Friday, August 29, 2014

How to: Get your girlfriend to go camping

It's sad but it's true: there are a lot more men out backpacking than women.  This bums me out, and if one of those reluctant girls is your significant other I'll bet it bums you out too.

If you are trying to get your girl out on the trail with you for the first time, or after some less than stellar experiences, here's a formula to try:

  1. Blow her away with the benefits,
  2. Know and overcome common barriers,
  3. Mind the weather & season,
  4. Choose an appropriate level of difficulty.
Let's break it down.

The Benefits
People who don't camp (well) think that camping is uncomfortable, boring, dirty, and buggy.  They can't see the benefits that camping has to offer.  Play up these benefits to your girl, using your knowledge of her interests to tailor your sales pitch and destination choice.
  • It's breathtakingly beautiful.  So you like the view of the sunset while you're driving your SUV down the highway?  How about as it sets over mountains with no other humans in sight?  How about the sun rise reflecting off an alpine lake as viewed from the door of your tent?  How about a hillside alive with wildflowers?  How about waking up to nothing but the sound of song birds? The views from spots where you'll make dinner or pitch a tent will blow away those at any restaurant or hotel you could drive to.  
  • It's empowering.  Carrying everything you need in one little backpack, feeding and watering yourself, and surviving the night in a tent and sleeping bag makes you feel alive and powerful.  
  • It's a unique experience.  When you look back on your year, a camping trip to a beautiful location is likely to be one of your most memorable experiences.  It standards out from all the plugged-in days we spend in civilization.  And even if it's not the highlight of your year, when your co-worker inevitably asks, "what did you get up to last weekend," at least you'll have something interesting to share.
  • It's thrifty.  When you backpack you can go on a mini vacation every single weekend and hardly spend a dime.  Instead of saving up for one big vacation every year, you can get away whenever you want to and still take that trip to the Bahamas.
  • It's good exercise.  'Nuff said.
  • It will make her the best girlfriend/wife around.  Positive reinforcement is a key ingredient for enjoying any new activity.  When you're out there make sure to tell her how cute she looks in her hiking boots, what a badass she was for hiking all that way, and how much more you enjoyed the trip because she was there to enjoy it with you.

The Barriers
I ran a survey and had over 100 women respond with the top reason they aren't interested in camping.  The big winners were (in order):
  1. No toilets
  2. No showers
  3. Being uncomfortable (sleeping pads, too cold, no AC, etc)
  4. Bugs
Pretty typical stuff, right?  Nothing we can't handle.

Toilet Access
You know how I'm always talking about doing your business in the woods?  There's a good reason.  It's the #1 anxiety that stops women (and probably men) from enjoying the backcountry.  I suggest a two pronged approach.  Choose a destination that includes an outhouse and have your girl read up on how to pee in the woods.  This way she'll have options.  Bring plenty of toilet paper.  

Shower Access
When I first started camping I thought it was totally gross to start my day without hopping in the shower.  I get it...but I've gotten over it.  Here's what to do:

  • Camp along side a clean lake.  Not only will this make for a beautiful site and an easy access point for water, but you two can go for a quick dip in the evening or morning to freshen up.  Be mindful that a brackish or inaccessible lake won't help!  High alpine lakes are usually ideal (although cold as heck).  
  • Bring wet naps.  A quick wet nap "shower" in the tent can leave you feeling fresh enough to start the day.
  • Wear marino wool.  One of the things that alleviates that unwashed feeling for me is wearing the right fabrics.  Not only does marino wool not get stinky after a day of hiking, but it also feels good against your unwashed skin, unlike synthetic athletic fabrics.  A gift of a cute marino base layer could help convince her.  
Take one for the team in support of your larger goal.  
  • Carry more of the weight.
  • Let her use the better gear.  Do you have one good air bed and one crappy old one?  Give her the good one.  If she decides she likes camping she'll get her own gear soon.
  • Keep her warm.  Women get cold a lot more easily than men, especially while sleeping.  Bring a down jacket for cuddling around the campfire; down booties or an extra blanket to keep her feet warm in her sleeping bag; a warmer sleeping bag than you would choose for yourself; delicious hot drinks.
  • Pack earplugs for a better night's sleep.
  • Choose an appropriate season based on your local area.  In the Pac North West that means summer.  Where you live that may mean a cooler season to avoid baking to death.  See "Season & Weather" below.
The best thing you can do about bugs is choose a season (depends on your location, but September is great in my area) or location that minimizes them (oceanside is great for that).  If that's not an option for you deet up, make sure you are using a fully enclosed tent rather than a tarp, have her bring a jacket and long pants and a simple bug head net, just in case.  You can always hangout inside the tent playing cards during dusk and come back out after the bugs have gone to bed.

