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Outhouses: Taking A Load Off Your Feet

Posted on September 16th, 2014

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A smelly outhouse? Not to Jim DuFresne. Our Trail Talk blogger loves what a privy provides in the middle of the backpacking trip; a roof over your head and a seat to take a load off your feet.

MichiganTrailMaps.com has been on its summer sabbatical, researching trails and enjoying life in northern Michigan. But we’re back at our desks. Look for our next newsletter later this week and if you’re not on the mailing list head to www.michigantrailmaps.com/newsletter-7/ and sign up.  In two weeks look for our newest commercial map; Shingle Mill Pathway and Green Timbers in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, in our e-shop.

By Jim DuFresne

On my last trek across Isle Royale National Park it rained non-stop for three days at one point. The weather was so brutal that the Ranger III and other ferries cancelled their sailings. Backpackers, who could, hunkered down in the shoreline shelters. Who knows what the moose did?

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

I was in the middle of the island on the Greenstone Ridge Trail, too far inland to retreat to a shelter. The first night I was damp, the second night I was dripping wet and when I arrived at the backcountry campground on Lake Desor for the third night I was drenched. And then I saw it, not more than 30 yards from the where I dropped my pack, an outhouse. With a roof.  I’m not sure if I was just tired or my head was so waterlogged that I was in the early stages of delusion but I walked over and opened the door to see if I could spend the night in it.

It didn’t smell that bad. But the configurations of an outhouse are such that not even in a fetal position could I unroll my Therm-A-Rest pad. I pitched my saturated tent instead and settled for eating dinner in an outhouse with the door propped open. It was the only time that day water wasn’t streaming down my glasses.

The outhouse at Lake Desor  on Isle Royale National Park.

The outhouse at the Lake Desor backcountry campground on Isle Royale National Park.

It’s amazing what you long for in the wilderness. At times you can care less that there is no cell phone coverage and you can’t check your Twitter account. True luxuries in the backcountry are usually much more simple than that; a roof over your head and a seat to take a load off your feet.

That’s why I love backcountry outhouses. They often supply one or the other and, if you’re really lucky, sometimes both. That’s luxury!

In New Zealand, where bathrooms are often referred to as loos, backcountry outhouses are called “longdrops.” I’ve often thought that’s the perfect name, much better than “privy,” “latrine” or the government jargon of “vault toilet.”

No matter what you call them,  it’s one little bit of unexpected comfort in the middle of the woods or high in the alpine, a place where you don’t have to squat.

A backcountry toilet on Grand Island National Recreation Area.

A backcountry toilet on Grand Island National Recreation Area.

I’m not the only backpacker or kayaker who has a place in his heart for backcountry toilets and fond memories, not to mention photographs, of his favorite longdrops.

Last month MichiganTrailMaps.com and Shorts Brewing Company staged the Great Elk Rapids Beer Competition, a fund raiser for the proposed Sleeping Bear Dunes Bay-to-Bay Trail.

When completed, the Bay-To-Bay Trail will traverse the length of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore from Old Indian Trail north of Frankfort to Good Harbor Bay, northeast of Glen Arbor. The 35-mile backpacking route will include such renowned natural features as Platte Bay, the Dune Climb, North Bar Lake and Pyramid Point while passing through the towns of Glen Arbor and Empire.  Bay-To-Bay will also feature a water trail for multi-day kayaking along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

At night backpackers and kayakers will share the same series of backcountry campgrounds located in remote areas of the park that are now hard to access. And in the morning everybody, hikers and paddlers alike, will be using the same backcountry toilet.

That’s why when the evening was over and the event had raised more than $3,000, many of the donors urged the money be used for a toilet on the trail. This crowd was more than just serious beer lovers. The majority were also hikers, backpackers and paddlers. And at the end of a long day, after shouldering that 30-pound backpack for eight or nine miles, what’s the first thing many of them long for?

Some place to sit.

The home brewers at the Great Elk Rapids Beer Competition with celebrity judge Matt Drake of Short's Brewing Co. in the center.

The home brewers at the Great Elk Rapids Beer Competition with celebrity judge Matt Drake of Short’s Brewing Co. in the center.

What most of us envisioned that evening was a tired backpacker plopping down in our outhouse and seeing a small sign on the wall in front of him or her: This seat was made possible by MichiganTrailMaps.com and Short’s Brewing Company. Find Your Way!

Alas, while Friends of the Sleeping Bear Dunes were more than happy to earmark the money for one of the backcountry outhouses along the trail, the National Park Service doesn’t allow advertising in their vault toilets.

But this group of beer-drinking backpackers are not to be discouraged. Many have already suggested that when the Sleeping Bear Dunes Bay-To-Bay Trail is completed in two or three years, we organize a fund-raising hike out to our longdrop and, if we can’t hang a plaque on it, then we’ll hang a pine-scented air freshener in it.

A sweet-smelling seat; what more could you possibly want after a long day on the trail?

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