Here’s my simple guide to educate and encourage you to hike and camp with your period, while also addressing many common questions and concerns. Having your period doesn’t need to be a reason to keep you from hiking and backpacking. In fact, with the right preparation and knowledge, you can still enjoy and thrive in the outdoors while experiencing your monthly flow.
The Basics: How to Menstruate in the Woods
First off, let me start by saying I’ve hiked thousands of miles and have had abundant period cycles while on long backpacking trips and shorter day hikes, so I like to believe I’ve got some valuable experience to dish out. I also have many amazing female hiking friends who have shared their tips too. I regularly have women who are interested in hiking and backpacking ask me how I manage my period, which makes this a much-needed topic to address with openness and ease versus being hush-hush on something archaically taboo to discuss freely. With that said, I’ve narrowed it down to three basic steps on how to successfully bleed while communing with Mother Nature.
- Know Your Choices for Period Products (and choose what works for you)
- Have a System To Stay Organized and Sanitary
- Practice Leave No Trace (to maintain rockstar status by respecting nature)
1. Know Your Choices for Period Products
There are loads of options these days for period care products, which is a gorgeous gift in itself. Here’s a simplified list, with some pros and cons weaved in to consider.
A menstrual cup is a flexible rubber or silicone cup you insert to catch your menstrual blood. This is what I have been using since 2006 and I absolutely swear by it for hiking and camping. My top pro reasons are because it’s an environmentally sound choice with no paper or plastic waste that can be heavy, smelly, and messy to pack out; it’s cost-effective (you rarely need to replace it), and your body isn’t exposed to the chemicals that tampons and pads are often made with.
The top con is that it can be a bit of a learning curve for some on how to insert and remove without it looking like a murder scene on your hands, which can be more troublesome without a sink and soap while in the backcountry. However, the many companies that make menstrual cups have detailed guides and videos to teach you. I recommend practicing at home for a cycle or two to get the hang of it before heading out on a trip, or bring some backup pads and/or tampons with you. Technically, a cup shouldn’t leak if you have the right size and know how to use it. My flow is heaviest the first day or two, so I often use an ultra-thin pad just in case.
Another plus is that you can leave the cup in for up to 12 hours, so you don’t have to constantly clean it or empty it out. When you do empty the cup, rinse it with clean water if possible, or wipe it out with toilet paper and reinsert it. I’ve heard some women pee on the cup to rinse it, then wash it in camp.
I recently read about biodegradable cup wipes by Pixie or OrganiWipes. June Cup makes a Compact Sanitizer that packs down tiny — you place the cup inside, fill it with boiling water, and then wait five minutes. I myself find it easy to pull my cup out, empty it in a cathole or privy (more details on that later), then use my other clean hand to grab my water bottle to rinse it clean. Pro tip: it’s much easier to insert when wet versus dry. For a thorough cleaning, I wait to boil it when I’m in town. Most cups come with a little drawstring storage bag made of breathable cotton, making it easy to stash away and not lose.
I highly recommend the silicone cups by Saalt, a company out of Boise, Idaho. Take note that there are different sizes dependent on your flow rate, age, and whether you’ve given birth. Saalt even has a customer support line and chat for your questions when you need help learning to use your cup. My first cup was The Keeper, made out of rubber instead of silicone. I only changed brands about two years ago, because I found my body was no longer responding well to rubber.
Tampons and Disposable Pads
Some women aren’t into using a menstrual cup and feel best with tampons and/or pads while in the backcountry. All well and good if that’s what’s right for you, but there are a few key factors to consider.
- Choosing tampons without applicators means less waste and less to pack out.
- Buy tampons and pads that are made without chemicals such as chlorine or bleach — who wants those things near your most intimate body part?!
- Used tampons and pads can be messy, bulky, not smell the best, and heavy. If you’re concerned about pack weight, be sure to think about that.
- Make sure you pack extra. This isn’t a worry when using a cup because it’s reusable, but be sure you have extra tampons and pads in case your flow is heavier than normal.
- Absolutely pack out every bit that goes with the pad or tampon, used or unused!!
Reusable pads are another waste-free form of period care. I love the idea, but, I don’t feel these are a great option while in the backcountry. I’ve used reusable hemp pads while at home and I find they take work to rinse out first and then machine wash. Now, imagine that while hiking and camping. First, you have to haul a lot of water to your cathole to scrub and wash them, and then make sure they are quick-drying to use again (but most brands are made of cotton). It just seems like too much for me. If you like the idea though, I’ve heard positive reviews for Party in My Pants pads and GladRags.
Nope, I’m not just talking about the ugly, old undies you wear when you have your period. These are specific, highly absorbable underwear that don’t leak so you bleed right onto them. Yay for free bleeding! The big pro side is that these can eliminate stress if you often leak through onto your clothes, which are in limited supply when we backpack.
The cons are that they are costly (although consider the savings down the road by no longer buying tampons or disposable pads), and it can just be a weird sensation, in the beginning, to feel yourself bleeding onto your panties and trust you won’t leak. In addition, there’s the hassle process of cleaning them out and disposing of your blood correctly while observing proper backcountry hygiene etiquette. If this is something you’d like to try, have a look at the period panties by Thinx and also by Proof.
