Let’s be honest, backpacking with your period isn’t the most enjoyable experience. But if you have a monthly menstrual cycle and enjoy backpacking, chances are at some point the two are going to overlap. The good news is having your period doesn’t have to stop you from getting out and hitting the trail. There are a variety of different ways that you can manage your period while backpacking depending on your personal needs and preferences, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
This is a shame free space. We all have unique bodies and there is no single best way to manage your period while backpacking. Here are the two primary considerations to keep in mind when deciding how to best manage your period in the backcountry:
- Determining what product is most comfortable for your body.
- Making sure that you practice Leave No Trace and properly pack out any waste associated with the product you’re using.
This article is primarily based on my personal experience, but I’ve also taken into consideration some of the common responses I received from 100+ women on an Instagram Reel about managing your period while hiking and camping.
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What to Pack to Manage Your Period While Backpacking
In addition to your period period of choice, you’ll want to make sure to pack the following items to help manage your period while backpacking:
- Hand sanitizer. Self-explanatory.
- Soap. I recommend carrying a small bottle of castille soap.
- A plastic baggie to pack out waste (you can also use a reusable silicon baggie that you no longer use for food). You can also pack out toilet paper and menstrual waste in a WAG bag if you plan to use one for poop (I recommend using a WAG bag anytime you’re backpacking in an area that sees regular use to reduce the cumulative impacts of human waste). If you’re concerned about odors you can use an empty peanut butter jar (also great for storing dog poop bags) or toss a tea bag in with your waste.
- Extra toilet paper (pack more than you think you need, trust me). Make sure to pack used toilet paper out!
- Extra tampon(s) or pad(s). Even if using tampons or pads isn’t your primary method of managing your period while backpacking, it’s always a good idea to have a couple with you in case you need a backup option.
- Trowel. For digging a cathole if you need to bury menstrual waste (i.e. blood from a menstrual cup or disc NOT used tampons or pads).
- Extra underwear. Just in case.
- Tylenol or Advil, if needed for cramps.
- Optional: Wet wipes.
- Optional: A travel bidet. You can purchase a small, portable bidet system that screws onto a water bottle for a fresh and clean backcountry bathroom experience. This can help cut down on toilet paper use and keep you feeling your best while managing your period.
- Optional: A Nalgene. You can fill a Nalgene with boiling water (let it cool off a little first!) and use it as a DIY heating pad if needed.
Products to Manage Your Period While Backpacking
Tampons & Pads
The easiest way to manage your period while backpacking (in my opinion) is to use tampons and/or pads. You’re likely already familiar and comfortable with these products, and they can be changed and disposed of quickly and easily.
The biggest drawback to using tampons and pads is that they’re single-use products and produce waste. However, in my opinion, if there’s ever a time and place to use a single-use product, it’s when you’re dealing with personal hygiene and biological waste (that’s also why I advocate for packing out human waste in single-use WAG bags).
The most important thing to keep in mind if you choose to use tampons or pads when backpacking is making sure that you pack EVERYTHING out. The wrapper. The applicator. Every single used tampon and pad. Everything!
Do not toss or bury used tampons and pads. Not only is it potentially harmful to wildlife, but it’s also unsanitary. You should be carrying a bag to pack out your toilet paper when backpacking, so properly disposing used tampons and pads shouldn’t be a hassle.
Something else to be aware of when choosing tampons or pads are the chemicals that are sometimes used to make them. Tampons and pads can contain phthalates, dioxins, pesticides, and fragrance, which may lead to adverse health impacts. When it comes to any chemical, the poison is in the dose, and the exposure from a single tampon or pad will be minimal. However, it’s important to remember that you’re wearing these products in a delicate, moist environment where chemicals are easily absorbed. Some of these chemicals are known endocrine disruptors and can build up in the body over time, so it’s important to be aware of what you’re using.
There are a variety of brands that make tampons and pads with unbleached, organic cotton. However these products are typically more expensive than standard tampons and pads and there is no shame if you cannot afford to use these products. In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to be concerned about the chemicals in menstrual products, and access to safe hygiene products would be accessible to all.
- Easy to use.
- Can be changed quickly.
- No special cleanup required beyond packing everything out.
- Produces single-use waste.
- May need to be changed frequently depending on your flow.
- May contain harmful chemicals.
Menstrual cups are a popular way of managing your period while backpacking, but using one properly comes with additional considerations.
The proper way to empty your menstrual cup is to dig a cathole and bury it. This means digging a hole 6-8” deep to deposit the contents of your cup and cover it with dirt. Always empty your menstrual cup at least 200 ft. from water sources and your campsite in case lingering odors attract wildlife. Keep in mind that in certain environments digging a proper cathole may be exceptionally difficult (particularly in rocky terrain). If you’re in a high-alpine or desert environment where digging a cathole isn’t appropriate, you can use a WAG bag to pack out the waste.
After disposing the contents of your menstrual cup, you’re going to need to clean and sterilize it before using it again. The best way to sterilize your menstrual cup in the backcountry is using boiling water from your camp stove. Because menstrual cups are typically made from medical grade silicone there are no associated health concerns.
