Rediscovering the trowel: an experienced ultralight thru-hiker realizes his influence

Thru-hiking is tattooed on Lint Bunting’s soul and pretty much all over his body (the PCT is on his upper leg). Only a small number of people thru-hike as often as Lint does. In the long-distance hiking world, we often list the acronyms and years that we hiked the trail. Partially to brag and partially so we can connect with others. “Oh, you hiked the PCT in 2006? So did my friend…” Here’s Lint’s remarkable alphabet soup: IAT ’03, AT ’04, PCT ’06, CDT ’07, CT ’08, PCT ’09, AT ’10, CDT ’12, AZT + PCT ’13, AT ’14, CDT ’15, FT ’17. Follow him on Instagram @Lint_Hikes, Youtube @true_to_the_thru, or visit his website.

By Lint

Back in 2003, after stumbling upon a magazine article about the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail, I become fixated on walking its length from Door County to St. Croix. Even though I lived in Wisconsin at the time, I wasn’t a backpacker, and I had no idea what to expect along the way. I was very familiar with Wisconsin taverns, and their delectable offerings of Blatz beer and pickled eggs from a huge glass jar, but that was about as far into the cheese state wilderness as I ever had gone.

Lint trail during a hundred mile run. Note the tattoo. Photo by Paul Nelson

Lint trail during a hundred mile run. Photo by Paul Nelson

When I visited the local outfitters, the salesperson had an easy time selling me just about everything one can imagine. Candle lantern made of metal and glass. Individual salt and pepper shakers made of ‘lightweight’ materials. What about this bright orange plastic potty trowel? I bought it all. I set out on my first long distance hike with my pack burdened with mountains of lightweight gear. To shed some of the excess weight, I pondered which pieces of gear I might be able to do without. Since I was too busy nursing blisters at night to do any reading, the candle lantern was one of the first things to go. I also ditched the spice jars in a trash can along the way. The little orange trowel lasted a few more days, but since I figured I could just as easily dig a proper Leave No Trace hole with a stick, it too ended up being disposed of.

Flash forward many years and many cat holes later: I was still using a random stick found in the woods for my daily business.

I would joke about making a point to never use the same stick twice, but having repeated so many trails there’s a not insignificant chance that I myself have used the same stick more than once. My apologies if we’ve ever shaken hands.

Lint during this 2007 thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail.

Lint during this 2007 thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail.

My digging technique became quite effective, and I could rather quickly scoop out a 6-inch-deep hole in which to make my deposit. I still occasionally saw hikers carrying the standard orange trowel, but it tended to be one of the first items that they removed from their kit when they inevitably realized that they’d overpacked for their first thru-hike. I remembered mine, and encouraged other hikers to ditch their trowel and adopt my stick technique. At the time, I thought I was doing people a favor by encouraging them to abandon their trowels.

Then, a few years ago, one of my hiking buddies and I were talking about overuse on the PCT and the growing problem of all that human waste being deposited along a very narrow corridor. This subject turned to proper LNT cat holes—or, more importantly, the lack thereof because of inexperienced hikers.

As someone who has hiked many thousands of miles, I sometimes act as an ambassador for the trail.

Folks who are new to thru-hiking look to me for advice, and sometimes take it without fully digesting the methodology and reasoning behind my techniques. I certainly know the importance of taking the time to dig a sufficiently deep cat hole with my inefficient branch method, but did the folks whom I encouraged to ditch their trowels take the time to dig an adequate hole?

It was time for me to do something that I don’t do very often—add to my pack weight. Aware that I was setting an example, I begrudgingly ordered a tiny aluminum backpacking trowel offered by Gossamer Gear. Weighing in at a mighty 17 grams, I eyed it suspiciously. Did my desire to set a good example for future PCT hikers outweigh my desire to cut every gram from my pack?

Lint's Pacific Crest Trail tattoo.

Lint’s Pacific Crest Trail tattoo.

I tucked that darn trowel away in my pack pocket and tried to forget about it.

It was difficult at first, but the first morning out I used it to dig my daily hole. I found a suitable spot, far from water and trail, on a sloping section of earth nobody would ever pitch camp at. Starting to dig, I thought, hey—this thing works really well! In less than half the usual time, I burrowed through rocks and soil as efficiently as a dog in sand. Achieving the 6- to 8-inch depth was a snap, and after my brief squat I found a small stick and performed the “mix-master” technique I’d been using since day one, where you mix in a bit of dirt into your deposit to accelerate decomposition. After packing out my toilet paper (you do that too, right? Right?!) I wandered back to camp while staring at the goofy little shovel in my hand. I then remembered that these little aluminum trowels could do double duty as a tent stake, therefore I could send one of my tent stakes home! That really sealed the deal. Now I had a double duty piece of gear and would be encouraging hikers to dig proper LNT cat holes.

Ultralight and backpacking trowels go hand in hand.

Ultralight and backpacking trowels go hand in hand.

I don’t expect this article to convince everyone out there to start carrying a trowel. This wasn’t written to browbeat anyone, or to pass judgment. Chances are since you’re reading this in a PCTA publication, you’re already quite familiar with Leave No Trace ethics. You love the trail enough to read articles pertaining to this national treasure, enough even to listen to me drone on about potty trowels. Maybe you have been using a stick to dig cat holes for more years than I and see no reason to change your ways. I totally get that. I’ll certainly never harass anyone for choosing to not carry a shovel, as I still recall my own personal experiences and my justification for doing without.

This article is for trail alumni who realize how much sway they have over the gear choices of first-time hikers, and the impact they can have by encouraging responsible stewardship of our beloved PCT. Most folks don’t disregard LNT ethics because they’re jerks. They disregard them because they’re ignorant. I’ve certainly been guilty of that. My infractions weren’t done out of spite, I simply didn’t fully realize the implications of my actions. Thankfully, the more experienced people around me corrected me. Those of us who return year after year to the PCT have a responsibility to pass on our knowledge about treating our precious trail and surrounding landscapes responsibly.