Personal and Feminine Hygiene While Mountaineering and Winter Camping
*This post is for both males and females to read!
Picture this: It’s a cold March day in interior Alaska, I’m wearing underwear, long underwear, soft shells, and gore-tex bibs under my harness which is not only acting as the base for a skimpy skirt of runners, biners, prussiks, and the like, but is also attaching me to 3 other people… all of whom are male. We are traversing on a glacier, it’s open, white, sparkling, tree-less terrain as far as the eye can see, one of my favorite landscapes to spend time in. And then, suddenly, I begin to feel the urge. Damn it. I have to pee.
I knew this moment would inevitably come. “Stay well hydrated”, they said. “It’s the best way to keep your body at homeostasis”, they said. Well, I’ve been forcing myself to drink water (though it’s one of the last things I want to do when it’s cold out and I’m on a structure of frozen water) and here I am, attached to three other people in the most exposed environment possible. Great. My mind starts to think. How long could I hold this? Could I hold it until I get to camp? Until we are working our way around some weird feature where I could hide? But no, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a possibility. Maybe I could just wait until the leader stops and then try and signal that I need a little extra time? Yeah, that seems like a good option. But time goes by and we aren’t stopping. I’m uncomfortable in more ways than one. I don’t like to feel that I’m MAKING people stop and wait for me, and I don’t like taking care of business in the wide-open, especially when I’m the only female on the rope team.
I’m trying to figure out how to communicate that I need to stop and pee. The mental part of this is just as tough as it will be to actually relieve myself. Finally I yell ahead, “Hey! Can we stop for a moment?”, the rope becomes a little more slack and I see the two people ahead of me pause to look back. “What’s up?”, the one closer to me calls. “I have to pee”, I shout back and start the process. Unclip backpack hip belt, remove backpack, loosen leg and hip straps on my harness to shimmy it down a bit, unzip both sides of my bibs (which thankfully have a butt flap) and pull the flap forward to catch all of the gear dangling from my harness. I find the two plastic bags i’m looking for in my backpack; 1 with toilet paper in it, the other, wrapped in duct tape for waste. I consider yelling at my teammates to turn around, but just hope they’ve got the common decency to do so, and with skis still attached, I take a squat and moon the glacier.
Okay. So here’s the thing. I’m sure many females reading this have had a similar moment, whether it’s on a rope team on a glacier, or hiking in the alpine, taking care of our bodies in exposed places is uncomfortable, but it has to be done. A big part of what I want to address in this post is not only tips and tricks for being hygienic and clean, but also how to communicate effectively to help make sure everyone feels comfortable doing what they need to do. I’ve been searching online and there’s a somewhat small amount of information about female hygiene in the backcountry, especially winter backcountry, so I turned to crowd-sourcing for some more ideas.
But before we get to that, I want to emphasize the importance of open communication between team members about all of this. Perhaps chatting with your partners before a trip starts about how you want to handle pee breaks, or personal space while on a rope team, would eliminate the feelings of awkwardness or discomfort that can occur. Maybe you create some kind of system of stopping every hour or two for anyone to pee that needs to. Speaking with your tent mates about everyone getting a moment of personal space in the tent to tend to their needs each night/morning is another idea. The options are endless, and whichever way you decide to handle things, being clear about what everyone is comfortable with, and creating that space to be able to talk about normal bodily functions is a huge gift for everyone on the trip.
Tips and Tricks for General Outdoor Hygiene
→ Pee Rags / Handkerchief: A piece of cloth that is used instead of toilet paper. It can be rinsed and then attached to the outside of a pack to dry and sanitize in the suns UV rays. Kula Cloths are designed specifically for this purpose, but a handkerchief is also a good option. Remember, wiping front to back is key here. *May not be as useful while menstruating, or while going #2.
→ Duct Tape Bag: No one wants to show off their dirty toilet paper or underwear liners or used tampons. Just cover a ziplock bag in duct tape and you’re good to go! You can write on it as well to make sure that it isn’t confused for anything else, and to avoid any confusion of whos is whos.
→ Baby Wipes: These are great to have along for some extra freshening up, however they will freeze… so either warm ‘em in your jacket or wait for warmer weather.
