Author: Tina Eckerlin
Over the years women have been under-represented in the backcountry. The outdoors has been male-dominated, but we are finally seeing a shift in representation of females, ethnicity, people with conditions and impairments, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Moreover, people are still uncomfortable talking about periods. This can make women feel shame and embarrassment.
As a female, you will, are or have menstruated. This is part of life and does not deserve the stigma associated with it.
I have had many women ask about menstruation in the backcountry, and how to handle it. This topic is not discussed openly in the mainstream media, and I would like to see that change.
So, let's discuss the common myths and fears, learn the best practices for menstruating in the backcountry.
Myths & Fears
Many newbie hikers and canoeists I have met are either afraid to get out into the backcountry due to a fear of bears and other animals being attracted to the smell of menstrual blood.
These women either avoid the backcountry all together or plan trips around their cycles. But let's face it, sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas.
For a long part of our history, menstruating women were accused of being responsible for attracting bears, and for bear attacks. There have been a lot of myths about this, similar to the old sailor's superstitions these are based on belief and not fact. This has led to many women being afraid to spend time in bear country.
This myth can be traced back to a horrific night in 1967, in Glacier National Park. That night saw two different grizzlies, attack two different young women. This was such a rare occurance that it left people grasping for an explanation. One of the two women was menstruating, and so the theories came to be.
There had been forest fires that drove the bears closer to humans. Also, at the time parks were littered with overflowing garbage, and poor food storage solutions. Campers were notorious for feeding the bears.
Headlines of two women killed spread. One of which was menstruating, and one with tampons in her purse.
The U.S. Forest Service prohibited female employees from working in the forest while menstruating, and the National Park Service began advising women to avoid bear country while on their period.
It was that night in 1967 that sparked dramatic changes in Park policies all over the world. Now, it is common to see warning and educational signs, bear boxes, and trails closed due to bears.
But unfortunately, the damage was done.
There is no evidence that black bears or grizzly bears are attracted to women while menstruating. Bears do have an amazing sense of smell, but are attracted to the proximity of humans due to poor Leave No Trace practices.
To a bear, humans stink! They will try to avoid you. This is unless you have slathered yourself in honey or have not kept your cook area clean.
Bears are attracted to food and garbage, and can lose their fear of humans. They are opportunist's, and are looking for a free meal! So, this means that if there is food or garbage around your campsite, they may investigate. This includes discarded menstrual products.
Firstly, you can use any menstrual product you like. However, you may want to avoid pads, as they are bulky.
We recommend using tampons or menstrual cups if possible. Try to use tampons without applicators because you will need to pack out the garbage.
Even if you are not expecting your period, it is best to always have supplies packed. Yes, this will increase your pack weight, but it is better to be prepared than caught unaware!
Avoid using any scented products. You should be avoiding these anyways, but will lessen interest from critters.
You may want to use unscented wipes, but as mentioned above you will need to pack these out! You could opt for the Backcountry Bidet sprayer to feel clean and fresh.
Don't forget to pack any pain relieving medication you may want.
You will want to check with local park regulations to see if toilet paper needs to be packed out. You could instead use a Goddess Antimicrobial Pee Cloth to bypass using TP.
The Goddess Pee Cloth features SILVADUR™ Antimicrobial to inhibit the growth of bacteria and control bad odors. The soft black absorbent side will soak up moisture even when damp and hide stains, even menstrual blood!
It is easily washed on the trail and will save a lot of added weight.
We recommend a mild unscented soap like Dr. Bronner's. Decanter into a travel size container and make sure to wash your hands before and after using sanitary products.
Make sure to carry extra water for hand washing and if you are using a menstrual cup.
Hand-sanitizer can be used after the soap, but soap and water are the best defense against bacteria.
Like everything in the backcountry, pack it in - pack it out!
When using a thunder-box, out-house or just digging a cathole always pack out your products.
Privy boxes are only meant to decompose human waste. Catholes are the same, and leaving products in a cathole it can become an attractant to curious animals.
When packing out used products we advise double-bagging with slide locking freezer bags. You can cover the bag with tape to be more discreet if you like.
I have even seen people use opaque slide locking bags from frozen berries and candy as their period product disposal bag.
You can place a dry tea bag or crushed up asprin in the bag to help control odors.
If you are still concerned, you can put your slide locking bag inside an odour proof bag like the Loksak OPSak Odour Proof Barrier Bags.
Used Product Storage
So, you are following good Leave No Trace Principles by storing your food and garbage in a food locker, or a bear hang bag according to park regulations. All scented items like insect repellent, sunscreen and lip balm are in your storage. That's great!
Make sure to store your used period products in the same fashion with your garbage.
- Make sure to pack medication if you suffer from cramps
- Place hot water in water bottle and wrap in clothing for a backcountry hot water bottle
- Pack some heat patches for cramps
- Stay hydrated! It is proven that physical exercise and hydration help minimize period cramps and discomfort
- If you are hiking with other people and are not feeling well, let them know
Don't let myths about the bear country scare you from living your own adventure. By following good Leave No Trace Principles we can better protect the wildlife and keep the backcountry wild for everyone!
Let's keep the conversation going. There is no shame in menstruation.