A Little Light Relief
Wetsuits, Drysuits, and Calls of Nature
By Tamia Nelson
January 27, 2009
Stripped of all our anatomical embellishments, we humans aren't much more than upholstered tubes. Whatever goes in at one end sooner or later comes out at the other. This can be a problem for any paddler wearing a wetsuit or drysuit. We have to eat, and we need to drink. But what then? What does the rubber-suited canoeist or kayaker do when nature calls? It's an important question, and one that engenders a fair amount of apprehension. That's entirely understandable. There are no easy answers where the rubber meets the rude.
And speaking of rude, here's a word of warning: While I've done my best to avoid the coarser expressions associated with our excretory functions, what follows may still repulse the shy and outrage the sensitive. If you read on past this point, therefore, you do so at your own risk. So to speak. In any case, please don't blame me if your sensibilities are affronted. The subject simply doesn't lend itself to infinite circumlocution.
Women get the short end of the stick in these matters. That's not militant feminism. It's physiology. And anatomy. Not to mention social conditioning. Even today, many women shrink from exposing themselves to answer an urgent call of nature. A man can whip it out, whiz, and tuck it back in. All in a flash. Or at least he can when he's not encumbered by a rubber suit that lacks an easy means of egress. But a woman almost always has to strip and squat and squirt. (There are a few notable exceptions. Remember the toilet scene in The Full Monty?) Moreover, women's plumbing lets them down in other ways. We have shorter urethras and smaller bladders, both of which make the aforementioned "urgent calls of nature" something other than infrequent incidents. For some unfortunates, in fact, they're the norm. Combine this with a (sometimes) well-founded fear of creepy-crawlies and a general reluctance to be caught with our pants down—let's call this cat-hole phobia, shall we?—and you've got a recipe for discomfort, or even disaster. I've known quite a few women whose excretory anxiety reached such extremes that they refused to drink anything while working out of doors. This is a Very Bad Thing, of course, especially (but not exclusively) on hot days.
Fortunately, such radical responses are uncommon in paddlers of either gender. But hazards remain. If biting flies are launching mass attacks, if there's no cover to be had for miles and your companions are all snide and inquisitive strangers, or if you mistake poison ivy for toilet paper, even a day's outing can easily become a trip of a lifetime, something to be remembered long after happier treks have been forgotten. Once again, women bear the brunt. Our exposure—to both biting flies and prying eyes—is greater, as is our need for something to wipe ourselves with. As always, though, practice and preplanning help. So does a kilt, at least for men, many of whom develop a broader appreciation of women's needs the very first time they have to pass something more substantial than water while deep in the backcountry. But kilts are not without their problems. See, for example, Magnus' letter in the July 2007 "Our Readers Write." There are other alternatives, however. Farwell, whose formative years included extended periods spent away from home comforts, once found himself wracked with dysentery for days on end while paddling 'Bayward on a northern river. Necessity proved the mother of invention. He soon discovered that the combination of an improvised breechcloth and a large cooking pot made it possible for him to paddle and poop simultaneously. (The bight of the breechcloth could be pulled to one side with a single motion and tucked under his belt. It didn't hurt that Farwell was born without the modesty gene, of course. And that he was paddling in the stern of a big, beamy boat.)
But all this is prologue to our story. The many difficulties I've already outlined are compounded when a rubber suit enters the equation—as I was reminded years ago by Richard Kohlström, in another letter to "Our Readers Write":
In cold and in stressed situations the body needs to relieve and get rid of excess fluid. That's biological. And I and many with me want to learn how to do it in situations like long open-water crossings.
I did my best to answer Richard's implied question at the time, and that was that. Recently, though, the subject has cropped up again. Not long ago I got a note from Bob, a beginning kayaker who was outfitting himself for cold-season paddling. He'd just bought a "farmer john" wetsuit. Now he was wondering…
Where's the John in This Farmer?
Bob thought he remembered reading something online about wearing an adult diaper under a wetsuit, but try as he might he couldn't find his way back to the source. So he asked me if I could help, and as luck would have it, I could. It's likely that Bob was recalling a light-hearted aside I'd made in my earlier article:
Unfortunately, relief zips aren't yet universal on wetsuits. This requires making alternative arrangements when caught short. It's something you get used to. Well, some of us do, at any rate. It's an unpleasant throwback to our days in diapers, but at least it's warm.
The diaper to which I referred was more metaphorical than real, obviously—an attempt to capture the unsettling sensation of "letting flow" in a wetsuit. At the time I wrote the quoted passage, I'd read about (male) paddlers using urinary bags and condom-catheters on extended open-water crossings, but I'd never heard of anyone using an honest-to-god adult diaper inside a wetsuit or drysuit. A little further research turned up several accounts of drysuited divers wearing nappies, however, and there's no reason why paddlers couldn't follow suit. Where there's a will—and a need—there's a way, right?