→ Soap: Much more effective than hand sanitizer, but might need to be for use at camp when water can be warmed up a bit. Peppermint castile soap is a nice way to liven things up when it’s been days since a shower. Using soap helps minimize GI illnesses as well as UTI/yeast infections.
→ Hand sanitizer: Useful for quick sanitizing while everything else is packed away, but don’t rely on it.
→ Liner Pads: A simple way to “change your underwear” every day without having to bring more than a couple pairs. Though normal, discharge isn’t something one necessarily wants building up, and it’s great to be able to quickly change these out day to day. Liner pads are small and can be put into your duct tape baggie when used.
→ Pee Funnel: For those of you who have always wanted to pee standing up but your anatomy got in the way, here’s your chance! Pee funnels can be awesome, but can be messy if not used correctly. Consider practicing at home before heading out on trips.
→ Backcountry Bidet: Bring along a small, squeezable bottle (like the 3oz travel bottles), fill it up with clean water before you go to do your business and have yourself a nice backcountry bidet! This can become a toilet-paper free option (drip dry) or in combination with a pee rag or toilet paper. It is also a nice way to generally clean up while at camp.
→ Synthetic / Wool Underwear: A major pro is to use non-cotton underwear. While cotton is more breathable, it is also colder and takes a lot longer to dry. Wool underwear is especially nice on winter camping trips, but non-cotton undies also require more vigilance in terms of hygiene. (I know, I know, wool underwear is expensive. But think of it as an investment. I have a few pairs that have lasted me over 5 years!) A common trend is to bring 2 pairs of underwear and essentially just swap between wearing one pair and washing/drying the other pair, though depending on the situation this might be a bit more of a hassle on winter camping trips.
For those who menstruate: Dealing with peeing as well as your flow is quite the double whammy. Here are some more ideas for handling those few days.
→ Menstrual Cups: Silicone cups that can be inserted into the vagina to catch menstrual blood. They are reusable and can be left in longer than tampons. A massive bonus for menstrual cups in the backcountry is that they don’t produce any trash, and menstrual blood can be put in a cathole or wagbag. Make sure to clean them whenever possible with water or baby wipes (toilet paper also works short-term), and wash your hands before and after!
→ Tampons: Easy to use, familiar to most, tampons aren’t a terrible idea for extended trips. Take ones that don’t need an applicator and be sure to put them in your duct tape baggie, NOT in a cathole.
→ IUD: Some people find that having a hormonal IUD will stop their menstruation, which can be a plus on extended wilderness trips. (If you have a copper IUD this isn’t the case.) Some women mentioned being wary of using a menstrual cup if you have an IUD, as there are cases where the IUD has fallen out, especially if the IUD was placed within a couple months of a heavy exercise trip, so tampons might be a safer bet if you’re in that position.
→ Thinx Underwear: These underwear are made from synthetic materials and are designed to absorb up to 2 tampons worth. I don’t know anyone who has used them on longer backcountry trips, but they could be a good option for shorter trips, as well as generally in life during that period of the month.
Med Kit: Another aspect of all of this is that there are items which can be put in a med-kit which are multi-functional and could help prevent having to do an evacuation. People who menstruate can also sync up with others during extended trips, so occasionally people who menstruate can begin their flow when they aren’t expecting it, which makes having some extra supplies very useful.
→ Tampons - good to have in general. Again, get those without applicators.
→ Pads - thick and thin, they are great for absorbing blood from anywhere, and the sticky back helps keep these “bandages” in place.
→ UTI / Yeast Infection Medication - Knowing the symptoms and carrying the medication for a UTI or yeast infection could seriously help in reducing the chances of needing to evacuate a team member. Urinary Tract Infections can happen to both males and females, and are an infection of any part of the urinary system. Needing to urinate often, burning sensation while peeing, as well as cloudy urine are all symptoms of a mild UTI, however if left untreated the infection can continue into the bladder and kidneys, which is not a good time.
That’s all for now folks. If you have other thoughts or suggestions, please feel free to leave comments. I’m sure there are other ideas out there and we, as well as others reading this blog, would love to hear them.