An Adventurer’s Guide to Feminine Hygiene


All About the Ladies: Backcountry Needs

Text by Lizzy Scully, Photo by John Dickey

The first time I invited a man on one of my international women’s rock climbing trips he told me we were the cleanest expedition-mates, by a longshot, that he’d ever traveled with. In Greenland, my climbing partners Quinn and Prairie (pictured) and I bathed at least every two to three days—they often in suits in the frigid snowmelt of the nameless creek next to which we camped, and me with a big pot of boiled water that I would mix with the creek water and then pour over myself. 

I’ve always cleaned myself as often as possible, no matter the backcountry adventure. Even when I lived the full-on dirtbag lifestyle in Yosemite National Park at age 23, climbing daily and sleeping in the woods, I still snuck into Curry Village bathhouses every few days to shower. And I frequently dunked myself in the Merced River to rinse off the grime and grease of the day. When spending multiple nights on the 3000+-foot El Capitan, I always made sure to bring plenty of unscented moist wipes (that were often infused with antiseptic properties, such as tea tree oil) and hand sanitizer. After spending 14 or 15 hours on the side of a sheer rock face, sweating, cursing and peeing into the void, the only really clean things on your body after “freshening up” are the face, hands and lady bits. But that’s enough to stay relatively clean.

My avid thru hiker friend, Annie, is a Triple Crowner, which means she's hiked the three longest trails in the United States (the Pacific Crest, Appalachian and Continental Divide trails). She recently confirmed my beliefs about women in the backcountry. “Female hikers tend to set a higher bar for hygiene on trips, and the benefits stretch far beyond looking cleaner.” Call it what you want—our practical nature or our culturally-driven need to not be too disgusting—women seem to be really dedicated to good hygiene.

Preventing illness, in turn, might mean you get to spend more time outdoors. Two of my favorite of Annie’s tips include: carry an extra bandana to use only as a pee rag, which you can air-dry by hanging from your pack; and hike commando in order to minimize sweat and have better air flow. A few of my girlfriends even wear skirts while hiking for both those reasons. Skirts also allow the lady to pee standing up, minimizing the chance for pee to get on shoes or spray on your calves. Just be sure to really spread your legs or use a Go Girl or SheWee, two female urination devices that give you a bit more maneuverability. Also, I typically bring at least three pairs of light, cotton underwear on backcountry adventures, which I rotate and rinse and clean any time there’s extra water at hand. Remember, however, not to put soap near or in any water sources; carry your water at least 200 feet away.

Dealing with sweat is also important. The body’s mechanism for dumping that extra heat generated from exercise and for flushing out toxins, sweat strengthens our immune system and gives us healthy skin, among other things. It effectively prevents the accumulation of salt and calcium in the kidneys and urine, and its antimicrobial peptides are effective against viruses, bacteria and fungi (according to MedicalDaily.com). The problem is the type of sweat produced in your armpits and groin smells bad when it combines with bacteria found normally on your skin. I like to wear a natural deodorant to control odor (because after multiple days of smelling really bad, well, you, your tent, your clothes and everything you own smells really bad, and if you’re playing in nature with a sweetheart, that might preclude a romantic night in the tent). Try Green Goo’s new Pit Goo to alleviate odors. I especially like the rose and geranium.

As well, to both allow your sweat to flow freely and to control rising stink, wear loose-fitting, moisture-wicking clothes. Merino Wool is a great option to minimize bad smells, as it has superior wicking abilities and can absorb 35% of its own weight in liquid! Yet, the moisture is bound within the structure, says CoolWildlife.com, and so is not available to microbes which cause body odor.  Ex Officio also builds an antimicrobial component into their fabrics.

Finally, one of the most difficult dilemmas for the outdoorswoman is dealing with our monthly cycles (warning to men: we’re going to talk about blood now). When I first visited Yosemite, I met a talented, eccentric rock climber nicknamed, Raven Hairs. One day, as we sat by the river after a fresh sand bath, she said to me, “I love my moon! When I have it, I go into the woods, spread my legs and bleed into the earth!” Unfortunately, this is simply not practical for even the most adventurous backcountry traveler. But, our menstrual cycle happens, every month in fact. And, when you’re really pushing your body hard, it might come later or earlier than normal. I got mine once, two weeks early, while I slept through my second unplanned bivy on the Leaning Tower. In other words, I was stuck hanging through the night on the very sheer side of a 2000-foot wall, bleeding through my pants and my harness. My male partner, with kind intent, handed me a gauze pad.

Don’t forget, be prepared!

Though menstrual blood shouldn’t smell unless you have an infection in your reproductive tract, it’s best to keep those lady parts as clean as possible, as I mentioned earlier. So come up with a plan of attack. As with all items that you pack in (tampons, pads, and the baby wipes you use to clean up with), you must pack your trash out. There are simply too many people wandering the backcountry these days for you to leave your garbage hidden behind a tree or, even worse and as I’ve seen numerous times, right alongside the trail. I recently started using the Diva Cup, and I will never go back . Not only is it much more affordable in the long run than tampons, which you have to purchase every month, it’s lightweight, easy to carry, easy to keep clean and totally reusable. Just be sure to have key items ready to keep it and your hands clean—baby wipes, a small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap or other biodegradable soaps and hand sanitizer. And again, don’t dump your menstrual fluids near water sources or areas where others might camp.

Note: thanks to a National Park Service study, women can rest assured that menstrual fluids don’t, in fact, attract bears (except for the occasional polar bear, which you are highly unlikely to confront unless you’re an Arctic traveler). You can read all about it in the Huffington Post.

Finally, bring your first aid kit! Green Goo makes a great, lightweight, 100% All Natural First Aid Travel Tin for cracked skin, insect bites, scrapes, rashes, chafing, cuts, sunburns and poison ivy, as well as a Pain Relief Travel Tin, which helps with sprains, joint pains, sore muscles, bruises, inflammation and strains. Swap out the petroleum-based products from any of the various outdoor first aid kits available (Check out OutdoorGearLab’s “best of” outdoor med kits).

Once you integrate these recommendations into your typical adventure kit, you’ll not only feel better, but you’ll be healthier over all. And if you are, in fact, traveling with your sweetheart, and you can somehow convince him to be at least somewhat as tidy as you, you’re definitely in for not only better daytime adventures, but also nighttime ones!

See Lizzy's previous post, "The Glampeur’s Guide for Nighttime Camping Fun," for ideas on how to spice up your evenings while glamping (i.e. glamour camping).