First time backpacker? Concerned about having your period, peeing and pooping in the wilderness? Don’t worry, I got your back.
First off, I want to say this post is mostly oriented towards the ladies. I like to be all-inclusive as much as possible, but just a head’s up that I will be openly talking about period blood, vaginas, peeing and pooping. Are you without a period or vagina and are a super supportive partner that wants to know more information on the subject? Then I applaud you. You are a mature, well-rounded human being.
Let’s get down to brass tacks here: I am a woman, in my thirties, am an avid backpacker and I suffer from painful, heavy periods. In fact, when I see those delicate women in tampon commercials smiling and doing awesome shit, like water skiing and playing tennis, I kind of want to punch them in the face. When I’m out on a trail and Aunt Flo makes her monthly visit, I feel like crap 9 times out of 10. I’m pretty open about my period, and I honestly don’t care if people are grossed out by menstrual talk. I also find that it helps to vent about the pain and discomfort that I’m doing through. It’s a natural process that millions of women have to manage. Deal with it.
I’ve gotten a lot of questions from my female friends, coworkers and family over the years about my hiking adventures and the topic of menstruation while backpacking almost always comes up. Most people are just curious, but I’ve also found that having your period and going to the bathroom in the woods intimidates women out of even trying wilderness travel.
I’ve been hiking every chance I got since I was a teenager, and I’ve made an absolute f*ck ton of mistakes along the way. Through my mistakes, I hope that I can prepare you or your partner in the event of a backcountry period. Periods do suck, but you shouldn’t let it keep you from trying and loving new adventures.
What to pack into the wilderness, and back out again.
You’ll need to decide what’s right for you, meaning that you’ll need to know what your preferences are when you’re both active and on your period. What products do you use when you’re on your feet for a while? These will likely work when you’re hiking. The most popular items are obviously tampons, pads and menstrual cups. I currently use a combination of tampons and pads when I’m hiking.
Hygiene is important when you’re menstruating, and even more so in the wilderness. Since you won’t be able to take a shower on a daily basis, it’s important to keep your vaginal area clean and prevent dangers such as toxic shock syndrome. This will also keep any unwanted odors under control and make you feel much better in the long run.
I like to be prepared with a toilet kit that sits right in the top of my pack and is easily accessible when I need it. Everything in this toilet kit is inside of a quart size zip top plastic bag. Here’s what’s in it:
- Tentlab ‘Deuce of Spades’ trowel. This is for digging catholes to poop in, and then burying it again. It’s super light (only .6 ounces) and one of my favorite backpacking items. You should always bury your poop, at least 200 feet away from any water and the trail. You can get one here.
- unscented baby wipes, repackaged in a zip top bag. For cleaning up after you poop or when you change your tampon or pad.
- a wad of regular toilet tissue
- alcohol wipes. Use them to clean your hands before and after you insert a tampon or your menstrual cup. Get them at any pharmacy or here.
- tampons and pads
- A quart size zip top bag for garbage.
- Feminine hygiene disposable plastic bags. These are brilliant. You can put your used toilet tissue, used tampons or pads and wet wipes in here, tie it and put it in your garbage bag. It keeps odor locked in, and you don’t have to look at your unsightly used products. Get them on Amazon.
Now, what does one do with all of this?
If you need to change your tampon/pad/menstrual cup, I recommend you find a private spot to do so, either in the trees or behind a mountain. It’s your call. Grab your toilet kit, pull your shorts down and have a squat. If squatting is difficult, lean up against a tree or a boulder.
Tampons: Get a feminine bag ready, wash your hands with an alcohol wipe and let them dry. Remove your tampon and place it inside the bag. Use a baby wipe to wipe from front to back, and then put it in the bag too. Unwrap and insert your new tampon. Tie the ends of your feminine bag to conceal its contents, then place it inside of a zip top bag. Sanitize your hands again with an alcohol wipe. (Note: I like to use a thinner pad in conjunction with my tampons, to prevent leaks. If you don’t have this issue, then ignore this tidbit)
Pads: Get a feminine hygiene bag ready, and remove the pad from your underwear. Place the used pad in the bag. Wash your hands with an alcohol wipe and let them dry. Use a baby wipe to wipe from front to back, and then put that in the bag as well. Unwrap a new pad and secure it to your underwear. Tie the ends of the feminine bag together and place it in the zip top garbage bag. Sanitize your hands with an alcohol wipe.
Menstrual Cup: Get a feminine bag ready and have clean, filtered water close by. Sanitize your hands with an alcohol wipe and let them dry. Remove the cup by breaking the suction with your finger and then carefully pulling it out (try not to spill!). Empty the blood into the bag, and then use water to rinse it out. If the cup has an odor, use an alcohol wipe to clean it (a lot of websites selling menstrual cups advise against using alcohol on them, but it’s fine in small quantities). Use a baby wipe to clean from front to back if needed, and put the wipe in the bag. Insert your clean cup until it feels comfortable. Tie the ends of the feminine bag together and place it inside of the zip top garbage bag. Sanitize your hands with another alcohol wipe.
