The Whole Tooth
Backcountry Dental Care
By Tamia Nelson
June 24, 2003
The Old Woodsman dies hard, and one of the articles
of his faith is contempt for the habits of "civilized" life. "I carried a cake of
soap and a towel
through the North Woods for a seven weeks' tour," wrote
Nessmuk (in 1884), "and never used either a single time."
Of course, Nessmuk's renunciation of such home comforts as regular washing may
have been explained by the need to keep his pine-tar "fly varnish" intact, or
maybe it had something to do with the fact that he spent many nights of his tour
in woodland hotels, where soap and towels could be had for the asking.
Nonetheless, the attitude enshrined in Woodcraft and Camping stuck. Even
today when the local HyperMart gives more shelf-space to soap, deodorant,
and shampoo than to flour, sugar, and salt a lot of canoeists and kayakers
regard a paddling holiday as a license to neglect the burdensome rituals of
Include me out. I enjoy myself more when I'm clean, though I admit that there
are days (and places) where regular washing isn't an option. On one
closely-related point, however, I refuse to compromise. Wherever I spread my
bedroll, and whatever the season, I floss and brush my teeth each evening without
Why? Because I know from painful experience that nothing spoils a trip faster
than a toothache, and I've never needed to travel so light that I couldn't find
room for a spool of dental floss, a toothbrush, and tube of toothpaste. You can
buy special travel kits with all these items in miniature, to be sure, and
outfitters' catalogs have a wonderful selection of ingeniously-engineered travel
toothbrushes, but I usually don't bother. I just bring what I use at home. If
you're an electric toothbrush fan, though, you'll have to make some adjustments
and resign yourself to spending a few extra calories
into the bargain. It's a small price to pay for peace of mind, however.
The rest is common sense. After one experience with a burst tube, followed by
a tedious half hour spent trying (unsuccessfully) to rinse toothpaste out of my
sleeping bag, I now pack my toothpaste in doubled plastic bags. More often than
not, in fact, I leave the toothpaste behind in the medicine cabinet, and brush my
teeth with baking soda from my kitchen
stores. (Do NOT confuse baking soda with baking powder, by the
way. They're not the same thing. That's "soda" as in "sodium," too, so folks on
low salt diets will probably want to stick to toothpaste.)
In any case, whatever your favorite tooth-cleaner, be sure you bring enough.
And bring enough floss, too. This won't be a problem on weekend get-aways, but
Big Trips require more careful planning. And what if you run out of floss despite
your planning? Just dip into your ditty bag
and tease apart a suitable length of waxed nylon or polyester twine. I've found
that the component fibers make an acceptable short-term substitute for floss,
although I'll admit that the taste leaves a lot to be desired.
I don't have to remind you to treat the
water you brush your teeth with, do I? Or to pack out
used floss? I didn't think I did. Today, when popular campsites are filled to
capacity every night of the season, even finding a place to spit requires a
little thought. The fireplace probably isn't the best choice!
OK. So far, so good. But what if things go wrong despite regular brushing and
flossing? What if a toothache strikes when the nearest dentist is a hundred miles
away, or worse yet what if a filling suddenly goes AWOL, leaving a
gaping hole in a hard-working tooth? What do you do then?
First things first. Prevention is better than cure. See your dentist before
any Big Trip, and make your appointment early enough to schedule any necessary
follow-up care well ahead of your departure date. It's a lot easier to deal with
a problem in a dentist's office than on a riverbank campsite. Still, accidents
happen. Suppose you saw your dentist before you left and got a clean bill of
health. But now you're staring at a fragment of filling in the palm of your hand,
while your tongue probes the edges of a new crater in your mouth. You're ten days
from the end of your trip. What do you do?
Don't panic, for starters. You're not alone. It's happened to me. To begin
with, put the vagabond filling in your pack. (It'll make a great addition to your
charm bracelet.) Next, rinse your mouth with clean water and inspect the
scene of the crime. You'll need a mirror or the help of a companion to do a
proper job of this I recommend both. Then, when you've completed the
preliminary reconnaissance, reach for the special first-aid kit your dentist
helped you assemble. All told, it needn't occupy more space than a folded
bandanna, and it shouldn't weigh much more, either. Here's what I have in mine:
- Temporary filling material
- Small bulb syringe
- Sterile gauze squares
- Dental mirror
Definitive treatment of a lost filling will have to wait till you're in a
dentist's chair. But for now, and for as long as you're back of beyond, plugging
the hole is Job One. That's where the temporary filling material comes in handy.
A putty-like mixture of zinc oxide, eugenol, and other ingredients, this
self-hardening compound is sold under a number of names. (Temparin is one
widely-available brand; Plastor is another.) Whatever the name, applying it is
easy. Just follow the instructions that come in the package. It's versatile
stuff, too in addition to filling cavities, it can also be used to secure
loose crowns, caps, or inlays. Your dentist can tell you how, as well as
clarifying any doubtful or uncertain details.
The rest of my kit is largely self-explanatory. The dental mirror permits a
companion to inspect every tooth surface, no matter how inaccessible. Solo
travelers will have a harder time, I'm afraid. They'll just have to do the best
they can, perhaps by using a signal
mirror or compass
mirror to see the reflected image. (If condensation forms on the dental
mirror when it's in your mouth, smear the glass with a thin film of soap and try
again.) The bulb syringe helps dry the newly-cleaned cavity with puffs of air.
And the gauze squares? They're rolled into cylinders and wedged between gum and
cheek. Here they keep saliva from flooding your work area while you use the
wooden or plastic spatula to pack filling material into the clean, dry hole that
once held the missing amalgam.
It sounds complicated, but if the tooth around the cavity is intact, it's
really a simple job, and once the temporary filling has hardened in place, you'll
be back in action. (Be sure to chew carefully, though.) The eugenol in the
filling material is a potent topical pain-killer, so any lingering discomfort
will probably be short-lived. If not, you can usually relieve the ache with
whatever over-the-counter analgesic you have in your regular first-aid kit. You
may have to exceed OTC doses at first, however. Ask your dentist for advice on
this point during your pre-trip check-up.
Not all tooth problems can be addressed with my little kit, of course.
Severe pain, swelling, or fever are signs of serious infection. This is
a medical emergency. Get professional help as soon as possible, even if it means
cutting your trip short. With luck, though, you'll never have to deal with
anything like this. If you see a dentist regularly, the worst problem you're
likely to encounter is a lost filling. In that case, a temporary repair will
carry you through till your trip is over and you've made an appointment with your
dentist to put things right. And that's the whole tooth!
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights