Beards on the road – Yay or Nay?

My thoughts on the pros and cons of backpacking with a beard.

I often travel with a full beard. Nothing too overwhelming, I’m not Hagrid, but a nice chin bush and a brush of a well kept moustache. I like wearing a beard, it lets you stroke it pensively when on a long train journey, or it lets you store little chunks of food for discovery later in the day. However I do regularly get the urge to go completely clean-shaved on the road because beards can become a giant pain in the arse.

The main downside to having a full facial shrubbery must be the extra heat it retains. Most backpackers are inexorably drawn to the world’s travel ‘hot-spots’, if you like. Cambodia, Cuzco, Kerala, Cairns, Cairo – all of these share a regularly sweltering range of temperatures. With that comes the human equivalent of a chin sponge as the beard wicks moisture and clags up like the greasy scourer used to clean up after a roast dinner. As the main job of hair seems to be to retain heat that means you have a little radiator slowly urging your lower head to gush even more than strictly necessary.

I’m not suggesting that having a beard is a dirty thing, it’s not, for most people, but it is much harder to keep it clean when it’s being refilled with sweat and pollutants moments after you leave the rickety and quite frankly dangerous hostel shower. In reality the cleaner you try to be the more counter-productive your actions become. Over-washing a beard can leave it really frizzy and pube-like. The oils in your skin can go haywire, leading to a kind of dandruff of the lip and chin. And that ain’t pretty, folks! Nobody likes to hang around with scabby backpackers.

Doubtless having a strong manly beard will impress and endear you to a certain genus of fire and brimstone religious zealot in some regions but in most places it’s unlikely to be that big a deal if you don’t have one. And to be honest I’d be pretty tempted to deliberately shave it off and rub that ridiculous dogma in their hairy faces. I’m sure that if there be a god out there (there isn’t) then It will have more pressing matters on its hands than facial topiary. Unless It has been keeping tabs on the World Beard and Moustache Championships, in which case – Kudos to you God.

Me and my beard at Matsumoto, JapanIf, like me, you are ‘blessed’ with the recessive alleles responsible for ginger hair then a great big bushy ginger beard might get you more attention than you would like. After all, a white person in Japan is no massive surprise but a red-chinned 6’3″ white person is a bit more unusual anywhere but northern Europe. I visited Matsumoto in Japan and was tagged by a local with the simple epithet ‘Red hair, big nose’. Why thank you Mr. Crazy Japanese man-san, you’ve made me feel like I’m in primary school again, how very kind of you. These things will definitely happen. That’s something you just have to get used to. In places like Hangzhou it drove me to distraction that Chinese people stared at me non-stop as though I was the Abominable Snowman striding through their midst. And I didn’t even have a beard at that point. Whilst I’m better prepared mentally for the environment I’d be creating for myself if I returned with a beard I think that I might still forgo its company for a few weeks. For peace and quiet’s sake.

The flip side of having a beard is the positive effect it seems to have on other people. I genuinely feel like I’m more approachable when I have a beard. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the cushion of hair makes people more willing to talk to me? Their friendly advances less likely to be repelled now that I’ve covered my harsh and forbidding mandible? I’ve certainly noticed that when I have a beard I get more people approaching me and perversely I seem to draw strength from its presence so that I don’t seem to be as on edge. Over the past few years I’ve made serious efforts to be more outgoing but it’s effin hard work as I’m naturally a shy person and it drains me enormously. It seems that I was born that way, I just have to live with it. But if the fuzz helps me out then that’s a massive pro to the bearded camp. Not the bearded-camp like Harvey Fierstein in Independence Day (obscure I know), the bearded team opposing the lip-druff cons. Obviously.
Harvey Fierstein in Independence Day, the bearded-camp
When you commit to a long-term and faithful relationship with a full beard you aren’t just making your mind happier, you are making your body happier too because you do not have to carry the same accoutrements and paraphernalia associated with shaving. A lighter load almost definitely cheers any traveler. Depending upon the pattern of facial hair that you’re able to grow you might not even need a razor to tidy the verges but you certainly won’t need shaving foam, brush, after-shave, moisturiser, leather strop, or any of the other ephemeral trinkets we are supposed to use. I happily tended my full beard with just a Swiss Army Knife’s tiny scissors and tweezers for ingrown hairs when I spent three weeks in Japan.

My winter beard in 2009-2010But that Japan trip was only three weeks long. Could I put up with a beard long term? I don’t know that I could. The longest I’ve had one’s company whilst at home is six months, and it was quite a monster towards the end. I cannot begin to perceive how shabby it would have looked on the road where a bath or even simple hot water isn’t always guaranteed. For me I think the plusses of the beard are great for short term travel of perhaps a month or two, even in a hot climate, but if you travel quickly from place to place for much longer than that then it could easily become one of those things that starts to bring you down. A good shave can clear an ailing mental state in the same way that brushing your teeth during a hangover will banish the booze demons from your mouth – the first step towards banishing them from your brain and your gut.

So there you go, I bet you never really thought shaving issues were that important to anyone. It probably isn’t for most of you. But you aren’t me and I’m sure that somewhere out there other travelers are forced to make the fateful decision over whether to slaughter a much cherished chin-cosy, or to brave the wilds with it intact as some kind of atavistic homage to Grizzly Adams. Either way, choose well fuzzy folk.
Grizzly Adams with a bear, etching, image found on his Wikipedia page

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