FAQ for female backpackers: Menstruation, #1 & #2, group dynamics, and clothing & gear

Credit: Mary Cochenour

Jessica Winters and Mary Cochenour, who will be helping Alan Dixon and me guide trips next month in Rocky Mountain National Park, recently fielded questions from our clients about a few female-specific topics, including menstruation, #1 and #2, group dynamics, and clothing. Rather than share the answers only with our groups, I thought they’d have greater value if shared here. Reader beware: the text is not as heavily edited as most other posts; and some answers include responses from both Jessica and Mary, which explains the change in writing style and/or advice.


Menstruation

Q | How should I keep a menstrual cup sanitary while backpacking. Also, should I dig a cathole and bury the blood?

A small cat hole to dump the menstrual cup is good. Clean and rinse with water. Make sure your hands are clean when using menstrual cup to not cause infection.

Q | I’m really new to backpacking, and I’m a little nervous about the whole thing. But most especially, what’s the best way to handle if it you’re on your period during the trip?

So glad you asked that question; it’s one I get often!

There are generally two ways to deal with your period in the backcountry:

  1. menstrual cup or
  2. tampons

1. The menstrual cup is not something I can give personal advice on because I haven’t taken the time to test it out yet. But what I am hearing is that it can be great if you find one that FITS you perfectly. They make different sizes etc, depending on your flow, birth history, etc. Take this menstrual cup quiz to help you determine which brand and size might work for you.  The positive feedback I am hearing is that there is no waste to carry out and you can leave the cup in for up to 12 hours. To clean it out, simply dig a cat hole and dump the waste there. Then you rinse it with water or wipe it out and reinsert it (some people have not liked the cleaning process). The important thing to know about the cup is that you ought to try it out for several cycles before you take it on a backpacking trip, so you can guarantee that it works for you, that you got the right fit, and that you like it.

2.Tampons. I am still old-school, cardboard-applicator Tampon user. They are bulky to carry (unless you take tampons without applicator) and you HAVE TO carry out the waste. For a waste bag, I get a dark-colored dog poop bag from the local dog park and use that as my waste bag to carry out used tampons. I wrap my used tampons in toilet paper and put it inside the dark colored dog poop bag and then shove that in the bottom of whatever garbage bag I have going, usually another ziplock. Some people sprinkle a little baking soda in the waste bag, however, I never bother with that. Another option for waste, is to use a zip lock and wrap the the outside in duct tape so you can’t see what’s inside. Some women also prepare their ziplocs with a little bit of salt to carry their waste tampons in too.

I use a small light weight zip repac bag. I stash my tampons in there and carry another ziploc in it to put the used tampons in. I will keep them in the same repac bag throughout the day until I have access to my larger ziploc garbage and then throw them in there for a fresh garbage ziploc for the afternoon or next day.

Last year on the John Muir Trail, one woman in my group continued on her active birth controls pills with the hopes of skipping her cycle, but it didn’t work entirely, she still had some spotting.

Hope this helps and if you need more details on any of the above just ask! Also, if anyone else has anything to add or personal insight on the menstrual cups, please chime in!

Outs

Q | What are the best materials for pee rags?

A cotton bandana is nice for a pee rag. It pulls moisture off the sensitive area and rinses out easily.

A pee rag works great, you hang it back on the pack, the sun really does help killing any odors and then rinse out at the next water. I know it sounds kind of weird and maybe gross, but it’s really not bad at all. I find this method waaaaayyyy better than drip dry so my clothes don’t smell like urine and the crotch is dry. Way easier to wash a bandana than your shorts everyday.

I agree, the pee rag is the way to go if you want to keep your shorts from smelling like you peed in your pants.. And for sure hang it off the pack. It never smells. At least I don’t think it does. Pick a darker color so you don’t see any pee stains. I you’re hiking a specific trail, you might check the corresponding facebook group and see what color bandana the women use. For example, dId you know that on the John Muir Trail, women fly a teal pee rag bandana off their pack? On the Colorado Trail, you can use a green bandana. This simply lets other women hikers know that your are part of the women’s hiking community for that trail, and it’s a conversation piece to make it easy to introduce yourself to other women hikers..

Credit: Mary Cochenour

Q | Are there quick/easy ways to wee (I think there are some devices to wee without taking your trousers down etc). Drink less (also not great). Anything else? Also, any ideas for going to wee in the middle of the night – when you might not want to leave the tent???

Drinking lots of water is essential. Peeing just is par for the course. There are lots of female pee devices such as She Wee and Go Girl to name a couple. You can bring a wide mouth pee bottle into your tent with you to pee in through your device.

