How to Become an Outdoors-Woman

by Larry Arnold, former BOW Instructor

Welcome to the outdoors

By attending a Becoming an Outdoors-Woman weekend you will step beyond enjoying the excellent nature programs on the Discovery Channel. You will lock your air-conditioned home, drive away from the city, and enter another world; the outdoors.

To you it may be an unfamiliar world. The environment is untamed. The rules we follow build on different traditions. To successfully become a part of the outdoors you may have to change your lifestyle.

The good news is that you can do it. Many of your classmates will have already completed a weekend, and are returning to learn more and have more fun. Some of your instructors are former participants. BOW wouldn’t have such a high repeat enrollment if the program didn’t work.

But for new participants "unfamiliar, different, untamed, change" can be scary words. What do we mean, "different rules?"

In the city, if you want to cross a street you go down the sidewalk to the intersection and wait for the green light. You give automobiles the right of way.

In the outdoors there are few intersections, fewer sidewalks, and no green lights. Many city rules, whether written laws or the things your mother taught you, don’t apply. Instead, you have to learn and follow the outdoors version.

If you open a gate, for instance, close it. Don’t honk your car horn at a person on horseback. Skunks always have the right of way.

Safety is your responsibility

The first rule outdoors is that you are responsible for your own safety.

After a heavy rain City Public Service crews quickly mark flooded intersections with traffic cones and barriers. In the wilderness, there are no traffic cones. Out hiking, standing on the bank of a stream swollen with snow runoff, you will have to decide if it’s safe to cross.

Does that mean the outdoors is dangerous? No. In many ways you are safer here than in the city. But there are hazards, and you must learn, through experience, what they are and how to handle them.

Do you have that experience yet? Perhaps not. That’s why you should start in a basic level program. During a BOW weekend it will be our instructors’ responsibility to make sure your first experience is safe.

Your responsibility is to listen carefully when an instructor is talking about safety, learn the rules being taught, and immediately start to apply them in the activities you are studying.

Know your capabilities

Completing a BOW weekend does not prepare you to climb Mount Everest. If that is your goal, however, this training is a first step in the right direction.

Whatever activities you select will be built around skills: paddling a canoe, saddling a horse, cleaning a shotgun, starting a fire, moving quietly to get within camera range of a timid animal. Mastering them takes patience and practice.

Most of you will also find unfamiliar muscles. Physical conditioning is essential in outdoor activities. On the other hand, there is some form of outdoor activity available for persons at almost any physical level. The key to pursuing a more arduous activity is to first challenge yourself to become more physically fit.

Then start simple. Day hikes with experienced outdoor people you trust will let you hone new skills. You will be able to learn from their examples. The mistakes you will make won’t turn into disasters. You can try out new equipment.

(Every one of us "old hands" has an attic full of gadgets that didn’t work out.)

Be prepared to survive

One manifestation of outdoor individuality is the survival kit.

If you are stranded in the city, your "survival kit" is a credit card. With it you can obtain shelter, food, communication, medical care, and transportation.

Up the trail, two hours or two days from an ATM, a credit card is not quite useless. (It can scrape away a stinger a bee left in you.) Instead, most of us carry an outdoor survival kit. They are as personal as your handbag.

Survival kits vary from pocket size to a medium backpack, and no two carry the same items. Design and contents are based on the activity we are doing, and on our individual experience and skill level. The most important part fits between our ears; knowledge about both routine and emergency situations and how to handle them, and an attitude of "making do" instead of "depending on."

The common denominator in our survival kits is that we don’t leave home without them. As you gain outdoors experience you will build your own. It will teach you a great deal about yourself.

Respect Nature

In the outdoors, Mother Nature is the big kid on the block. She does what she wants to do; we people live according to her rules.

A BOW weekend near Hunt, Texas was just beginning when a sudden storm dropped a heavy rain on the area. The Guadalupe River, which usually meanders past the front of Camp Waldemar, turned into a muddy torrent flooding across the highway into the parking lot. Students and instructors who were still on the road that Friday morning had to turn back. Those who had already arrived were stranded in the camp until the river subsided late Saturday night. The weekend went on.

One of the students watched an instructor in soaked sneakers and a dripping rain poncho slog into the lodge. "What do you do when it rains like this?" she asked.

