Genevieve Schutzius, with contributions by Janice Heil
A poo with a view, one might say.
I’ve been going #2 outside for a while now. Having gone camping a fair amount since I was a kid, then getting into backpacking as a young adult, I had mastered the art of pooping into a “cathole” 6 inches in the ground and packing out toilet paper (pro tip: find a flat rock and keep it in your pack to use as a pseudo-trowel). Poo-ing into a hole or a bag relieves nature’s call but leaves something to be desired. Not only is it uncomfortable, but in overused areas, excessive catholes can lead to increased fecal bacteria contamination of waterways (back in 2013, PHLUSH highlighted this issue and some solutions, specifically in mountaineering applications in a blog post about human waste management at Mount Everest).
Then, I discovered rafting. My first river trip was right after college and was instantly hooked. There’s nothing that connects you to the natural world more than following a body of water while treating the planet with respect by practicing stringent leave no trace/pack it in, pack it out principles (Bigfoot’s been doing it for years). One of these principles is The Groover – that is, the mobile doo-doo containment system that prevents the contamination of pristine rivers with our urine and feces. It is one form of “container-based sanitation,” which is the same methodology used in a Twin Bucket Toilet System, which PHLUSH promotes for emergency sanitation preparedness and disaster relief.
Though the groover was originally named for the grooves left on your butt cheeks after taking a dump directly into an ammo can, the term is now more reminiscent of a bygone and more “cowboy” river culture, as outdoor gear companies have caught on and now sell specially designed groover toilet seats (at an outrageous price – anyone working on a “generic brand,” please?).
Setting Up the Groover
Ammo cans are waterproof and virtually indestructible — perfect for keeping the icky stuff out of the water while you’re busy crushing whitewater. Bear in mind that on land, the groover should always be open to air to reduce odor and prevent gas pressure buildup.
Like it or not, someone has to set up and take down the groover each day. (That said, some valiant warriors have stated that they’d rather be on groover duty the whole trip than be on cook crew once!) This person(s) can also assess each morning/evening if the current vessel is getting full and a new groover vessel should be set up. On some trips, this chore rotates much like the cook crew role. A generic groover setup consists of the following items:
- The shit tank:
- This is typically a metal, 20mm military ammo can (or “rocket box”) which can be purchased at military surplus stores, CleanAmmoCans.com, and a number of river gear stores.
- It is also possible to use either a 5-gallon bucket (as in the emergency response Twin Bucket System). Bear in mind that a plastic bucket is much more susceptible to breakage in case of the raft flipping – on higher class rivers, an ammo can or other “approved toilet system” may be required in the permit.
- Some people like to purchase a “tank” such as the Eco-Safe Toilet, which fits into the ammo can but has a smaller opening which reduces odor/unslightly poo views, prevents waste from getting on the inside ammo can lid, and makes cleanup less unpleasant. However, the price is steep (again, generic brand please!) and (in my opinion) not worth it.
- Some other toilet options are described here.
- The toilet seat (as stated above, people have been pooping seat-less since the early river days, but it’s definitely worth it to get one)
- Cheaper seats are available for 5 gallon buckets.
- Toilet paper: ONLY TP! NEVER WIPES IN THE GROOVER! Wipes can mess up groover cleaning machines and regular plumbing. They should not be flush no matter what the label says.
- Hand sanitizer
- Hand washing station: see some ideas here and here
- Optional: An additional ammo can (or equivalent container) to carry the toilet seat, additional can or bucket for urine (see below), toilet paper, sanitizer, and other accessories (Reader’s Digest, A crossword puzzle, or a copy of Shawn Shafner’s Know Your Shit!)
Note that when taking down the groover after some use, it’s best to rinse off the seat in the river prior to packing it up for the next ride down the river.
Using the Groover
This was a comfy little groover setup in the sand.
When it comes to using the groover, there is one rule to rule them all:
- NO PEEING IN THE GROOVER! We pack out #2 only. This is because mixing the two creates odor, and urine is heavy and voluminous (up to half a gallon weighing almost 4.5 pounds is excreted per person every day!). Charcoal, powdered bleach, or granulated/pelletized garden lime can be sprinkled on top if odor gets excessive. This is also a great way to get rid of ash from the fire the night before.
- While it does take some finesse to separate your wee from your doo, it can be done. You may have to do some slight maneuvering between the groover and the river (#1 should be done in the water), unless there is a pee bucket/ammo can set up next to the groover.
- Pro tip: for folx with female genitalia, a SheWee or other similar device makes peeing a breeze without taking off your bottoms.
Some folks feel a bit of paruresis (AKA “Shy Bladder,” or anxiety while relieving oneself) when using the groover. Traveling also often impacts the regularity of bowel movements. And if a campsite has few private areas to place the groover, it may be visible to others from certain vantage points, which also contributes to paruresis. Some groover set up teams will purposely put the groover in plain site so beware! This shyness will probably fade as you get used to using the groover, and by the end of the trip you’ll be proudly shitting in the can with ease. But it’s not a bad idea to bring along some fiber tablets to help with your regularity as the trip unfolds.
Cleaning the Groover
Ah, the fun part. I suppose that all good things must come to an end, and days on the river and groover are no exception. You may be asking: so now, what the hell do we do with all this shit?! Fortunately, this question has been thought through before. (Mostly) gone are the days when river rats had to find an RV dump station at the end of the trip and maneuver the hose around the ammo can, risking getting poop all over themselves just to do the earth a little favor. In recent years, several towns and government entities have installed SCAT Machines. This fabulous piece of technology is not just for river users – it has also been implemented in disaster relief situations and in developing communities for managing container-based sanitation disposal.
For our trip, we used the SCAT Machine at the US Forest Service Ranger Station near Riggins, Idaho. Thank you, Forest Service! The facility was clean and had great photos and instructions for many types of groover setups. This machine has a door that opens with a rack for the lid and attachment points to strap the groover can. Then you close the machine, push the button, and wait a few minutes while it blasts a strong stream of water and soap to sanitize the unit.
The SCAT Machine is designed for many shapes and sizes of groover vessels. Just strap it down, close the lid, and let it work its magic!
The SCAT Machine facility near Riggins, Idaho (at the US Forest Service Ranger Station) has great instructions and visual guides.
So, there you have it. Container-based sanitation outside isn’t so bad after all! Poopin’ on the river is an art, but this practice can be carried into many other applications such as home composting systems and disaster relief preparedness.
Have you used a groover or other container-based sanitation system? Let us know your story at firstname.lastname@example.org!