finding the chickee portolets with a trash bag full of beer bottles left behind, obviously by a powerboater party – and why? In the end, education and awareness is going to be the only solution!
                P.S. The poop was not buried most likely because the marl mud and vegetation that make up the islands make it nearly impossible to actually dig a hole. Not a justification, just the reality down here..

    • Yeah, I agree with most you said. Even burrying the crap would have been a start.

      I will not defend Bryan, but I think I can understand his attitude at that time. After a 20-30 mile paddle, finding that stuff where I planned to camp is NOT what I want to see. I personnaly get real disgusted, and shamefully, have paddled off somewhere else. Too tired, pissed off and upset with inconsiderate people, generally. But, usually, no matter how badly trashed a place might be, I fill my garbage bag, albeit a small 1 gallon ziplock, with trash. It may not make a dent. Sometimes, it goes a long way. Hiking through the ADK’s I do the same, even though it means carrying extra. Well, I try, but don’t always succeede, to leave a place better than when I got there.

      LNT is sort of stillborn. It has a lot of good things. I follow most of the things they teach. But I am not a believer. As an example: Use a stove rather than a campfire. How and where does the metal get smelted for the stove? Who made the tools to make the stove? Petrolium or Gas for fuel? I think you see my point. It does not encompas anything except the local and direct viewpoint. Over a 5 year span, as another example, the plastic bag is far worse than the poop on Bryan’s island. The poop is likely a GOOD thing. But the plastic is still plastic and nothing but trash. No, I am not advocating squating all over the woods. Just making a point.

      • I’m not saying I’m perfect either Marco. But surprisingly I’ve found a few treasures. $10cdn, a brand new snow shovel, a piece of black material that I mistook for a garbage bag (took home, washed and now use for a back-drop for small items in photography), an extendable boat hook, the list goes on and on. So it’s not all bad, at least finding money was kind of a payment for picking up someone else’s garbage.

        As far as using stoves vs fire, it does have some benefits. Sparks from a fire destroy millions of hectares of forest a year. That’s why many parks have banned open fires, some have even gone so far as to ban un-reusable fuel containers, they kept finding them in the “Treasure boxes”. They’ve also banned tinned goods, non-recyclable plastic containers and other polluting things. It’s up to the gov’t to create the recycle program for the used containers and/or the manufacturers to make them refillable or recyclable.

        LNT is a good site. But not the only one out there. You still have to educate yourself and make up your own mind as to what’s right and what’s wrong. You are, after all, the Captain of Your Ship.

      • Thank for not defending me, because I believe the choices that we made were the correct ones.

        LNT: But what you’re describing isn’t what LNT addresses. It doesn’t tackle the philosophical entirety of humanity’s consumption; it addresses how to minimize the impacts on the woods and how to keep the woods in good shape for the next person.

  • Jan, Yeah, I don’t use canister stoves either, could never handle the 50% waste for fuel.

    My praises on calling the correct people.

    LNT has a basic flaw, so I do not subscribe to it, though I do follow it’s tennents. Basically they are trying to preserve the existing environment. Great. The logical delima is that the environment changes. So, I fail to see how they can preserve the existing environment when change is what is needed to match the existing environment. This is a very basic logical flaw.
    Example where it is more than just a word game:
    I paddle out on Long Lake NY. Never been there, I leave it exactly as I found it, maybe better. Next year I plan a trip. By LNT, I would not consider ever repeating the trip to Long Lake because it would be identical. Not true. I have been back there several times. It has been different EVERY time. Something must’ve changed. Follow? It doesn’t make sense to me. LNT predicts that I will have the same experience every time but this does not ever happen. It has no predictive validity.

    • The Jetboil stove is very efficient and worth trying if you ever want to try a canister stove. I suppose alcohol is probably the most sound as far as fuel, but in the northern woods or in wooded areas with lots of down and dead trees, a small wood-burning stove such as the Solo Stove should be pretty sound — much more than an open fire. I just got one and am looking forward to trying it out.