Keep in mind that properly disposing your menstrual waste and sterilizing your menstrual cup is going to take a considerable amount of time during which you’re likely going to continue to bleed. Be sure to carry a backup period product like a second menstrual cup or tampon to use. You also want to make sure that your hands are clean when removing and inserting your menstrual cup.
You may want to practice putting in your menstrual cup while squatting because you’re probably not going to have a toilet to sit on in the backcountry. Squatting changes the angle of your vagina, which may make it more difficult to insert your menstrual cup properly.
It’s also worth noting that menstrual cups may not work for every body. I personally find them extremely bulky and uncomfortable. My own experience makes me more sensitive to the unique needs that others may have, which is why I promote a shame-free approach to period management.
- Made from silicone.
- Can be worn for long periods of time.
- Emptying your cup or disc is time consuming and may be difficult in certain environments.
- Sterilizing your cup is also time consuming.
- Can be uncomfortable.
Menstrual discs are similar to menstrual cups, but smaller. Most menstrual discs are made from silicone, but some are made from plastics and resins. There are both reusable and disposable menstrual discs on the market.
I have never used a menstrual disc, so I can’t provide a first-hand experience. The primary issue that I’m aware of (that frankly has me scared to try one) is that the disc can become suctioned a little too well inside of you making it very difficult to remove. That’s a potential problem I definitely wouldn’t want to encounter in the backcountry!
With that said, if a menstrual disc is a product you’re comfortable and familiar with there are definite benefits to using one on a backpacking trip. Like a menstrual cup, a menstrual disc can be worn for extended periods of time. A reusable menstrual disc also helps you cut down on waste. Because they’re small and lightweight, they won’t take up much space in your pack.
Empty your menstrual disc in the same way as you would empty a menstrual cup. Dig a proper cathole 6-8” deep and bury the menstrual waste. If your menstrual disc is disposable be sure to pack it out. If it’s reusable be sure to sanitize it before reusing.
- Usually reusable.
- Typically made from silicone.
- Can be worn for long periods of time.
- Can be difficult to clean and sanitize.
- Takes a long time to change.
- Produces waste if using disposable discs.
Period underwear has become increasingly popular in recent years and can be an easy way to manage your period. Depending on the brand and style, period underwear can hold a considerable amount of menstrual blood. This allows you to wear a single pair for a long period of time. You can also find leggings and shorts that absorb menstrual blood similarly. These products are pricier than tampons and pads, but can be reworn multiple times to offset the cost.
The biggest challenge that you’re going to have while wearing period underwear on a backpacking trip is cleaning them properly. Never rinse menstrual blood in waterways. Instead you should dig a cathole to rinse your period underwear in.
While you can do an initial rinse of your period underwear on the trail, you really need to wash them thoroughly in a washing machine before they can be reworn. This means you’ll either need to carry multiple pairs (along with a bag to store the soiled underwear), or carry backup period product options. In my opinion, period underwear is a better choice for a day hike than a backpacking trip.
Another drawback to period underwear are the materials used to make them. The purpose of period underwear is to absorb your blood, and oftentimes period underwear contains per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, aka PFAS, to make that happen. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because once they enter your body or the environment they can’t break down. Exposure to PFAS is known to have negative health implications, including potential fertility issues and cancer. Unfortunately PFAS can be found in a wide variety of products and places, including drinking water, so it’s difficult to avoid exposure entirely, but again, these chemicals are going to be easily absorbed by your body when worn in a warm, moist environment. Because modern period underwear is still such a new method of managing your period, the potential long term health impacts are unknown.
- Easy to wear.
- Can be worn for long periods of time before needing to be changed.
- Can provide an extra layer of protection in case other products leak.
- Can be difficult to wash in the backcountry.
- Can’t be reworn on a single trip, so you’ll need multiple pairs.
- High upfront cost.
- May contain PFAS.
Alternative Strategies to Manage Your Period While Backpacking
Skipping Your Period
Using hormonal birth control as a way to intentionally skip your period is not a management strategy that I personally recommend. However, it is one that some people use for backpacking trips, so I think it’s worth mentioning. Keep in mind I am NOT a medical professional. Please speak with your doctor to determine what type of birth control (hormonal or not) is best for you!
When you take hormonal birth control you no longer have a natural menstrual cycle. With certain types of hormonal birth control you may not bleed at all, but with oral contraceptives you typically have a breakthrough bleed every month. This bleed is going to be predictable, so you can potentially schedule your backpacking trips around it.
It’s generally not medically necessary to have this breakthrough bleed. If you know you have a backpacking trip coming up you can skip bleeding by skipping the last week of pills in your birth control pack (aka the sugar pills). However, please consult your doctor before changing how you take any medication in case there are unique health considerations.
Rescheduling Your Backpacking Trip
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think that your period has to stop you from going on a backpacking trip, but I also understand that everyone has a unique period experience and you genuinely may not want to head into the backcountry when your flow is heavy.
There’s no shame in putting your body’s needs first and rescheduling your backpacking trip for a different point in your cycle. In fact, I recently canceled an overnight backpacking trip in the Sawtooth mountains because it happened to coincide with the heaviest part of my period. I camp with my period regularly, but I just didn’t feel like dealing with a mess and extra waste in the backcountry.
Of course, if you have permits or are completing a thru hike, backpacking on your period may be inevitable. I hope this article helps you feel confident and prepared to manage your period while backpacking!