Hygiene and Personal Care

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This chapter includes a section on How to Be Comfortable in the Canyon and a section on Skin Care

Stairway Lou.jpg

How to Be Comfortable in the Canyon (for women and their mates)

          Special thanks to Jo Johnson with Hazel Clark 

Women have a higher level of need for comfort and cleanliness, in general, than men. It may not even be preference, but a necessity for avoiding yeast and urinary tract infections, skin rashes, cracking skin and other painful things. If a woman isn’t clean and comfortable, she isn’t going to be happy. And, as my wise mate says, “If she’s not happy, I’m not happy.”

There are 3 critical elements for keeping clean and comfortable on the river:

    1.	A solar shower for spring/summer/fall trips; 
    2.	A separate, simple bath kit; and 
    3.	A personal pitcher. 

Personal Hygiene:

All of the above items need to be accessible to you during the day. Insist on this. That way you can seize any opportunity that comes along. Waiting for slow hikers to return? Floating along on a quiet stretch after lunch?—use the pitcher to wash your hair. Or maybe shave your legs—check the map to make sure you’ve got enough time to finish before the next rapid.

Refill the solar shower often—even if it still has water in it—from clean side streams with your personal pitcher or a cup and check it periodically to make sure it’s rigged black side down. Ask your boat rower (unless that's you) if you can use three oars and a cam-strap to make a tripod to hold the solar shower up over your head. Set up the tripod in an area with shallow slow moving river water. Remember, your bath water needs to go into the river only, not up on the beach above the high water line, anywhere in camp or in the desert beyond camp.

While we are at it, you can't use soap withing 100 yards of, or within, any side tributary with flowing water.

Bathe your body in parts (zones) if it’s chilly or if you don’t have the desired privacy and in the midday warmth if at all possible. Definitely shower before the sun goes down in the fall, winter and spring, since the temperature usually plummets after dark.

Your bath kit consists of a second set of bath items, separate from your main stash in your gear. Fill a small drybag with a pack towel, small bottle of grease-cutting shampoo (i.e., Prell shampoo or some find dishwashing liquid to be good—you may want to dilute it), a razor and travel can of shave cream, small squeeze bottle of liquid soap or motel-size bar of soap, lip balm, and heavy-duty body lotion (Sally Hansen 18 Hour Protective Hand Crème is excellent and comes in a tube). Refill as necessary from the larger bottles in your dry bag. The idea is to have 2 sets. Also stash a couple small Ziplock® bags, one for trash—i.e. toilet paper and tampons, and another for your fresh toilet paper and tampons. Bring along your own carabiner on the drybag for quick deployment. Or if you use an ammo can, keep these things in it.

The personal pitcher should hold about 2 quarts and have a handle. I’ve used 32-ounce yogurt containers with lid and collapsible dog water bowls, but the best is a 2- quart, wide-mouth plastic juice pitcher (no lid) with integrated handle. I attach a loop of parachute cord to the handle and rig it with a carabiner. I use it many times each day, for bathing, for hair washing, refilling my solar shower, swabbing the mud off my decks, splashing water on myself to cool down, and most importantly, for peeing in, either on my boat or in camp. I don’t like to eddy out, or hang off the raft tubes trying to go while floating in the current. It makes way more sense, and is probably safer, too, to squat in the cockpit or bow on the pitcher and then empty it over the side. For freshness, and if modesty allows, fill it with water and give yourself a rinse. If you would rather use toilet paper, try a sheet of heavy paper towel instead, it’s sturdier and can be reused once or twice (store in baggie mentioned above).

In winter, peeing on boats with lots of gear round your ankles is not worth it; pull to shore. It’s harder to get out of your lifejacket, drysuit, and other layers to pee but you will feel much warmer afterwards. Is it the act of undressing or peeing that warms you up? Who knows? But do it, don’t hold it for an hour until camp. Five minutes on shore in the scope of geologic time is OK.