And now you’re done. I know it seems like a lot of work, and you’re probably wondering if it’s really worth it. I can assure you it is! Once you get into the flow of things, and get your routine down, it’s super easy.
Cramps, breast and lower back pain are my common complaints when I’m on my period, so I usually take a couple of ibuprofen (400 to 600 mg) to help me out. I avoid OTC menstrual pain medications (such as Pamprin and Midol) for a couple of reasons: they usually contain a diuretic that will have you peeing constantly, as well as an antihistamine that can make you drowsy. Most also have aspirin, or a combination of acetaminophen and aspirin. These two drugs can cause stomach irritations or an allergic reaction, so be vigilant in knowing the signs.
Also be sure to drink plenty of water, your body is going to need it.
Is the pain unbearable? Are you feeling too tired and grumpy? Take a day off, on trail, in a motel, or at home. There’s nothing to be ashamed of if hiking is too difficult during your period. You have nothing to prove to anyone.
When I was on the PCT last year, I took a few days off in towns due to menstrual pain. I felt guilty at first, wasting time holed up in a motel room or at a campground instead of pounding out mileage on the trail. But why? I had no good reason to feel this way, so I stopped caring and enjoyed the luxury of my stay. I was suffering with pain and the depression that comes with it, so a day off was exactly what I needed.
And now to answer that question you’re dying to know
Are bears attracted to you when you’re on your period? The answer is mostly no. Don’t panic, I’ll explain.
In 1967, two women were killed by grizzly bears in Glacier National Park in separate incidents. People began to speculate that the bears were attracted to the odors associated with menstruation. The National Park Service has done several studies on the matter, and found that there was no evidence that grizzlies are in any way attracted to menstruating women. As for black bears, they gave no interest in menstruating women or their used hygiene products.
Polar Bears, on the other hand, seemed to show a slight interest in used products, but they much preferred dead seals to bloody tampons.
So there you are, not much to worry about.
Reference: NPS Yellowstone
How to properly poop (and pee) in the woods
It’s always important to follow Leave No Trace principles in the outdoors, no matter what. One of my biggest complaints is used toilet tissue on or beside the trail. It’s unsightly and it takes longer than you think to decompose. I see this often in heavily used areas and it makes me sad. It’s littering, plain and simple. Toilet paper needs to be packed out every time, no excuses. That’s why you should carry a zip top bag, to put ALL of your trash in. If you’re thinking “no way, that’s disgusting,” then I have some bad news for you: You shouldn’t go hiking.
There are exceptions, however. If you’re fortunate enough to be camping in a spot with a pit toilet (privy), it’s okay to put your toilet tissue in there. These are maintained by wilderness rangers to break down properly. Nothing else is to go in the pit toilet though, and you’ll often see signs left by rangers begging people to stop throwing trash in it. This means no baby wipes, diapers, tampons, pads, food scraps or wrappers.
It is possible to avoid using toilet paper to wipe after you pee. A tried and true method that myself and several other women used on the PCT is ‘the pee rag’ method. Essentially what it is is a square cut from a basic cotton bandana, used to wipe and then safety pinned to the back of your pack. The sun will sanitize the bandana square as you hike, and you can rinse it as often as you like with water.
Pooping in the woods is easier than it seems, but there is more to it than just dropping your trousers, having a shit and then going along your merry way. Don’t place sticks or rocks over it, creating some kind of shrine surrounding your pile. This is a complete asshole move, and why you need to carry a trowel in your toilet kit (see above).
Before you drop a deuce, you’ll need to dig a cathole that is about 8 inches deep. This needs to be away from any campsite, trail and water for sanitary reasons (you’ll want the privacy anyway). Do your business into the hole, and put used toilet paper into a zip top bag. As I mentioned before, I like to put my used paper in a feminine hygiene bag and then a zip top bag for extra odor control. If it bothers you to put the bag containing your soiled TP in your pack, put it in a side pocket or strap it to the outside somehow. Bury your masterpiece and hike on, you badass mountain mama.
Why can’t I bury toilet paper?
Toilet paper needs a lot of water and a warm environment to decompose fully. Most poop tickets are designed to break down in a septic tank or a sewage treatment facility. A lack of water and oxygen from being buried will keep TP from decomposing, at least it will take a hell of a lot longer (months and yes, even years in some conditions). Some critters like to dig up toilet paper too. Imagine a cute little marmot making a hibernation nest with soiled tissue. Pretty gross, right? And while we’re on the subject, guess what else we’re not burying? That’s right, tampons and pads. These are made from synthetic materials and should never be left behind.
Amazingly, you’ll get over the ‘ewww gross’ factor pretty quickly. I know I did, and I feel much better knowing that I’m doing the right thing to keep the wilderness in good condition for everyone, even the marmots.
Questions about what you’ve just read? I’m here for you! Leave a comment below.
Disclaimer: The author is not a physician and you should consult your health care professional before trying any new medications. The information provided on this website is for educational puposes only. Statements on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA, and the information discussed is not meant to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.