Drinking less water is not an option. You have to stay hydrated especially at elevation. I am with you though, drinking water makes me pee a ton. It’s annoying. Try to find some shorts that are stretchy enough that you can just pull the crotch over to the side so you don’t have to pull them down around your ankles when you pee.

A gallon sized ziplock bag can also be used to pee into in the middle of the night in your tent. The advantage is that the opening is wide and it is flexible to pack and weighs almost nothing. The disadvantage of the gallon zip lock is that it is flexible and you could make a mistake and spill. If you use a ziplock, you would leave it outside your tent after you pee in it. Whatever device you choose to bring, practice in the shower with it a couple of times so that you are good at it when it comes time to use it in the tent.

I just bought a p-style device. I’ll use and get back to you. I don’t like the idea of carrying it, and that’s why I’ve never had one, But I thought I’d try it this year since I get asked about it so much.

Q | Skurka’s gear list template recommends two squares a day for toilet paper? WHAAAAT?!?!?

First, peeing. Using a pee rag is great for taking care of wiping after peeing (see above answer on cotton bandana)

Second, pooping. Maybe you’ll use a bidet and won’t use any toilet paper at all! For a bidet, you can use a plastic salad dressing bottle, or a medical bottle that is used to flush out wounds. Something that has a small opening and that is squeezable that you could build up some water pressure to spray yourself with.

Maybe you’ll find that 2 squares and natural materials are enough to wipe up with. Or, maybe you’ll need to use a little more toilet paper than the 2 squares. Maybe you’ll want a wet wipe to finish it off, and THAT IS OK!!!

Do whatever you feel necessary to avoid a yeast infection or UTI, etc. Toilet paper can be bulky, but it really doesn’t weigh much. So if you are uncertain about your usage of TP, I’d suggest bringing a partial role of TP on the trip, bring a bidet bottle if you want to try that out, bring a few dried-out wipes that you can rehydrate when you need them.

I’d encourage you to experiment with Andrew’s 2-squares method — practice it on the trip. But until you get your TP system dialed in, bring enough toilet paper to make yourself feel at ease about it.

Just make sure to pack out the used paper (I bring a dark-colored dog poop bag from the dog park to haul out my used TP).

Clothing & gear

Q | What’s the best underwear for backpacking?

I don’t wear underwear if my shorts have a lining. But if you really need a pair, soft, synthetic boxer briefs are nice because they don’t ride up as easy.

I like to wear underwear, they save my shorts from getting too funky. You can buy expensive outdoor underwear (patagonia, etc.), but I swear by $5 Fruit of the Loom seamless, tagless microfiber panties from Target. I like a bikini cut but I don’t have issues with underwear riding up. You could chose a boy cut brief if you think they might ride up. I’d try them out in town before the trip though to make sure they are comfortable.

Q | I am having trouble finding a sports bra in my size that does not have a clasp in the back. Is a clasp irritating when you have your backpack on?

I cannot give you first-hand information on this as I wear sports bras without a clasp. However, I did reach out to an all women backpacking forum and there were NO responses saying that a sports bra with a clasp was irritating while wearing a backpack. Several responded that it was not a problem at all.

Athleta and lululemon have a HUGE variety of athletic sports bars that hold everything in place without clasps.

Q | What are your favorite lightweight clothing brands for women? It seems like slim pickings.

A: Patagonia. Icebreaker Merino Wool base layers. Smartwool. Outdoor Research, lululemon swiftly tech line is great. Montbell, Marmot, Oiselle running shorts because they come in different length inseam and that is such a personal preference. Sierra Designs. My Trail Company.

Credit: Mary Cochenour

Relationships & group dynamics

Q | Apart from divorce, what to do about a wife who believes she requires a toilet and shower?

Start with a single over nighter that’s not too hard. That way on day 2 you can hike out and a daily shower hasn’t been missed. Good food and beverages help set the mood from a stunning campsite. Make it super beautiful, fun, or romantic even. Find a place to go that has a privy or dig a nice hole behind a downed tree to sit and hang your bum off one end that makes it easy to go #2 in somewhat comfort!

Bring wet wipes, so she can clean up at night before going to bed. You can wipe your entire body down with a wet wipe or two and feel pretty clean. Plan hikes with an abundance of lakes so that she can swim every day, swimming basically feels like you took a shower..

Scrap your UL plans and carry more clean clothes that she can change into after a swim. A fresh pair of underwear every day goes a long way for people who don’t want to be dirty. Absolutely.. Do not hesitate to bring comfort items!

