Menstrual Hygiene

Education By Kristin Middlesworth

Your period doesn’t need to interfere with your Boundary Waters adventure! 

It can feel daunting to realize your period is scheduled to begin in the middle of an upcoming canoe trip, but periods don’t have to get in the way of a great Boundary Waters adventure! These tips and recommendations will help you be prepared for your next trip if you find yourself paddling on your period.

Packing for Your Period

It’s helpful to have a small dry-bag packed with daily hygiene essentials in an easily accessible place throughout the day. These essentials will vary depending on your needs, but you might consider packing things like:

  • Hand sanitizer
  • Extra toilet paper
  • Period products
  • Pain management medication
  • A period waste garbage bag

The bottom line is that any period product can work well on a canoe trip. 

Sometimes we hear messages that strongly encourage low- or no-waste options while camping, and this is generally a good thing. However, it’s not necessary to swap out your regular period products unless you are excited about using new products. If you are planning to try something new, it’s a good idea to try it out at home before your trip so you can be comfortable and prepared.

Here are the most common products:

Disposable period products, such as pads and tampons, are a solid choice for your wilderness adventure. Pack a bit more than you think you will need for the duration of your trip as bodies can act differently on a canoe trip. Because these disposable products require that you pack out your garbage, make sure you are familiar with the period-specific Leave No Trace principles outlined below. It’s also a good idea to have extra disposable period products in your med kit in case someone is surprised by their period on trail.

Menstrual cups are a popular option for outdoor excursions because they don’t generate much excess garbage and they can be worn for up to 12 hours at a time. You’ll want to read up on the wilderness-specific cleaning practices detailed below before heading out.

Period underwear and reusable pads are another sound option. They don’t create additional garbage and can either be washed, dried, and worn again or can be stored in a bear pack or bear-resistant canister overnight and washed upon returning home. 

Period essentials to pack for BWCA

Leave No Trace and Period Products

U.S. Forest Service regulations dictate that all personal waste items, which includes menstrual products, must be packed out of the wilderness rather than put into the latrine, burned, or buried. This means that everything from wrappers and applicators to used period products and personal wipes must be carried with you until you exit the wilderness and can properly throw them away. 

So what does this look like in practice? For many people who menstruate, this can bring up feelings of uncertainty and concern. Here are some of the most common worries and ways to to address them:

  1. I don’t want other people to see my period waste.
    A great way to keep period waste private is to have your own designated opaque period garbage bag that is waterproof and seals up tightly. You can purchase solid colored plastic bags or you can make one at home by completely covering a ziploc bag with duct tape. You can carry this with you during the day in a small day pack so you don’t have to dig out the group’s garbage bag if you need to change your period product.
  2. How do I empty and clean my menstrual cup in the woods?
    • Period blood from your menstrual cup can be dumped into the latrine (but be careful not to accidentally drop your cup into the latrine too) or dumped into a hole 6-8 inches deep and buried at least 200 feet from water sources.
    • Because menstrual cups must be cleaned between uses, you’ll need to determine your preferred cleaning strategy. A common option is to regularly rinse out your cup with potable water between uses; this is sufficient for many people. For a more thorough cleaning between uses, you can use a mild soap and water or bring along a cleaning product specifically designed for this purpose, like this cleaning solution or cleaning wipes by DivaCup. Note that with any kind of soapy water or cleaning agent, you will need to dump it out at least 200 feet away from any water sources. Lastly, you can boil your menstrual cup on trail (like you would at home) in a designated pot or cup. 
  3. Won’t my period waste smell bad?
    • You can put your period garbage bag inside a larger plastic bag containing dry coffee grounds, baking soda, or another odor-busting product of your choice to mask smells. Remember that anything scented has the potential to attract animals, so always store it appropriately at your campsite. You can also opt to purchase a product made for this purpose, such as ANIMOSA’s Go With the Flow kit which contains an odor-concealing storage pouch.
  4. Will my used period waste attract animals?
    • While it is a myth that bears are attracted to people who are menstruating, the best practice is to store your period garbage bag the same way you store your food (either hanging it properly or using a bear canister). This also goes for any personal items that are scented like cleansing wipes, biodegradable soaps, etc.

Staying Clean and Comfortable on Trail

Whether or not you will have your period on your canoe trip, there are a few items that can help make your experience more comfortable! 

Staying clean can be a challenge without your normal shower routine. If weather permits, taking a daily swim is a great way to rinse off the grime of the day. Because this isn’t always possible, personal cleansing wipes are another option, and many are appropriate to use as a stand-in for toilet paper which can be helpful for folks who are menstruating. Look for something gentle and unscented and remember to pack out used wipes.

Staying comfortablecan often be equated with staying dry in the Boundary Waters, and our undergarments are no exception. Packing underwear made of a quick-dry, wicking material (like these from ExOfficio) can make a big difference. 

Peeing technology has come a long way! It can be hard to find a private spot to squat or to quickly track down the toilet paper when nature calls. Pee funnels are one helpful tool that allow folks who squat the option to pee standing up without needing to undress (pStyle is one popular brand to check out). Pee cloths can also be a great addition to your day pack. The Kula Cloth is an antimicrobial, reusable pee cloth that will put an end to your drip-drying days when you need to make a quick pit stop.

Spreading the Word

Whether or not you are someone who menstruates, it’s possible that you have read thus far and are feeling uncomfortable, grossed out, or embarrassed. If this is you, take heart! This is a normal reaction when we consider that we live in a society that generally considers these topics taboo.

While it makes sense that these perfectly valid feelings might arise, it can be helpful for us to consider this question: is it worth challenging my feelings of discomfort in order to work towards a more equitable vision of the Boundary Waters?

If making the wilderness more equitable is important to you, learning and sharing this knowledge about menstrual hygiene is a great place to start. We can all be a part of breaking down these barriers, and with practice these conversations will get easier over time!

Kristin lives year round on the Gunflint Trail and works at a nonprofit that aims to get kids paddling in the Boundary Waters. She loves using her degree in anthropology to analyze the culture of the BWCA and shares her findings on Instagram at @northwoodsfeminist. Kristin loves exploring her own backyard with her husband and their two rescue hounds.

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