Women and the Wilderness

Advice from 1909

Even in these supposedly enlightened times, one still comes across a remarkable number of people who are surprised to meet a woman who is competent in the outdoors, be it as a walker, a climber, a paddler, a diver, a farmer or a just about anything you care to name. Somehow it is supposed to be all too hard for us fragile little things.

Yet we have it easy now, when you consider the obstacles in the path of “outdoorsy” women a hundred or more years ago. My hat goes off to those frontierswomen; they did it earlier, and they did it harder. Just how hard we can only guess, although this advice from the Frontiersman’s Pocket-book gives a clue …

The following is an extract from The Frontiersman’s Pocket-book compiled by Roger Pocock, John Murray, London, 1909. Chapter X Women on the frontier is by Elizabeth Robins. See the reprint or if you have a spare $2000, the original.

Women on the frontier
I am asked – despite my small claim to be accounted among the frontier folk – to say something for the guidance of the women who propose confronting the hardships of travel in out-of-the-way places.

I will therefore set down two or three observations about dress and diet.

With respect to the dress question, there are two pitfalls to be avoided:

  1. The endeavour to wear clothes tolerable enough at home, but utterly unfit for user conditions.
  2. The attempt to make use of the newest and most “sporting” equipment obtainable.

Comfort and efficiency lie between these two extremes. I would warn any woman against deferring till she is under the stress of frontier life the adoption of any fundamental change in her way of dress. Before leaving civilisation behind, she should not only “try on,” but wear for hours, if not for days, the boots, the knapsack, the rubber waders, the putties, or gaiters, that she means to travel in. This sort of “dress rehearsal” is as essential to women as it is non-essential to men – for reasons that are obvious.

Perhaps greatest among our problems in this connection is the hair and hat question. Of women who have not travelled the unbeaten ways, only the few who ride or yacht have much idea of the difficulty of keeping (in rough weather) any of the usual forms of feminine headgear; and none perhaps but the traveller knows the drafts on energy and temper made by the need to be clutching at a veering cap and a clinging veil which are wobbling about on a roll of hair that is loosened from the grip of pins.

In the fashion of my heart I fear that a reconstruction of the fashion of women’s hair will be inevitable, as the hitherto stay-at-home sex moves more about the world. Until that day, let the long-haired ones braid rather than twist their hair, and let them tie it securely an inch or so from the roots before pinning it up.

Female alpinists

To insist on the need not to multiply skirts is to encounter less opposition these days when even ladies of fashion wear only knickerbockers under their Directoire gowns. But the woman who goes “on the trail” will find it an advantage to have knickerbockers of the same colour as the skirt. If the luggage problem allows, she should have at least two skirts; one of short ankle-length to wear in camp, and in the earlier days of her journey; another reaching no further than the knee. If she goes far, and faces real hardships, it is this skirt she will wear most – if she wears a skirt at all. Should she refuse to abbreviate her petticoats, the trails will do the abbreviating for her – but in the process the traveller will find herself a loser in strength, and hardly a gainer in either looks or dignity. It will be found that to force several yards of trailing fabric through marsh, tangled undergrowth, and the indescribably tough meshes of interwoven scrub willow; to drag it through mud or snow in making ascent or descent; to find it flapping wet about one’s knees, catching and pulling one back, impaling one on jagged saplings or sharp stones; to be in a moment of danger on a moving talus-slope or rope ladder, and find one’s self climbing up the inside of one’s skirt, is to understand why the modern man, the pioneer and way breaker, no longer wears the toga or even the cloak of the cavalier.

Women are so used to the inconvenient mode of dress (which only the compensating luxuries of civilisation render bearable) they are apt not to realise how, under primitive conditions, the absurdity of our customary clothes makes fatigue and physical breakdown. In this connection one may say that most women – especially the young ones – will be better equipped for travel if they abjure the corset, and wear clothes the lightest and the fewest possible.

A great many women who hesitate to undertake difficult journeys could get through them with credit if they would not only have the dress rehearsal I advocate, but managed to get a little special physical training before starting away from home. The main thing is not to attempt too much at the start. Women who want to travel in out-of-the-way places might take a leaf out of the book of no less a person than Frithjof Nansen. With all his superb natural fitness, he spent years in training for his first northern journey. A woman feels humiliated if, going from her drawing-room to the trail, she finds herself not so well able to stand hardships as men who have roughed it all their lives.

On Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh, 1908,
Ladies Scottish Climbing Club

With reference to diet, the astonishing thing is that if one can live the frontier life at all, one can for a while live on almost anything. The extraordinary interest of it, the fine air, the exercise, seem to make up for even delicate people more “fit”. Some of us have watched ailing men and pampered women, dyspeptics, etc, washing down half cooked flapjacks and fat bacon, with strong and muddy black coffee, and have seen them apparently not a penny the worse for it. But the condition of their not being quickly worse and presently dead, is that they must literally sweat for their living. If a man or woman exercises so much that the skin is active, practically the diet can be anything for a time. But many people do not realise that there is a time-limit upon impunity. In the Yukon you will now and then hear an old miner say that he must “go out” this winter, although every visible consideration would seem to call upon him to “stay in.” “No” he will tell you, “I have been eating canned stuff for three years.” Should you ask if he feels the beginning of any physical trouble, you will likely as not be told that he is all right now, but has noticed that people can live without fresh food just about three years at a time, and no longer, at full vigour. The intelligent speculate about the time-limit and its laws, but they obey them. It seems to be proved beyond question that something of the nourishment has gone out of food that has been for some time hermetically sealed. Fresh meat has long been held to be a check upon scurvy; but what is not fully appreciated is that vegetables and fruit, as well as meats, deteriorate in tins and cases, though perhaps to a lesser extent in jars. It is as though, shut up there in the dark, the virtue goes out of the food. “You see, it was light made them peas grow – made them good for our growing. The trouble with all canned stuff is that you can’t can sunlight.”

It is notorious that dried fruits and vegetables retain a larger proportion of their feeding power – a matter of special importance to the weaker sex, who, if called upon in time of stress to carry their own provisions, may recall the almost incredible feats of endurance performed by the Alpinist by the aid of a handful of raisins and a piece of chocolate.