Hygiene Tips and Tricks for Fearless Female Hikers

DISCLAIMER: If you’re a dude, turn back now, because this post is all about pooping and periods. Sorry, boys.

In the months leading up to our thru hike, I started researching many aspects of the trail, including feminine hygiene. I had NO clue how to handle pooping in the woods, much less having my period or getting my birth control refills while on trail. And shockingly, I didn’t really find that much information that calmed my fears. I was worried about my ignorance on these subjects for obvious reasons, and you might be too. I’ve received the “So how did you handle your period?” question from a number of women in my day to day life as well. So I wanted to share my experience and some tips with the next class of badass females who will be taking on the trail this year.

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Going #1 and #2

Does a bear poop in the woods? Yes, yes he does, and so will you! It’s really not as bad as it seems. In fact, by the end of your thru hike, you’ll be more comfortable pooping in a hole in the middle of the forest than in a public bathroom.

There are several different methods, and everyone prefers different things for successfully pooping and peeing in the backcountry, but here’s what worked for me:

  • My “privy bag”– I carried anything I might need for going #1 and #2 in the top compartment of my pack in a ziplock baggie. It contained toilet paper, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, tampons and an additional baggie. I also carried our trowel in the side compartment of my bag for easy, quick access. You definitely want to carry these items at the top of your pack where they are easy to get to.
  • “pee rag”- It’s pretty self-explanatory, but this is just a cotton bandana carried specifically for the purpose of wiping. I didn’t carry a pee rag, but knew many female hikers who did. It was a convenient way to not have to bury any toilet paper, and they seemed pretty happy with it. Just make sure you wash it frequently and store it away from the bandana you use to wipe your face!
  • The right underwear– I wore 2 pairs of underwear the entirety of my thru hike, made with a  mixture of polyester and spandex (you can find the Patagonia Women’s Underwear here) and they are literally the most comfortable underwear I’ve ever owned. I still wear them frequently. You’re not going to see them on any Victoria Secret models, but they are perfect for hiking. Also, I made sure to wear each pair as few times as possible between washings by essentially going commando sometimes. For example, I wore 2 pairs of Nike shorts on the hike, which have built-in underwear. So I would wear a pair of those shorts a day, change into my undies to sleep in, and then wear my underwear the next 2 days. This way I could sort of have clean undergarments for as long as possible.
  • Keeping clean– It’s very hard to stay clean for even 5 minutes when you’re backpacking, and for the most part, I’d say embrace the filth. But not when it comes to “down there”. I made sure to use wet wipes every single night, no matter how tired I was, and even if I didn’t clean any other part of my body.
  • Pooping- The more you go, the easier it becomes. The first thing you will want to do is get as far away from the trail, shelter, campsite and especially water source (at least 200 ft.) and dig yourself a nice 6-8 inch deep hole using your trowel. Do your business and then cover your waste and toilet paper with dirt. If you use wet wipes, make sure to pack those out, as they aren’t biodegradable. It’s a good idea to go ahead and memorize the 7 Leave No Trace Principles (7 Principles of LNT) before you do any backpacking.

Even when using a privy, always be sure to cover your business with mulch and keep the privy looking the way you found it.

Periods and Birth Control

Just like I stated earlier, everyone prefers a different method, but here’s what worked for me:

  • Tampons- Dealing with that time of the month is always a bummer, and its no different when backpacking. It’s just a little more difficult. I preferred to use the compact “click” tampons. They are super small and lightweight. Make sure you always pack out the packaging, applicators, as well as the used tampons. These things DO NOT break down in privies or in a cathole. (Trust me, I got to witness the privy process first hand in the Whites.) I mentioned the other baggie I kept in my privy bag earlier- that’s where I would store my applicators and used tampons. Every time I came to a trash can, I would empty out this baggie, so as not to carry it with me longer than necessary.
  • Menstrual Cups I can’t really comment on the effectiveness or ease of these, but I knew some female hikers who used them. If you’re not sure if they would work for you, just google them and be sure to test them out several times before using them during backpacking.
  • Birth Control- This was the one subject of female long-distance backpacking that stressed me out the most. Once again, everyone’s situations are different, but as a married 24 year-old who DID NOT want to become pregnant while on a thru hike, I was freaking out. The first thing I did was explain my situation and ask my gynecologist what the best method for me would be. He recommended an IUD, which is what I ended up getting a few months before our hike. I had been on birth control pills since I was 17, and didn’t want to just stop birth control cold turkey for a variety of reasons. I am happy with my decision to get an IUD, even though it didn’t stop my periods completely as I hoped it would. There are multiple different methods, so talk to your doctor and choose something that works best for you.

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Staying “Clean”

