I am fond of saying that I enter the wilderness as a Dominican and exit the wilderness as a Franciscan. This is a sort of inside joke that only religious would get. It refers to the fact that Dominicans wear white and Franciscans usually wear brown. White is somewhat incompatible with the out-of-doors. And, there’s virtually no presence of laundry facilities. So, over time, my habit will become brown.

Notice the gradation of brown to white going up from the bottom?

That said, going up Mt. Kilimanjaro is “not my first rodeo” when it comes to hiking in habit. I do it all the time around the San Francisco Bay Area, the Cascades Mountains of Washington and Oregon. And, in 2018 I did both the Annapurna Circuit and the Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal. I learned quite a lot about habit management on that adventure.

For one thing, if I want to remain somewhat seamless as a Dominican Friar on a multi-day trek, it is often useful to bring two (2) completely separate habits. That’s because if one has to be scrubbed and washed (by hand), without having a spare habit, I’m running around in whatever’s left in my bag. Whatever that is, it’s not a terribly good look, and more importantly it shatters the image of a religious and priest. So, if I have a second habit, then I can wear one while the other is being “worked on.”

Secondly, while mud can sometimes come off with just water, dirt often grinds itself into fibers such that no amount of scrubbing and/or washing (no matter which detergent or “magic” stain remover I use) will ever get it back to that pristine white. When I figured this out, the OCD in my had a panic attack. Dirt often accumulates from the bottom and works its way upward, but it does so unevenly. Now I have habits that look somewhat splotchy. Still, they’re in good shape despite the fact that they don’t look clean.

Third, managing a habit while climbing and descending is not just clumsy, it can be dangerous. (1) The rosary can hook on to stray branches; my foot can step through the loop. (2) While going up I can step on the hem or the scapular, tripping myself. And, (3) if I’m in wet places, it’s like wearing a wet rag. Managing the habit often requires the use of one hand to lift the lower parts above whatever I’m trying to walk and/or climb over. This means that using trekking poles is sometimes out of the question. I definitely use them if I’m snowshoeing, but more oft than not, I just leave them at home.

Lastly, if I used my choir habit, or my regular habit, I’m pretty certain I’d scandalize someone with what looks like a completely lack of attention on my laundry. So, my hiking habits are separate. They’re made of microfibre which means that the fabric resists water (though it’s not waterproof), it wicks moisture away from the body, and it dries fast. Plus, it’s not cotton. In the Boy Scouts we always said, “cotton kills”. It’s true. If it gets wet and it’s cold, it can accelerate hyperthermia. I don’t want that.


Anne · February 6, 2022 at 9:07 am

Father Corwin, you always managed to maintain a pristine look in the Annapurna treks.

    Fr. Corwin Low, OP · February 6, 2022 at 5:46 pm

    Ah… you were not looking close enough. Plus, I was able to wash the habit every few days.

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