Over the years, I have discussed certain issues with aspiring and veteran hiking ladies. In the past, there weren’t as many women out there, nor any women-specific forums to direct questions to. Now, there is both! I really like the Facebook Forum called Women of the PCT. It is a really supportive group, and they aren’t afraid to breech any subject in a caring and informative way.
There are some subjects that come up every year in the various forums. I would like to summarize my thoughts on these women-specific subjects of sanitation: hiking in a skirt, peeing, menstruation, hair, and general sanitation.
Okay, this isn’t an entirely a women-specific topic. In 2006, I ended up hiking 1,900 miles with a guy wearing a kilt. In the desert, he bragged about how drafty and cool it was. I was also jealous of how easy it was for him to pee. Finally, at a little over 1000 miles in, at South Lake Tahoe, I bought my first hiking skirt.
Nowadays, I almost always hike in a skirt. It is a silly little thing that makes me feel pretty when I am actually kinda disgusting. I’m pretty sure it helps with hitchhiking to make me seem less intimidating (or maybe just more vulnerable, which may not be a good thing). It also makes peeing really easy (see next subject); I don’t have to take my hip belt off at all–and I actually have a little privacy if someone happens to walk by.
The two complaints I have with hiking in a skirt are that 1) I think I tend to get a bit dirtier than when I hike in shorts or pants. 2) Upper thigh chafe. I have pretty big thighs, and the first few days on a hike, I will chafe here. I always carry a little Body Glide (or Vaseline Lip Care), so I stay on top of that and then it goes away. But, without it, I think I would be pretty unhappy. It’s not for everyone.
If you are interested in going the skirt route, look into Purple Rain Skirts. They are extremely comfy, stretchy, quick-drying, and have awesome, large pockets. And, the company was created by a thru hiker!
Skirts are a fairly simple subject–either you like hiking in a skirt or you don’t. But we all have to pee. Keeping clean after peeing outside can be difficult when you are out for days at a time without a shower. Pee sanitation discussions usually have at least three subtopics: urinary directors, pee rags, and wipes.
Many women swear by “shenises” like the Go Girl or the pStyle to help them pee standing up. While I have never tried one (story below), I have quite a few hiker friends who really like them. You don’t have to squat, take off your pack, or expose yourself if you use a urinary director. Basically, do it like the boys do. With the number of people on the long trails these days, it can be hard finding privacy. In fact, whenever I feel lonely, I just take a pee. Inevitably, someone will show up! I could see how these devices would be nice. Also, they work great in combination with a skirt.
It hadn’t really even crossed my mind to pee standing up until I was hiking the PCT in 2006. I got so lazy and didn’t want to take my pack off each time and squat down with my tired legs. I toyed with it a bit, but with some bad luck. That was, until this happened:
I got skewered in the knee by a yucca plant in the Southern California desert. My whole knee became infected and swollen and I had a hard time bending it into a 90-degree angle. I had to learn to pee without squatting.
The one piece of advice I have picked up from users of the urinary directors, is: Practice at home, it can be messy until you learn how to use it.
You want to make sure you don’t dribble on yourself or your clothing after you pee, as it can cause chafe or rash in sensitive areas and it gets stinky. As for wiping, there are 4 popular strategies I have heard of: 1) Give your lady parts a little shake after you pee and don’t wipe at all (minimal success). 2) Use a rock, stick, or leaf (works pretty well, though I have heard of people having bad reactions). 3) Use toilet paper and (works well, but creates a bunch of waste that you must carry out). 4) Use a pee-dana or pee rag. A pee rag is a cloth with one job only: to wipe your lady parts after peeing. Most women who use a pee rag keep it tied on the outside of their pack somewhere to dry quickly and be readily available. I have tried the pee rags off an on over the years. It is really nice for drying yourself off and keeping yourself cleaner overall.
For a pee rag, some people just use a cotton bandana with the corner tied to their pack. Another option that is a lot more secure is Wander Woman Gear wipes. They are made of renewable bamboo, which is soft, absorbent, quick-drying, and naturally anti-microbial.