  • Wet wipes– I put clean in parenthesis because clean is relative. As a thru hiker, you will go a week without a shower, so any sort of cleanliness is important. This is why baby wipes will turn out to be your very best friend. We used wet wipes to clean ourselves up every single night once we got to camp and were changing into our camp clothes. It doesn’t sound like much, but just getting that top layer of dirt and grime off your body is so refreshing and satisfying. Once again, make sure you pack these out!
  • Buff or bandana– Oh, the many uses of the Buff! I used the same buff all through our hike, and it was truly one of my most versatile and necessary pieces of gear. Mainly, I wore it on my head to soak up sweat and keep my hair out of my face, around my neck on a hot day after I had soaked it in a cold stream, and as a scarf around my neck when the temperatures dropped. I also used it to deep clean my legs and arms after a particularly muddy or dusty day, by dipping it in water and scrubbing myself clean.
  • Face wipes– I am one of those people that is religious when it come to washing my face, so not being able to scrub my face every night was difficult at first. After realizing that the wet wipes just weren’t cutting it for me, I bought some exfoliating face wipes and never went back. I know this sounds like a lot to carry, but if you only buy packs of 20 at a time, it’s not so much. I used these first thing when were got to camp, and scrubbing the day away felt amazing.
  • Hair– A lot of women long-distance hikers struggle with getting unwanted dreads and terrible tangles in their hair. My tip for this would be to get your hair cut shorter before your hike if you have long hair. I got about 10 inches of my hair cut off 2 months before our hike and I’m glad I did. If you want to keep your long hair, carrying a small brush and brushing out your hair every night would help prevent any damaging tangles. I also tried to keep my hair in braids most of the time, as Ive found this is a great way to prevent tangles in my hair.
  • Toenail clippers– Carrying a set of toenail clippers is a must! They also come in handy as a pair of backpacking scissors.
  • Shaving- Most women prefer to just let their leg hair grow long and strong during a backpacking journey, and I totally see the appeal. If I hadn’t been thru hiking with my hubby, I totally would’ve embraced having hairy man-legs. If you still want to shave, I recommend carrying just one lightweight razor with you and using it whenever you find yourself actually taking a decent shower.

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I really hope this post helps all my badass female backpacker friends out there.

If you see something I left out, or know of any additional tips and tricks for female hikers, I would love it if you left them in the comments!

 

Much love,

Maranda Stone

 

 

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Comments 12

  • Phlatlander : Feb 2nd

    As far as periods on the trail –or anywhere, really– go, I highly recommended menstrual cups. I got mine specifically for the AT so I wouldn’t have to buy and pack out tampons or pads. They are also great because you don’t have to change it as often– just make sure you clean them thoroughly with soap and hot water when you’re in town. And wet-wipes are an essential!

    Reply
  • Kelli : Feb 2nd

    Great info!
    Thanks for talking about something no one seems to want to talk about.
    Hike on!
    Kelli

    Reply
  • Kate G : Feb 2nd

    I am fortunate not to have to deal with periods or birth control since I had a hysterectomy, but I would add Stand To Pee devices as addressing a specific concern for female-bodied hikers! I very much like being able to not pull my pants all the way down when I need to urinate, and it also helps me squeegee off any remaining droplets. I do have the occasional spillage using my pStyles, but I am pretty sure I’d manage to pee on my pants or shoes occasionally when squatting to pee as well.

    Reply
  • Katherine : Feb 2nd

    No, don’t bury the TP. Pack it out per LNT principles: https://lnt.org/learn/seven-principles-overview

    Reply
  • Vicky : Feb 2nd

    Great tips but I have one more. I purchased disposable bottles of (gasp) vaginal wash from the Dollar Store. The vinegar is the best. I emptied the bottle of the vinegar and found covers with a spout that fit. I use it as a bidet before I wipe with my pee rag. I feel cleaner and so does my rag. I do use my filtered water to fill the bottle.

    Reply
  • Rebecca : Feb 3rd

    Thanks for the article, I’m actually looking forward to being a bit more filthy than usual and your tips are helping. Regarding wet wipes I also packed them and took a pack that has a plastic click lid to the wipes stay wet and the pack doesn’t open by itself.

    Reply
  • Mumble : Feb 14th

    I tried a menstrual cup off trail and absolutely hated it, so I couldn’t even imagine trying to keep my hands and it clean for a week at a time on the AT. I have also looked into changing my method of birth control and the IUD seems favorable, but I’m apprehensive to change from pills which I’ve had no problem with for 9 years! How long before your thru hike did you change to the IUD? No regrets?

    Reply
    • The Stones : Feb 15th

      I got the IUD in January of last year and started our thru hike at the end of March. Its a good idea to have a few periods with it before your hike just to see if there are any differences for you. I was apprehensive at first since Id been on pills for so long too, but it turned out to be the best thing. My period was irregular at first, it came earlier and earlier but eventually became steady. I have really been happy with it. It hurt like a mother getting it put in, and I had bad cramps for a few days, but other than that, no issues.

      Reply
  • Janna : Feb 19th

    I started using a menstral cup for long distance biking and ended up only using it for all periods. It is super easy and extremely sustainable. I will be hiking the AT with it. I decided to stay on pills for the AT but I had to let my OBGYN know in case an out of state pharmacy requested a new prescription from them. I do not foresee finding it difficult to find a pharmacy–I found them just fine in the Pacific Coast Highway twice when biking. Obviously backpacking is different and will require more advanced planning and predictions of distance to towns but AWOLS guide should provide as will google. I plan on leaving a back up pill pack with my mom in case I’m desperate. I’ll have to pay cash for it, but it’s cheaper than a very expensive baby. Also, I use a pee rag. I love avoiding carrying toilet paper just for peeing. Before I switched to a per rag I just drip dried–this doesn’t work for long distance thru hikes due to lack of showering for so long.

    Reply
  • Karin : Mar 7th

    Regarding birth control / periods: talk to you doctor about a pill that you can use continuously, i.e. with no days without taking pills in between packages. That way, you won’t have your period while on the trail at all. Sometimes it’s also possible to simply skip the days off the pill in between for a few months, again, just talk to you doc!
    I’ve done that for years without any ill effects.

    Reply
  • Jennifer Williams : Aug 14th

    I highly recommend an iud for female hikers. I had mine in for a few years before my thru, so periods were pretty much non existent for me. Even if you still have periods, they are extremely light and crampless.

    Reply
  • Wizard : Aug 15th

    Pack out your TP. Don’t bury it!! Pack it out!!!

    Reply

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