Hey y'all, Emily here.
This post is about feminine hygiene in the backcountry, but first, we'll cover some basic hygiene for everyone, regardless of how you identify.
Personal hygiene while backpacking is essential. Although we don't recommend bringing deodorant, soap, lotion, etc., is it possible to not smell and feel disgusting while in the backcountry.
One of the most satisfying and hygienically helpful things to do once you enter camp is take off your grimy, sweating socks, and let your feet dry out. Afterwards, you can put on a clean pair of socks and/or camp shoes (such as Chacos or Crocs). This helps reduce odor and minimize the possibly of blisters or athlete's foot.
Another recommendation is using wet wipes. Obviously these are nice after you go to the bathroom, but they are also handy for a little body wipe-down in your tent.
This blog post says it best: "The tent bath is immediately followed by changing into dry socks and dry underwear. It’s important to sleep in dry socks and underwear to minimize the growth of humidity-loving bacteria. Excess bacteria can quickly lead to increased body odor, fungal growth, yeast and UTI infections, and other unpleasant things."
On another note, you will be pooping in nature while backpacking.
Depending on your location, there may be a stand-alone toilet in some backcountry campsites, but don't rely on them, they are often few and far between. If there is, make sure that you only leave your waste and toilet paper in the toilet, everything else must be packed out (ladies, more on that below).
If there is no toilet, you will need to hike at least 200 feet (about 70 steps) from any water source, and away from the trail and campsite. You will want to make sure that you have all of your supplies before finding your spot, including:
Trowel— when pooping in the backcountry, you must dig a cathole that is at least six inches deep (most likely the length of the trowel itself). After going to the bathroom, cover the hole. The trowel is only for digging, it should never touch your waste. Only your waste goes in the hole, everything else must be packed out (including toilet paper).
Toilet paper— it is important to know that toilet paper does not get buried in the cathole. Put used toilet paper in your waste bag, as described below.
Ziploc for clean toilet paper and waste bag for used toilet paper/ anything else you have to pack out— I like to keep my clean toilet paper in a normal ziploc bag, and have a dog waste bag for my used toilet paper. The dog waste bag is a dark color to keep things discreet.
You can read the Leave No Trace principles for how to dispose of waste properly for more details and insight.
Always make sure you tell someone in the group that you are going to the bathroom and which direction you are headed. This helps ensure that you don't have any unwanted visitors while you are doing your business.
And lastly, although bears are not attracted to waste odor, carry bear spray with you when you leave the trail or camp to go to the bathroom.
Now on to feminine hygiene practices...
Peeing in the backcountry:
Using toilet paper after you pee in the backcountry is honestly, not ideal.
Because you want to be conscious of weight, you'll only have a certain amount of toilet paper, and you want to make sure you save enough for when you have to poop.
Some alternative recommendations include:
Drip Dry: this method eliminates the need for toilet paper. After going pee, just shake a little bit and stand up to go. It is extremely simple, but a drawback is that your underwear will get dirtier faster.
Pee Cloth: If you are skeptical about the drip dry, a pee cloth is a great alternative (I like Kula Cloth, or you can use a handkerchief). They are a reusable cloth to be used after peeing, and only peeing. Once finished, hang the pee cloth on the outside of your backpack, which will expose it to fresh air and UV light. You can wash a pee cloth while in the backcountry, just don't do it in your water source— take a water bottle and biodegradable soap 200 feet (about 70 steps) away to do so.
If you are hesitant to squat while peeing, or are uncomfortable exposing your lower half while peeing in the backcountry, you could always look into a pee funnel. This allows you to pee while standing up and wearing pants.
And lastly, because women are usually more susceptible to infections, it is important to change into a clean pair of underwear each day. Sometimes, I even bring a few panty liners so I can keep clean and fresh throughout the day.
You'll want underwear that is moisture-wicking and quick-drying. Avoid cotton and go for something that is breathable, like polyester, nylon or merino wool. You can read REI's blog post: How To Choose Hiking Underwear. We recommend the brands ExOfficio and Smart Wool.
Periods in the backcountry:
Although periods are not ideal while backpacking, they can be manageable.
It should be noted that bears are not attracted to menstrual odors.
Below are our recommendations for how to cope with your period in the backcountry.
Pads and Tampons:
Because pads and tampons are typically made from synthetic fibers and plastic, they will need to be packed out (I put them in the same waste bag as my used toilet paper). You could try using applicator-free tampons to reduce waste.
Leave No Trace recommends placing tea bags with your used pads or tampons if odor becomes a problem.
I highly recommend using a menstrual cup while on your period in the backcountry. They are reusable and don't have any plastic waste. Depending on your flow, menstrual cups typically need to be emptied every 12 hours. To dispose of it's contents, you will need to dig a six inch cathole (don't forget your trowel!), and empty the cup. Bring a water bottle and scent-free, biodegradable soap with you to rinse the cup and your hands before reinserting it. Make sure your waste water goes in the hole as well, and then cover it, like you would after pooping.
If you have never used a menstrual cup before, make sure you try it at home before taking it into the backcountry.
Period underwear absorbs blood using a material that is "moisture-wicking, odor-controlling, super-absorbent, and leak-resistant". These can be washed the same way you would wash a menstrual cup— dig a cathole and make sure the waste water goes in the hole. Even though they are quick-drying, you will want to make sure you have another pair, or a menstrual cup/ tampon while they dry.
Some other recommendations:
Again, bears are not attracted to menstrual odors, but it is still important to hang these used items at night.
Consider keeping your toilet paper kit and period kit in an easily accessible location in your backpack, I like to keep mine in the top zippered compartment.
Make sure you tell someone in the group that you are going to the bathroom and which direction you are headed. Or, bring a friend so they can stand guard while you are taking care of yourself.
The best advice for a comfortable and confident backpacking trip is doing what feels right and good for you. All of the recommendations above are based off my personal experience and research, but they may not work for everyone. Before you hit the trail, consider the hygiene practices you want to take with you, and try them out before you leave home.
Use the comment section below to share any insight or recommendations that you have! And please reach out if you have any lingering questions or concerns.
See you on the trail,
Featured Trip: Heart Lake to Mount Sheridan
This guided trip offers backpackers a little bit of everything Yellowstone has to showcase— thermal hot springs, pristine lakes, big rivers, remote valleys, and mountain summit views.
We camp on the shores of Heart Lake, one of the largest backcountry lakes in Yellowstone. Weather permitting, you'll have a chance to summit Mount Sheridan, with views all the way to Grand Teton National Park. Once leaving Heart Lake, we traverse Snake River and travel far into the southern boundaries of Yellowstone.
On this trip you'll have excellent opportunities to spot wildlife, soak in hot springs, and experience remote parts of Yellowstone National Park.