I’ve got a nephew who believes the same thing, so this is certainly not gender specific! The simple truth is not everyone likes to camp and backpack. I think you have to decide if you think it’s possible to change her mind, or like in my nephew’s case, just accept that she does not enjoy backpacking without a shower and toilet. Let me give you an example. I cannot stand sewing, etc. Literally, there is NOTHING anyone can do to make me like sewing. I would be pretty annoyed if my spouse kept trying different things to make me like sewing. You have to assess the situation and see if you think you can help her like it or if it’s just something she does not want to do.

So as an alternative, how about you meet her halfway and do hut-to-hut trips..

  • In America: High Sierra Trail, Presidential Range New Hampshire, Colorado hut system, Rogue River Trail lodge to lodge.
  • Abroad: Tour Mont Blanc, Nepal — three passes loop, Torres Del Paine, Machu Pichu, Peru, Milford Trek New Zealand. Iceland.

Q | What can guys do to make women feel safer on organized trips where the party members are most likely strangers and can be mostly male? What are the primary sources of apprehension? What can the trip organizer do to make every gender feel safer?

If possible, organize a meet and greet before your trip. If not possible, start a facebook page or event just for your group to post bios so people can get to know each other beforehand.

Another consideration could be cultural advantages and disadvantages. Learn about the people that will be on your trips. And really try to understand your own biases.

Having been the only woman on several trips, the major apprehension is that I won’t be able to fit in, that I’ll be left out, no one will take me seriously. Including women in group decision making and conversation would go along way in making a woman feel comfortable in an all male group setting.

Assume she can do whatever the men in the group can do.

Don’t underestimate her knowledge and experience.

Don’t judge her for doing something a little differently than the males on the trip, there’s probably a good reason for it.

Ask her if she needs help before stepping in and helping her out, sometimes I find I have to rely on finesse to get something done and it takes just a bit longer than muscling through it. I’ve had situations where men, trying to be kind and thoughtful, jump in and help when I really just want to work through it on my own and I need a second longer to get it done.

If other participants are being derogatory toward the female(s) on the trip, it’s your job as trip leader to ask them to stop. If you hear other participants using the C word, or calling someone a pussy, just ask them to use some other word. Also if someone is talking about women like objects, talking about women’s bodies for example, take them aside and tell them to stop.

Don’t talk about her body or sex.

Give her some space, physical space, so she can use the bathroom, change her shirt, take a dip in a creek, washout her clothes with some sense of privacy.

Plan to take a little longer bathroom breaks if there are females on your trip. Don’t make a comment about it. Pick a stop that has trees or some rocks to hide behind so she have some privacy when going to the bathroom.

If there is actually fear for safety while in the field, understanding fear and where it comes from literally in our nervous system to protect us and releases chemicals for fight or flight. When there is no real danger, however, those chemicals inhibit our ability to respond effectively and think rationally. So by understanding that it’s possible to actually talk yourself out of being afraid and bypass the nervous system can provide a sense of safety and well being. This is not necessarily an easy concept to do and can take practice. Talk about what fears might be regarding safety beforehand that could come up in the field. Wildlife, weather, etc.

Q | As a female, how do you deal with discrimination in regards to gender and/ or age?

It’s still definitely a male dominated pass time but more and more women are getting outside and we are equally as tough if not more… I think many women with a passion in the outdoors have felt discriminated against at one point or another. Myself included. I continue to advocate, learn and teach!!!

I join a lot of female only facebook groups to converse with women about backpacking.

  • Ladies of the JMT
  • Women of the Colorado Trail
  • All Women All Trails
  • Women of the PCT
  • Pacific Northwest Outdoor Women (pending where you are located)

I also follow awesome female role models on Instagram. Famous and non-famous people.

It’s comforting to ask questions in an all female discussion group. It also helps you realize that more and more women are out there participating in the outdoors, so it gives a sense of belonging to talk to and learn from other women. I also do a lot of women only trips.
I guess by surrounding myself with other women in the outdoors I’ve been able to minimize my exposure to any gender discrimination in the backcountry.

I have been harassed on the trail, including having a male stalk me in the backcountry for an entire summer. It was scary, unnerving. I dealt with it, but I am still not sure how I managed that situation entirely. Wish I had more insight to share.

Other

Q | How to best do cleanup/keep everything hygienic when having sex on a trip?

SEX. Most people are worried about getting a UTI after having sex on trail. You and your partner could wash up BEFORE you have sex. Wash your genitals and your hands BEFORE having sex. I know, not very spontaneous. You could also ask your partner (if he is a male) to wear a condom (nobody likes that answer). After sex, clean up with wipes, go pee and then find a nice lake to swim in. You can also add cranberry pills to your daily routine.

Have more questions for Jessica and Mary? Leave a comment.

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