HIKING THE TRAIL: LET’S TALK HYGIENE

HIKING THE TRAIL: LET’S TALK HYGIENE

It’s time we put feminine hygiene while backpacking out in the open.  I’ve been pulled aside on several trips, day hikes, and classes and asked in whispered tones what I do for certain situations. While there is information out there, how do you sift through it all?

Like everything in backpacking, trial and error is required before finding what works for you.  I searched the web, asked fellow backpackers for their tips and added a few of my own.  Just to be really sure, I also enlisted the help of Dr. Angela Gantt, my exercise buddy, who happens to be an OB/GYN in Raleigh NC.  Dr. Gantt reviewed the information and added a lot of additional details and context while ensuring all advice is accurate and helpful. 

The number one myth about hygiene on the trail is that you can fix an issue with one new item, one change in habit, or one modification. Hygiene is a practice of maintaining a clean and healthy environment.  Hygiene requires thought and has to be as much a part of your trip planning as food and water.  

What causes issues:

Water, in the wrong places, is the cause of most issues on the trail.  Our bodies have bacteria and other organisms that live on us and provide protection. Sweat opens pores and hiking can create irritation and abrasion that allow normal bacteria to gain access to new areas, possibly causing infections.  Also, the chemicals and salt in sweat attempt to maintain wetness as a body coolant, but can mix with other body liquids such as urine or vaginal discharge to cause odor or infection.   This is an issue in particular in humid areas like the southeast.  The humidity makes it difficult to maintain a dry environment. 

So what can you do:

Before the trip:

  • Remove Hair:  One of the best things you can do to improve trail hygiene is to remove hair. Underarm and pubic areas tend to hold the most apocrine (sweat glands).   When you’re not showering regularly, urine and sweat get trapped and contribute to odor.  Less hair does not change the number of sweat glands or odor potential; however, hair holds moisture, so the wetness hangs around longer and can add discomfort.
    • How much you remove is up to you, but do NOT use a razor.  Razors can cause ingrown hairs which are irritating and increase risk for infections.  Plus, the prickling when the hair grows out will cause chaffing which can lead to irritated skin. 
    • Waxing is an acceptable option as the entire hair follicle is removed and you are less likely to get in-grown hairs.  Professional waxing is the least painful and safest way to proceed rather than doing it yourself.  Hair regrows in 4-8 weeks on average, so this process would need to be done regularly.
    • Laser hair removal is another option.  Similar to waxing, the entire hair follicle is removed and, in addition, regeneration of that hair follicle is destroyed.  Since hair grows in cycles, several treatments over time are required for permanent results.  Laser hair removal is expensive and painful.  It is considered permanent and perhaps a good option if you hike often.  
  • Undergarments:  Underwear should be absorbent, easily washed, quick dry, and wick sweat away from you.  Wool is great if you can find a pair of wool underwear you like.  I like the Icebreaker hipsters and boyshorts.  A non-wool option is the ExOfficio Give and Go underwear.  It’s lightweight and has anti-odor built in.  It does tend to stretch when wet, but many thru hikers swear by it.
  • Liners:  Dayliners can absorb urine and sweat when changed regularly.  Remember you’ll need to pack them out after use.  Some women use two and remove one mid-way if on a longer hike.  If you’re recycling underwear on a longer trip, this is a good option.
  • Towel Wash:  Pack body wipes or a camp towel.  In the evening be sure to clean up as best you can.  If you are using a towel, it should only be used for this one purpose. You can find small, lightweight travel towels that weigh almost nothing and pack down to the size of your big toe. They are discreet, absorbent and easily washed. If you are using body wipes, remember they need to be carried out.
    • A small note here:  Baby wipes tend to leave a sticky residue and have an odd smell.  You can find adult face wipes or body wipes in most stores which leave less residue behind. 

During the trip:

  • Change Often:  If you are using liners, change them at least once a day.  If possible, rinse your underwear with clean water if you plan to reuse it.
    • Myth:  Hanging underwear on the back of your pack to sundry can sanitize it just as well as rinsing it out. 
    • Truth:  While the sun is a great sanitizer, you still want to remove the salt from your sweat so a rinse in clean water then hanging it on your pack is a better option.
  • Wipe down your body nightly:  Clean up the best you can every evening using your body wipes or wet camp towel. 
  • Air circulation:  If it’s not too cold, try sleeping without clothes or without underwear to allow for air circulation.  This really helps, especially on hot, muggy days.
  • “Restroom” hygiene:  On the trail, when you step off to use the restroom, there are things you can do to help with overall hygiene:
    • Use toilet paper every time.  Every. Single. Time. 
      • Myth: Drip dry is just as good as wiping and is better for the environment.
      • Truth:  Remember that urine and sweat equal odor and bad hygiene.  You want to remove as much of the urine and sweat as possible before it becomes an issue.  
    • Consider a female urination device (FUD).  These allow women to urinate standing up and without having to pull their pants all the way down.  There are several options available so try a few before your next trip.
      • Some FUDs have large openings and may not leave you any cleaner than squatting and using toilet paper.  Others tend to clip into place with smaller openings.  This type can greatly improve hygiene by targeting the flow and minimizing any drips.  
      • Regardless of your choice, if you use an FUD, rinse it out after every use if possible.  If not, try to wipe it with toilet paper or a pee rag and wash when you get back to camp.  Wash with CLEAN, FILTERED water.
    • Some women like having a pee rag.  This is a small piece of cloth, for example a quarter of a bandana.  It can be used instead of toilet paper and is attached to the back of your pack allowing the UV rays to sanitize it as you walk.  This tends to work a little better on the west coast with less humidity where the rag has more time to dry and sanitize. Note our Myth above; the pee rag should be rinsed with clean water each evening then hooked on the back of your pack.

My Menses Started!!

  • Options: Pads, tampons, or cup?  Women I spoke to agreed, use what you’re comfortable with.  Everyone I asked who has tried the cup didn’t like it because it’s almost impossible to have clean hands which is necessary to insert and remove. Online there are many women who love it, so it could be an option depending on how and where you hike and camp.  All of the women I interviewed use the same things on trail that they use off.
    • Tip: Go for unscented items to bring with you on the trail.
    • Myth:  I don’t have to worry about toxic shock syndrome.  That just applies to sleeping, not during the day. 
    • Truth: Toxic shock syndrome is real and applies to using tampons at night and during the day.  If you’re using tampons, change them every 4-6 hours while hiking. 
  • To hang or not to hang:  You should hang any used feminine items.  If you’re worried about sight and smell, there are ways to minimize both.  To prevent smell and leakage, always double bag. When it comes to keeping things discreet, one backpacker said she uses colored Ziploc bags.  Another uses a smaller dry bag and places the Ziploc inside. The third lined the Ziploc with paper towels.
  • Know what you need:  This is not the place to consider cutting weight.  If you need seven tampons, bring eight.  Don’t try to skimp and bring six thinking you can manage. 
  • Genius tip:  Consider getting a pocket bidet.  It can make a big difference in helping you feel clean at the end of the day and get you off to a better start in the morning.

Yeast infections

  • Women prone to yeast infections bring medications with them on trips “just in case”.  If you are prone to yeast infections, know what works and have something with you.  Getting an infection on day one of a 5 day hike is going to make for a miserable week.  Test out any new options ahead of time.  If you always use the 3 day treatment, don’t try the one day treatment for the first time on a backpacking trip. It’s a lot of medication coming at you at once and can make for a not so great hike.

What about “the girls”:

  • Underwires are not your friend:  Underwires can cut and chafe causing irritation and possibly small abrasions.  There are well made, supportive sports bras out there without underwires that are great for hiking even if you are a D cup or larger.  They’re not as lightweight as others, but they do work and you can be comfortable. 
    • If you do avoid this advice and use an underwire that becomes a problem or even breaks, remove it.  Just pull the underwire out of the bra. 
  • Towel Wash:  Always clean underneath with a body wipe or a towel.  It’s important to remove any sweat at night and in the morning. 
    • Myth:  Not keeping it clean for just one to two nights won’t be an issue.  I can shower when I get home. 
    • Truth:  Even one night of sweat with no ability to breath can cause redness or irritation. 
  • During the night:  If you tend to sweat a lot at night, consider wearing a lightweight wool bra to absorb any sweat, or a lightweight sports bra.

Final Words:

If you search around, you’ll find even more tips and tricks.  Keep asking, don’t be shy about it, and keep sharing.  Talking about hygiene tips and tricks is no different than discussing the latest piece of gear. It’s all about learning and experimenting as you continue your backpacking evolution.   

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