The Tail of the Thunderbox

A few weeks back, we delved into the story of the BWCAW fire grates. No story of the BWCAW campsites would be complete, however, without the other ever-present campsite feature. The feature goes by many names: the latrine, the throne, the BIFF, the privvy, the facilities, and so many others depending on your group. Just like the fire grates, the latrines of the BWCAW have gone through some iterations and are interwoven with the story of the wilderness area themselves and the rangers tasked to manage it.

Though perhaps not the most intriguing of topics, the latrines of the BWCAW have a long and important history. They exist as part of the USFS Leave-No-Trace guidelines as a vital component of an official campsite. Since groups on a traditional permit must camp in established campsites and people, well, make waste, a latrine is one of the few ways to minimize the landscape impact of that waste. They are not designed as garbage cans or as a convenient place to throw extra food. In interviewing a USFS ranger for this article, she mentioned that the "trash in the latrine" issue has been a pretty consistently frustrating issue these past few years. Garbage such as aluminum foil and plastic wrappers do not break down when buried and should be packed out with a group. Food encourages wildlife to enter a latrine, also a problem. It's important to always remember and abide by the rules while in the BWCAW.

In the average BWCAW campsite, there's a trail running from the camp kitchen and tent pads back to the latrine. A properly functioning latrine may last for many years in a BWCAW campsite. Eventually, latrines fill up and they are replaced by dedicated rangers and volunteers who must dig a new latrine. Some of the most popular campsites have gone through four or five, even six latrines in their time. Other times, latrines are destroyed by wildfires or other natural events such as windstorms and tree-falls.

The oldest latrines in canoe country are the venerated Thunderboxes. The Thunderbox, so named for the resonating sound of a closing lid echoing through the woodlands (or, more crudely associated with the thunderous sounds emitting from a visitor to the throne) were the original latrines. They were made from wood nailed together into a box-like shape above a dug hole in the ground. They were uncomfortable, especially when wet. They had a bad habit of decay, as all biotic materials tend to, leading to a risk of a structurally unsound seat and subsequent risk of rapid descension. Obviously, this was not their only fault. A ranger I talked to for this article mentioned no less than ten bacteria that lived specifically in the wood of thunderboxes. And no one likes a splinter-ridden throne! It became clear that a heavily visited wilderness area like the BWCAW needed a better solution.

photo cred: ghamer

By the late 80s, the USFS began the process of phasing out the Thunderbox. Replacing the latrines in over 2000 campsites was a monumental undertaking that would take time. One thing that could be said of the old Thunderboxes was that they could be easy to pack in as boards and build on-site. Their replacement, the fiberglass latrines many of us are familiar with, though stackable, were not collapsable like their predecessors. Getting thousands of new latrines into the BWCAW would take some creative thinking. Cue Will Steger and his 1989 Trans-Antartic Expedition. In training for their upcoming expedition, they hauled 357 brand-new fiberglass latrines into the wilderness area from west to east by dogsled. To keep the project rolling, the USFS rangers drove a Uhaul to Texas for more latrines and replacement of the old Thunderboxes continued into the 90s. Nowadays, very few Thunderboxes remain. Only a few scattered ones on long-forgotten or unmaintained campsites and a few scattered remnants that weren't hauled out upon retirement can be found. The benefit of the old Thunderbox was much the same as their bane, they decay! What still remains is well on its way to returning to the forest. The fiberglass latrines are mostly identical. There's the occasional one with a lid, and most sit on wooden frames. Many have the campsite number painted on the back side (a helpful bit of information for people to be aware of in case of search-and-rescue calls.) All are formed fiberglass that serves as latrines throughout the BWCAW today.

Standard Latrine - photo cred: bhouse46,

There have been three generations of fiberglass latrines since the first ones were introduced over 30 years ago. In the past few years, a new box style has been making appearances across the wilderness. They are stylistically reminiscent of the old thunderboxes with squared-off corners and an actual lid (a handy feature for keeping wildlife out.) They come in an array of colors it seems from green to brown with most showing up fairly close to entry points. Like the old fiberglass designs, they stack which makes it reasonable to store. Like previous generations of latrines, extras are sometimes stored at ranger cabins in the wilderness making remote replacements easier whenever an old latrine breaks or otherwise needs retiring.

A Stack of New Latrines - photo cred: butthead,

No BWCAW campsite would be complete without the latrine and so, in a way, the story of the wilderness area itself would be incomplete without this seemingly insignificant fixture. They are part of the Boundary Waters experience for all of us who have spent the night at a campsite along one of the many wilderness lakes. They also, in some meager way, stand testament to the rangers who dutifully look after this place by having to dig a new latrine through boulder-strewn topsoil. The story of the latrines from the Thunderboxes of old up to the newest of the new boxes is a small piece of the story of so many people's trips here and their story deserves to be told as part of this well-loved wilderness and the efforts made to preserve it for the future.

Worn-Out Thunderbox - Photo Cred: Frenchy19,

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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  1. Emily Stone on November 9, 2023 at 6:58 pm

    Good stuff! But I feel like you missed an important point with the newest design – they are intended to increase accessibility for people with limited mobility by providing edges to grip for support. And the lids keep flies from bringing poop germs into the camp kitchen. And rangers often portage in a new latrine with the hole over their head!

  2. Debe Kortness on November 12, 2023 at 10:18 pm

    Old enough to have experienced the original! Great article.

  3. Eric Romilly on November 13, 2023 at 5:45 pm

    In each of my 15 BWCA adventures I conclude by making a video entitled “Walk to the crapper”. A simple video that starts at the campsite with a walking tour to the latrine. It’s often my favorite video of the trip.

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