As a professional outdoor educator, mother of two girls and the author of the popular teen book, Poppy Pretzel – Passage Into Puberty, I’ve been managing my period (and those around me) since 1974. I’ve been blessed with parents who educated me early about menstruation and no subject was out of bounds for discussion which has given me a healthy approach to health and hygiene.
Warning: This post is about periods, pads and tampons as well as managing hygiene in the bush. If you find this uncomfortable you could stop right now. However, I encourage you to read on, for every woman this is a common monthly occurrence and it’s worth hanging in there to gain a better understanding of periods and camping.
Like many women, I suffered from premenstrual symptoms, mine was lower back pain – a sure fire sign my period would arrive within 24 hours. My cycle was fairly regular and lasted five days, heavy at the start and lighter at the end. This changed slightly after having children.
This picture (below) is at Wee Jasper after a caving expedition and had my period during the six hours of exploring the caves.
When I started camping as a young girl, no period – no issues. Once a teenager however, things became more complicated on camp. Remember, these were the days before disposable wipes, applicator tampons, mini tampons, pads with wings, slim pads, hand sanitiser and snap lock bags. Along with my girlfriends, we all had each others back and helped each other out on camp. This meant buddying up when heading to the toilet, offering spare pads and tampons if needed and always someone to watch out in case we leaked through our clothes (probably our biggest fear, but rarely happened to any of us).
Move forward a few years and I’m a professional outdoor guide which meant I was camping over 150 nights a year often in remote or primitive locations and having a period 25% of the time. The photo below is at Mount Buffalo as a climbing and abseiling guide, wearing my comfy pants that were my favourite when I had my period.
These days I’m often called upon to do briefings or presentations at schools and clubs (both co-ed or girls schools) to walk them through how to manage their periods in the outdoors and below is a list of the issues I address.
Main concerns for girls / women in the outdoors in no particular order are:
- access to a toilet & toilet breaks
- access to water (hygiene)
- disposal of products
- others knowing you have your period
- menstrual cramps or pain
- water activities
So let’s address each of these issues.
- Privacy – if you’re on a school camp, your Group Leader will have strict guidelines that they follow in relation to privacy and hygiene. I would strongly suggest when you go to the toilet (whether flushing, long drop toilet or a trench in the ground), take a friend with you who can be your guard while you do your business. Then swap over roles once you’ve finished, that way you can rest assure that you will have some privacy.
- Access to toilets & toilet breaks: Speak to your Group Leader or other adult. A good leader is well versed in these situations and giving them a ‘heads up’ is beneficial. They will make allowances for time and privacy for you. If your Group Leader is male, please don’t feel uncomfortable. He’s been trained specifically in dealing with periods on programs. But if it totally creeps you out, speak to other females in your group. They’ll be sympathetic. If your periods are heavy or you’re not able to always take a toilet break, then I would recommend using thicker pads or a tampon and a pad. You can also wear darker clothing (just in case). It’s rare that you will leak through.
- Access to water (hygiene): Whether you have access to a flushing toilet with running water, a long drop toilet with a hand basin or a bush toilet that is a whole in the ground with no running water – you can still manage having your period. Doesn’t matter which, each one you still need to have privacy and access to good hygiene facilities and the ability to dispose of your products appropriately. The first one and maybe the second one will have a tap with cold water but a bush toilet – not. However, there will be facilities to wash your hands with soap, water and hand sanitiser. Use it. The photo above is a good idea of what a long drop toilet may look like. If running water is not available, then take a packet of ‘wet ones’ or other wipes which come in a pack of say 20. There are some that are made for sensitive skin which are more appropriate than the general wipes. For a five day trip away, one packet of wipes along with one roll of toilet paper is adequate.
- Disposal of products: It is essential that used pads, tampons, along with applicator or wrappers need to be disposed of appropriately. Picture this: you’re at the toilet and have a used pad/tampon. Wrap a pad in the wrapper of the next pad or wrap them tightly in clean toilet paper. For a tampon, have a few sheets of toilet paper hand to place it on for wrapping. Take one of your snap lock bags and place it in the bag. This is your ‘used bag’. Under no circumstances should you bury or burn your used products even if they are biodegradable/compostable. Applicator tampons are handy for hygiene reasons but note that you’ll still need to take the applicator out with you along with the used tampon. Leave No Trace principles means you need to take it out with you. Don’t be fooled that no one will find out. There is nothing worse than seeing an animal has dug up someone elses pads from the day before. I was told a funny story by a colleague who worked in an International School in Singapore – she used to tell her students that they shouldn’t flick their tampons into the jungle because you never know when a monkey will come out wearing one like an earring.