If a bail bucket isn’t available, your 2-quart pitcher should be enough capacity for overnight use, so you don’t have to risk staggering down to the river in the dark, and this is a very real risk. In recent years, this has been the cause of several drownings. Even if you have to empty your pitcher during the night, it’s still easier than squatting in the river. Slide-in sandals that can be worn with socks are easy to slip into for middle-of-the night treks and take little space in your drybag.

On cold weather trips, the cold and extra clothes complicate hygiene more than on warmer trips. Baby wipes come in handy when it’s just too cold to take many clothes off. On layover days, heat a small amount of water on the stove and take it in a bucket with a face flannel (washcloth) to the river at the warmest part of a layover day and scrub all over. It doesn’t have to be boiling, just warm. Use a hair conditioning spray rather than a regular conditioner. It doesn’t need rinsing out and may prevent your hair breaking off with the stress of the cold. Don’t count on heating your solar showers—they may not see the sun at all, although they can still be filled with warm water and used in camp. Don’t stint on clean underwear, it’s more important than clean outerwear: do laundry if necessary.


In winter, as in summer, keep drinking fluids. You may not be sweating as much (though you could be surprised) but it takes fluids to keep you warm. They don’t have to be hot, but if you struggle with very cold water on your teeth or just prefer hot drinks, take a thermos along. Cold air and cold water of winter weather can play havoc with your circulation and cause major hand and foot problems. Don’t keep wet gloves/socks on, change them. Take extras for that purpose. Take your gloves (and warm hat) off to go through rapids; you’ll warm up fast when you put them on DRY after the tailwaves. Slather your thickest lotion on your hands and feet before you go to sleep every single night and you should limit the spontaneous cuts that will appear on the end of your fingers and the shedding of skin on the backs of your hands. The feet seem to develop nerve damage/chiblains/PAIN. See to your menfolk with the lotion too; it’s not nearly as effective after their extremities start hurting (and it is VERY painful).

“Fashion” Tips:

In hot weather, wear lightweight, gathered cotton skirts and long sleeve cotton shirts from the used clothing store. They are cool—they can be dipped into the water for instant cooling--and comfortable and offer good sun protection, besides a bit of privacy. One wonders if women journeying west in covered wagons didn’t switch to pants—which certainly would have been easier--partly because of the privacy their flowing skirts afforded when attending to personal hygiene on the open, treeless plains. Surgical scrub pants are another good summer alternative. Switch to shorts for heavy-rapid days, as swimming with all that fabric around your legs is a little more difficult.

First Aid Kit Items You May Not Have Thought Of:

What if your efforts to drink plenty of water, urinate often and keep clean and dry have failed and you find yourself coming down with a urinary tract infection or a yeast infection? These can be miserable, and in the case of the infection moving to your kidneys, dangerous, so buy over the counter remedies before you leave and stock the trip first aid kit or stash them in your personal gear. If you can talk a doctor or dentist into it, get an oral antibiotic prescription and antibiotic eyedrops (store in the cooler in waterproof containers).

Other important items: A new, wrapped toothbrush and a dental repair kit from your dentist. It may take some arm twisting to get him/her to part with a small amount of cement compound and catalyst, but impress them with how miserable it is to lose a large filling or crown three days into an 18 day trip. I know several people who have suffered this way. Don’t let him/her convince you to buy a kit in the drugstore—those repairs last only a day or two. Drugstore dental tools work fine for applying the compound the dentist supplies.

Give Yourself a Break:

Women, even the tomboys among us, generally get more tired than men on long trips, especially more than male outdoor types. Just living outside uses more energy than usual, and women don’t ordinarily spend as much time recreating or working outside as many men do, even if they seem comfortable on a river trip. With their built-in biological advantages, it’s simply easier for most guys. Many of us women have to beat ourselves into fitness to achieve the same kind of stamina that couch potato men have, but it does get easier with practice. Hey, you’re in the Grand Canyon, you CAN do this!

One of the very best accessories to have on a long river trip is an understanding mate. Guys tend to downplay the importance of cleanliness for women and themselves. Take note, men: Women do not feel lovely while camping. It’s a wise man that supports his partner’s—and other female participants’—efforts to be comfortable in the Canyon.

