Anastasia Allison is the founder of Kula Cloth, a reusable antimicrobial pee cloth. You may see have seen its eye-catching print on backpacks–if not, chances are that you will soon since buzz has been building around this new piece of gear. A lot of thought and painstaking research went into developing Kula Cloth, from the placement of the reflective stitching to how it snaps shut. Anastasia is also an accomplished outdoorsperson who sometimes carries an extra piece of gear–her violin. She is one of the Musical Mountaineers, a duo who hike with a piano and a violin and perform music in remote wilderness areas.
Anastasia carved out a few minutes to chat with us about Kula Cloth and about her work.
How did you get started?
I’ve been obsessed with the outdoors since I was a little kid. I was bullied pretty severely as a child, and so spending time in nature was always the place where I felt like I could truly be myself. When I was 12 years old, my sister and I applied to become living history volunteers at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in Elverson, Pennsylvania. I fell in love with parks and with stewardship and interpretation. When I left for college, I initially decided to be a pre-medical student, but towards the end of college when I was applying to medical schools, I had a change of heart. I decided that my true calling was in the outdoors, so I applied for a law enforcement academy to become a Park Ranger. I moved to Washington State in 2004 to pursue that dream, and I had the incredible opportunity to serve as a ranger for just over seven years before I was laid off due to budget cuts. Losing my ranger job was pretty devastating. I always had dreamed of pursuing a more ‘adventure inspired’ life as an entrepreneur, but I was absolutely paralyzed by so many fears. I took a job as a police officer with BNSF Railroad, which I loved, but again started to feel a longing for something ‘more’ after a few years. In 2017 I was in a very nearly fatal car accident that ultimately became the catalyst for me deciding to go ‘all in’ and pursue my dreams. In that moment, I realized how precious life is – I also realized how illusory fear is. I had paralyzed myself for nearly 2 decades worrying about imaginary ‘what ifs’. I decided to start living in the moment, and when I took that step, everything began to fall into place very effortlessly.
I wondered, “Why isn’t that a real piece of gear?” I instantly knew that if it were designed like an actual piece of gear – something that people felt proud to wear on their packs – that more people would be open to the idea of using a pee cloth.
What inspired you to create Kula?
I started backpacking while I was a Park Ranger and became a volunteer instructor for a non-profit called Washington Outdoor Women. While I was on a personal backpacking trip in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, I felt frustrated by how much toilet paper I saw discarded in this fragile Alpine Environment. I decided to research Leave No Trace options, and I saw an article about using a bandana as a pee cloth. My first reaction was, “Ewww, that’s gross.” Since I was a backpacking instructor, I decided that I needed to at least give it a try. I bought a scrap of microfiber to use, and I was shocked to find that it was a COMPLETE game changer for me. Not only was I not packing in and out massive quantities of toilet paper, but I also felt so much cleaner and more comfortable. I started teaching all of my students about the ‘pee cloth’ and I actually became somewhat infamous for it at my backpacking seminars.
My husband and I completed a traverse of the Wind River High Route in 2016, and at one of the more spectacular campsites on the Continental Divide, I was taking a photo of my blue microfiber pee cloth as a joke (to send to a friend). As I was standing there taking the photo, I felt like a lightning bolt of inspiration hit me. I wondered, “Why isn’t that a real piece of gear?” I instantly knew that if it were designed like an actual piece of gear – something that people felt proud to wear on their packs – that more people would be open to the idea of using a pee cloth.
I went home and did some basic research, but freaked out when I saw how many dollar signs were involved when starting this business. It wasn’t until 2017, after my nearly fatal car accident, that I jumped in with both feet and decided to figure out how to make it happen – even though I had no clue how to start a company or how to sew. As it turns out, you don’t need to know any of those things – you only need to be resourceful and open to the possibilities. The most wonderful thing that I’ve discovered on this journey is that the answers will come and find you – not the other way around. If you are sitting in a place where you think you need to know everything in advance, you’ll never go anywhere. Sometimes you just have to start taking steps, and trust that you’ll figure it out along the way – because you will.
Tell us a little about the partnerships with artists you’ve created.
From the very beginning, I knew that I didn’t want to use stock fabric, because I wanted this product to feel intentional and special. In order for a pee cloth to feel like a legit piece of gear, I needed to treat it like a real piece of gear – which means hiring artists to create custom prints.
As the violinist for The Musical Mountaineers, I’ve had the incredible fortune of being able to perform my violin while some of my friends (who happen to be professional artists) create the most amazing watercolors. Two of my dear friends, Nikki Frumkin (@drawntohighplaces) and Claire Giordano (@claireswanderings) are some of the most talented artists I’ve ever met. I approached them about creating custom prints for Kula, and they were both absolutely thrilled to be a part of this project. The really exciting thing for me is that I actually commissioned the artwork from them – so it wasn’t just a, “Hey, do this for me as a favor” type of request. Kula is actually creating opportunities for artists to get paid for their talents, which is something that I really value. I love that it is giving back to people in a meaningful way and supporting artists.
The other important part of turning toilet paper into art is that it becomes a conversation piece. Kula is about more than just toilet paper. Kula is a community of people who are making a conscious choice to adventure intentionally. I love imagining the friendships and the bonds that are made over this little piece of gear… and the conversations that happen organically on the trail because somebody gets curious about the beautiful little piece of fabric hanging on somebody’s pack. You don’t change the world by shaming people for education that they may or may not have received… you change the world by cultivating a positive community of people that are leading by example.
Do you think it is important to have women-specific gear created by women? If so, why?
Absolutely! I think that it takes one to know one. I like to say that Kula is designed for, ‘anybody who squats when they pee.’ When I talk about the features of Kula and describe the problems that it solves, I can see people’s eyes light up, because they KNOW from experience all of the ‘issues’ that hygiene can present in the wilderness. It’s important to be able to talk openly about hygiene, because I’ve met women who have specifically told me that they don’t even pee when they hike and/or don’t go backpacking on their period because they are concerned about their cleanliness. When I can speak from experience and give them hope that hygiene can be a part of their adventures, not a deterrent or a distraction from them, I think that’s a beautiful thing to be able to share with somebody else, from a place of understanding.
This might be TMI, but I still remember the very first time that I pooped in the woods – I had no clue what I was doing, and I was too embarrassed to ask the man who was leading our trip about the proper way to do it. It was a somewhat traumatic incident for me because I actually had to ‘pretend’ that I knew what I was doing, and I still remember having no clue. Looking back, it seems silly to me now, but I know there are others out there with questions. I think that the more we get this information out into the world, the better.
Photos from Anastasia Allison.
Editor’s Note: Kula Cloth is a sponsor of DC UL Backpacking. To learn more, visit “Our Sponsors” page.