Women on the Trail

posted May 5, 2016, 9:45 PM by Paul Wagner   [ updated Jul 9, 2016, 6:16 PM ]
In time for a Mother's Day blog, we've had quite a few questions from women who want to know how M manages to spend a week in the woods with her backpacking husband. And we've had a few questions from men asking how they might construct a scenario that would encourage their wives or significant others to join them on the trail. 

So here goes. First draft by P, with comments added by M.  

First of all, P never forces M to tackle anything. No trail, cliff, or bushwhack is sacred. We've turned back at rushing streams, steep granite, and long climbs just because M didn't feel like doing that. That has to be part of the rules, because if one of you is worried and unhappy, it isn't going to be a good trip. Any time the going gets rough, P lets M call the shots, and set the pace. He may walk ahead of her, but he doesn't leave her behind, and he is always ready to bail out of a situation if she calls for it. And we've done that more than once.

Second of all, P always carries a heavier pack. He is bigger and stronger than M, and he eats more. So while her pack might come in at about 20 pounds, his is going to be 25-30 or more. That's fair. And if taking a bit more weight is all that it takes to get her to go backpacking, pile it on.

M’s observation: The comments of a wise man!

That's us below, posing for a "selfie" in Death Valley.

This was at the charming Poison Spring. A self-portrait of M and P. ©http://backpackthesierra.com

But according to most of the questions we get, the three big issues are privacy, safety, and hygiene. Let's talk about them one by one.

Privacy:   While it may seem more comforting to take your first trip in a larger group, or in a popular hiking area, M suggests just the opposite. "I'm not worried about you," she says, "and I'm not really worried about animals. But I don't like the idea of other people around when I am going to the bathroom or washing in a stream or lake." 

The first trip we took together was to a very quiet stream about five miles in. There were no people around at all, and we spent an idyllic two days living out of the tent, wandering around the stream. She read books, I fished, and we agreed that it was so much fun that we started planning our next hike on the drive home. And we left the next day for the new trailhead. 

M--being welcomed to Showers Lake©http://backpackthesierra.com

Going to the bathroom is pretty straightforward. We take along a small plastic trowel and some toilet paper in an opaque plastic bag. And we take along a second opaque bag for the used toilet paper--because we follow Leave No Trace rules about that. When it's time to go, one of us takes that bag out into the woods as far as one needs to go for privacy, and takes care of business. The bag goes back into the outside pocket of one of the packs when we're finished. See below for a note about handiwipes---a nice accessory.  

The worst case scenario, for her, was backpacking next to a group of ten Boy Scouts. In that case, she actually asked P to stand guard between the scouts and her bathroom area, just to make sure that she had privacy.

M’s Comment:

In a secure spot you can actually enjoy answering a call of nature outdoors. The mountains and trees are glorious, the birds are singing, and you are there being a part of it all. It sounds kind of unbelievable, but it can be lovely.

Once you accept that you will be packing out your toilet paper, adjusting other habits isn’t hard. You can still be fastidious. I am a big fan of thickets for privacy: Wade in there among the heavy brush and hunker down. No one else will be blundering past and they can’t see in even if the path is nearby. (It also helps to wear natural-colored clothes so you blend in with the scenery. Once I realized how conspicuous it was, I never could relax in that bright red fleece I had imagined would be "cheerful.") Where the terrain is more open, back up against a big rock or thick tree and you only need to be aware of what’s in front of you.

Indelicate as this sounds, you don’t need TP if you’re only going to pee. Dry leaves and sticks don’t have to be packed out after use. So that part can be taken care of pretty fast. Please don’t hold back on drinking plenty of water in order to pee less; it isn’t worth it to get dehydrated or sick. Consider where you’ll go if you need to get up in the night, and have a headlamp and supplies nearby. On our first overnight I wandered off into the woods and was heading over the hill and downstream when P woke up and called me back. Otherwise I might still be out there.

Safety:  The best advice we can give here is to suggest you read our website sections about dangers on the trail: https://sites.google.com/site/backpackthesierra/home/general-information/dangers-on-the-trail. If you are worried about lions, tigers and bears, that should help put it all in perspective. Again, avoiding areas with lots of people will mean that the wildlife is much wilder--and more fearful of you. 

