Friday, April 22, 2022

Tips for Women on AAI Courses

On climbing trips and courses, it is not the grand gestures that dictate success, but a series of small, diligent habits. These form by consistently making choices to take care of yourself.

In the backcountry, some of these choices and habits can be different for women than for men due to key differences in physiology. Here’s a quick overview of some issues women can face in the mountains, and some simple tips and tricks to help you have a fun, safe and successful course.


Women often feel colder than men in the mountains, especially in the hands and feet. There are several ways to deal with this difference.

The first is to regulate your overall body temperature by keeping your core warm. When your core is warm, your extremities will also be warmer. For women, making this happen can mean wearing a few more layers on your core than guys—perhaps carrying an extra lightweight puffy jacket or another thin, insulating layer like an R1. Move in lighter layers – you should be a bit chilly when you start out after a break – but keep a warm layer available in the top of your pack for when you stop.

For gloves, you’ll want to strike a balance between keeping your hands warm and making sure you have the dexterity required to hold an ice axe or clip carabiners. Make SURE you have a warm pair of gloves that you can comfortably handle carabiners with – a common cause of frostnip/bite is to take off gloves to mess with hardware.

Packs, boots and bags

Many women have smaller body sizes and do not have the same upper body strength as men. This does not mean they are unable to do certain things – they just need to figure out different ways to accomplish the same tasks without injury.

When carrying a heavy pack, make sure you understand proper lifting techniques. Grab the pack by the straps, lift it onto your knee, and then swing it onto your back. If you are using a new pack and you haven't carried a heavy load in it, put weight in it and go on a hike. Do all the adjustments you can to the waist belt, shoulder straps, etc. Adjust your straps so the majority of your load is on your hips and lower back and not your shoulders. Your hip belt should sit just on or above your hip bones. There are numerous packs on the market designed specifically for women, but ultimately choose the one that feels the most comfortable with your body type.

The climbing industry is catching onto the fact that women are climbing high, cold mountains, but many of the boot choices for these environments are still only offered in men’s sizes. Women’s heels can be skinnier than men’s, so if you’re a woman wearing men’s boots proper bootfitting is essential. If you can get to snow, go hiking/snowshoeing in your expedition boots, preferably with your pack. Then you will have time to get new footbeds or adjust your sock system before the trip. Small adjustments like this can make the difference between comfort and misery over the course of a trip.

Women’s sleeping bags are a good idea, as they tend to be shaped for women’s bodies and include more insulation in the footbed. The only downsides are that they are built specifically for women of short or average height (5’6’’ or smaller) so tall women need to either get a women’s long or a men’s bag. If you have to go with a men’s bag consider budgeting an extra 10 degrees (so if you need a bag that keeps you warm at 0, get a men’s -10 degree, etc.).

Pee Funnels

Pee funnels like the GoGirl or the Freshette provide a way for a woman to urinate while standing up. These are essentially funnels that you may press against yourself when you urinate.

There isn’t a tremendous amount of privacy on our mountaineering trips in the Cascades and elsewhere. On most days you will spend the majority of your time tied into a rope with your teammates. A pee funnel allows you a small modicum of privacy when you urinate.

Some female guides use these extensively whereas others prefer to simply have the team turn away while they squat to urinate. Ultimately the choice as to whether to use one of these devices is up to you.

If you choose to use a pee funnel it is recommended that you practice with it prior to the start of the expedition. In order to keep it from overflowing you will have to manage the rate at which you urinate.

The two most popular models are the Freshette and the GoGirl:

General Hygiene

Bring 1-2 pairs of synthetic or wool underpants and one pair of cotton underwear or boxers to sleep in. The cotton underwear can also help you feel cleaner if you have your period during the trip.

Bring a separate bottle to pee in at night (or in a storm) so you don’t have to get out of your tent. Collapsible Nalgene 1.5-2 L bottles work the best. Some women tell their tentmates 'I'm closing the bathroom door' or something similar so they know not to look. You can use the pee bottle with or without a pee funnel. Practice this at home in the shower so you know you’ll feel comfortable doing it in a tent later on.

Women are more prone to urinary tract and yeast infections if they don’t wipe regularly, so it’s a good idea to bring extra toilet paper or a bandana to wipe after peeing (even if you use a funnel). If you use a bandana (aka “pee rag”) you can tie it to your pack to dry out afterward as you continue to hike. Any used toilet paper should be placed in a Ziploc bag and packed out.

That Time Of The Month

And now for the big question for women on expeditions – how do I deal with that time of the month? Answer: it’s not that bad – read on for one Denali guide’s (quite specific) guide to dealing with it!  

For my period, I use a Diva Cup (the Keeper is another brand). I also use it in the rest of life when not on expeditions. I can carry one with me wherever I camp/hike/climb without worrying about running out of tampons, and if I don't have any tissues I can clean it with water from my water bottle or with snow. I don't use snow on the glacier because we use camps other parties use and I don't want to leave bloody snow for people to see. I take some toilet tissues and pour the blood from the cup into these. I clean the Diva Cup with more tissues. I wrap the bloody tissues in some more tissues and put it in the CMC (Clean Mountain Can, used on Denali) or other latrine. If I feel shy about putting this in a communal latrine I put the tissues in either a brown paper bag or an opaque plastic bag (this is better; it doesn't soak through) that I then carry with me. I clean myself with wet wipes, and sanitize my hands. Wet wipes freeze, but you can keep a travel packet inside your parka for bathroom time. If you want to use tampons, the method is very similar. Take the tampon out, wrap it up with tissue, put it in the opaque bag.  If the idea of using one bag for the whole trip is gross, you can bring a few bags set up this way.  

And obviously, if you choose to use tampons, it’s important to make sure that you have enough with you. You should pack out any used tampons in a Ziploc bag, and you can wrap the bag with duct tape ahead of time to conceal the contents for privacy. If you get menstrual cramps, bring whatever painkillers you usually use to help ease them.


The single most important muscle that a climber of any gender will use is between the ears. A positive attitude, good self-care, and the willingness to face and work with the realities you are presented by your body and environment are the best predictors of success. You will have good days and bad days. You and your teammates will take turns being the stronger or weaker members of the expedition, but it is your bond as a group that will get you up and back.

We strive to provide all our climbers with the best information and recommendations for our programs around the world. If you have any questions regarding the information in this document or would like to speak with a female AAI guide, please feel free to contact the AAI office.

Happy climbing!

--Shelby Carpenter, AAI Instructor and Guide

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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Susan T.
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