Your health and hygiene in the backcountry may require extra attention if you menstruate. But with preparation and practice, you can build up your outdoor routine with confidence. Whether you’re new to backpacking or looking for a more efficient solution, we have the know-how to keep you healthy and comfortable on your next backpacking trip.
How do I pee and poop in the backcountry?
The quick and dirty answer: like everyone else (but keep reading). There are some basic ethics to consider before you have to go, and these apply to everyone.
Human waste in the backcountry is problematic for a few reasons: it can contaminate water sources, spread disease, and is visually unappealing. To help keep the backcountry pristine, we follow Leave No Trace principles. Here’s what you need to know:
- If a privy is available, poop there. Throw sand or wood chips (usually supplied) over your waste and close the toilet lid. Pack out wipes, period products, and other waste items that do not belong in a privy.
- When there’s no privy, you’ll need a garden trowel and zip-top bag. Find a location that’s away from trails, at least 70 adult paces away from water sources, and in an inconspicuous area where people are unlikely to walk or camp. If you need to poop, dig a six- to eight-inch deep cathole first. Backfill the hole with natural materials to bury your waste and toilet paper. You can also pack out your TP in the zip-top bag.
- Check with your local land manager and area-specific regulations; some agencies may require you to pack out your poo. (In this case, investigate Cleanwaste bags and similar kits.)
- Urine generally doesn’t hurt vegetation — although we recommend not peeing on the more sensitive alpine plants — so no cathole needed. In that case, however, you will need to pack out your toilet paper in the zip-top bag. Some wildlife will be attracted to the salt in your urine, and they will destroy plants to reach it; if possible, urinate on rocks, pine needles, or gravel (as long as the location meets the above criteria).
- There is a correct type of toilet paper: it should be unscented and chemical free. Thoroughly bury it in the cathole or pack it out. (Pro tips: you can clean yourself with snow but brace yourself; in a pinch, I’ve also used cleanish leaves, but know how to identify poison ivy before you resort to this option.) You can also try reusable pee rags such as the Kula Cloth, Circe Care, and Wander Wipe.
Peeing safely & discretely:
The Pee Funnel: When you’re hesitant to expose your entire lower half — whether to the elements or nearby hikers — consider a pee funnel. Pee funnels are plastic extenders that cup between your legs and funnel urine out and away. What’s the draw? It allows women to pee while standing up and wearing pants; it’s quick, it offers more privacy, and the funnel is lightweight.
Things to consider when purchasing a pee funnel: how good is the seal? Does it collapse for easy storage? What shape or style fits your needs? Consider the Freshette, the Tinkle Belle, or the Easy Peezy.
Things we’ve learned the hard way:
- If you pee too fast into a funnel that’s not wide enough, there will be backflow.
- Always pee with the wind.
- Practice in a comfortable setting (as you would with anything you want to put between your legs) before trying it out in the wild. These tips from Fox in the Forest are super helpful for getting started. She also walks you through keeping your funnel clean.
SheFly Pants: If you’re looking for an all-season pant that allows you to pee without undressing, the SheFly pant might better suit your needs. The design includes a hidden zipper that opens the pant between your legs, allowing you to pee without ever taking the pants off. Learn more about the pant and the Vermont LLC behind it.
Sanitation: Women are more prone to UTIs and yeast infections. Consider packing more underwear (more on that later) and wet wipes (which you’ll need to pack out of the woods) to keep yourself clean down there.
You’ll also want to pack hand sanitizer and clean your hands thoroughly after relieving yourself. Don’t forget biodegradable soap for washing your products; check out this breakdown of soaps by type, weight, and price. Secure underwear, pee rags, and reusable products in direct sunlight on top of your tent, on a clothesline, or on the outside of your pack with a carabiner to dry; the UV rays are a powerful disinfectant.
How do I address my period in the backcountry?
Periods can be tricky in the most comfortable of circumstances, aided by ibuprofen, a heating pad, and a toilet. Luckily, there’s workarounds in a forest setting. And, don’t worry; your period *will not* attract bears. We promise.
