Female Hygiene While Backpacking: Myths and Advice

Female Hygiene While Backpacking

Female backpacking hygiene is important to stay healthy and comfortable on trips in the backcountry. But good trail hygiene isn’t just a woman thing; it’s essential to anyone who wants to be comfortable on the trail. We may have particular concerns that men don’t, but there are many we share. So, whether you identify as female or male, you’re going to gain some beneficial insight here to help you rock it whether you’re thru-hiking or on a shorter backpacking trip.

This guide focuses on two sections:

  1. My experience as a woman on trail and what I myself and other female hikers do to stay hygienically healthy
  2. Debunking some of the common myths or prevailing attitudes about women and female hygiene while backpacking

Keeping Clean Basics

I will start by saying that whether I’ve been on a long thru-hike or a shorter backpacking trip, I know going in that keeping impeccably clean is impossible. And I’m OK with that. I’ve been very lucky with never having a major issue more than some salt rash and chafing, which can occur for women and men alike. My basic strategy is this: I do the best I can to keep clean/sanitary, I embrace being dirty, and I practice preventative measures to help avoid problems.

Hygiene issues can arise due to many factors, such as sweat opening pores to create irritation, allowing normal bacteria to potentially cause infections. The salty mixture of sweat can begin to mingle with other body liquids like vaginal discharge or urine, which can lead to odor or infection. It’s very difficult to stay dry in a highly humid environment. On the flip side, if you’re dehydrated, a urinary tract infection (UTI) could occur.

Here are the ways I and other women hikers make efforts to minimize hygiene issues by practicing these keeping clean basics.

ExOfficio Give-N-Go Bikini Briefs are quick drying, in case you wear them to bathe when you don't skinnydip!
ExOfficio Give-N-Go Bikini Briefs are quick-drying, in case you wear them to bathe when you don’t skinnydip!

Choose the Right Underwear

Think breathable, quick-dry, odor-resistant, and moisture/sweat-wicking. I like ExOfficio Women’s Give-n-Go Bikini Briefs which are made with nylon and spandex. I’ve used the same two pairs for thousands of miles and they’re still holding up well. A few women I know swear by a merino wool option for the anti-odor factor, like the Icebreaker Siren Bikini Brief or the Hipkini model.

Wash those knickers regularly! Carry two pairs to alternate daily so you can rinse one pair, hang them on your pack to dry, and wear the other. I personally don’t use any soap, but some women opt for a biodegradable choice like Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap or Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash. Please note that even the ones deemed biodegradable are not meant to be used in a water source, but some brands made of natural ingredients can be safely disposed of on land.

When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, I met women hikers who used disposable panty liners that they would change daily and not wash their panties as much. But then you have to pack the liners out and the stink that comes with them, so be sure to consider that factor.

Carve out some time to air out…yes, I’m encouraging you to let your vagina breathe. See if you can sleep without your underwear on, or take them off when you get to camp and slip on your thermals that are hopefully looser-fitting. Breathe baby, breathe.

Cora Cloths come in single use packets or a larger pack of wet wipes
Cora Cloths come in single-use packets or a larger pack of wet wipes

Wash Regularly

Depending on the season you’re hiking and the water sources around you, strip down and get in the water to rinse the sweat and stank off your body. Not only is it a huge morale boost, but it can also do wonders for hygiene and reduce the potential for infection, chafing, redness, and irritation.

Every evening I use a wet wipe product for my face and key body parts (armpits, under my breasts and back if need be, vaginal area, and butt) to clean the dirt, sweat, and grime off before I sleep. I choose a wipe that is chemical-free and won’t disturb the natural pH balance of my vagina (yes, I said the V-word there and full disclosure I’ll say it again) rather than one with alcohol that will kill the good bacteria that can help fight off infections like UTI’s.

Lately, I’ve been into using Cora Body Cloths and recommend them. Some women choose to wash around the vagina (but not in) with a bit of biodegradable soap and water, but that’s too involved for me. I personally think it’s a good idea to have some form of cleaning ritual daily, but if this is too much work for you, you can gauge your choice by how much you’ve been sweating, how hydrated you are, if you got to be naked in a river that day or just in general how gross and dirty you may be. You decide, but I really believe prevention is key to maintaining hygiene.

A Leave No Trace Cathole
A Leave No Trace Cathole

Poop and Pee Properly

It somewhat goes without saying that giving some care to these two elimination practices will keep things more hygienic and healthy. It’s beyond the scope of this article to explain how to poop in the outdoors, but be sure to check out this article on how to do it right by practicing both Leave No Trace (LNT) principles and keeping sanitary.

A solid tip is to always wipe front to back to prevent transmission of bacteria; going the opposite direction is a top way to get a UTI.

There are particular considerations for us women regarding peeing outdoors, to minimize the risk of yeast and vaginal infections and other odor issues. The main point is to keep your vagina dry and comfortable. It’s up to you whether you choose toilet paper, wipes, or using the good ‘ol drip-dry method after peeing.

I never found doing the drip-dry dance kept me dry; on the contrary, I always hated the way my undies felt wet and got smelly faster. I switched some time back to using a pee rag and I’ll never go back. Not only is it sanitary when you rinse it every day or so and let it air-dry, combined with the help of the sun’s UV rays to disinfect it, but it also cuts down on waste and is better for the environment. For more details on how to use a pee cloth and why see my article on the Kula Cloth.

You can still enjoy and thrive in the outdoors while on your period!
You can still enjoy and thrive in the outdoors while on your period!

Manage Your Period

This is probably the biggest concern women have when it comes to being out in the backcountry, but rest assured that your monthly flow doesn’t have to be a hindrance while hiking. Here are the basics on this topic:

  • Know Your Choices for Period Products (and choose what works for you)
  • Have a System to Stay Organized and Hygenic
  • Practice LNT to respect the natural environment

I go into great detail on these areas and more in The Guide to Hiking with Your Period which simplifies what you need to know and how to make having your period easier while on-trail.

Considerations on Body Hair

Ah, whether to shave your legs or not. Honestly, this is a real personal choice, just like it is in regular life: do it if you want to. Most women hikers I know choose to go au naturel and do not shave it all, which works for them just fine. I choose to shave every week or so when on a long trail because I find that excess hair (my legs can get hairy!) holds moisture and can cause sweat pimples or discomfort. Plus, I prefer the way it feels. Some women claim that shaving and using a razor can cause ingrown hairs and irritation when the hair is growing out and prickly, but I haven’t had that experience. If waxing is your thing, go for it, plus it can last 4-6 weeks.

Stay Hydrated

Drinking fluids will help flush your system and prevent the chances of getting an uncomfortable UTI. Yes, it can be a pain when stopping to pee every half hour (like I do), but I prefer drinking the majority of my fluids during the day so I don’t have to get out of my cozy sleeping bag at night.

My usual thought when I gaze at water: How badly do I need a bath?
My usual thought when I gaze at water: How badly do I need a bath?

Backcountry Female Hygiene: Myths & Advice

Here are some myths and questions I’ve heard regarding female hygiene while out on the trails, along with the advice and truths that need to be part of the conversation.

Women Need to Care About Their Physical Appearance in the Backcountry

I answer with a big NO here. Even in regular, non-trail life, it’s up to every individual woman how she cares for her physical appearance – there are no rules or requirements to ‘look pretty,’ whatever the heck that means anyway. The same goes while backpacking. I carry a comb to brush my hair because it makes me feel good and hike in a flashy pink skort because why not? On the other hand, I know kick-ass female thru-hikers who would laugh at carrying a comb and who make a point not to shave to go against societal norms. To each, her own and that’s that.

Female Hikers Aren’t Comfortable Getting Dirty

I LOVE being dirty. There’s a difference between being dirty with mud crusted on your legs and being hygienic. I don’t think it matters whether you’re a woman or man – some people are fine with being dirty and some aren’t. But to say a female hiker doesn’t like it as much, that’s bullshit.

Women Have to Hide While Peeing

This is by no means a requirement or a golden rule that women around the world who venture into the outdoors have to follow. I myself am not shy when it comes to peeing, but that’s just me. I make sure I’m not near a water source or anything else I’m not supposed to pee near, and I’m all good to drop my drawers. Of course, I don’t pee when a crowd of people are nearby or hiking up fast on the trail, but I’m not ashamed if someone comes around the bend and catches me in the act. I do know women hikers who make a point to really hide while peeing, and I respect their privacy and preference. So, this is another matter of personal choice, but it’s certainly not a law to hide.

Carrying a Pee Rag is Gross

OK, I get it if you don’t want to touch it when it’s hanging off my pack, but c’mon now – it’s not gross. As mentioned earlier, when rinsed regularly and hung in the sun for the UV rays to disinfect it, it’s a very hygienic item of gear. We all pee, so let’s grow up here.