The instructor shrugged and said, "You get wet."

As you gain outdoor experience you’ll find out about hypothermia (getting too cold) and heat stroke (getting too hot). You’ll learn how to prevent both by layering clothing. You’ll discover that some materials, like wool, keep on insulating even when wet.

And one day you’ll experience the exquisite moment when you and the Earth, both chilled with life-bringing rain, first feel the warmth from the sun as it emerges from behind the thundercloud.

The outdoors is dirty

Nature is not an antiseptic place. The floor is dirt. The carpet is grass. In the grass are bugs and other crawling things.

Outdoor activities are strenuous. You will sweat. Hot water is do-it-yourself, and mostly for cooking.

Sooner or later you will be soaked by rain. You will slog through mud. Dirt will blow into your hair and clothing. Bugs will land in your food. You will be plastered with wet leaves. You will find out nothing is stickier than tree sap.

You will learn to live with it. You’ll find you don’t need floral bouquet perfume when you’re surrounded by the real thing. At the end of a day’s hike the last thing you want to spray away is the aroma of supper cooking.

That doesn’t mean you need to be gross to be outdoors. In fact, it’s essential to keep yourself and your equipment clean. A dirty camp will quickly be overrun with vermin. Personal hygiene is essential to avoid some really disgusting illnesses. You have to keep injuries clean to avoid infection.

And for a true outdoors-person there’s nothing wrong with maintaining personal appearance. Instructors who wear makeup in the city often choose to do so in the outdoors. Their secret is a low maintenance style from a lightweight kit.

The animals are wild

The critters you find in the outdoors are either hunters or prey. Many are both. All have weapons to defend themselves and gather food.

Every now and then human visitors get the bright idea of trapping a squirrel in a box so they can pet the furry little thing.

Squirrels chop nuts with their teeth. When grabbed they will use them like an electric knife on whatever part of the hand they can reach. It makes for an impressive lesson.

Does that mean squirrels are dangerous? No. Wild animals are practical. Most of them, including the hunters, want to avoid a fight with an animal as big as you are. There are a few exceptions.

If an animal can’t retreat, either because you cornered it or because you surprised it, it will fight. In the outdoors you learn to shake out your shoes in the morning in case anything crawled in them overnight.

Most animals will defend home territory, food they have caught, or their young. Leave them alone. How would you react if something messed with your kids?

Three pointers:

The animals who share nature with you are amazing, and as an outdoors-woman you’ll get to know them as they really are. One day you’ll be on the trail with someone new. "Hush," you’ll whisper, and point. "Under that bush. It’s a fawn."

"It’s not abandoned," you’ll explain. "The mother leaves it there while she looks for food. The fawn is scentless, and its dappled flanks hide it in the shadows. It instinctively keeps still, so it won’t attract predators looking for movement. It’s the whitetail equivalent of day care."

Be yourself

Humankind is a race of individuals; success in the outdoors is not found in the herd. I hope you pick classes in your bow weekend because they sound fun. I hope you continue that way, pursuing activities that interest you. Nowhere will you be more honored for developing your own style.

The other side of that coin is that we expect you to routinely make ethical decisions, often without anyone watching. When you bring a hatchet on a campout we will not ask if you have learned how to use it, and practiced enough to safely and competently handle it. That is your responsibility.

Learn to be dependable

A paradox of the outdoors is that while you function in it as an individual, your survival depends on being part of a group.

During disasters it is not uncommon to find people, who would otherwise never speak, pooling skills and resources in an effort to survive. In the wilderness such cooperation is routine.

The very best outdoor experiences usually involve individuals with various skills and different skill levels who work together as a team. Never will you be more a part of the outdoors than when you help the person following you up the trail.

Again, welcome to the outdoors

It is an unfamiliar world. The environment is untamed. The rules we follow build on different traditions. To successfully become a part of the outdoors you may have to change your lifestyle. The good news is that you have already begun.

One day it will be your turn. Someone else will be learning to paddle a canoe, saddle a horse, clean a shotgun, start a fire, or move quietly to get within camera range of a timid animal. She will turn to you and say, "They told me you would help, because you are an outdoors-woman."

More information about BOW

The original BOW program started in Wisconsin.

The Texas program: