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:
- My experience as a woman on trail and what I myself and other female hikers do to stay hygienically healthy
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.