Row Like a Girl: And Other Advice for Women on the River


A number of years ago, two girlfriends and I were floating down a popular section of river in Colorado. “Hey!” a man shouted from the shore. “I didn’t know girls could row boats!” Well, girls can row boats—with great skill and finesse—while also dealing with periods, trying not to pee on ourselves while hanging off the back of the boat, and keeping our hair from turning into a rat’s nest that may need to be cut out later. We have to think about hygiene in more intimate ways than the boys will ever be able to understand. And before we even get on the water, it can be hard to find clothes that fit, as any busty woman trying to find a comfortable PFD can tell you.

We also run clean lines while rocking sequins, tutus and pearls, and have the opportunity to surround ourselves with other badass ladies who can support and mentor us into becoming our best selves, on and off the river. No one woman is an expert on all things river-tips-for-ladies, so I reached out to some of the raddest, baddest, most stylish women on the river. Here’s what they had to say.

Periods Don’t Need to Be a Problem
Anyone who has ever had their period on a river trip knows that it can be a hassle, but it doesn’t have to be a trip-ruiner. Many women swear by menstrual cups (common brand names include Diva Cup and Moon Cup), as you can wear them for up to twelve hours at a time and they don’t generate any trash. There can be a pretty steep learning curve, so definitely try it out ahead of time and make sure you have a plan for keeping it clean.

If you prefer to use tampons or pads, make sure you have a trash bag to pack them out in—they can’t go in the groover! Many women like the plastic bag inside a cloth bag method. I repeat: They can’t go in the groover! Period panties (like Thinx) can be a great option for the evening, as they’re comfortable and you can simply rinse, dry and re-use. Finally—and this definitely requires checking with your doctor first—some women manipulate their birth control so they can skip a period for an extended river trip, like the Grand Canyon.

Keep Things Clean and Dry
It’s no one’s favorite topic of conversation, but chafing, yeast infections, and urinary tract infections can definitely get in the way of living your best river life. After I suffered a particularly bad case of “boat butt,” one gal noted my layering scheme: shorts over a swimsuit bottom. “Oh no,” she said, “never wear both.” And she was right. If it’s a beachy-bathing suit kind of day, wear the suit but throw a sarong or skirt over it. If it’s more of an I-need-pants kind of a day, just wear the shorts.

Skirts and sarongs are pretty much mandatory river wear anyway, both for fashion and for letting things “air out” at camp. Leggings are also an awesome chafe-free option that double as sun protection. Always ditch your wet clothes at the end of the day and bring along a few pairs of cotton undies to sleep in. Those prone to UTIs and yeast infections need to be extra-attentive and should consider bringing cranberry pills or talking with a doctor about prescription or over-the-counter treatments, especially for longer trips.

Take Care of Your Skin
Cracking, peeling, bleeding skin is no one’s idea of a good time. Invest in a good sunscreen, lip balm with SPF, thick hand cream or salve, and don’t forget to pack a pair of nail clippers. Some gals like to put their freshly-lotioned hands and feet in a dry pair of light gloves and socks at night for an extra-luxurious experience. You may find the guys on your trip looking at your nice hand salve with envy. Feel free to not give them any. Also, rowing gloves are not dorky. Blisters and sunburned hands are dorky. And don’t forget about your face!

Take Care of Your Hair
The combination of water, sand, and sunscreen has a magical way of giving your skin a sun-kissed glow and yet, cursing your hair into a slick plaster of grease or a tangle of unintentional dreadlocks. Several women swore by getting their hair put into small braids before a long trip, but everyone could agree on the importance of bringing a brush or comb and some kind of hair moisturizer. Coconut oil is a popular suggestion and on minimalist-style trips when weight is key, it works for both your hair and skin.

The editor of Duct Tape Diaries always packs a leave-in conditioner/detangler on river trips. “Whether or not you take the time to soap up or just go for a quick dip and rinse in the river, the spray in conditioner eliminates a step in the hair washing process and lets you feel a little put together and refreshed,” she says. If you do opt to wash your hair in the river, be sure to only use biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronner’s. Though in full disclosure, Dr. Bronner’s may be a classic favorite for an eco-friendly soap, I have found that I always regret washing my hair with it. Yuck.

Find a PFD That Fits
Finding a PFD that fits either a smaller frame or a large bust (hello, squish factor) can be challenging. Smaller women should look for a jacket with a lot of adjustabilities or a low-profile jacket like the NRS Ninja, where the foam is concentrated in a smaller area. While many larger-breasted women prefer side-entry jackets that ride lower on their chests. Recommended gender-neutral styles include the Kokatat Maximus Centurion, the Kokatat Hustle, and the Stohlquist Rocker. And, because women are not just small men, several favorite women’s-specific jackets include the NRS Nora and Siren, Astral’s Layla and the (awesomely named) MTI Adventurewear PFDiva. The best PFD is the one you’ll wear, so if you live near a paddlesports store, it’s always a good idea to try on a variety.

Row Like a Girl
I learned to row with the old school “pull away from everything” mentality, even if that meant rowing upstream, and I tried to do it all with just my arm strength. My body, like many women’s, just isn’t built to do that. Many women emphasized the importance of setting your boat up to fit your body, using your whole body to row, and not fighting the river.

One nine-year veteran guide said she tells every woman she trains to adjust the oars, even if it’s just for the day. “Because it matters.” Another guide based in Maine said, “Read the water and trust your intuition. It’s easy to get caught up in all the dudes telling you which line to run, but you know your capabilities and you know what line suits you best. Let the water do most of the work for you. Talk to the other women rowing. If there aren’t other gals rowing, read that shit and do you.”

Women often give this type of advice to other women, but really, isn’t this how everyone should be rowing a boat?

Own Your Experience
Your fellow oarsman may have rowed this rapid 20 times, but you’ve rowed it 21… pick the line and tell him to follow. Despite years of experience, many women expressed a consistent lack of confidence and said that they sometimes felt railroaded on river trips. One rafter and kayaker with twenty years of experience said, “When I let my husband row the whole time, I feel resentful that my main contribution to the trip was only logistics and food prep. Do things that make you proud, that challenge you, that make it your trip.”

A former guide from Northern California encourages women to “[not] be intimidated by male counterparts. Trust your intuition when it comes to lines, group safety, and camp spots.” Countless women echoed these sentiments: This is your trip, too. I’m sure you can make a mean Dutch Oven lasagna, but you absolutely do not need to cook every night—or any night.

Pee Stress-Free
Peeing on the river: sometimes it’s in the water, sometimes it’s in public, sometimes it’s accidentally on the raft, and sometimes it’s on your feet. Okay, okay more often than not it’s on your feet. Many of the women I contacted wanted to talk peeing almost as much as they wanted to talk rowing, and everyone offered a wealth of advice. Here are the top five responses within the list of most common suggestions for peeing on the river:

1. Get a wide-mouthed pee bottle for your tent, and make sure there are five-gallon pee buckets available. As one Gunnison, Colorado-based boater put it: “If you’ve had a few margaritas or you wake up in the middle of the night half-awake, I really discourage going down to the river alone to pee.”

2. When toilet paper isn’t an option, use a bandana or an adorable, antimicrobial Kula Cloth, which is seriously my favorite product ever invented for outdoorsy ladies.

3. Consider investing in a “feminine funnel” to facilitate peeing on the boat or any other time it might be awkward to drop your pants. There are many available, often with cute names like “She-Wee” or “Tinkle Bell.” But like the Menstrual Cup, there is a learning curve. Peeing on your feet is always better than peeing down your entire hand, leg, etc.

4. If you wear a dry suit, get one with a drop-seat.

5. And, in the words of one boater, “Own the beach pee.” There’s often not a lot of privacy on the river, so don’t be afraid to walk out to the end of the beach and just do your thing; the other boaters will just ignore you. As one outfitter advises guests, “We don’t have privacy on the river, we make privacy.”

Surround Yourself with a Community of Women Boaters
Sometimes there’s nothing more fun (and empowering) than a trip with just the ladies. One woman noted that there is “a large collaborative spirit with women on the river—more so than with both men and women. Women tend to just work together because muscling through it alone isn’t as much of an option.” Find other women, even just in online forums (check out the Women of the Whitewater Community Facebook page), to share advice, stories, and encouragement with. Consider getting a group of gal pals together to take a swiftwater rescue class or sign up for a clinic. Build your skills and confidence together.

Wear Pearls
And finally, in the words of Liz Hymans, one of the first women to guide in the Grand Canyon, “Wear pearls. Take a bottle of nail polish. It’s the fastest, cheapest, easiest way to get girly if you feel the need.” Even if pearls and nail polish aren’t your thing, her point is clear. You’re a woman on the river. Be your fabulous self!