Ok guys, this is NOT what you expect. But somebody has to talk about the subject. It inevitably comes to mind, especially when hiking for an extended time in bear/mountain lion country. There is an astounding number of ways to not talk of it while trying to ask the question. A good number of backpackers, climbers and city people who know backpackers and climbers have probably wondered about it: how does being in the backcountry and having your period work in practice?
Answer: way better than really having to pee in the middle of a multi-pitch climb.
First things first: I consider timing my outdoor trips around my menstruation not an option. Too much hassle, and as any woman knows, sometimes the body does go off schedule. For the truly uninitiated, there are two common hygiene articles to use: pads and tampons. Pads are bulky, difficult to use with an active lifestyle, tend to leak and feel just yucky. So forget about those. Most active women I know use tampons.
The obvious advantages of tampons are their smaller size, snug fit and availability in different sizes. Tampons which come with their applicator for insertion are obviously safer to use in the backcountry where hand hygiene is more of a challenge. Yes, I do wash my hands and carry disinfectant. I don’t carry a brush to scrub the dirt from under my (short) fingernails, though.
Then there is the question of how many tampons to carry, and which sizes. Obviously, you want to carry enough. Running short is not an option when the next drugstore is a 30-mile hike plus a 20 mile mountain road drive away. The first thing I did, logically, as a good scientist was to record for a while how many tampons of each size I needed during a front-country menstruation. Then I added a 10% safety margin for each size to get to the backcountry number. You don’t want to carry too many either, because obviously they take space in the pack. Which is why I was happy when I discovered a tampon brand that came with an applicator of about half the length than the regular ones. I first found them in a store in Tokyo, but eventually the product was marketed in the USA as well. The drawback though was these short applicators are made of plastic instead of cardboard, which I did not like for environmental reasons.
Yes, the environment. We leave no trace and pack out the trash, which means for the first time I really could tell how much trash I was creating every month. Find it yucky to carry out stuff? Consider yourself lucky not to be in heavily used places like Pariah Canyon, where regulations require backpackers to carry out all solid trash. Yes, ALL. Anyway, back to the female only trash challenge. Sometime last year, the Sierra Club magazine ran an article answering the question about the most environmentally friendly hygiene for menstruating women. Of course pads vs tampons were discussed extensively, but then, voila, the DIVA CUP was mentioned.
Of course I marched myself to the next REI and checked it out. While generally shopping-impaired, I function quite well when it comes to shopping for outdoor equipment. So, what is a diva cup? A very simple silicon cup of parabolic shape, which is inserted into the vagina like a tampon. It comes in two sizes, one for women who have had vaginally delivered children, and a smaller size for those who have not.
The diva cup is quite simple to use. Insert in vagina, turn once to make sure the upper end has a good seal. As with any new gadget, it takes a few days to get the hang of it, but once you get it it is quite simple. The volume of the cup is enough to actually catch all discharge from one menstruation, which one obviously does not want to test. But this makes the device flexible enough so woman can wait for a good opportunity to empty, clean and re-insert. Which means a woman somewhere off-trail in the backcountry can wait until a place with enough privacy, water availability for handwashing, and soil to dig a pothole can be found. The diva cup is easily cleaned by flushing it with a drop of campsuds and treated water. It packs in less than 10% of the size of a tampon supply, creates no trash, and for a purchasing price of around $20 with a multi-year lifespan is considerably cheaper than any other option.
Ladies, consider using a Diva.