Happily, more and more manufacturers are fitting their wetsuits and drysuits with "relief zippers," and Bob discovered that the double-pull entry zip on his new farmer john could be made to serve in this role, at least in a pinch. (Ah, yes. Pinching. Aka "zip-fastener injury." That's another problem facing the unwary and unlucky, though it's one to which women are largely, if not entirely, immune. But most men have already learned avoidance strategies. If not, they will.) What do you do if your suit isn't so equipped? You have two choices: add a zip or resign yourself to stripping down whenever nature calls. The former course is relatively easy with a wetsuit, but nearly impossible with a drysuit. The latter? It's open to everyone. Of course, a zip is precious little help if you're caught short while under way, with no possibility of making landfall in time. Perhaps you're rounding a headland or crossing a windswept lake with no island close by to make a lee. In either case, your options are limited by a number of critical factors besides the mere presence (or absence) of a relief zip. Your anatomy, for one. Your boat's inherent stability for another. Under most conditions, it's easy to stand and deliver in a freight canoe, but it's just about impossible to do so in a Greenland-style kayak, even in a millpond.
If standing is impractical, however, it may still be possible to squat, though the diminutive cockpits of some kayaks rule this out as well. Squatting puts both sexes on an equal footing. It also requires that you have a suitable receptacle. A wide-mouth water bottle will do the trick in practiced hands. (A hint: Practice in your bathtub.) Then you can dispose of the contents whenever convenient, either by emptying the bottle over the side—where legal—or upon making landfall. What's that? You don't have so much as a pot to pee in anywhere in your boat? Then you'll have to let fly in the bilge. The idea is somewhat off-putting, I admit, but ship's bilges have served as toilets for generations of watermen. You could even say that the practice is traditional. It's better than weeing in your wetsuit, at any rate, though if your suit lacks a zip, that liquid expedient is your last (and only) resort. Tant pis, as the French say.
Discouraged? Don't be. Get a zip. Get a bottle. Practice. (A helpful adjunct for women will be discussed shortly. Hang in there, girls!) Problem solved—except for Greenlanders, anyway. But one Big Question remains to be addressed:
What About Admiral Brown?
What indeed? And just who is Admiral Brown? I'm glad you asked. In the days of wooden ships and iron men, the crew's toilets, or "heads," were little more than holes in planks projecting over the sea. (They were located forward of the forecastle, in the ship's beakhead. And there was one on either side. Hence the plural.) Whenever a ship became becalmed, therefore, or when she lay to a mooring in waters not subject to tides, she was soon surrounded by a malodorous mat, the floating remains of yesterday's salt beef and weevily biscuit. In the case of a ship of the line, with a crew of 800 or so, all of whose digestive tracts were kept well lubricated by a regular intake of rum and suet pudding, this garnish was an authoritative presence, and some wag whose name is now lost to history christened it "Admiral Brown."
Needless to say, Admiral Brown still commands the attention of watermen, though few canoes or kayaks boast crews of 800. Nonetheless, while our numbers may be fewer, our needs are no less urgent. When we gotta go, we gotta go. Even if we're far from shore and imprisoned in rubber. What's the answer? Well, you could hang your bum over the gunwale. If you were in a beamy canoe and well offshore, that is. And in certain circumstances—moderate temps, a capacious boat, and tolerant companions—there's always the Farwell option: a breechcloth or kilt and a pot. The drop-down "hatchback" found on some wetsuits and drysuits adds a cold-water capability to these basic scenarios. But for rubber-suited paddlers in tight-fitting or tender boats, there's no choice but a return to a time just shy of the womb—the Age of Nappies. Not surprisingly, the market has responded. I've found web pages advertising "adult swim diapers." Who says capitalism is dead?
And now a few words to my long-suffering sisters, as promised:
The Woman's Hour
Like it or not, girls, anatomy is destiny, and unless you can stand and deliver like the woman in The Full Monty you'll be at a disadvantage when answering nature's call in the backcountry. Enter the Lady J. It won't get you an audition with the Chippendales, but it will allow you to pump ship with a minimum of unnecessary exposure. And that's good enough. You can even pair it with a matching urinal if you find that weeing into a water bottle puts you off. (The manufacturer has imaginatively christened this companion piece the Little John!) Be warned, though: Practice makes perfect. Wear only old clothes until you're sure you've mastered the manly art of peeing.
Of course, that leaves the Other to be reckoned with. The Lady J won't help you there. But at least Admiral Brown is an equal opportunity inconvenience. That's something, I suppose.
Wetsuits and drysuits are necessary evils, though few of us would argue that they're comfy. They help keep us alive in cold water, of course, and that's a very good thing. But what do you do when nature calls while you're imprisoned in rubber? There are no easy answers. Still, where there's a will, there's usually a way. And that's the straight poop!
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