For Women’s Eyes Only: Thru Hiking Specifics

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.

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.

Hygiene

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?

Posted by

As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

32 thoughts on “For Women’s Eyes Only: Thru Hiking Specifics

  1. Great post! I remember when I used to have what I called my ‘Niagara Falls’ periods… Always hard on a hike, camping and the like. Now that I’m over it (I’m 54), I don’t have those anymore, but I have a ‘new issue’: I put on a fair amount of weight due to under-active thyroid and that, coupled with the hormonal changes of menopause, have made the ‘topography’ of my vulva quite different. This causes the stream of urine to be easily spread or diverted along my legs and sometimes in many directions at any one time, unless I am really squatting very low. Sigh… So I use this : https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5015-087/Freedom-Urinating-Aid. It takes some practice to fell confident with it, but once you get the knack of it, it’s great. And then, even if I get to use a regular toilet, it also means that traces of urine end up sticking to parts of my vulva in spite of my careful wiping. So I definitely need to sponge wash at camp every night, otherwise the smell is horrible.

    Regarding sweat and sponge washing, I totally agree that it helps tremendously to wash after a prolonged and sweaty effort. One property of sweat is that it is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts moisture out from the ambiant air and keeps the water molecules tied to itself, therefore on the skin. Hence the sticky and clammy feeling. In my youth, while camping, sometimes (often!) I’d feel too lazy to wash before going to bed. Until I realized that if I washed (even just wiping myself down with a wet cloth) RIGHT AFTER my hike – THAT IS WHILE I WAS STILL FEELING VERY HOT – I wouldn’t feel cold while washing (even in the winter), plus, I felt so much more comfortable afterwards, I slept a lot better and I didn’t get cold overnight. I ALSO FELT A LOT LESS PAIN IN MY LIMBS AND BACK the next day! I also noticed that on many occasions during the time I had a hundred-feet garden to take care of: if I showered RIGHT AFTER a session of bending and shovelling for hours in the hot sun, I didn’t feel as stiff and beaten during the following days. I don’t know it that is or will ever be proven scientifically, but it’s my experience!

    Hoping to do the A.T. sometime in the next few years… Been dreaming about it for decades. Got to do it before I’m really too old! 🙂

    Cheers!

      1. Thank you. It has been hard trying to find a woman who will talk real like this about trail life. Thank you or the information.

  2. my periods are very heavy and of course right on target for my thru hike in May. I am actually getting an ablation done this month to lighten and hopefully get rid of my period completely. I tried diva cup but within a couple hours my cup was full. I’m loving the skirt idea!

      1. The procedure is called “Endometrial Ablation,” and you can read all about it here: http://www.webmd.com/women/endometrial-ablation-16200 .
        I had this done about 15 yrs. ago due to unrelenting heavy periods, and it CHANGED MY LIFE! (- Just wish I’d known to ask my OB/Gyn about it sooner!) The procedure was covered by my medical insurance, and my recovery was fast and trouble-free. It’s worth a look – but only if you are SURE you don’t want to have any more kids. Good luck!

  3. Thanks for this great post! Last thru-hike I did, I used tampons and was carrying around a ziplock bag full of used, bloody tampons (and plastic applicators). It’s amazing how heavy used tampons can get, especially when counting ounces for everything else and trying to stay as lightweight as possible. I tried the Diva Cup after the trail and it didn’t fit well for me; I’m gonna get a Lily cup based on this post and see how it fits before (maybe, hopefully!) trying it on the PCT.

  4. It can be intimidating hiking with your period. I used the diva cup but I find that it leaks quite a bit and it feels very itchy and uncomfortable for me. I’m at the point now where whoever I’m hiking with just knows I’m on my period and that there’s going to be blood. Once I took the shame and secrecy out of periods they are so not a big deal. A piece of advice I’d add for those interested is to buy a FUD (female urinary device) or make your own. I got mine from REI for $15 and I hold it tight against my body and pee standing up. It’s the easiest thing in the world, and it takes away the need to wipe. You don’t even have to take your pack off to take a leak.

    1. Do you have the smaller or bigger diva cup? Also, maybe trying a different brand would help? I think they are all differently shaped. I have had no problems with leaking when using the Lily cup and once in correctly I can’t feel it at all. Good advice on the She Wee, I only use them when mountaineering because I hate having to take off my harness. I have gotten good at squatting and peeing without taking my pack off, but the ease of a she wee appeals to many people, I think it is just one more thing to carry.

      1. I got the smaller diva cup. I’ll take a look at the LIly and compare the sizes. Thanks. The names they come up with are silly “She wee” haha. I use the “freshette” from REI.

    2. Hi livefreeorfry, Which FUD do you use? I tried the Pibella this summer and success was hit or miss… I’m thinking the larger funnel may be the way to go for me.

      1. Interesting, I haven’t even heard of the Pibella; there are tons on the market. I use the “freshette” and I got it at REI for something like $15. It comes with an insert that makes the funnel wicked long if you need it; honestly I got rid of that and just use the one piece now. It takes a bit of practice. For instance, my body just had trouble realizing that I could pee while standing up so I’d just stand there for five minutes! Ohhhh the learning curves. Believe it or not there’s an entire podcast episode on “Stuff Mom Never Told You” about the different FUD’s: http://www.stuffmomnevertoldyou.com/podcasts/how-to-pee-standing-up/
        Happy travels…gosh this was a long response

  5. This a a great post! I’ve always dreamed of hiking the AT.

    Thank you for following my Blog, The Science Fiction Trials!(www.thesciencefictiontrials.wordpress.com)

Comments are closed.