Pads & Tampons: Traditional period products can be used in the backcountry. However, like other waste, pads and tampons need to be packed out in a plastic bag instead of buried, burned, or dropped into a privy. They don’t decompose well. Consider applicator-free tampons to reduce waste. Store anything with an odor in a bear-safe container when camping.
Menstrual Cups: Menstrual cups are a tried-and-true method for handling the time of month — even while not backpacking. These flexible, silicone cups collect blood and uterus lining instead of absorbing it; they’re reusable, more economical, and don’t have any plastic waste. Finding the right one can depend largely on your anatomy; check out this Wirecutter report to find the best fit for you.
Using a menstrual cup does have extra considerations. Because you will insert the cup inside you, you want to wash your hands both before and after. Unlike tampons which need to be changed out every eight hours at max, menstrual cups have a 12-hour cycle. But you still need to empty and clean them. For this, you’ll need scent-free, biodegradable soap and water at the ready. Dig a cathole six inches deep, away from water sources, trails, and camping areas. Empty waste and wastewater from cleaning your cup into the hole and bury the contents with soil. Reinsert your menstrual cup, or pack away and sanitize it in boiling water before your next period.
Again, this is something you’ll want to practice in a comfortable place before attempting in the backwoods. Give yourself one or two period cycles to try out the menstrual cup.
Period Panties: Period underwear absorb blood like a tampon, but with the eco-friendly benefit of washing and reusing. They’re also hygienic, with anti-microbial and moisture-wicking properties. Some of our favorite outdoor women influencers swear by them. Check out brands like Thinx and Knix. You might also consider reusable menstrual pads, such as EcoPads or GladRags; these products snap around your underwear and are easily packed out for wash and reuse.
Before packing away soiled panties or pads, make sure to rinse them over cathole like you would with the menstrual cup. Keep in mind that absorbent products like these will take longer to dry, so you’ll want to have extras on hand.
Other period aids:
For cramps: We love this advice from Backcountry Babes to assist with cramps: pack ibuprofen, raspberry leaf tea, and adhesive toe warmers. While painkillers are self-explanatory, the tea is traditionally drunk for menstrual support and the toe warmers easily stick to the outside of your underwear to work like a portable heating pad. Pro tip: I’ve also slept with a canteen of hot water to ease cramps and/or keep me warm through the night; just make sure it’s leakproof.
A go kit & waste bag: Consider storing your bathroom essentials – like pads, wipes, hand sanitizer, biodegradable soap, and toilet paper – in an easily accessible go kit. This may be a quart-size zip-top bag. If you want to keep the waste bag’s contents private, consider lining it with aluminum foil or duct tape. (Period products are nothing to be ashamed of, so no pressure on this point.)
We also recommend prepping a waste bag, which may be a gallon-size zip-top bag used to pack out used period products and wipes. Consider including a dry tea bag or ground coffee for odor control. You will want to store anything scented in a bear-safe container when camping.
Skip your period entirely:
If you’re planning a long-distance hike, talk to your gynecologist about options. They may recommend skipping the placebo pills in your birth control pack or suggest an intrauterine device. Either way, allow your body a month or two to adjust to whatever method your doctor and you decide is best.
If you’re thru-hiking the Long Trail, you may consider planning around your period. The Long Trail takes about three weeks to complete from end to end.
Things we learned the hard way:
- Pack a menstrual cup, period panty, or pads just in case, or include them in your resupply. Even if your period is fairly consistent, factors like increased exercise, diet changes, or varying stress levels can affect your cycle.
- When you’re nearing your time of the month, you may want to sleep in a tent instead of a shelter. It’ll give you extra room and privacy to handle your period, especially if you find it’s started in the middle of the night.
What about yeast infections & UTIs?
Firstly, we recommend drinking plenty of water and peeing often to avoid UTIs and maintaining optimal health on the trail. And just like at home, you want to wipe front to back, wash your hands, wear clean underwear, and maintain other sanitary habits.
If you’re prone to yeast infections, talk to your doctor about preventative prescriptions. Consider packing unscented, hypoallergenic wet wipes to keep clean down there.
Underwear: Pack underwear that are quick-drying, breathable, and comfortable. Consider the material, design, and care to decide what works best for you. Brands like ExOfficio, Smartwool, and Icebreaker are a good place to start looking.