“She’s Having a Meltdown…She Must Be on Her Period…”

Ugh, I cringe when this assumption about a woman is made when she’s feeling emotional or having a rough day on the trail, especially if it’s a long endeavor like a five-month thru-hike. I could begin to tell you about the number of men I’ve met on backpacking trips that also have had moments of falling apart, crying, and have considered turning around or stopping altogether, but this would take a really long time. Yes, women do have certain hormones that respond at that time of the month, but it’s a pretty general (and callous) presumption that if a female hiker is having a hard moment or crying, she surely has to be bleeding.

Backpack Magazine shared an article recently about recent research that suggests that crying is more related to biological conditions than emotional weakness. Women have smaller tear ducts than men do, which means it’s harder to blink back tears and those ducts are more likely to overflow. Women’s bodies also produce more of the hormone prolactin, which also plays a role in stimulating tear production. On the flip side, testosterone raises the crying threshold. In summary: a female hiker may experience the same degree of frustration as a man due to a challenge, but because of her biology, is more likely to express it by getting upset.

Menstruation Attracts Bears

Nope, not true. This is a common myth many of us hear for some odd reason. Yes, we still have to be bear and animal safe by packing and storing our period trash the same way we would other garbage, but bleeding while in nature doesn’t make you a bear magnet. For more information and some history on where this myth came from, check out this paper from the National Park Service on Bears and Menstruating Women.

Women Hikers Chafe More

In my experience, women chafe more between the thighs and men tend to deal with ass-chafe more often, so it’s pretty balanced. In humid climates, I’ve had to deal with chafing on my mid and low back from my pack rubbing, in particular where my sports bra and my shorts elastic band was located. If you are prone to chafing, whatever your gender is, I recommend carrying some BodyGlide or a natural Calendula cream, like one by Boiron.

Don't be shy, get in that water and do your body some good!
Don’t be shy, get in that water and do your body some good!

The Wrap-Up on Female Hygiene While Backpacking

It can be a really fun and freeing holiday to wear the same clothes every day, not feel you have to prove anything with your physical appearance, and pretend you’re a kid again by playing in the dirt all day – whether you’re a female or male hiker. If you find your own way to embrace being your most natural self, and practice measures to keep safe and hygienically healthy the best you can, you’re well set to rock your backpacking adventures.

About the author

Heather Daya Rideout has been a life-long outdoorswoman. Her pursuits and passion for hiking and camping have taken her around the world for many long-distance trips; such as backpacking in Nepal, India, South America, Morocco, Europe, and North America. Heather has hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and a route of 1,500 miles combining several Camino routes through Spain and Portugal. On any given day she would rather be outdoors than anything else and her lifestyle is a direct reflection of that deep love affair with nature. Heather currently lives in Idaho and she’s having a wondrous time experiencing the beauty it offers. You can read some of her other writing at Contently.com.

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29 comments

  1. Excellent article, Heather! A comprehensive look at feminine hygiene while on the trail. Well done!

  2. After hiking for 6 weeks, I found that I had to get “housebroke” again. Once I was back in civilization, if I was outside and needed to pee, my first thought was to look around for a place to do it.

    Great article, thank you.

    • Haha, I thought I was the only woman who had that issue! Glad I’m not alone. I have the same problem with spitting while hiking on trail and remembering I can’t do that when just walking down the street!

    • Don’t feel bad girls, this boy has had to get “housebroke” as well. It is so easy to forget when you’ve been doing it for a while. BTW Heather, it is a excellent article that I have learned from. Naturally I don’t have the same requirements as a guy for a pee rag. I want a dedicated just for washing up. I’ll have to take a micro washcloth to wash down under because I haven’t been able to find a cloth made for men to wash with like the one in the article.

      • Gary, if you ever hike with women, reading this article helps you understand some of their concerns and challenges. Kudos to you for reading it. For men who have women in their lives who are hesitant to hike for some of the reasons in this article, educating yourself and her may make her more willing to do so.

  3. This is absolutely disgusting. Get it off these pages.

    • Why is a discussion of hygiene disgusting? Really, I would like you to explain your feelings if you can. Thanks.

      • This guy is a known spammer. Ignore him. He obviously hates women. I’m surprised my spam filter didn’t catch him. It does about 99% of the time

      • Certain discussions can be awkward and uncomfortable to some people but that doesn’t discount the value of the information presented. When things are “awkward and uncomfortable”, there is usually less reliable information available. This is a necessary discussion and I’d bet many are happy Philip is willing to have this posted and have benefitted from it.

