Leonie Sherman
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Anastasia Allison and the art of the pee cloth

Almost three quarters of the people on the planet don’t even use toilet paper, so why do Americans leave it under every rock and bush in our most treasured public lands? Former park ranger and backpacking teacher Anastasia Allison noticed this travesty and fantasized about creating a user-friendly pee cloth and spreading the word to reduce the unsightly mess. But it took a near fatal car accident before she conquered her fears and started a company called Kula Cloth.

i pee in the woods

A proud proclamation

Five years later, Kula Cloth produces over 100,000 anti-microbial pee cloths every year. Some of the first prototypes were field-tested in Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Death Valley and California’s Lost Coast. Now Kula Cloth has grown to include hybrid underwear hiking shorts, a potty kit with other wilderness hygiene tools, but most importantly, a community of dancing, wilderness-loving, pee-cloth-toting adherents.

But Allison wasn’t always a company-starting, backpacking-instructing force of nature. She signed up for her first backpacking trip in 2006, a climb of Mt. Baker in Washington, with some of her park ranger co-workers. When she called the trip organizer and asked what to bring, he told her the same as backpacking, plus a climbing harness, ice axe and crampons.

kula cloth founder anastasia allison

Kula Cloth founder Anastasia Allison posing with boxes full of Kula Cloths ready to ship.

“I didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t know what to bring for backpacking,” she explained. “I didn’t even realize I had to bring toilet paper! I ended up secretly stealing it from my tent mate. I was too embarrassed to ask this older guy about hygiene.“ She survived the backpacking trip with her stolen TP, summited Mt. Baker and fell in love with backpacking.

Venturing further and further into the wilderness, Allison noticed more and more toilet paper. “I was curious and checked it out, it was not obviously dirty with anything that looked like poop. Someone had peed, wiped and just left it there,” she said.

A few years later, she started teaching backpacking classes for Washington Outdoor Women — an organization dedicated to helping women achieve confidence and competence in outdoor skills – and began to get interested in how people can lighten their loads and improve their hygiene in the wild. “I had to talk about poop and pee, and how to have your period in the wilderness,” she said. “I did a quick Google search and found an article about using a pee cloth. The author recommended an old t-shirt or a bandana. I thought, ‘Well, that’s disgusting, but I’ll try it. If I like it, I can teach it to my students.’”

She brought a blue microfiber towel along on her next expedition and was shocked to find that she loved it. “I didn’t have to carry as much TP, it was more comfortable than drip drying, it totally changed my experience!” she gushed. So she started teaching all her students to use a pee cloth. “But I could tell people were squeamish, I had this ugly blue thing hanging from my backpack.”

One day a friend took a silly photo of her pee cloth hanging from a trekking pole. Allison started taking photos of her pee cloth everywhere she backpacked and sending them to her friend as a joke. “While I was on the Wind River High Route with my husband, I was enjoying this spectacularly beautiful sunset above 12,000 feet and was setting up my blue scrap of fabric on a trekking pole to take this dramatic photo, when a little bolt of lightning came out of the ether,” she explained. “I thought: why isn’t this a real piece of gear? I bet if I designed it more intentionally more people would be willing to try it.”

But after a little bit of research, she talked herself out of it. “I just thought, there is no way I can start a company, I don’t know how to sew, I can’t afford this, nobody’s going to buy it anyway, I have to be more realistic,” she said.

But four months later, she was driving home from a snowshoeing trip when she lost control of her car on some black ice. “Our truck spun out of control into the path of an oncoming semi. It was surreal, everything happened in slow motion,” she explained. “I realized there were all these areas of my life where I wanted to pursue different things but I was afraid of failing or whatever. But I was making up all this fear in my head. And all of the sudden I wasn’t afraid anymore.“

She started an online hiking and backpacking group and the idea of the pee cloth resurfaced.

ultramarathoner mirna “the miravator” valerio is an avid kula cloth fan

Ultramarathoner Mirna “the Miravator” Valerio is an avid Kula Cloth fan

“I realized I didn’t need to know how to do everything, other people would help me out,” she said. “I just needed to be resourceful. I borrowed a serger, experimented with fabric, figured out where I should put the snaps and figured it out.”

On July 20, 2018 Allison launched a website and announced on her Facebook page that she was going to start making pee cloths. Eight hundred supporters helped her fund the first production run. “That was the start of Kula Cloth, just me cutting fabric on my kitchen table,” Allison said with a laugh.

She struggled to come up with a name. “A lot of products have silly names, but I didn’t want people to think this thing was some sort of a joke,” she explained. “I’d heard Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, say that hard K sounds were more memorable. For some reason I googled the word Kula Cloth, and one of the meanings is community. I wanted this brand to be about more than just a product, I wanted it to be about community.”

“You know how people in Jeeps or on motorcycles wave to each other?” she continued. She had the idea of people with Kula Cloths seeing each other on the trail and sharing a special connection. “Anytime I see someone with a Kula Cloth I turn into a blubbering fan girl!” she admitted. “I apologize to anyone I’ve ever made uncomfortable on a trail. I just get so excited whenever I see someone with a Kula Cloth!”

With REI as one of their retailers, there are now a lot of Kula Cloths out there. From a simple initial design, Allison has expanded the brand to include dozens of colorful nature themed pieces of art on the waterproof side of each Kula Cloth. (The antimicrobial side is plain black.) She holds a design contest each year and winners get a cash prize plus their design featured on a Kula Cloth.

unicorns squat to pee, too

Unicorns squat to pee, too!

“At first I was very attached to results and success and took everything personally.  But I think that will break you down a little bit,” Allison explained. “Turns out what’s really important is the journey itself, the people you encounter along the way and the legacy of kindness and love that you leave in your wake.“

“The less I chase, the bigger Kula Cloth has become,” Allison continues. “Connecting people, sharing unexpected love and laughter and joy has become our bigger mission.”

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Main image: Kula Cloth comes in a variety of colorful nature- themed designs – match your Kula Cloth to your vibe

Read other articles by Leonie Sherman here.