The Real Shit on Trowels of the Trail

The decision to embark on this trek seemed like the toughest choice I would make. As exciting as trail life seems, six months in the woods is never easy. Battling freezing temperatures and unrelenting heat, can I handle the AT with all of its hazards? While in the final stretch of thru-hiking preparations, I dwell on decisions that will greatly impact my life. The AT has taken over my existence. My family and friends think I have become obsessed.

Questions and concerns about all things AT overflow my mind and spill out of me uncontrollably. Somehow my trail mind relates every conversation to hiking. I use my loved ones as sounding boards on possible solutions to problems they never thought existed. Without others’ support I would probably talk myself out of the whole dang thing.

My mind creates hypothetical situations built on other hypothetical events, creating monster conditions straight out of The Perfect Storm. My manifestations rarely account for legitimate concerns that past hikers easily survived and shared. A mind preparing for the AT festers and mutates into an uncontrollable being impatiently waiting to be released into the wild.

Conversations with my girlfriend, who will be joining me in Virginia, include more about my AT shit than she ever imagined. Previously, the topic was kept private from each other. However, not when your loved one is planning to hike the AT. It all started with, “Where are you going to go, you know?” Then it turned into, “Do you carry it out or leave it behind?”

How to deal with my business led to the most intense internal debate so far. Which trowel will I carry 2,200+ miles? Following LNT principles, my trowel will be with me through thick and thin, wet and dry conditions. I know what I will certainly use it for. But my trowel may become so much more. Perhaps a tent stake, a mud thrower when there is a rowdy hiking buddy. Or even my only weapon to ward off rodents swarming my pack drooling rabies and dragging their tails like one-eyed zombies.

I already decided my trowel, whichever I end up buying, will be named Wilson. It will assume a personality all of its own, like Tom Hanks’s best friend in Castaway. A trowel is a piece of equipment worthy of countless hours pondering the now not-so-subtle differences. It will literally be dealing with all my shit and extra baggage. Like choosing a therapist, one must chose wisely.

Where does one even start? The Trek’s Hiker Survey, of course. After reading about the different hikers, the ultralight, the budget conscious, the gazillionaire (who wouldn’t carry a trowel by the way, but tow a backcountry privy), I am no closer. I need firsthand experience with bowels. But who do I know who gives a shit about poop scoops? In my current situation you ask everyone, at least bring pooping in the woods up at every dinner engagement and visitor center I stop at while driving down the highway. I even brought it up at a recent doctor appointment.

Saving you from the results of my own survey, I narrowed it down to the GSI, recycled polycarbonate (fancy for plastic) 3.1 ounces for $4.95, and the Deuce, made of aluminum weighing in at one ounce for $24.95. With weeks of watching LNT videos under my belt and learning about shakedown strategies, it was time to walk into a shop and make the decision. Some gear decisions need the items in your hands to make the final call.

Holding each trowel and simulating digging a cathole in front of the sales associate and other customers, I got a feel for both. Taking my time running my fingers over every rivet and curve noticing the intricate shapes and the engineered-to-specific design details. Keep in mind I will be using this tool every day, depending on contents of my food resupplies. It better be a comfortable fit to avoid, I don’t know, additional blisters I guess.

During this entire process I created a mathematical system to value the financial cost and benefits of ultralight options. Typically, when a piece of gear has the symbol “UL” one can expect the cost to double, triple, or even quadruple. Perhaps ultralight gear makes your pack weigh less because you no longer have to carry the cash spent on the upsale. Take the price of the two options and calculate the cost difference, or how much those saved ounces cost. Divide the difference by the weight savings and the result is your weight savings cost factor.

Example: UL Deuce $24.95 – GSI Scoop $4.95 = $20 / (3.1 ounces – one ounce) = carry the two and throw in a square root somewhere. Ehh, hmmm. Somehow I came to a factor of 6.6666 repeating indefinitely.

Throughout my gear selections and comparing to other hikers who switched gear for lighter options, anything above a factor of six appeared to have general support for switching out cheaper, heavier options. Ultimately determining whether the price increase justifies the decrease in my pack weight.

While hanging the GSI scoop back up, I tossed it in the air. Bam! A lightning bolt struck my forehead that felt like the handle of a poop scoop. The solution to all my shit came to me. The Deuce, however lighter, was essentially just the blade of the GSI trowel. Much of the extra weight in the GSI was in the sturdy handle. By sawing it off, they now become comparable in size and most importantly weight. This solution nearly wiped out the lost weight cost factor.

Furthermore, if I were to ever (spoiler alert) lose dear, old Mr. Wilson by accident, which will never happen because I follow LNT, I won’t feel the need to backtrack 50 miles to save my investment. If nothing else, the $20 I am saving will buy me a nice meal in town to encourage the use of a sound purchase.

Through this, I learned creativity is the best way to lighten a pack without breaking the bank. Hold off on going straight to your hiking store. By doing this, I found the best gloves for early season thru-hiking.

At my favorite hiking shop they sell Gore-Tex products priced in the hundreds. Water-resistant options, a tempting alternative, do not help all that much when needing to keep your hands dry for hours or days of rain and snow. Even those cost $50 to $75.

On the way back from the hiking store I stopped in Tractor Supply.  Customers here spend almost as much time outside as hikers. You won’t find brands like Patagonia or Salomon, but products here survive the life of hard labor. I found cloth gloves  dipped in rubber providing 100% waterproofing and additional layer of warmth to pair with thinner gloves I already own and tested many times trail running. They weigh nearly nothing and cost only $2.99.

Now I can move on to carry toe nail clippers or not to carry toe nail clippers; that is my next question.

~ Later

Bret’s Gear List

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Comments 3

  • Scott A Brotherton : Jan 30th

    Needless to say I am very much looking forward to any/all future posts. Best of Luck !

  • DMFINO : Jan 31st

    Add ‘writer’ to that bio list. Looking forward to your posts. FYI, the first ‘hiking’ book I bought, in a little book store in Sperryville maybe 20 years ago: How to Shit in the Woods. A serious book. Every weekend backpacking trip since I have repeated to my friends one story from the book about a guy who, for weekend backpacking trips, took a Fleet Enema on Friday and ‘eliminated’ that problem from his trip. Good Luck and have fun. DMFINO, a fellow Virginian from the Beautiful Shenandoah Valley.

  • Hilary : Mar 20th

    I can’t wait to go on this journey with you through your blog. I’m gonna hit you up when I’m back stateside so I can join your journey on the trail, too.


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