A Monthly Inconvenience


Is getting your period on-trail annoying? Absolutely. Does it stop us from hiking? Absolutely not! For women hikers, arriving at your time of the month can mean anything from not getting your period at all, to a reduction in symptoms, to getting the same old routine of cramps and flow.

screenshot from the Period Tracker app
screenshot from the Period Tracker app

Before Your Hike

If you haven’t already, become familiar with your cycle. You can use a journal or a period tracking app to record the length of your cycle, as well as the typical patterns of symptoms throughout your menstrual cycle.

 

Period Tracker app for Android
Period Tracker app for iPhone

 

If you track your cycle for a few months, you may find that you can roughly predict which days you will feel moodier, so you can be mentally prepared, and which days you will have cramps and flow, so you can modify your mileage expectations or plan a zero day if necessary.

 

For some women, periods are no big deal, for others it can nearly stop them in their tracks.  For some it is predicable and for others predictability is much lower. Either way, if you keep a journal in some form, certain patterns may emerge that can help you be more prepared for the trail.

 

Birth control has been used by hikers as a hormone treatment to reduce or eliminate their period while thru-hiking. I personally avoid taking medication unless it is medically necessary, so I would not take birth control for this purpose. However it may be the best option for some women. Contact your doctor for further information.

 

The Same Old Cramps and Flow

Once the hike starts, some women may lose their period completely (more about in the next section below). For those of us who still have to deal with menstruation symptoms on-trail here are a few tips.

 

1) Tampons, Pads, or Menstrual Cups? You decide!

 

cleanliness

chafing

waste

weight

environmental?

pStyle friendly?

pads

low

high

high

high

no

hard

tampons

high

low

medium

medium

no

easy

cups

medium

possible

low

low

yes

?

Pads chafe, are messy and create a lot more weight and waste.


Tampons make it easy to stay clean without a ton of weight, and make it really easy to cleanly use the pStyle (see above).


Menstrual cups reduce carried waste significantly and are the most environmentally friendly by far, but reviews state that they can take some getting used to so you might want to test one out before your thru-hike. Cups may require the use of panty-liners. Reviews have stated that until you master the use of the cup there can be leakage, but leakage can also be an issue with tampons. Also, if you use a cup, bury your waste appropriately.

 

I found tampons worked really well, but I plan on trying a cup this year because some hikers swear by their menstrual cups. Whatever you do, make sure to use unscented products whether they are pads, tampons, Wet Ones, et cetera to reduce the risk of animals smelling you or your waste. And also make sure to stay clean using water, Wet Ones, et cetera.


Interested in using a menstrual cup? You have a lot of options. Read reviews here.


2) Always Pack Out Waste!

Never ever, ever, ever leave your feminine products or waste in the backcountry! Even biodegradable waste still sticks around for a long time and animals like squirrels and rodents will dig it up, making the trail a very unpleasant place for both the hikers and animals. Also, you should bury your waste from your menstrual cup as you would bury any other human bodily waste (in a cat-hole 6 inches deep).  

 

3) How to Pack Out Waste

I found that having Ziplocs, unscented Wet Ones and a large piece of aluminum foil work best when packing out waste. For each month, I bring a quart-sized Ziploc for my waste, which I then put inside a one-gallon Ziploc. I also wrap it all in aluminum foil as an extra precaution to curb the smell.  I always keep a couple extra Ziplocs just in case and thicker Ziplocs are recommended.

 

I occasionally have found myself in situations where I did not have enough aluminum foil and it was not an issue.  As long as you are properly storing your smellables in a bear canister or hanging them from a tree, you will be fine.  If you are not comfortable putting your Ziploc-ed waste in with your food, you can put it inside a small drysack and hang it separately if necessary. I never had any issues with animals being interested in my waste or me while on my period (and I am not one of the lucky folks whose period became reduced in the slightest). If you are concerned about animals being interested in your smell, stay extra clean with unscented Wet Ones or baby wipes.

 

4) Water, Food, and Iron

Drink lots of water, eat plenty of food, and consider taking iron to prevent anemia since your diet may be low in iron on trail. Remember to use USP approved supplements when possible.

 

5) Stay Clean and Trim

Clean yourself regularly with unscented Wet Ones or baby wipes and trim up every time you get the chance. This increases comfort while hiking, while also reducing the risk of infection.

 

6) Take it Easy

If your period symptoms become too distracting, painful or difficult, take more breaks or some time off and don’t feel bad about it.


The Absence of Menstruation:  Amenorrhea

If you experience a loss of menstruation (amenorrhea) while hiking, that might be awesome in terms of on-trail comfort. However, be aware of risks associated with amenorrhea and make sure to take appropriate precautions on-trail and after hiking.  Examples:

  • Take calcium and vitamin D
  • See a doctor if you know you are at risk for amenorrhea
  • See your doctor if your period does not return after hiking

The nature and risks of amenorrhea:

1) What is amenorrhea?

Loss of period for one or more menstrual cycles due to a disruption in hormone production

 

2) Related causes of amenorrhea

Low body weight (10% under normal weight) and excessive exercise can disrupt hormone levels (estrogen) and ovulation. Athletic training is considered a risk factor for amenorrhea.

 

3) Symptoms

The absence of period for one or more menstrual cycles. Numerous other symptoms are possible depending on the cause.

 

4) Will my period return?

Some women’s periods return quickly after reducing excessive exercise, however, keep in mind that this is not true for all. Track your period after you return from hiking and seriously consider whether to see a doctor if it has not returned within 1-3 cycles after getting off trail as there are known complications associated with amenorrhea.

 

5) Complications

a.  Calcium and Vitamin D Deficiency

Less estrogen can result in Calcium and Vitamin D deficiencies. Calcium depends on Vitamin D for proper absorption, and deficiencies in either one can result in a range of health problems ranging from osteoporosis to depression. Consider taking Calcium and Vitamin D supplements while hiking. Make sure to use a USP approved supplement in the correct dosage, as it is possible to overdose on fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin D. If you are getting lots of sun exposure while hiking you may not need to take a vitamin D supplement and taking a vitamin D supplement may result in toxicity.

 

b.  Osteoporosis

A reduction in Ca absorption leads to weak bones and an increased risk of stress fractures and bone breaks. This can become an issue as women get older, but it is also known to cause problems for young women with prolonged calcium deficiency resultinging early bone loss.

 

c.  Infertility

Since estrogen production regulates ovulation and reproductive health, a reduction in estrogen can mean a reduction in fertility. Consult your doctor if you are concerned about the implications of reduced fertility. Maintaining a healthy caloric intake and reducing exercise so that your body weight returns to normal is important in eliminating amenorrhea and helping estrogen levels return to normal. This is typically the recommended way of enhancing fertility after amenorrhea, however in some cases fertility medications may be necessary.