I don’t associate afros or curly hair with people who go on multi-day hikes — even though I fall in this category.
That’s because glossy advertisements of hiking rarely feature people who look like me.
As a Nigerian-Australian woman, I have tight curls that are much longer than they appear, and my relationship with my hair, as well as people’s interactions with it, can be fraught.
‘Brillo pad’, ‘pubic hair’, ‘messy’, ‘wild’ and ‘crazy’ are just some of the words people have used to describe my hair.
It isn’t any of these things, but when I wake up in the morning, I imagine it is the closest to these descriptions.
Which is why camping and overnight hikes used to give me anxiety — and I don’t think I’m the only one.
A curly conundrum
I’ve loved outdoor activities since my pre-teens.
Camping, hiking, or rolling out of a sleeping bag at a multi-day music festival bleary-eyed and ready to go is my idea of a good time.
I’ve burned more than my fair share of marshmallows to a crisp and had s’mores for the first time sitting by a campfire under starlight at the Grand Canyon National Park.
But a constant, nagging question I have is: “What do I do with my hair?”
It’s not an entirely self-created upset either; it’s come from years of uninvited interactions and expectations of how my curls should look.
People notice my hair, which is naturally different to all of my colleagues and people in my rural community.
It therefore attracts comments and unwarranted touching, from positive interactions of, “I love your hair”, to “It looks like sheep wool”.
When preparing for a multi-day walk, managing my hair after one or more nights of no showers or proper hair care, is at the front of my mind.
‘Just cut it’ and other solutions
When I speak to other women with hair like mine, they each manage it in different ways.
Sylvia Makoni’s answer to curly hair and hiking is straightforward: she cuts it.
“We’ve been going camping for three months every year, for the last three years and do small two-to-five day trips in between,” she says.
“It’s just too hard, so on this trip I cut my hair short.”
It means less stress about how her hair looks and almost no maintenance.
“I have my short hairbrush to ‘ruffle my hair’ and I am good to go with a smile.”
For Sydney-based Debra Patal, a three-day bushcraft survival course during torrential rain meant a nightmare hair situation.
“It rained the whole time, I had a ‘banana plait’ — a single cornrow with extensions added, and on the first day it was a nightmare to undo!”
“Eventually my hair was free, BUT I couldn’t comb it out so there was a bit of a fight between me and my hair — LESSON LEARNT.”
For her next trip, she opted for braiding her own hair into single braids with no hair extensions and says it’s her go-to ‘camping hair’ for all future hikes.
Another option? Locs, also known as dreadlocks.
It’s what camping lover Jeannette Carter thinks works best.
“Just shake and go, but a nice wash when I return,” she says.
Since completing my biggest walk, a 65-kilometre, seven-day traverse through the Tasmanian wilderness, my attitude has gone from anxiety about my hair to embracing it.
In preparation for the Overland Track I sought advice from an online community of Black women.
I opted for cornrows on their advice but found the hairstyle too itchy and removed it the night before the walk, then set out with a small afro hairstyle instead.
The seven-day walk was an unforgettable experience that reframed my relationship with my hair when camping.
People didn’t comment on my hair like strangers often do, we were all there to enjoy the view, deal with our blisters and overcome the daily challenges of a long walk.
And although it gets knotty and makes it obvious how I’ve slept because one side is flat, it doesn’t matter as long as I can brush the knots and twigs out once I’m home or have access to water.
I reported back to my community of Black women online upon my return:
“Rocking a ‘fro on a long hike is possible’.”
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