Season & Weather
Bad weather is the easiest way to turn an otherwise fantastic trip into a torturous slog.  Your first trip should be planned for the ideal time of year - appropriate heat level (not too hot or cold), fewer bugs, low chance of rain, higher levels of beauty (think waterfalls, wildflowers, lush landscapes, etc).  This may mean waiting for a few months before heading out.  Patience is key.  Don't hesitate to take a rain check if you have a poor weather report on your intended departure date.

Difficulty - Ease into it!
If you've been doing this for a while your idea trip probably looks like bagging peaks, hiking from dawn until dusk, 7 day loops, ultralight gear, etc.  Forget that stuff.  Plan something with your partner in mind.  You first trip should:
  • Go for 2 days, 1 night.  For most newbies, one morning without a shower is all they can fathom. Leave her wanting more.
  • Hike ~5 miles.  This will have you hiking for 2-3 hours.   If you get to the end of 5 miles and are still enjoying yourselves, you can drop you packs and keep day hiking.
  • Not straight uphill.  Here in Vancouver many of the popular short "city" hikes are just 1 hour uphill slogs (I'm looking at you, Grouse Grind) leaving many people thinking that this is normal hiking.  Choose a trail that doesn't shoot relentlessly up so you can enjoy the stroll.
  • Go slow.  You've only got 5 miles to go.  Stop and smell the wildflowers.  Take pictures.  Pause for licorice.  Look up and enjoy the beauty all around you.
  • Choose beauty.  Don't choose a spot for the achievement points, choose one that melds beauty with conveniences.  A beautiful lake or river, a good view, and allowing camp fires will go a long way.
  • Bring diversions.  When you are only hiking 5 miles you may end  up with a lot more time to kill in camp than you're accustomed to.  Plan to have something to do.  You can make cocktails and hangout lakeside, play cards or Pass the Pigs, or do some reading.  Don't just sit around letting the mosquitos bite.
If things go well, there will always be next trip to increase the intensity.

A note about car camping
Some people might suggest that you should start with car camping and use that as a stepping stone to move to backpacking.  Personally, I suggest the opposite.  For me, car camping reinforces many of the things that I don't like about camping (dirty bathrooms, bugs, going to bed feeling dirty, sleeping on the ground) without offering any of the key benefits that make backpacking worthwhile (feeling like I am living inside a postcard, solitude, achievement).  If I'd started off with car camping I may have been scared off entirely!


  1. I have read your text above with great interest. I also agree with you on the core message, especially that it is often the toilet issue that is the (realized or unrealized) obstacle for many to really enjoy outdoor life. I also think that men are no better than women, especially when it comes to "#2". In my situation it was my boy friend who was the hesitating part! I was used to outdoor life from my childhood. My parents took me out camping and I also was a girl scout for many years, giving me lots of experience with tackling bugs, preparing food, washing in a creek and not least finding places to go when needing to relieve myself. When I for the first time suggested for my boy friend to go hiking, he did not directly deny it, but he was reluctant. But finally he joined me and two of my friends for a one week canoe trip. After some days (four?) I saw that he was not feeling well. I had observed him farting a lot and I therefore asked him if he was constipated. He then admitted that he had not opened his bowels for the whole trip. He was surprised to hear that I had done it every day even though we had been far away from any toilets. I also said that I was pretty sure that both my friends had done it regularly too. I think he had never thought about the possibility for adults to squat in the bushes to poop! And yes, he managed to get it done. But still some years and lots of hikes later, I think he perceives it extremely embarrassing. Perhaps men really are more shy than women about such issues?

    1. Certainly men can be shy about this sort of thing too! Love your story!

    2. For sure I think that many men are even more embarrassed about toilet matters than women. The phrase "to be caught with your pants down" alludes to the vulnerability felt in such situations, not least by men who do not have to squat for peeing! My husband and I have been eager hikers for decades, since we were young. I have never ever heard him say anything about pooping. But peeing, not problem at all. But for sure he also poops. I know his "modus operandi". He just disappears without saying a word. Coming back after five minutes, still without saying a word. Then I know that he has been taking care of business with Mother Earth. If I try to make a joke or ask about it, I get no response. Toilet issues are just too embarrassing for him. But in general for example nudity is no big issue. He may take a skinny dip without problems even when together with friends.