      LNT: LNT doesn’t make the philosophical jump that the environment should be static — it’s all rather practical in that its goal is to have more people practice its seven principles. It doesn’t say that you can’t take the same trip nor that taking the same trip would be identical. It only tries to minimize the human impact on a changing environment. I don’t know Long Lake, but in LNT, if Long Lake has established campsites, you’d camp there. If it’s a pristine area, it says, “Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails. Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.” My take is that if you return to Long Lake, camp in an established campsite or if it’s pristine, camp in a different place than you did the last time, but camp in a place that you won’t impact.

      Maybe I’m missing where it says don’t do the same trip? Do you have a link?

      • Stoves? I have been through about a hundred of the little beasties. I am familiar with the Jetboil, Sol, SolTi, etc. (I think I still have their frying pan.) Do not encourage me to go back to that one. (My wife will never forgive you.) I haven’t bought one in almost a year…it is sort’a getting the better of me. I typically use a SVEA 123r, about 40 years old, but I remember days of cooking over wood fires. Stoves are a new gadget.

        Anyway, like I say, I follow LNT tennets, mostly. But, I do not shy away from cutting a mashmallow stick for the kids. I don’t chop down dead trees. But I would cut 6-8″ pieces of firewood. I don’t always have a fire. I am not above cutting down a berry bush from near a trail. I use chemicals on my cloths and in my drinking water. And I am not above using permethrin and DEET together as needed. Though, in large amounts it could get into the water system.

        I generally travel UL. I camp under a tarp, usually. I carry 23 pounds in a 2200ci backpack for 14 days. That includes my SVEA, camera, fishing rod and hiking staff. My homemade stripper, 13’8″ NimbleWeed weighs ~19 pounds, a bit more with PFD, paddle and spray decks. I *follow* LNT. I just do not subscribe to the organization. I don’t believe in it. If I did, I would follow all their rules, regulations, teachings and principles. I don’t. I avoid hypocrisy when I can…logical stuff, again.

  • I don’t get it. You find garbage on a beach, including plastic that will choke turtles, and you cannot carry it out.. so why didn’t you just burn it (and the TP) to nothing? If you say “air pollution”, then it will confirm my suspicion that LNT-types are just as much ideologues lacking in common sense as those on the other side. If you compare the air pollution from a single fire compared to the vast amounts of pollution created by the hundreds of massive thermal, coal-fired thermal plants in the U.S., and the vast amounts of fuel burned daily by vehicles, it’s a drop versus an ocean. And presumably you drive and use power, right?

    On the other hand, if you reply, “It’s not that. I just wasn’t into cleaning up someone else’s mess that day”, at least that makes sense. It’s sheer illogicality that drives me nuts.

    • Here’s what I don’t get: an entire soap box dialog about burning trash and trying to related that to the LNT practices. Obviously, if the LNT principles states, “Minimize Campfire Impacts” it isn’t anti-fire. It’s about minimizing impact in the woods so that the next person can find it in the condition that you found it in. Or in other words: don’t leave your shit on the beach. Seriously, dude, lighten up.

      Why we left it:
      1. Our kayaks were jammed packed with expedition gear and we couldn’t carry the trash off the island. We also didn’t have garbage bags big enough to carry it off and I’m doubtful that there was enough small down and dead wood on the island to build a fire big enough to burn it all and we didn’t have an axe or saw to cut up the larger wood that was there. The people that left it tried to burn it, but were unsuccessful. We arranged to have the island cleaned up, and shortly after we left the island was cleaned up.
      2. Kayakers aren’t the world’s garbage patrol.
      3. The motorboaters should have cleaned up after themselves.

      There is nothing illogical about minimizing your own impact and not cleaning up after others.

      * Would we have we liked to help clean it up? Yes.
      * Was it possible for us to do so at that time? No.

      But, I’m going to guess that most people raising this issue in this article’s comments don’t pick up every piece of trash they see while driving their cars around town, and I don’t see much of a difference between what we did and what they do.

      • Thanks for reply. I apologize if my tone seemed to be critical; unintended. I should’ve just said, “Could you have simply burned the trash?” I’m just getting frustrated that people don’t seem to think of burning trash as an option any more, as if it’s an enviro-crime.

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