One thing I like to do on trail is clean up with sanitary wipes like Wet Ones or Summer’s Eve. I use one every day to every other day. I get the free and clear ones because I use them to clean sensitive areas and because after being on trail for a month or more, I can’t stand the smell of fragrances. First, I wipe my face. Then, I use it on my pits, then my girlie parts. Finally, I clean the back crack, if you know what I mean. It makes me feel a lot fresher.
2019 Addition: Some women swear by panty liners, replaced daily, as an option to help keep their underwear clean. I wanted this to work, but for me they just bunch up, roll, and then stick to me in most unpleasant ways.
The next subject that comes up the most on the forums is dealing with periods on the trail. There are a lot of schools of thought on this, too. The most popular views are: 1) Tampons, especially O.B. (and carry used ones out with your other garbage). 2) Don’t use tampons at all, use a menstrual like cup Diva Cup, MeLuna, or similar. 3) Stop yourself from having a period at all.
I started using a menstrual cup on the Colorado Trail, and now it is all I use–even at home. It is light weight, reusable, takes up little room in the pack, and excuses you from carrying out used tampons. You only need to empty it a couple times a day, so it is also less hassle than tampons. I have never had one leak for me and I have been using one for 10 years. There are many options on the market; it may take you trying a few before you find one you like.
The most accepted cup etiquette is to dig a cat hole (far from a trail, camp, or water source) to empty it. Then, give the cup a rinse with treated/filtered water before reinsertion. It is probably a good idea to use some hand sanitizer before and after dealing with it (or tampons).
I read one person’s comment that she pees on her cup to rinse it out. While my logical mind says this seems like a good idea–urine is sterile and you are probably already going to be peeing when you dump it–I admit, I have not yet tried this method (this may be a viable option in the desert).
Birth Control is also mentioned on the forums as a good choice to eliminate your periods altogether for several months. I talked to my doctor, and she said it is perfectly healthy to do this while on the pill or the ring. Some thru hikers opt to get an IUD. Whatever you decide, it would be a good idea to try this for a month or two before heading out on the trail, just in case it doesn’t work for you.
Although it seems solely a vanity thing, hair contributes to sanitation. I find that my legs get much less dusty and my pits smell much better without hair. I really do like having shaved legs and armpits on the trail, but not so badly that I am gonna carry a razor in my pack! However, I do shave in town. If I send myself a maildrop or a bounce bucket, I will throw a disposable razor in there. If I don’t have a maildrop, I will buy a pack of cheap razors and throw the extra ones in a hiker box for others to enjoy. This way, I get to have freshly shorn legs every 3-7 days.
That said, I’m in the minority. Most women just let it grow!
For a couple of my long hikes, I have cut my hair (on top of my head) shorter. I always make sure it is long enough for a ponytail. I know some ladies who shave their hair with clippers. I am not that brave, but I imagine I would be a lot cleaner and that I would be warmer at night instead of crawling into my sleeping bag with wet, sweaty hair.
I also try, when there is water around, to rinse my feet and legs before bed. I think it helps keep my sleeping bag stay cleaner and functioning better. I do not use, and do not recommend, soap in the backcountry. One, it is heavy and it could leak in your pack. Two, soap, even “biodegradable” type should never be used near a water source. All types of soap in surface water can damage mucus membranes and gills in fish, kill fish and amphibian eggs, and cause algal blooms (which deplete oxygen and introduce toxins in the water). Instead, a damp camp towel works pretty well.
I guess I should also mention the “waterless” shampoos. They advertise that they clean your hair and make it shiny. In my experience, all they do it make your hair greasy. Since getting my hair un-greasy is the whole point of washing my hair, I have mostly written them off. But, there are several different brands, and many people swear by Sun Bum. If you try it, leave me a note.
Whew. That is a lot. Thanks for reading. Please share any experience/feedback you have.