    3. Amusing! My husband is just like. Gets it done saying nothing and if I ask he briefly says that he has been negotiating taxes with Mother Earth! To me it is not a problematic issue at all. I became used to it as a young girl when my mother took me on hikes. Thereafter I was a girl scout for years and went on lots of hikes where we had to go to toilet in the woods. Why bother? All normal persons have to do it when staying outdoor for some days.

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  4. In UK we have the Duke of Edinburgh Award which requires that you make an expedition in the wilderness. That was how I learnt to go to toilet outdoor. Often there is no toilet around when you need it, and even when needing to open the bowels you often have to find a suitable spot somewhere in nature. Every group is advised to bring a roll of toilet paper. The first few times I found it somewhat embarrassing to go behind a stone or a bush and just pull down and squat but now I am quite used to it and do not bother any more. Not so nice if anyone comes by or if you walk in on others. But after all, everyone has to do it the same way, not only young persons, even mature experienced hikers have to obey the order of nature.

    1. My first experience of that kind also was at a DofE expedition! I still remember how anxious and embarrassed I was before and how relieved and relaxed I was afterwards. Luckily nobody came when I was going.

    2. I am not able to remember when I made my first experiences of this kind. I grew up in Sweden in the 1960s. My parents often took us out for camping in the woods and mountains. I can't remember that I ever thought of going to toilet outdoor as a challenge. I neither can recall that I ever had to "learn" how to do it. It was an ordinary part of outdoor life. Everybody did it. And everybody knew how to do it. Without a door to lock I think it was so obvious for all how such things should be done. Just picking up the roll of toilet paper and walk away to find a suitable spot to hide a bit, behind a stone or some bushes. I certainly also became aware that the adults did it. Therefore it was no big issue when I had to manage myself without help from my parents. On scouts' hikes and school outings we did it. I can't remember that anyone made it a problem. But it was kind of an intangible issue. Nobody talked about it. I think it was expected that one should not bring up the topic in a conversation and not mention to others for example if one had observed someone going to toilet out there. This led to some quite silly situations of which I can still remember some. For example I once walked directly in on one of my scout leaders when she was squatting with the shorts at her knees. In spite of passing her closer than 2 meters away we both pretended not seeing each other! Once when out picking berries my grandmother passed me just as close when I was squatting to take a dump. She also pretended not to spot me. Once my mother and I observed a truck driver squatting with a bare bum. When I later told my sister about it, my mother reminded me that the man had sought privacy and we should respect it by not telling others about it. Perhaps things are changing nowadays. Last summer my best friend and I went camping with our grandchildren (preschool-agers). They obviously found it exciting when they discovered that the two grannies out there had to go to toilet "just like kids" as they said. When I was a kid that would not have been a surprise.

    3. I am among those who have had to "learn" it. But nobody taught me it. I had to learn the "hard" way. Extremely embarrassing. I was type 13 years old. We had been at a scouts' camp for some three days when we went out for a hike in the woods. The portapotties at the camp were so smelly and dirty that I was not able to do more than pee there. When settling down for the evening on the hike I began feeling quite uncomfortable and stuffed in my stomach. Nobody had said anything about toilets and I was too embarrassed to ask about it. But then I heard one of the adult leaders say that he had to go to toilet before walking a tiny path into the woods. I was unexperienced and silly me did not fully understand. I went the same path hoping to find the toilets! But what I found was a man bending forward leaning his elbows on the knees with his shorts lowered. I saw the despairing expression in his eyes. I think we both were extremely uncomfortable with the situation. I managed to say excuse before I went away. When he came back to the tents I went over to him and excused myself again for disturbing. We both were flushing. He seemed to be as embarrassed as I was and said with a stumbling voice like, eh, uhm, I thought that I had managed to hide well, but, well, please try to forgive and forget. Oh, sure I said with a smile. I have never told anyone about the incident. But I have "learnt", how to go to toilet outside, and not least when hiking not to follow people going away into the woods alone. What about my stomach then? Later that afternoon I took som paper in my pocket and went into the woods. I had to realize that the leader really had found the best shelter so I ended up at the same spot. The need was strong and I managed to avoid further trouble with my stomach.

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