How I Managed My Period While Backpacking The John Muir Trail.
The day was hot. My feet were wet from the most recent creek crossing, the loose, powdery trail dust was quickly filling my shoes and turning to mud. My feet started blistering. We planned on having a big mileage day and I was determined to push through the pain in my feet.
This is fine, I’m fine.
Then they hit me.
Pardon my language, but I fucking hate cramps.
My uterus transformed into a ninja rebel that was kicking me from the inside… or was it stabbing me in the lower abdomen with a red hot piece of iron? I’m not sure which is more accurate.
The waist strap on my backpack put extra pressure on my lower abdomen and it made me want to vomit.
I told my partner that I needed to stop… because I started.
This was the moment I was dreading while backpacking the John Muir Trail.
Starting my period.
As a woman, if you adventure in the outdoors, chances are you’ve had to deal with your period.
It’s not fun.
It kinda sucks.
Many of us try to plan our adventures around our monthly cycles, which is totally fine, but when you’re on a multi-day or multi-week adventure and your uterus decides to let ‘er flow, there’s not much you can do about it.
And let’s face it, stressing our bodies can make our cycles a little unpredictable.
Here’s how I manage my period while in the backcountry.
Adhere To Leave No Trace Ethics
No matter what form of period care you choose, you must still adhere to Leave No Trace principles. That means:
- Know the regulations of the area that you will be recreating in.
- Pack out tampons and pads – DO NOT BURY THEM. Tampons and pads may seem like they will decompose, but they are often made from synthetic materials. Even if they are 100 percent cotton, they will not decompose quickly.
- If you are using a menstrual cup, like the Pixie cup, treat the menstrual fluid like you would feces. It is biological waste and needs to be treated as such. This means you must dig a cathole just like you would for pooping (if the wilderness area allows it) and bury the menstrual fluid at least 200 yards away from any water source. Another option is to use absorbent material (paper towels, toilet paper, etc) to absorb the fluid, and then you can pack it out.
This Is How I Handled My Period On The John Muir Trail
I had a plan of action for handling my period in the backcountry because I knew it would occur while I was out there.
Let’s start with my list of supplies:
Here’s My Step-By-Step Process:
- Fill your collapsible water bottle with filtered water. Some sources recommend using boiled water, but I figure that if filtered water is good enough for me to drink, then it should be good enough to wash my cup with.
- Dig a cathole. This is super important!
- Wash hands and remove the menstrual cup.
- Empty cup into cathole and set it aside on a clean surface (I often set it on top of a baby wipe or a Pixie Wipe on top of my Kula cloth).
- Clean yourself up with a baby wipe or some of your filtered water or both, if needed.
- Insert the second menstrual cup (the clean one!) and pull up your pants. I don’t know about you, but the less time I have my pants down in these situations, the better. You can certainly get away with having only one cup, I just feel that having two streamlines the process.
- Don’t fill in your cathole yet!
- Now you can clean up your used cup. I like to use the filtered water to rinse it out into the cathole and a drop of biodegradable soap to cleanse it. You can also use something like the Pixie Cup wash, or the wipes that I mentioned earlier. Make sure to rinse it well. Never EVER do this in bodies of water because A) biodegradable soap only biodegrades if it is filtered through soil (it needs those microbes, people!), B) rinsing your bloody cup in a water supply that may be used for consumption is just plain gross and C) it violates LNT ethics.
- Dry your cup and put it in a clean container so that it’s ready for the next swap.
- Pack away anything that can’t be buried such as any wipes or toilet paper.
- Fill in that cathole.
- Sanitize yo’ dang hands.
And that’s it!
You might be wondering why I have a water bottle designated to this specifically, and my reason is simply because I could very easily contaminate the bottle with menstrual fluid. If any of you have mastered the art of managing your menstrual cup without getting menstrual fluid on your hands, please let me know. We need to chat.
Can’t dig a cathole due to wilderness restrictions? In this case, it might be worth considering using tampons in order to minimize waste and possible contamination of the area you’re in.
If you prefer the cup, you can use some kind of absorbent material to soak up the fluid, which can then be packed out easily. Clean up your cup as much as possible using baby wipes, this will minimize the amount of menstrual fluid getting into the environment when you wash your cup.
Not Into Menstrual Cups? Tampons Are Another Option
Tampons are easy to deal with because they’re quick to change and there’s no lengthy process of filtering water and cleaning. Make sure you have clean hands and pack out the used tampons. A little trick for keeping odors to a minimum and make sure you have clean hands is to use disposable latex gloves to remove the tampon, and then you can turn the glove inside out with the tampon inside, tie off the opening to the glove, and VOILA, you have a discreet, sanitary, and odorless package.
One More Little Trick
Whether you’re packing out tampons or soiled toilet paper, this little trick is a must. Simply cover a ziploc bag in duct tape, throw in your pack, and use it to pack out the icky things. The duct tape not only reinforces the bag so you’re less likely to have any unfortunate breaks, but it also makes things a little more discreet so you and your campmates don’t have to see what’s inside. Another option is to cover a water bottle with duct tape or spray the interior with spray paint, just make sure the mouth of the bottle is big enough that you can easily toss things inside.
You can also add a little cat litter, crushed aspirin, or tea bags to your duct-tape reinforced baggy/bottle to help control odors.
Any of these options work great. I prefer the menstrual cup because it only requires changing every 12 hours and it seems less wasteful if you’re able to bury your fluid. Not to mention you don’t have to pack along any bulky tampons or pads, or pack them out used.
Some of us have very regular and predictable menstrual cycles while others have cycles that are a little less so. Either way, it is always possible that your period can sneak-attack you. Menstrual cups are small, light, and packable, and I always throw a Pixie Cup in my pack for this reason.
Keep in mind that it’s okay to take more breaks if you need to during your menstrual cycle. There are physiologic changes that occur that may make you feel more tired or less motivated, and that’s okay. Taking care of yourself is the utmost priority.
And one more thing… That myth about bears being attracted to women on their periods? It’s not true. So don’t let that deter you from adventuring while on your period.
I highly recommend checking out Dr. Stacy Sims book, ROAR. This book is chock full of valuable information about the female physiology. I have to affiliation with this book or the author, I just found a lot of value in it.
What are your experiences with having your period in the backcountry? How did you manage it? Do you have any tips to share with other ladies? Let me know!