Traveling & Backpacking on Your Period

For whatever reason, writing about periods feels a little bit dated — like 2012-era cheesy “Girl Power.” Having a period is starting to become so “mainstream” in the US that companies are — gasp —using red liquid in actual advertisements on actual TV! In some ways, Real Talk™ about periods is starting to feel like one of those fake edgy things corporations do to seem woke (Can you tell I’m in the “cynical” stage of quarantine?).

So why write this post? First, as comfortable as some societies get with periods (and if you couldn’t tell above, despite corporate attention, I don’t think we actually are), for millions of women around the world, managing a monthly period is a huge (and potentially deadly) taboo.

Second, no matter how many blood-soaked commercials they make, when my period comes around during a trip or backpacking adventure, it still has the potential to take up more mental (and emotional!) energy than any other personal hygiene issue. When I wake up and check my cup, when I’m exploring and worry about leaks, when I’m doubled over with cramps — she’s always there! Not to anthropomorphize bodily functions too much, but I’m convinced that if my period had it her way, I’d spend the whole week lying on the couch watching Gilmore Girls and eating chocolate. And especially if I’m traveling with or near mostly men (which, let’s be honest, if I’m backpacking — I am), it’s so obvious that they just have no idea what’s happening. But I’ll be damned if I cancel a trip because of my period — If I did that, I would have never gone to Nepal, or Palestine, or the White Mountains, or Colorado, or — ok, why the hell do I always have my period?!

Do you feel like this when your period starts during a vacation? Don’t panic!

Like any good preparation, planning out a good Period System allows me to hike farther, explore longer, and generally immerse myself in a place better.

Why the Menstrual Cup is the Way to Go

I’m not going to go into tampons or pads (shudder) — If you have a period, you know how those work. But I am going to talk about why the menstrual cup is truly the best way to handle your period while traveling. I know I made it sound complex by talking about a system above, but a menstrual cup and a few spare liners for heavy days is pretty much my whole system while traveling (if you’re backpacking, you’ll need a few more things — more on that below)!

If you don’t already know, the menstrual cup is a small, reusable silicone cup that you change every 10-12 hours or so. Some brands fit different bodies differently — I currently use the Saalt Cup, but I’ve also had good luck with the Lena Cup and the O.G. Diva Cup. If you’re looking for a cup, you can check out this fun quiz!

Some Caveats

You definitely want to try the cup out at home first, preferably for a few cycles. You also might have to try a few different brands to get the fit right. With some brands, I’ve had issues with leaking or the seal breaking. But even with those issues, I’m a HUGE advocate for #cuplife. Here’s why:

You save bag space (and waste!)

When I was thinking about this post, I stumbled across a travel blogger who packed over 100 tampons on a trip. I’m not going to name names but GIRL WHAT. A cup takes up about a much space as a sock (Or less?). If I think my period is about to start, I actually wear my cup ahead of time — the stress of switching time zones or starting a hike tends to kick things off early!

Avoid shopping for tampons abroad

Since I primarily use cups, I haven’t experienced this first-hand. But I have experienced the stress and utter confusion of searching for cold medicine, conditioner, or other toiletries abroad. While it doesn’t matter if I have to wonder “is this going to work?” For a little packet of face wash, I don’t want to be unsure about a box of tampons.

You don’t have to worry about long flights, bus rides, or train trips

This is probably my favorite benefit of a menstrual cup — you can board an 8 hour plane or even an 11 hour bus and know that your period is handled. You pop the cup in, pull on your sleeping mask, and wake up worry free (at least as far as your period is concerned).

Can a tampon make it through a seven hour bus delay in the Nepali countryside? Don’t risk it!

Squat toilets and paper-free plumbing systems are a breeze

In some countries, you need to put all toilet paper and paper products into a wastebasket. Again, you’ll cut down on waste by simply using a cup! It’s also entirely possible (and in some ways, easier!) to remove and reinsert a cup in a place that uses squat toilets. If you’re paranoid about dropping the cup into the abyss, you can reinsert your cup standing or over the floor (this is an advanced cup-user move: proceed with caution).

Things to Think About When Backpacking

The pros I mentioned above are even more beneficial when backpacking. You don’t want to have to bank on finding pads at a random gas station near your trailhead or have to stop and switch your tampon every three hours. But like all things in the wilderness, having your period gets just a little more complicated.

Packing In/Out Supplies

To prepare for having your period on the trail, you’ll want to bring a few necessities, in addition to your cup. I usually pack a roll of toilet paper, some unscented wipes, and a pack out bag. In order to Leave no Trace, you need to pack out all wipes (even if they claim to be biodegradable!) and tampons, liners, and pads. I know I sound like a broken record, but switching from tampons to cups really cuts down on the amount of waste you have to carry around and pack out!

Changing it Up

When you need to change your cup, follow these steps:

  1. Dig a cat hole 6-8 inches deep, 200 feet from camp
  2. Remove the cup and pour any contents into the hole
  3. Squirt CLEAN water on the cup
  4. Use a wipe to clean off the cup and yourself (remember to pack the wipe in your pack-out-bag. If you’re in bear country, you’ll put this bag in your bear proof container)
  5. Reinsert
  6. Wash your hands with soap and clean water, or if you’re on trail, use hand sanitizer
For more backpacking-period-tips check out this awesome comic.

Take it All in Stride

Once you get used to it, it’s really not too bad! 

If something goes wrong, don’t sweat it, and definitely don’t let it keep you from having a great time. 

I’ve never been happier than when my period surprised me out on the trail and I stumbled upon an unopened-brand-new liner. Thank you Period Gods!

There are so many weird setbacks that can happen while backpacking or traveling — from blisters, to carsickness, to pickpockets and everything in between. One of the awesome things about travel (and the reason why I always advocate being prepared!) is it teaches you to handle these issues when they come up and keep going regardless.

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