Good Hygiene Matters. Period.

There’s pride in being hikertrash

Yes, smelling like nothing you’ve ever smelt before is something for which to feel truly accomplished on the trail.  Your smell sets you apart from the freshly shampooed day-hikers.  You get to laugh in people’s faces when they inevitably ask, “wait, but where will you shower?”  But I’m going to talk about a subject that’s not easy to find among all the boastful articles about hygiene and funk: vaginas.

The V Word

Statistics vary, but most sources report that about 30-40 percent of people hiking the PCT are women.  Of those women, there might be around 20 percent that will experience at least one period on the trail.  And for the men and non-binary hikers on the trail, experiencing a period is no doubt even less common.

But before you click on a different link, and wrinkle your nose, because you don’t have to worry about bleeding all over your sleeping bag every month, hear me out.  It really wouldn’t kill you to know what it’s like for the good chunk of hikers around you who will have to experience this.  And seriously, you smell.  So don’t judge.

Of the articles addressing this issue that I have seen, almost all of them use very cis-normative language like “for women only,” and “hygiene for ladies”.  Let’s keep in mind that not everyone with a bleeding vagina identifies as a woman, and because of that, their time of the month might be even harder to get through.

Keeping it Clean

For a lot of people, two pairs of underwear and a lot of self-love is enough to get through weeks at a time without washing any of their nooks or crannies.  But this can actually be dangerous for people with vaginas, especially during a period.

Fortunately, there are a lot of ways we can practice Leave No Trace principles, and still take care of our bodies.  I’ll go over the most common methods for handling periods, but in addition to any or all of these methods, please don’t neglect your hygiene.  I don’t personally recommend any of these methods more than others.  I’ll simply talk about the benefits and pitfalls of each, and hope that with this transparency, you’ll be able to come to a decision about what’s best for your body.

Birth Control

Birth control seems to be the most popular method for dealing with periods on the trail: not dealing with them at all, or having only one or two.  A lot of research has been done to determine if birth control causes or heightens the risk of certain cancers, but nothing is conclusive yet.  However, there is a correlation between the length of time one is on active birth control, and the adverse effects on their body.  Many report weight gain, mood swings, nausea and headaches.

I have never been on birth control, so I’m not sure how my body would react to it, but I know I would rather bleed than experience those side effects.  Talk to your doctor at least a few months in advance if you think this might be your choice, so you will know how you’re affected before you set foot on trail.

Another issue with birth control is health insurance and prescription refills.  Many insurance providers control the quantities of birth control.  Do you want to be in town, on the phone with a pharmacy back home, trying to get a resupply box sent in time?  If it doesn’t make it in time, are you prepared to deal with potentially the biggest angry period of your life?  Make sure you have all of your doctor and pharmacy contact information, and a very clear understanding of how your refills will work before you begin the trail.

The Silicone Cup

This might be the second favorite method, for those who don’t want to deal with the pill.  DivaCup and Lily Cup are two of the most popular brands on the market, but there are many others out there.  I only have experience with the DivaCup.  My advice on these cups is to really research the sizes and reviews of each before making a decision.

I was really excited to reduce my monthly waste, and lower my risk of infection, so I bought a DivaCup from REI to use even when I’m at home.  They’re around $50, and they’re non-refundable (understandable).  I’ve had mine for about six months, and I can’t for the life of me get it to….go in.  There are tons of forums online to help customers figure out the best way for their body, and by and large, once people get it they seem to love it.  These usually can be worn for up to 12 hours, rinsed, and reused immediately.  No trash!

On the negative side, keeping them clean before reinserting is paramount.  That could become a challenge in the wilderness.  Would you be prepared to always have extra water in mind in order to ensure you can wash your cup?  Would you be willing to bring soap along to wash your hands and your cup each time?  Would you be willing to step off the trail at least 200 feet and dig a cat-hole each time you needed to empty it?  If this is your choice, I strongly recommend purchasing at least a few months in advance and using the cup during periods at home to make sure it’s the right fit for you.

Reusable Pads

Welcome to my favorite method!  I haven’t seen this one mentioned at all, which is shocking.  There are lots of reusable pads on the market, but my favorite brand is LunaPads.  They’re super absorbent, anti-smelly, and female-owned and operated.  I wear these in my normal life because regular chemical-soaked tampons never sat right with me, and I want to reduce the amount of waste I contribute.  They are really easy to clean, and I have never had a leak with one of these.

