Showering in the Field… or Lack There Of.

A great read from a fem field biologist this week! As we wind down the field season, or perhaps jump into one, this is a great reminder of what it takes to be in the field. This weeks post comes to you from Alyssa Eby as she shares some of those greasy moments that are a big part of being in the field!

Now let’s set one thing straight I am by no means someone who showers everyday when I am not in the field. Not to say I lack personal hygiene but I do like to conserve water. This makes me an ideal candidate for field living, as I don’t mind skipping showers for a few days or dare I say weeks… Even so, showering in the field (when you do get around to it) is not without its difficulties. My last few field seasons I have been conducting seabird research on semi-remote/remote islands. In all the island field camps I’ve worked on we have collected rainwater as our primary water source. Thus, water conservation in the field is key. It is very important to be mindful of the water supply; if you’re having a dry season that means more dry shampoo and less showers. Alternatively, toques and hats become your best friend in the field. You can’t tell how greasy my hair is if you can’t see it! Alright, you probably can but let’s choose to ignore that. Depending on the seabird species you are working with you can get pooped, regurgitated, or oiled on A LOT. Baby wipes and hats come in handy and so do your coworkers, they can help spot clean your hair in the areas you can’t reach.

Putting my hat and bandana to good use while measuring common tern chicks on Eastern Egg Rock Island.

Full disclosure, you might not want to take advice from someone who held a competition with themselves for number of days gone without showering. My personal best (or as some would say worst) is 26 days, or to make that sound more horrific, three weeks and five days. Now that everyone reading this thinks I’m disgusting, I will clarify that when I use the term “showering” I’m referring to a thorough wash of my hair and body with soap, water, shampoo, and conditioner, the whole shebang. In a field camp you are living in close quarters with your fellow crew mates and need to respect them by keeping up with personal hygiene. This doesn’t always mean regular showers, but a baby wipe “shower” every night at the bare minimum is a must. I also wash my face every night. I may not smell like a bed of roses but I no longer reek of seabird guano, oil, or regurgitation. Trust me when I say that is not something you want to be smelling while eating.

My first seabird field season was the summer of 2016 on St. Lazaria Island, Alaska. There we had a shower stall attached to the cabin and a solar shower bag to go with. As “solar” implies you can heat the shower bag by placing it in the sun. My crew members and I chose to heat our water up on the stove, as we left showering for rainy days when we were unable to conduct fieldwork. A good time to shower is on a day off, if you have them, or a rainy day when you can’t get into the field. Take advantage of the rain and let it do some of the work for you. I’ve found that one medium to large pot of water is enough to get the job done. If you’re trying to conserve fuel you could wince your way through a cold shower. If you’re feeling tired and need a pick me up, the cold shower option may be for you! While the trickle of water flowing from a solar shower bag may suffice to clean short hair, it doesn’t quite cut it for me. To increase water pressure, I adapted the solar shower bag method by placing the bag on the ground and scooping water out of the top with a cup or small bowl. This was one of my favourite shower setups, as I very much enjoyed showering outside, especially to the soothing sound of rain.

Shower setup on St. Lazaria Island (left) vs. shower setup on Burgess Island (right).

The following summer I worked in Maine on Eastern Egg Rock Island. There we had no shower stall, although we attempted to construct one using leftover wood from old blinds. Our ill-constructed shower stall was blown down by high winds before anyone even had the chance to use it. Fortunately, in Maine we had the advantage of hot, sunny weather and an ocean that was warm enough (for some) to swim in. Most of our showering took place there, as it provided not only a means to cool off but also a way to get clean.

Most recently I spent two months in New Zealand on Burgess Island working with blog curator, Christy Wails. New Zealand is amazing for many reasons, beautiful scenery, a high diversity of seabirds (seven species nesting on Burgess Island), but most of all, the finest field accommodations. Like other field camps we collected rainwater, except on Burgess Island the rainwater collection system connects to the sinks (there were multiple) and shower. Meaning we had an indoor shower stall with running water, making shower conditions quite luxurious. Unfortunately, the water was very cold. To avoid the discomfort of a cold shower and save water, I used my pot of hot water and bowl method while standing in the shower stall. Here, with the nicest shower setup, is where I ironically set my record for numbers of days without showering.

Freshly showered and still having an “off” hair day but so is this soon-to-be fledged Leach’s storm-petrel chick! St. Lazaria Island.

At the end of the day it’s all about refining what works for you and taking full advantage of what you’ve got. Keep in mind you will have plenty of bad hair days but so will the birds. I try to save pictures for days when I’m freshly showered or donning a toque/hat. It is also important to think about the types of shower products you are using. Last season I used biodegradable shampoo and conditioner, and a bar of soap. For my upcoming field season, I am switching to camp suds (a biodegradable soap) to lighten my load, as I will use this as shampoo, face/body soap, and to wash clothing. Once the small bottle runs out (I’m thinking it will last me at least two field seasons) I am considering switching to shampoo and conditioner bars to cut down my plastic consumption. If you have any favourite environmentally friendly and plastic free shower products please feel free to share!

Have insight you’d like to share? Join us on Twitter (#FemFieldSecrets and @FemFieldSecrets) to continue the conversation!

Interested in telling your whole tale? We would love to hear from you!


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