    • Thank you—loved this article. So validating to see in print the fun of just getting dirty and playing in the outdoors, able to leave our gender roles behind somewhat.

  4. Great article and advice, thanks for sharing! It’s not impossible to stay clean and comfortable while backpacking. Baby wipes were a revelation for me, and once I found them I knew I could handle anything in the backcountry.

  5. Funny pun mention of the GOLDEN RULE on the topic of peeing. Well done.

    Good article until “The Agenda” misinformation or denial about the bears topic. Lost credibility. Nature is harsh and cruel, nature is not about diversity equity inclusion hallucinations of utopia.

    But otherwise good documentation.

    • I’m new to hiking vs walking. I accepted a challenge to hike up Mt Washington this summer. We have been practicing in our home state of Pennsylvania and done some serious day hikes already. I found your article engaging and enlightening! I will be searching out some of the products mentioned. We 60+ women need to relieve ourselves often!

      • Hi Kathy! I think it’s great that you are setting out to hike Mt. Washington; it’s a beautiful view for sure when it’s clear. I’m glad you found the article helpful!

  6. Beckie (Beckie and Prema on the trail reports)

    Great article! Although I don’t have one myself, I’d recommend ladies take a look at Heather’s link on the Kula cloth. My own method is the upgraded pee cloth. After peeing, I splash water so any residue urine is gone, and then I wipe myself dry with my cloth. If I do a good job there’s no smell. As for others seeing you pee, I was trying to adhere to the 200 feet off trail and thought I was being good. Heard voices 10 feet away and then realized, “You didn’t check the map first to see if the trail curved.” One last word, glad to be 64! Solves a few problems mentioned here.

    • Beckie, I appreciate your mention on my article about the Kula cloth. I think any form of reusable cloth is a solid idea, as long as you’ve got your system down. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!

    • Been there. Done that. Now, I analyze the upcoming trail location.

  7. White Mountains Thunder

    I bought a pee rag for myself and then COVID came and I really didn’t venture out much after that. But it is so highly rated that I know it will be fine.

    I purchased Ex Officio’s undies and for me they were not good – I still sweat and stank, and left sweat splotches on the crotch of my khaki hiking shorts, looking like I missed when I peed. Maybe that’s unavoidable – these so-called breathable synthetics don’t work for me in that regard and I would be willing to try another fabric if anyone has suggestions. I am going to give the Icebreakers’ merino mix undies a try.

    • I do recommend trying a merino blend if you find the synthetics leave you feeling not so fresh. I myself was considering the change for something different and to maximize the benefit of merino being odor resistant.

  8. Thank you for this article! I went camping with my Kula cloth for the first time this weekend and loved it!

  9. Thanks for sharing. Amazing to ready a proper article on this subject, actually explaining and using the right terminology instead of funny names for vagina etc. I’m from Norway and even tho we are a country known for hiking its remarkable how people don’t talk about these things here. You are a milestone ahead of us when it comes to leave no trace!

  10. I live in bear country. Bear live by their noses. They investigate any new smell as a possible food source. My game cameras have captured curious bear smelling their way through my ranch.

  11. Thank you for this article. I just finished a 90 mile hike (6 days) through some of the most remote areas of northern NH. I used nearly all of these tips.

    Of note, I’m also ex-military. Us females were taught many of the exact same principles while in the field. Huh. Look at that. I can fire a rifle and wash my hair!! :)

    The Kula cloth works. It keeps the labia majora dry thus free from build up of yeast and bacteria. It is super easy to clean once in town, or on trail if need be. When menstruating, I recommend at least rinsing the cloth daily while on trail.

    Menstruation plagues those of us in “childbearing years.” Mine started on this trek a week early. Of course. For those going ultralight, there are menstruation cups that eliminate the need for waste of pads/tampons. They are useful if you pack them, that is. Leaves do not make a good alternative. :) There is also birth control pills that can eliminate a period all together. But this is a medical discussion to be taken with a medical provider.

    I was able to wash daily with less than 1 liter of water and 2 ml of Castile soap. This included hair, face, neck, arm pits, chest, perineal area and feet. The key was to use a narrow nozzle bottle to concentrate the stream and waste less water. Always let water and soap run from head to foot (and be 200 feet or more away from any water source). That I learned from the Army.

    Chaffing: it’s real for any sex. Some form of barrier with a petroleum base will help, but getting the grime and salt off after the days hike will help the most.

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