- Material: Breathable fabrics will help prevent the buildup of bacteria. Wool products are naturally antimicrobial and retain odors but are more expensive than synthetic fabrics like Nylon and polyester. If choosing synthetic, look for antimicrobial treatments, moisture-wicking, and quick-drying.
- Design: Flatlock seams will limit chafing and irritation; avoid raised seams. Additionally, consider more coverage for warmth and comfort, and fitted panties to avoid chafing.
- Care: Quick-dry underwear are ideal not just for sweat, but also for washing. You can handwash panties and hang them to dry, which is also ideal for long-distance hiking.
In our experience: running shorts with mesh lining are a great alternative. They’re breathable, quick-dry, and they cut weight by combining short with underwear. Also see period panties (above).
Other safety considerations:
No matter how you identify, it’s important to include these things on your packing list:
- Medications, including allergy meds and EpiPen; consider carrying a list of your allergies and prescriptions with your ID, in case of an emergency.
- A first-aid kit, complete with ibuprofen (to prevent inflammation and treat pain), alcohol wipes, and emergency blanket. Pack a couple medical gloves as well; they’re helpful in an emergency and can be useful (although not necessary) for containing mess when removing a menstrual cup.
- Sunscreen and bug spray
- An anti-chafing balm is especially helpful if your thighs rub, and moleskin helps protect your feet from blisters.
- These 10 essentials
- A safety whistle can deter animals (and humans) and is a call for help. Three blasts is the universal “help” signal.
How do I keep my hair and body clean?
There’s no rule against daily washing on trail, but you’ll need to consider those Leave No Trace principles again before taking a dip. Here’s what you need to know:
- Rinsing off in a lake or stream is okay, but don’t use soap. Remember, these water sources are also your drinking water. You’ll also want to limit sunscreen, bug spray, and lotion before swimming, as it can wash off and pollute the habitat.
- To shower, you’ll want to find a discrete location, 70 paces from water sources. Bring your biodegradable and unscented soap, a quick-dry microfiber towel, and water. Check out this video for a quick tutorial.
- You can also pack wet wipes for everyday cleaning; be sure they’re unscented to deter animals. We like Ursa Major, Seventh Generation, and Burt’s Bees brands. You’ll want to pack them out as trash when you’re done, even if the labeling is “biodegradable.”
Sensitive Skin: We don’t recommend carrying your full routine of personal products, as it can be heavy to carry, the fragrances attract critters, and chemicals generally harm the environment. However, if that’s what your body is used to, you may want to ease into eco-friendly alternatives before a long-distance hike, especially if you have sensitivities. (Seriously—my hair felt endlessly greasy on my first backpacking excursion, no matter how much Dr. Bronner’s I used.)
Here’s why: Shampoos or face washes with sulfates cause soaps to lather but also strip natural oils from your hair and skin. Your body could overproduce oil in response, which may be no big deal with a full skin and haircare routine; but with only Dr. Bronner’s (a favorite among hikers for its versatility), your skin may erupt from the excess oil, dirt, and sweat. Give yourself an adjustment period and carry natural moisturizers – like coconut oil — that also double for your cooking needs.
For more insight, we love this list of hygiene essentials and non-essentials from Backpacker Magazine. The article frowns upon deodorant, which is the comfort item that I can’t give up; if you’re like me, stick with an unscented deodorant and pack it in your bear canister overnight.
Haircare: Saw the handle off your comb to lower pack weight or ditch the comb altogether and tuck your hair into braids or a bandana for a more manageable option.
Shaving: We encourage au naturel for a thru-hike, but if shaving makes you feel more human, save yourself the pack weight by working a razor into your resupply. Make a shave and shower part of your weekly in-town routine, between laundry, groceries, and gear repair.
These recommendations are based on personal experience and research. Everyone’s comfort level and needs will vary, so practice a variety of leave-no-trace-friendly methods until you find out what works best for your body.
Still have lingering questions about feminine care while backpacking? Let us know. Email [email protected]. Stay tuned for more backpacking information specifically for women, tackling topics like comfort, safety, and confidence. In the meantime, check out: