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?

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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. A guy here. (Gray-haired husband, father of a daughter and brother of a sister.)

    I wish more women would put this stuff on the table. It’s important and has a significant bearing on the quality of their hiking experience, and that of others.

    As an AT ridgerunner on the early part of the trail in Georgia last year, I found myself having to deal with a lot of these issues. I got tired of fishing tampons, applicators and non-composting wipes out of the composting privies. “Charmin flowers” were everywhere – sometimes too close to water sources. Soon it became clear to me that some women were profoundly unaware concerning managing their periods, disposal of hygiene products, how to pee in the woods and generally take care of personal hygiene business on the trail. Let me also stipulate here that men have their own issues in this regard.

    It didn’t take long, out of frustration, for me to bring up these topics within the normal ridgerunner Leave No Trace dialog I had with female hikers. Once I understood from their answers that they didn’t know, I’d just put it all right on the table – menstrual cups, female urinary directors, pee rags, cat holes, waterless shampoo and soap, Dr. Bronners and all the rest. Shaving is none of my concern and was never mentioned.

    I tried to do it in a sensitive and supportive way – and always in a Leave No Trace context. Many women thanked me directly. Nobody complained. I suspect some thought I was out of bounds, but I never detected that via tone of voice, facial expression or body language. Believe me, I was very concerned about offending or crossing lines.

    Sisu

      1. The problem is that hikers come to the trail not understanding the difference between front country where there’s trash pick up and the primitively aspects of back country.

  2. Rock on with this sentiment: “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.”
    My students in Arkansas freaked out about my hairy legs, then freaked out when I shaved them. It was ridiculous, and served as a great reminder that ‘rebelling’ can just reinforce the dominant paradigm.

    Definitely in the commando camp (most days), more the loose shorts crew than the skirt contingent, but I’ve been seen on the trail in both.

    Diva for life, here (or cloth pads when I have running water). I used mine at a record-breaking (for me) -45 Fahrenheit on a recent camping trip. Talk about an inconvenient period. Brrrrrrrr…..

  3. Fun reading all that! So glad I don’t have to deal with periods anymore (the over 50 Gang!). As a matter of fact I don’t even THINK about it unless I read something – Thanks for the reminder! 😦 Hiking 2 weeks on the AT with my son in 2014, a 2014 Scout 50-miler, and a 2015 50-miler with a couple Scout Moms, I created a little bottle, with a flip top, of water, witch hazel, aloe vera and essential oils to “freshen up” after potty calls. I had a little quick dry rag and kept it and the bottle in a snack ziplock bag and in my hiking skirt pocket so it was always with me. With just about everything synthetic, just a drop of pee can really reek after a while! My little bottle was a god send, and the moms last year created their own after I told them what I do! I’d say about 1/4 aloe vera, 1/4 witch hazel and 1/2 water. The essential oil is for a bit of scent and to “ward off evil spirits” so I generally use a bit of tea tree and something else like orange, lavender, or ylang ylang. This also helps with the last wipe after pooping as well! Almost as good as taking a shower! (Well, you have to have a great imagination!)

  4. This was a great post, and answered so many of the questions I’ve been pondering. I love my Diva Cup and would definitely recommend it as the best option aside from the constant pill. I have tried the Soft Cup and it wasn’t for me. Plus, there is still waste with those, and I’m all about no waste. I can’t wait to hear what sierratrails think about the Thinx.
    I feel so similarly about my leg hair! I only shave it because I can’t stand the look or feel of it, but I only go to the knee. The hair on my upper legs is light and soft. What’s up with that? Whatever, I’ll take it. I can let my armpit hair go for quite some time before it bugs me. Then it’s got to go.
    A pee rag? Perfect! I am so glad you addressed this and mentioned hiking commando in a skirt. I recently started shopping for hiking skirts with warmer temps in mind thinking it would make peeing so much easier. If anyone has a preferred hiking skirt, please let me know where I can find them.

    1. Check out Purple Rain adventure Skirts! If you’re into dresses, the arcteryx Contenta dress is great, too. I wore that for a month of backpacking and looks great for a town dress!

      1. About a year ago I switched to wearing my running tights while hiking. I love the extended range of motion, that I wasn’t getting with hiking pants, and I no longer feel sweat running down my legs constantly. After reading this, I went and checked out Purple Rain Skirts. I bought one and wore it, over my tights, for the first time last weekend. I fell in love. Didn’t notice it at all, still have complete range of motion/freedom of movement, and the extra coverage behind the logs and rocks was wonderful! (Especially in the not so forested areas.) Thank you for the recommendation Wei!

  5. I know someone who hiked the El Camino de Santiago and she had a laser hair removal prior to her hike. I don’t know how much that would cost but I figured that saves you a lot of time from having to shave or worry about hairs and all. As for having periods, ugh, there is no easy way of tacking it. I’d rather go the birth control route. Thanks for this very useful post!

  6. Great post and important points. I’m lucky in that I stopped having periods way before I started ‘staying out overnight’ (at about 40) so that was one problem less. I think it’s important to air your ‘bits’ as it were and the skirt and no knickers method would be the one I would adopt out there – it’s possibly too cold here most days for that but I suppose we’d toughen up.

    I always wash daily when on the trail – used to be in a morning but I have found it to be definitely true that salt from sweat left on my skin does make me exceedingly cold when the sun goes down. But I sweat like a pig overnight so might have to resort to twice a day!

    Would it be easier to wax instead of shaving for legs and armpits? It lasts longer and the wax strips you can buy don’t take up much room. It’s quick to do too.

    I don’t think period ‘blood’ would attract bears anyway as it’s not really blood but just your womb lining.
    Carol.

  7. I always love talking about lady things in the woods! Have any of you seen the new period underwear Thinx? I just ordered a few and am super excited to try them out should my period land on a backpacking trip. Depending on your flow, they could be used like a diva cup, but it’s on the outside and the different layers absorb the blood to keep it away from your lady parts. I haven’t tried them yet, but the testimonials sound promising! For backpacking, I would take two, wash one out into a hole (as you would a diva cup), and let it dry while wearing the other. One downfall, not sure I’d want to hike in them for the whole PCT due to the fabric… We shall see!

  8. Well, in the mountains and when I stay for a long time in a tent, I always use wet napkins.
    Also there is an alcohol gel for keeping hands clean.
    Moreover, there is dry shampoo in nice small packs. But I never used this one.

    If I feel I have to be real girl, during the hike I shave my legs and armpits. When it is summer, of course.

    And I always carry tweezers and a small mirror with me to pluck eyebrows.

    Thanks for the post!
    Was interesting to think of all that nightmares of having a period when you are not in the city. I totally forgot that these menstrual cups exist!

    Here in Russia we don’t worry much and in the mountains we would just throw them pads and tampons under a stone or dig them in the soil. When we have a fire, we can burn them when no one sees.

    And I have a friend who wears lace lingerie during mountaineering trips, including push-up bra…

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