Skin Cracks

One of the things that commonly occurs to river runners' hands and feet is cracking of the skin, especially around fingertips. In normal conditions, the skin produces enough oil to maintain healthy skin. A river trip can easily overrun the body’s ability to keep the skin naturally moist, causing cracking of the skin. This typically occurs at the fingertips and along the back of the heels and can be very painful.

There are a number of causes responsible for the loss of skin oil. These include exposure to a very dry climate and repeated exposure to water and the clay silt carried in desert rivers.

There are a number of strategies that have been employed to prevent cracking of the skin from happening. Remember, prevention is worth a pound of cure, so we’ll start with preventative measures. These include:

  • Applying hand lotion to your skin two weeks before your trip starts. This increases your skin oil level.
  • Wearing dry gloves while rowing, loading/unloading the boats, setting up and breaking down camp, and while hiking. This protects the hands from losing natural skin oils to dirt and water exposure.
  • Wearing dishwashing gloves while doing dishes. The waterproof gloves protect the skin from losing natural oils due to prolonged water exposure. Don't overdose dishwater with Clorox if you don't have gloves--large amounts damage skin quickly.
  • Wearing closed toe shoes while in camp and while hiking. This prevents wicking away natural skin oils that contact dry hot sand.
  • Applying external oils to your skin. This assists natural skin oils in doing their job. Some river runners will apply one of these external salves or lotion products to their hands and feet at night just before falling asleep, and once applied, cover their feet with a pair of clean dry socks, and their hands go into socks as well.

A large number of topical salves and lotions are available, and for each product, there’s at least one river runner who swears by that specific product. Some of these products include:

  • Any type of regular body lotion like Lubriderm.
  • Bag Balm
  • Burt’s Bee Balm
  • Cornhuskers Lotion
  • Vaseline
  • Sally Hansen's 18 Hour Protective Hand Creme

If you find you have developed a painful crack on your skin, some river runners use super glue to glue the crack shut. Once opened in the heat, the tube may dry up. Some river trips bring multiple tubes. If you have access to medical grade Dermabond, a topical skin adhesive, include that. Duct tape has been used to close skin cracks.

Remember, good hand and foot care is as important as making sure your boat is tied to shore.

What about Tolio?

According to Dr. Tom Myers, "Tolio" is a condition that impacts river runners causing skin lesions typical of chilblains, also termed pernio or immersion foot. Dr. Myers notes cold and wetness cause this painful condition.

According to Myers, biopsies have shown Tolio is not a primary bacterial, fungal, or viral disease, although there can be secondary bacterial infections. The condition is not contagious person to person. The textbooks describe chilblains as itchy, burning, painful blisters of violet color taking up to three weeks to clear.

Interestingly, Myers notes some people are obviously more susceptible than others and repeat cases are common. Dr. Myers and Dr. Walt Taylor did a study of Tolio, and these doctors feel that the cold water temperatures and relatively long time frame of Grand Canyon river trips make the condition more common than on other rivers. The roles that sun, sand, minor dings, prolonged sitting and water quality factors all play a role in this condition.

What can one do to avoid or minimize this problem? Myers notes first and foremost, take good care of your feet! Try to avoid sunburn especially on the first trip each season.

  • Use a potent waterproof sunscreen frequently before getting red or sore. One could wear kayak boots or river socks or the like.
  • Wiggle your toes and move your feet a lot so they are not just stationary in the water on the floor of your boat.
  • Keep your feet clean and the skin well hydrated by using Super Salve, Bag Balm, Lubriderm, Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion or some similar goop in camp daily.
  • Do not soak your feet in the river. It may numb the pain, but it makes the condition worse.
  • Anti-inflammatory agents may help the pain.
  • Steroids may help the symptoms, but of course, have numerous problem side effects when taken orally.
  • Antibiotics help only if there’s a secondary bacterial infection.

Our Thanks to Dr. Tom Myers for letting us use this information!

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