Girl Talk: How to Handle Your Period in the Backcountry

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Last time on Girl Talk, we discussed tips and tricks for how to pee in the backcountry. Now, by popular demand, please find our outdoor women’s guide for handling everyone’s favorite time of the month: your period.

Should you use tampons or a menstrual cup?

In town, tampons and pads are convenient—you just use them once and toss them. In the backcountry, it’s not so simple. You can’t just discard feminine products after use. That’s where a reusable, flexible cup comes in. They’re usually made of silicone or natural rubber and you can use for one for your entire trip and beyond. Some popular brands are DivaCup, Softcup, Lily Cup, The Keepers and Moon Cup.

Some women strongly prefer tampons over menstrual cups, and there’s nothing wrong with that—just be sure to bring enough tampons to last for your trip. You can store tampons before and after use in an opaque plastic bag for privacy. Make sure to have one bag for clean tampons and another well-marked waste bag for used ones. Before leaving home, you can make your own waste/biohazard bag by completely covering a zip-top plastic bag with duct tape and marking it with a skull and crossbones.

If you use tampons, be sure to maintain odor control.

If you do prefer tampons, you’ll need to pack out used ones. Bring the kind without applicators for less waste to pack out. Store used ones inside your duct-taped waste bag (see above), and add dry tea bags or crumbled aspirin to control the scent. If you’re in bear country or in another area with wildlife issues, you’ll need to place this bag in the container holding your food and other scented items overnight so that you don’t have odors drawing wildlife toward your tent.

How to use a menstrual cup.

This reusable cup captures your menstrual flow, which means you need to insert it and later remove it to empty out its contents. You can usually wear a cup for up to 12 hours straight without emptying it.

Before inserting or removing the cup, be sure to wash your hands with hand sanitizer or soap and water. Empty the contents of the cup and bury it just like you would any other human waste in a cat hole, which you should dig six to eight inches deep and 200 feet away from any water sources. If you’re on a glacier or in a sensitive area where you need to use bags for human waste, instead of digging a cat hole, empty the contents of the cup into the waste bag. Then re-insert the cup and wash your hands again.

To clean your cup during the trip, wash it with warm water and soap if you can. If not, wipe it down with toilet paper and be sure to pack the toilet paper out. Do not use hand sanitizer to clean the cup because that can slowly degrade the silicone. The cup needs to be stored in something breathable, so once your cycle is over you can keep it in the cotton pouch that comes with many cups or in another cotton or paper bag.

Chances are, even with the very best hygiene, you can’t keep your cup as perfectly clean as you do at home. So, once you’re back from your trip, be sure to give your cup another thorough cleaning with warm water and unscented, water-based soap.

Cleanliness keeps you going strong.

Above all, while you’re out on the trail take care of yourself and stay clean. Store your cup or tampons and pads properly and wash your hands frequently. If you prefer, use sanitary wipes to help keep yourself clean—just be sure to carry those out with your used supplies. Once you reach civilization, dispose of your used sanitary items properly (if it’s the garbage bin at the trailhead, make sure it’s bear proof). By keeping an eye on cleanliness you’ll help avoid vaginal and urinary tract infections.

Want more information? Check out: Backpacking With Your Period.

Follow these simple steps above and you’ll be good to go out on the trail!

  • Katie G

    Thank you so much for writing this insightful post, I have always wondered how women do this on longer camping trips. It no longer intimidates me!

    • Shelby Carpenter

      Glad it was helpful!

  • Stacy T

    Great article! I use a Diva cup (sold at REI of course) and LOVE it. So much so that it’s now my regular go-to. It’s great for the environment as it cuts down on waste. It pays for itself since I’m not buying pads or tampons! And it’s more comfortable and I find it helps wth the lingering period smell. Seriously, if you haven’t tried a cup, do it!

  • socksandsandals

    On my first backpacking trip (all girls) our instructors taught us to keep used pads and tampons in a paper bag (so that they wouldn’t gross anybody out) inside a Ziploc bag that we would then add to the group gear to be hung as part of a bear hang. I don’t love this method as I feel it creates a lot of pretty unnecessary waste, but I do carry Ziplocs and a paper bag with me when I lead trips with first-time female backpackers so that I’m ready to help them. One thing to add about menstrual cups though (though this may seem redundant) is that it’s important to make sure to clean them with clean water. This DEFINITELY means no cleaning them out in streams, creeks or rivers… you wouldn’t want to do that anyway because of the effect on the environment, but the potential for infection is something to think about avoiding as well.

    • Shelby Carpenter

      Great point on needing to use clean water! Thank you for sharing that–super important.

      • megarette

        I’ve read that using your straw from your water bladder like a bidet can help too. Trying it on a trip this weekend.

  • Valerie

    I love this! I discovered the divacup after figuring out I would be on my period while on a scuba diving trip. Scared I might become shark bait, or worse, leak through my suit, the cup worked perfectly. After I got the hang of it, making sure the rim was fitted around my cervix, I never have any leaks.

    • Shelby Carpenter

      Glad you got the hang of it–and you didn’t feel like you were shark bait!

  • Ivy

    One thing to consider…if you have heavy flow cycles, the cup will need to be emptied just about as often as you’d change a tampon. I’ve tried my divacup for over a year now and I find it more trouble than it’s worth because I have extremely heavy flows and swelling to the point where the cup is actually uncomfotable. That makes me sad because I love the cup on my lighter days, but on heavy days…. I have to not only use tampons, but ULTRA tampons, often changing them every 1-2 hours.

    • Heather Pomeroy

      You might want to see a doc to get checked for endometriosis then if it’s that heavy it can be a sign of something else.

      • Ivy

        Been there, done that. NO endometriosis here. Been checked multiple times. I am anemic and have other issues going on — but endo isn’t one of them. I have a problem with polyps.

  • Lauren Steinheimer

    Love this! I spent years trying different options, and still don’t really like dealing with my moon cycle in the backcountry, but what’s a girl to do?! Thanks for writing this helpful article on a sticky subject 🙂

  • Lindsey Upton

    Another brand of menstrual cup is the Luv Yr Body cup. Great for ladies with low cervixes during that time and heavy flow. The size medium is the one designed for low cervixes. If your cervix lowers during your period, you’re going to not have as much luck with the cup because it reduces the capacity.

  • Anne

    I had troubles with my periods on the trail (PCT section, SoCal). I cannot take hormone based pills due to health issues, so I was not able to make it ‘disappear’ during that time unfortunately. I used tampons, and the ziplock I kept them in was just awful. Later a lady told me that you can wrap individually each used tampon in aluminium paper, it decreases the smells greatly. Worth a try. What we don’t hear much about periods on the trail are the symptoms coming with it: dizziness, nausea, heavy legs, cramps and headaches. And more. I am not a fan of hiking anymore during my periods and will try to never do it again. It was not fun at all, really not. I may have to wait until I reach menopause to attempt any long sections or thru hikes again. Respect to all the ladies out there who put up with all that. I just gave up.

  • Thanks for sharing. This is the best thing since female urinals! (and sliced bread).

  • Collette

    Way to keep it real with a great article like this!

  • Just went backpacking this weekend. I usually use a divacup throughout my period, but since I just got a paragard IUD, I decided to bring tampons because I wasn’t sure how often I would need to change the divacup, and sometimes I have problems getting it to form a seal. From here on out, divacup all the way! Discarding tampons in a plastic bag was grossing me out. Thanks for this!

  • Olivia

    If you are using a diva cup is it okay to empty it in a backcountry pedestal style toilet?

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