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Girl Talk

Tips for Woodswomen

By Tamia Nelson

August 26, 2003

Women today are unsuited, both in nature and experience, for the task of outfitting for the wilderness.
        Vena Angier, On Your Own in the Wilderness

We've come a long way, haven't we? Vena Angier, wife of outdoor writer Bradford Angier and an experienced backcountry traveler in her own right, wrote these words less than fifty years ago. Yet today they seem to belong to some misty, antediluvian past. Of course, Vena wasn't one hundred percent wrong, was she? Backcountry travel forces us all — women and men alike — to "think outside the box."

I've been luckier than most paddlers in this regard. I grew up in a rural village, where flush toilets were eyed with suspicion and horse-drawn wagons were still a common sight. I worked in a cattle auction-barn, helped out with early-morning calvings, and spent my spare time in the hills or on the water. I also had a good teacher. Women whose childhood home was a city apartment or suburban house will have developed different survival skills, ones less suited to the demands of backcountry living. For them, and for their male counterparts, too, the learning curve can be terribly steep. Let's look at some common quandaries, taking our departure from Vena's 1958 advice for "Women in the Woods."

Relaxing is one thing, letting yourself go another

Hot tubs are hard to find in the wilderness, and that's too bad, because you will get dirty, even on a leisurely weekend paddle. Longer trips mean even bigger problems. Sand, salt, sun, and campfire grime all take their toll. Before you know it, you're a sticky, grubby, sweaty mass of misery. You imagine you'll never feel worse than you do right now, but you couldn't be more wrong. Dusk will bring out the mosquitoes in their thousands.

Misery compounded! What to do? (1) Relax. (2) Fight back. The first task is dead easy. Don't try to maintain city standards of grooming. Accept a little dirt as the price you have to pay for the freedom of the water. Call it sweat equity. Remind yourself that the human species got along without soap for almost 50,000 years. Still, there's no denying that it feels good to be clean, is there? Fortunately, you can do a pretty good job of cleaning up your act if you only invest a little time. Some ways of fighting back are just common sense. Trim your fingernails short. If you're about to embark on a long trip, consider cutting your hair short, too. And dress for success. Long sleeves, close weaves, brimmed hats, and head nets may not be the coolest things going, but they'll help to keep the bugs at bay. They'll also minimize your need for costly, cloying repellents and sunscreens.

The main weapon in your arsenal is fresh water, however, and that's something inland paddlers are seldom short of. So wash up regularly. I like to stop once a day for a shower. Surprised? Are you wondering how I manage to take a daily shower in the backcountry? It's simple, really. I carry a "solar shower" on top of my gear, or on the rear deck of my kayak. You'll find these showers in almost every catalog. They're just large water bags, usually made with one transparent side (this faces up, toward the sun) and equipped with a hose and shower-head. If the bag is filled at lunchtime, the water should be comfortably warm in two-three hours, even on cloudy days. A gallon per person is enough for a fast scrub; two gallons each is pure luxury. (One or two water-purification tablets keep the shower from serving as an incubator for bacteria.) Once the chill is off the water, scout the shoreline for a suitable site — someplace where you can get at least 150 feet from the water's edge, that is — then beach the boats and take turns scrubbing down. Plain soap works fine in most fresh water. I stick with Ivory. It has no scent to whet the appetites of insects or bears, and it even makes an acceptable shampoo. Instant relief! If there's a sand beach or a windswept rock spit for drying off afterward, so much the better.

Whenever the weather or the schedule makes this sort of indulgence impractical, I defer cleanup till after supper, when I heat a large pot of water over the stove or fire for a sponge bath. A folding canvas basin is a big help here. If fuel is scarce, or if time presses, concentrate on the high-soil areas: face, neck, hands, arm-pits, crotch, and feet. You'll be amazed at the difference this makes. (You'll also be glad you cut your hair short!) As always, dirty water gets dumped at least 150 feet from lake, stream, or spring.

Cosmetics? None for me, thanks, but Vena found that lipstick helped her morale, and concluded that even perfume was "not out of place in the wilderness." If you feel the same way, don't forget your mirror, and go easy on the musk in bear country. Wait a minute! I tell a lie. There is one item from the cosmetic counter that I always give packroom to — hand lotion. Paddling and camp chores are hard on the hands, and cracked, fissured skin invites infections. So grease up any time the need arises. I do.

Shaving? I'll pass. My legs and 'pits can look after themselves till I'm back in civilization. I doubt that Vena would approve. Then again, Farwell's face hasn't felt the touch of a razor in more than thirty years. What's sauce for the gander, right? There are limits to what we women will do…

For the sake of our men

And while we're on the subject, let's take another look at dressing for success. Vena saw the need for utilitarian clothing, to be sure, but she also worried that "style assumes a somewhat greater importance." So her backcountry wardrobe included "some light, bright dresses," along with the gasoline-fueled Coleman iron needed to keep them looking crisp.

