Here is something that’s often asked from one outdoorsy chick to another outdoorsy chick, but which isn’t often addressed openly: What the heck do you do when you’re out in the backcountry and you have your period?
It’s not fun, let’s just be clear. It’s hard enough to float through 3-7 days of cramping and paranoia about the back of your pants getting stained, now add: only possessing one pair of pants/one skirt at any given time, not showering for 7+ days at a time, seeing a flush toilet maybe every 5 days, worrying about Leave No Trace rules, having to conserve water, and being surrounded primarily by men for 6 months straight. Yeah, menstruating just took on a whole new level of nuisance.
Well, luckily, there are some interesting alternatives to the typical “feminine products” (oh how I despise all the terms for period aids) that offer some health and environmental perks on and off the trail. It may seem like some weird, hippie stuff, but many women report having more comfort and protection from the alternatives than traditional products, even while at home.
Here are a few to try:
- Non-applicator tampons. They can be a little tricky to get used to if you haven’t used them before, but try them out before you head out hiking. The trash you have to pack out is just the thin plastic wrapper and eventually the used tampon. As a general rule of thumb, even off trail, try to stick to non-scented and non-bleached tampons to minimize the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrom (TSS) and other infections due to changes in pH from the chemicals used in the production process.
- Diva Cup. This is a flexible silicone cup that you insert just like a non-applicator tampon. There are a number of awesome benefits to this little do-dad. For backcountry trips, nothing could be easier to pack, use, clean, and re-use than the Diva Cup. When it becomes full (you can tell when you start to have some leaking, just like with a tampon), you just pull out, dump out, and stick back in! It comes in a small sleeve you can discreetly pack away. It’s a one-time investment of about $40, which makes economic and logistical sense on the trail. There are also disposable versions of this called “Instead”s. You can use one per day and they are safe to sleep in. http://divacup.com/
- Sea Sponge. Okay, this is going to be the hardest sell, but I used a sea sponge for the 6 months I was hiking and it’s my normal go-to for that time of the month. It is literally a sea sponge you use like a tampon. Think about a soft, squishy bath loofah. It comes in a pack of 2, usually for just $20 and you cut it to your size and can carry it in a linen pouch that could fit in your pocket. It works the same as the Diva Cup in terms of re-usability, but needs to be rinsed off at the end of the day. My favorite part of the sponge is that it’s so comfortable and safe that you can sleep in it. That made a huge difference for me on the trail. Biggest downside, it was a tad messier than a Diva Cup, which got a little tricky at times. http://jadeandpearl.com/sea-pearls-sea-sponge-tampons/
- Moon Pads. This is a re-usable pad made from a thick flannel. I personally find these somewhat uncomfortable for longer hikes, but usually the most comfortable option for nighttime protection. The advantages of having these while hiking is that they can be easily washed, dried, and re-worn, and come with the same cost and eco benefits as the other re-usable methods. You don’t have to stress too much about LNT or packing out piles of bloody garbage. The clear disadvantage of these is that you do need to carry them around for your whole trip. These might be better suited for shorter backcountry trips and normal monthly use than thru-hiking, but they are an option that minimizes the stress of re-supply. http://www.newmoonpads.com/home.html
It’s important to talk a little about Leave No Trace (LNT) when discussing having your period in the backcountry. I was totally unaware of most of the LNT principles on my first few hiking trips and had the great misfortune of having to learn how to pee outside AND deal with my period while deep in the Big Sur backcountry for 4 days. I’ve since been properly schooled on pack in, pack out, and keeping proper hygiene while maintaining trail etiquette.
- Do keep your hands clean! This is easier said than done. On the AT, water wasn’t a huge issue, so I normally washed my hands with drinking water, or some water collected stream side. If you’re hiking in an area where water is scarce and clean drinking water a priority, pack in some wipes, some bio-degradable camp soap, and/or some antibacterial cream. I normally shun the latter, but it’s important to have clean hands before and after insertion of whatever method you’re using.
- Don’t wash your used products directly in your water source. Try to obtain some water and clean your products over a cat hole at least 200 ft from camp, trail, water, etc.
- Don’t bury used products! You absolutely need to pack out your used pads, tampons, and wipes. It might be a good idea to carry extra plastic bags for this so you don’t need to mix this trash in with your food trash. Don’t put these things in composting toilets, either. Think about the poor trail maintainers who’d have to fish them out.
- Do keep yourself clean. Not the easiest task when a shower might be a week away, but try and maintain some general cleanliness with your person and your clothes during this time. I pack extra toilet paper and water during that time to try to stay clean. It’s a pain in the butt, but worth the extra effort. No one wants a UTI or yeast infection while in the backcountry!
Like any new gear, it’s a good idea to test out the product before relying on it in the wilderness. Give your Diva Cup or sponge or whatever a whirl for a month or two before setting off with it for a backcountry adventure.
Emily (aka Yellow Tail) thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012 and started off as a solo hiker. She is a birth and postpartum doula, student midwife, and Childbirth Educator in training. Originally from Philadelphia, she is in the process of moving to Durango, CO. She has written about legal issues, women’s rights, birth options, and female adventures for various online and print sources. She kept a blog of her journeys along the AT called “Lincoln Logs and Barbies.” You can read more of Yellow Tail’s journey at www.eflynnand2000miles.tumblr.com.