The only time the fear of bears kept us awake was one night in the John Muir Wilderness when M woke up P and asked him if he heard "that noise." He didn't. She went back to sleep for the rest of the night, and he stayed up for hours trying to hear the noise. True story. (It was a deer.)

Stay hydrated. Stay found (i.e., participate in the navigation, so you don't feel as if you are simply a passenger on the bus). Stay warm, fed, and well-rested. And stay out of fast, high water, please. 

The most dangerous thing you'll do on a backpacking trip is drive to the trailhead. In the Sierra, you won't run into many people once you get a couple of miles away from the trailhead, and the ones you do meet will almost all be charming people just like you. Only maybe a little dustier.   

Hygiene:  Let's face it, keeping clean on the trail is a challenge. You can't stop in at a restroom and wash up whenever you feel a little bit bedraggled. The good news? Nobody is there to see you, and if they do see you, they don't care. So it's really just about keeping clean "enough." It's not about being presentable. It's not about smelling good.

On our trips, M always takes advantage of the lake or stream at the end of the day to rinse off her feet and hands. And if there is nobody else around (which is often the case) she rinses off a lot more. And taking along a small pack of handiwipes makes it easy to do the basics even when there is no water at all.  M at a rest stop...with great trees around us.©http://backpackthesierra.com

M’s comment: If you can concentrate on just hygiene and basic comfort, living outdoors becomes much simpler. I don’t bother trying to look as polished as I (think I) do at home – that’s way too much work in the wilderness, and nearly everything else is easier and a more interesting way to spend the time. The bare minimum that my self-respect can stand for is sunscreen, a tiny soap, toothbrush, hand cream, Vaseline, lipstick/balm and a tiny mirror. (Okay, also eyebrow pencil.) Sanitizer is good, but only a very small bottle, as that stuff is heavy. A nice soft all-cotton bandanna is wonderful for wiping face or hands, and many other things.

At right, one of P's all-time favorite photos of M---after four days on the trail. 

The best campsites are those that are off the beaten path, so that you can actually skinny dip if you want. You can also rinse out your clothes pretty easily while you're backpacking. You will be thoroughly surprised at how quickly things dry at 10,000 feet. 

The other option is to take a cooking pot full of water into the tent with you, and give yourself a sponge bath. It's amazing how much cleaner you can feel after using only a quart of water to rinse off the trail dust and sweat.

Below, one of M's least favorite photos of herself, as she applies sunscreen in the morning at 10,000 feet.

M taking care of business©http://backpackthesierra.com

In some ways, most of the dirt you'll see is "clean dirt." Yes, your feet and ankles are going to be a different color at the end of the day. But that's just dust, and it won't make you sick. It feels great to wash it off! 

M’s comment:

After a long hike I’m usually desperate to get the salt and sunscreen off my skin, but it’s miraculous how much better I feel after a simple wash of face, hands, neck and feet. Anything more is a bonus. Soaking my tired feet in the stream is grand to start. I’m not brave about mountain lakes so most times I use a wet washcloth (ours are black!) to scrub off sunscreen, then wade into the nearest stream or lake and splash around till I get cold. (Rinse the cloth out in the grass far away from water.)

Hair washing remains the big deal because my hair isn’t very wash-and-wear. It’s great if you can make do with braids, a headband or scarf (maybe a second bandanna?). At a lake or stream you can rinse your hair with no soap and it gets clean enough. When it’s really necessary, we make do with the pan of water and a cup. Walk away from the stream, shampoo a tiny bit, and rinse into the grass. Have a pal bring you more rinse water if you can.

Washing the dishes is actually a pleasant task on the trail. You have warm water, a bit of soap and you get to wash your hands (and maybe your face!) as you wash the dishes. Just remember that soap DOES NOT belong in the water in the wilderness. Wash yourself and your dishes far (200 feet) from any stream or lake, to keep that water pristine. 

Maxfield Parish, eat your heart out.©http://backpackthesierra.com

So the solution? Pick a hike that isn't too challenging for the first trip. Make the destination somewhere you'll have a bit of privacy. And take it easy. Nobody should go on some 75-mile ten-day trip as their first outing. Make it an overnight, make sure that everyone has a really good time. Eat well, stay hydrated. And you'll be amazed how everything comes together after dinner, as you sit on a log or rock, watching the sun go down, and appreciating the fact that this is a very special moment.