- Others knowing you have your period: For some, they are uncomfortable if others know they have their period, particularly if there are males and females on a trip. I highly recommend you put all your pads/tampons needed for the time you’re away in a snap lock bag, then in another (double bagging ensures no moisture gets in) and then put into an inconspicuous bag. This can hold your toilet paper, wipes and hand sanitiser as well.
- Menstrual camps and pain: Cramping and camping isn’t fun so bring along analgesics that you have used previously. This isn’t the time to start something new. If you are part of a school group, I strongly recommend you follow school protocols in relation to self-administering medication. These days you don’t need to suffer in silence. There are many products at a pharmacy that are useful. Please consult your doctor or pharmacist for further information.
- Water activities: So you have to go rafting and you use pads. What to do? There are a couple of choices. You can sit out on the activity but it’s a shame to not participate for something that can easily be managed. You can wear a pad and hopefully you won’t go into the river or waterway. Ask the Group Leader if he/she can take extra pads on the river. They will have a dry bag for exactly this reason. If you do participate, your pad will get very wet and expand but that’s not the end of the world. Once you’ve finished the activity, you can ask your Group Leader where the toilets are or a place for some privacy. If you’re using tampons, there should not be any issues but again, once you are near toilets or have some privacy you can check that everything is okay.
There are alternatives to pads / tampons such as a menstrual cup: Diva Cup or Moon Cup or Sea Sponges. I would only recommend these if you’ve had previous experiences with them. They are excellent but take some practice to use and you do need access to good hygiene facilities.
- Your first trip into the outdoors is not the time to start experimenting with something you’re not familiar with. If you use pads, bring pads. You need to be comfortable both physically and emotionally that everything will be okay.
- Allow 20% more pads / tampons than you would normally use. You don’t want to be caught out.
- Sleeping on a closed cell foam mat camping isn’t the most comfortable and you may already have pain from your period. If you’re able to access a self-inflating mat, then take one with you.
- If your pads / tampons get wet then they are useless (although unused tampons make excellent fire starters if you soak them in metho). Double bag everything before you leave home.
- Bring extra snap lock bags. They weigh nothing, take up no room and come in handy for lots of reasons.
- Bring an extra pair of knickers / undies / briefs – just in case and put in your toiletries bag.
- I like to bring my water bottle to the toilets just in case I need to moisten my wipes.
- Never toss pads or tampons in a fire. Even if you wrap a pad in toilet paper nice and tight and come to the fireplace at night, the heat affects the adhesive and that little pad will open up like a flower in front of your eyes and those around you – embarrassing. And don’t forget – these items are wet! They’ll take a while to burn and they make smoke. Pack it in, pack it out.
- Finally, you may like to have a wash or what we call an APC – Armpit and Crotch. Using wipes or a wet flannel, freshen yourself up.
If you’re snow camping (below) then washing facilities are scarce. Ensure you take time in the morning or night to boil a little water on your stove and have a ‘tubby’ (short for bathtub). Using a face washer or wipes, have an APC. You’ll feel 100% better.
I recently found some statistics: If the average woman menstruate for forty years and uses approximately 20 tampons per cycle (240 tampons each year) how many will she use during her entire menstrual life cycle? Answer: 9,600. Every month, women flush and throw away hundreds of disposable products and their packaging. On average, 70% of women use tampons. Yowsers!
Travelling overseas? Tampons are not as freely available in more conservative countries so stock up on your regular products before you leave. Little packets of tissues are handy but not as good as wipes. Often toilets overseas won’t flush pads or tampons – pack them out as previously written. Drink plenty of water (bottled if necessary) and keep yourself hydrated. If flying through different time zones and your routine is disrupted, then you may find you have irregular bleeding. You’ll also find a change in diet, water, exercise, routine can affect your period.
Preference on outdoor trips? I have no preference – it’s personal. What works for you now is what you should take. If you have enough lead time before you go away, experiment but make sure whatever you take, you’re comfortable with it.
If you are on the contraceptive pill, I recommend you speak to your doctor about the specifics on tweaking how you take the pill so you don’t get your period when outdoors. I know from personal experience how to manage this but if you’re a young woman, it’s best to seek professional advice.
Whatever you decide, don’t let having your period stop you from being in the outdoors. It’s a minor inconvenience and believe me, you’ll have many more challenges in life. Take this as a learning curve and remember that millions of women before you have dealt with this without the luxury of pads / tampons / wipes / snaplock bags. Be a prepared and practical – not a princess.
Now it’s your turn. What’s your experiences of having your period in the outdoors and travelling? Leave a comment below.