I wanted to do a post that pertained to a couple of specific things that women experience on trail. So any men reading this, you have been warned and you may stop now and walk away, but if you have a girlfriend, wife, daughter… these aren’t bad things to know. So let’s begin with one of the biggest subjects: periods.
As a woman figuring out what to do while you are on period (if you are still having it) while you are hiking can be kind of a pain. I mean literally a pain because periods come with sometimes debilitating cramps that can make hiking hard and logistically a pain because there is a lot of blood to deal with. While I was on the AT I just continually took birth control and thus avoided ever having a period. I had discussed this with my doctor ahead of time and it seemed to work well except for one problem, getting the birth control was a chore. My insurance will not cover more than one packet of pills a month so every month I would have to call the last pharmacy I was at and have them transfer my prescription up the trail to a new pharmacy. One good thing about the PCT is that California and Oregon just approved “over-the-counter” sale of birth control. It’s not technically over the counter, you still have to get an okay from the pharmacist, but depending on how the law pans out it could make things a lot easier. The other option is to actually get a paper copy of your prescription and carry it with you. For me one light little piece of paper would be better than the hassle of calling a million pharmacies every time I wanted my BC refilled.
If you don’t go the period-less route or you use an IUD for birth control then you have to figure out what the best most LNT method for having your period on trail is. Remember, if you use pads and tampons you cannot burry those, you must pack them out. I repeat you MUST pack them out. They will not biodegrade in the woods and it is likely animals will dig them up. If you want to pack them out I suggest a big plastic zip lock inside its own small dry sack. This way you never run the risk of having a whole bag of bloody tampons or pads fall out of your pack. Remember to hang thing bag along with the rest of your food and toiletries. Personally always carrying around a bunch of tampons and pads, and then carrying them around with blood in them seems like a lot of extra weight to me.
An lighter alternative to tampons and pads is using a reusable receptacle like the Diva Cup or the Lily Cup. These can be left in for twelve hours and used over and over again. I would suggest getting one way before you start the trail so you can get used to it. Getting them in and out can be tricky but if put in correctly I think they are actually more comfortable than a tampon. Put in incorrectly and they are the worst. The difficult thing about one of these cups is that they can make a bit of a mess. First of all your hands need to be really clean when you are putting them in or taking them out, which can be hard to accomplish on trail. Then you need to dig a hole to dump the blood into and have quite a bit of filtered water to rinse it off with before reinserting it. The best time to do this would probably be upon getting to camp at night or if you are staying at a dry camp at the place you collected water and then upon getting up in the morning. Of course, if you do empty it at camp make sure you go a long distance away from the tent, 200 ft at least.
Lastly, the big question, are bears attracted to menstrual blood? No they are not, there have been studies by a couple of different organizations that say this is simply a myth. In my opinion it was a myth made up by a patriarchal society to keep women out of the woods, just like the idea that women are bad luck to have aboard a ship. But remember that it is still good practice to hang toiletries with your food if you are into that kind of thing.
To shave or not to shave…
On the AT, and I assume other long trails as well, it was kind of a badge of pride to not shave anything. Everyone was walking around with leg hair and arm pit hair and beards and whatever else, free as birds. That kind of “anti-societal norms” sentiment was common on trail. I mean you are jobless and hiking for five months, not exactly a “successful” move by our culture’s standards. The hair also seemed like it was a marker, a time keeper, a testament to how long we had been out there on trail. I felt proud to be exhibiting that kind of “fuck it all” attitude.
But there are other things I was feeling as well, or rather wasn’t feeling. I wasn’t feeling very sexy. I know that as a raging liberal feminist I am supposed to want to stick it to the man and defy all typical beauty standards and love my unshaven legs, but I can’t lie, I don’t like them when they aren’t shaved. Some women have really lovely leg hair, that truly looks good on them, but that is not my leg hair. My leg hair is thick and scraggly all at the same time, wiry and curly. It looks like my brothers leg hair (sorry Nelson). And don’t even get me started on my armpit hair. I never got used to seeing it there, every time I lifted up my arm it was like a crazy little animal hiding underneath.
It’s not that I think all women should shave, or that we would all be beautiful if we were hairy. I think women look the most beautiful when they feel the most comfortable, whatever that may mean. Instead of trying to force myself to be free by sticking myself in a no-shave box I am going to do what I want when I want to do it. And that might just mean shaving. Or it might mean not shaving. If you are going to undertake a thru hike and this topic is stressing you out stop worrying about it. Just do what makes you the most comfortable.
On trail getting to be as dirty as you want and not wear deodorant is kind of part of the fun but as a woman there are a couple of things you might want to remember. First of all, vaginas don’t always respond very well to the synthetic fabrics that outdoor underwear are made out of. That is why keeping your underwear clean is super important and airing out you lower half can be crucial. I would suggest hiking the trail with two pairs of underwear. Every night you take off the one you hiked in, wash it and set it out to dry and put on the clean one you washed the day before. Or if you have a pair of shorts that have built in underwear then wash those at night and throw on a pair of long johns. You can even dry your underwear on your pack the next day (next to your socks because rinsing those out frequently can save your feet). I prefer hiking in shorts with built in underwear, I find them to be more airy. Some women prefer hiking in a skirt or dress with nothing on underneath. This makes it especially easy to pee. Speaking of peeing many people also carry a bandana that they use specifically as a pee rag. They wash it every night or even during the day. I prefer the drip dry method but then you definitely have to make sure you are washing your underwear nightly.
Lastly, many people enjoy taking a sponge bath at night. Kyle and I really didn’t find a need to pretend to clean up on the AT, we felt like we were filthy and that was just the way it was going to be. But in the PCT book we have they talk about how the salt on your skin from sweating all day can actually cause you to sleep colder at night and is what results in that sticky clammy feeling. So we are resolved to sponge off more often and take advantage of lakes to go swimming. Plus that just sounds like fun. But if you are feeling too lazy for a whole sponge bath at least wash your feet… always wash your feet if you can.
Any other advice from female hikers out there?