Include me out. Form follows function, doesn't it? And the rules are the same for both sexes. Clothing should be sturdy, versatile, and easy to care for. Cheap is good, too. I wear cotton in hot weather and wool in cool, supplementing my core wardrobe with fleece, down, and polyester-batting garments when temperatures plummet — and adding a neoprene wetsuit when the water's cold. A "waterproof but breathable" parka once let me down hard on a long, rainy trip. Now I rely exclusively on coated nylon raingear. I get wet from sweat, all right, but at least I'm warm and wet.

Caveats and cautions? Two. Cotton fabrics are wonderfully cool in hot weather, but whatever the season, warm-when-wet wool and fleece are the fabrics of choice for campwear and socks. In particular, jeans have no place on a paddling trip. Once they're soaked through, they have all the comfort and flexibility of a straitjacket, and they're almost impossible to dry. Leave them at home. That's a good place for your nylon briefs, too. While nylon is great for shell garments, its lack of absorbency makes it a poor choice for underwear.

Speaking of undergarments.… If you're smart, you'll change your socks and underwear every day. This means doing laundry on all but the shortest trips. I wash dirty clothing in a canvas bucket — small amounts of unscented laundry detergent do the trick, even in cold water — rinse it well, and dry it on a line, stringing the line under a tarp when rain threatens. If the press of time precludes laundry days ashore, canoeists can spread their wet clothes over their gear, and then pray for a dry day and easy water. (To avoid having to chase articles of clothing down the lake in a gust, tuck your things under the lashings.) Most kayaks are too wet for this trick to have much hope of success, however. That helps to explain the popularity of quick-drying synthetics. Large parties on extended trips may want to bring along a five-gallon plastic pail and a "plumber's helper," or force-cup plunger. The combination is nearly as fast and efficient as a washing machine.

No matter how unwelcome the chore, don't let dirty clothing accumulate. Small loads are much easier to wash (and dry) than large ones. Are you having trouble finding the time to do your laundry? You're not alone. Vena had this advice: "When the men folk are out hunting is a good time to do your washing, so that you'll be free to listen to their adventures when they return." Of course!

Clean clothes or not, some women feel only half-dressed without their jewelry. I'd urge them to think twice before lugging their beads and bangles into the bush, however. They're easy to lose and hard to find. At the very least, leave the family heirlooms and other irreplaceable items in a safe-deposit box. Overhanging branches can snag dangly earrings, too, with predictably painful results.


Vena is unaccountably silent on some subjects, but that doesn't mean we can afford to ignore them. Let's see if I can fill in the gaps. When nature calls, men have a decided advantage. That said, a little practice and a can-do attitude will help many women rise to the occasion. (Remember the opening scene in The Full Monty?) Or you can turn to technology for assistance in closing the … er … pissile gap. I've found the funnel-like appliance known as the "Lady J" to be everything it's cracked up to be. A word to the wise, though: practice at home first. You may need a few changes of clothes before you get the hang of the thing.

And while we're speaking of bloody nuisances, there's another one that Vena ignores. The Brits giggle about "having painters in," but many American women speak of it simply as The Curse. Whichever euphemism you prefer, menstruation is a pain in the particular. Still, if a trip takes you over the red line, you'll have to cope. The rules are simple, and the most important one is "Thou shalt keep clean." Some women may find a portable bidet made from a laboratory wash-bottle useful. (Fill with treated water only!) Others will get by with a bandanna-washcloth. In any case, change tampons or pads at least as often as you do at home, and wash your hands both before and afterward.

Important as personal cleanliness is, however, it's only half the battle. What should you do with soiled tampons or sanitary napkins? On short trips, you can double-bag 'em and carry them out. On longer expeditions, store them in airtight plastic jars — or even an ammo can. Whatever you do, don't try to burn them, and bury tampons only as a last resort. Foraging animals will sniff them out and dig them up. Don't ever bury pads. Period. Most incorporate non-biodegradable plastic shields. And never keep soiled tampons or pads in your tent in bear country, no matter how airtight the container. Bears have better noses than we do, and a bear in the tent will be a lot more than a nuisance!

That's enough about unmentionables. How about something more appetizing? After all…

The biggest item of women's work…

Revolves about cooking. That was Vena's view, anyway, and maybe it's true for some folks. As it happens, I know that I like to cook. But I also know that if I want to go on liking it, someone else is going to have to do the dishes. 'Nuff said, Farwell?


OK. I've made a few jokes at Vena's expense. Don't get me wrong, though. This showgirl turned Hudson Hope homesteader was a real woodswoman. When she wrote that "wilderness living is as much woman's heritage as man's," she was speaking right to me — and to millions of other women as well. We have indeed come a long way since 1958, and that's due in no small measure to women like Vena Angier. May many more women join us on the water in the years to come!

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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