2. Have a System To Stay Organized and Sanitary
Having a system means you have a way to be organized with your period care supplies all ready to go for efficiency, ease, and keeping yourself sanitary and hygienic. Think of it as your ‘Hiking Period Kit.’ This kit can be set up differently, but the main point is it has to work for you and your needs.
For me, my period kit isn’t that unique from my poop kit setup. To start, I take a large gallon Ziploc bag which has in it my toilet paper, trowel, wet wipes, and hand sanitizer. When it’s my period time, I throw in some ultra-thin disposable pads and my menstrual cup. If I’m on a long thru-hike, I keep the pads and my cup in with my toiletries ditty bag until I need them; I just don’t want to risk losing the cup when going into my poop kit on a daily basis when I don’t need it.
I like to keep the other Ziploc bag I use for toilet paper and pad waste separate. For some reason, I just feel more sanitary not having it all together, but that’s just me. I keep that bag in the mesh section on the front of my backpack for easy reach, and my poop/period kit is in the brain of my pack up top: both are simple to grab.
Some women prefer to put everything in a ditty bag to be discreet with their period kit, and others like to duct tape their Ziploc waste bag to be even more private with their waste. I don’t bother with this because I believe in normalizing periods and not hiding the fact that I’m bleeding to myself or anyone else. If you’re more comfortable that way though, by all means, do it.
Here are a few more notes on sanitation and staying clean:
- Use a chemical-free hand sanitizer and wet wipes so as not to upset your vagina’s Ph balance. I recently discovered Cora Body Cloths. For hand sanitizer, I like Everyone Hand Sanitizer.
- This probably goes without saying, but be sure your hands are clean when removing or inserting your period product.
- Many menstrual cups are purposefully made of silicone so they don’t have to be sanitized every time you empty them.
- Some women like to carry a small squirt bottle with a nozzle to rinse their cups with and wash their hands; I find this to be just another thing to carry and feel it’s easy to just use my water bottle. You do you.
- Wear and carry quick-drying underwear that makes cleaning and drying a fast process. I’m a fan of ExOfficio’s Give-N-Go Bikini Briefs.
3. Practice Leave No Trace (LNT)
This is possibly the most important part of this post and the most essential piece to understand with having your period while hiking and camping. Here’s a layout of the facts and tips so you can respect the environment, wildlife, and other people on the trails.
- Treat period waste the same as poop waste — Your menstrual blood has to be dealt with the same way any other human waste is handled. Dig a cathole six inches deep and at least 200 feet from a water source and empty your blood there. If you’re washing your period underwear or reusable pads, it needs to be done in a cathole as well. If you’re in an area where there are outhouses/privies, you can dispose of your blood and toilet paper there.
- Don’t wash your cup or undies in a water source! Enough said.
- Don’t bury your pads or tampons!! — If you opt for disposable pads or tampons, they cannot be buried like your blood can be if you use a menstrual cup. These have to be carried and packed out — no excuses.
- Know the ecosystem you’re hiking in — Different regions may be more sensitive to human waste, so it may be necessary to carry out your blood the same way you would your poop, in a WAG bag. Be sure to know of any restrictions to protect the land when you’re hiking somewhere new.
- Store your period trash properly — Used pads and tampons have to be stored with your other trash in a bag that’s hung or in a bear canister. You may want to consider an OPSAK bag by Loksak which is odor-proof.
Here are some other popular questions women often ask about having their period while hiking and camping.
Is it OK to Hike While on Your Period?
Yes! There’s no reason you can’t still hike and camp while on your cycle. You may have to adapt your routine a bit, but it’s certainly OK to do. Many women find that movement, exercise, and staying hydrated can actually decrease pain and cramps. My top recommendation is to listen and know your own body. You know if your period is usually a breeze for you, or if you normally feel like you got hit by a truck. Listen if you need to rest, slow down, and take it easy.
Does Being On Your Period Attract Bears?
Ummm, no. This is a common myth many of us women are told for some weird 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.
How Can I Make My Period Trash Bag Less Smelly?
Women who pack their pads and tampons out claim that crumbling up aspirin or dry tea bags can help with odor control. You may also want to double bag by using two Ziplocs or put the trash bag in something like an OPSAK bag.
Can I Use Soap When Washing My Underwear in the Backcountry?
Yes and No. You can use a good quality, biodegradable soap that is LNT-approved. Both Redbud Suds and Sea to Summit have multi-purpose soaps that get the seal of approval. No. You don’t want to put any soapy water in a natural water source, even it is biodegradable. It will still harm the plant and animal life, not to mention the people downstream who want to drink that water. You should wash and dispose of all wastewater in a cathole. That has the least impact and is the preferred method.
Advocate Period Positivity and Responsible Care
I’m at my best when I’m outside in nature; this is where I thrive. My monthly flow is a part of my life and I simply integrate it into being in my happy place: outside, usually hiking and backpacking. If you also love being outdoors, your period doesn’t have to keep you inside and doesn’t have to be viewed as a problem you ‘deal’ with. Know your options for period products, have a system that works for you, and both understand and practice LNT. Be a role model for other women to follow by advocating period positivity and responsible care while in nature.