If this is your choice, you can bring two pads; one to wear, and one that is washed and hung to dry on your pack.  Another great benefit to these is that they’ll keep your underwear clean much longer.  And the best part: no packing out blood-soaked trash.

The only down-side to the reusable pad is that because of its high absorbency, it is a thicker material.  It gets a little bulky.  And, if you’re more bashful, you’d typically have to hang it on the outside of your pack, or tent overnight, to let it dry.  You would still have to go 200 feet from anything and dig a cat-hole to bury whatever you’re rinsing from the pad.

Free Bleeding

It’s more common than you think.  After walking through mud, snow, and your own stench for so many days, a lot of people decide to just give up and free bleed.  I’ll keep this short.

The pro is that this method is ultralight and waste-free.

The con is…chafing.  And everything from the waste down is bloody.  But mostly chafing.

Disposable Pads/Tampons

This method is terrible.  Seriously, I’m trying to be non-biased and let you make your own decision but don’t choose this one.  If you’re going to pack all the weight anyway, reusables are the way to go.  Imagine you’re in the Sierra, and you start your period.  You’ve got five days ’til the next town.  You’re changing your pad or tampon every 4-6 hours.  That means when you get to town, you’re carrying a trash bag of 20-30 heavy, blood-soaked wads of cotton.  Why?

Your Body, Your Choice

Ultimately, this decision is hugely personal and completely yours to make.  I hope this list helped you in deciding the safest and most convenient way for you to deal with nature’s curse.  though we all may vary largely in how we deal with our time of the month, know that there is solidarity out there on the trail.  It is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, and you’re a badass for making miles while you’re losing more blood than a vampire could ever want.

TL;DR: Just hike your own hike, and leave no trace.

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Comments 4

  • Colleen Goldhorn : Oct 11th

    Awesome article – it’s really hard sometimes to find solid information on dealing with periods on the trail. Thanks for the info!

    Reply
  • Sydnee Tigert : Oct 11th

    Yeah, I noticed that when researching it myself… there was lots of shaming for people who were “dirty” and lots of like weird articles that wanted to talk about it but shied away from words like vagina and blood. I was like, “this is garbage” so I knew I had to write a comprehensive and unapologetic period blog. Thanks so much for reading!

    Reply
  • Holly : Oct 19th

    I’m planning to order the Thinx period panties. I think these would be a good option for light days and back up for the cup. Also, I only paid$30 for my cup at Walgreens. If you’re looking at using birth control to stop periods, Mirena IUD is awesome. I had none for almost 5 years. The Nexplan implant thing is good too. Either way, no prescription, nothing to carry or remember.

    Reply
  • ClicketySnap : Oct 27th

    YAY!!!!

    I get pretty excited seeing articles like this. It’s not talked about enough. People have questions, people have advice, why are we not sharing?

    I would also like to mention Sckoon Cup for consideration in the silicone cup category. They are made in the US, and a very different shape/design than the Diva Cup (which I have also had) and I find it is much easier to deal with. Insertion is more intuitive, removal is less annoying, and it comes in a variety of colors (HUGE BONUS!). I usually coordinate with a Lunapads panty-liner on my heavy day. I like the cup over anything else because I can go so long between having to deal with it (usually 6-10 hours depending on the day) and rarely have to worry about it. Another benefit is that I can always carry my ENTIRE period’s supply of products with me at all times. It fits in my fist and weighs very little.

    Also, I think it is important to consider that if you’re looking at a “new system” for on the trail, you can’t plan for how you actually feel about it on the trail. You might realize after one period that what you thought would be the best option is something you really hate in real life and you want to try something new ASAP. That having been said, trying a reusable cup for the first time on trail is probably not the best idea. At least take a couple of days in town with real bathrooms to test that one out.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that the drastic change in physical activity and dietary intake may change your period altogether. You may find flow and number of days decrease significantly, and can therefore switch to a different system with ease. Maybe your period gets so light that using tampons becomes more hassle than necessary, and can switch to a reusable pad because you only need a couple for your entire period.

    Don’t be afraid to test it out. Go for a day hike while on your period. See how it feels and how you like your current system. Reassess as necessary. Try to bite your tongue when you see other people using a different system that you think is crazy; obviously it’s working for them and that is all that matters.

    Reply

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