Over the years, I have discussed certain issues with several aspiring 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 the subjects of: hiking in a skirt, peeing, choosing a bra, 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 always hike in a skirt. It is a silly little thing that makes me feel pretty and girly when I am actually dirty and stinky. I’m pretty sure it helps with hitchhiking to make me seem less intimidating (or maybe more cute, which may not be good thing). It also makes peeing really easy; 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. Finally, it aids in peeing standing up (see next subject), if that is something you decide to do.
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. 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, 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, check out Macabi Skirts. They are long skirts that convert into short skirts, shorts, or capris to suit the situation. They are made of a quick-drying, durable nylon and they have HUGE pockets. It’s nice to have the long coverage when you are taking a rest in ant-land (AKA, the PCT), or when you start off cold in the morning. Then, you can change to shorts if you start chafing. Or pants if it is windy or you are getting sunburned.
If you want something simpler, look into Purple Rain Skirts. They are extremely comfy, stretchy, quick-drying, and have one decent sized pocket. And, apparently, the company was created by a thru hiker!
Skirts are a fairly simple subject, but the biggest subject discussed on the hiker forums is peeing. Most importantly: peeing standing up, urinary directors, and pee-danas.
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.
Many women swear by the Freshette or the pStyle. While I have never tried it (I perfected peeing standing up without one before I really knew about them), I have quite a few hiker friends who like them. You don’t have to squat, and you don’t have to walk 50 yards off the trail to avoid people seeing you partially naked. With the number of people on the PCT last year, I had a hard time getting privacy. I could see how these devices would be nice.
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 definitely want to make sure you don’t dribble on yourself after you pee, as it can cause major chafe in sensitive areas! As for wiping, there are 4 popular strategies: 1) Give your lady parts a little shake after you pee and don’t wipe at all. 2) Use a rock, stick, or leaf. 3) Use toilet paper (and carry it out). 3) Use a pee-dana. A pee-dana is a bandana with one job only: to wipe after peeing. Most women who use a pee-dana keep it tied on the outside of their pack somewhere (often on a shoulder strap) to dry quickly and be readily available. I have tried the pee-dana on occasion and it is really nice for drying yourself off, but it is just one more thing and I have decided to live without it.
Sorry to disappoint, but this subject has as many opinions as there are boobies in the world. What I like would not work for everyone. I will say, if you can find a good-fitting merino wool bra (Isis, Icebreaker, Smartwool, etc.), you will find that they get much less stinky than synthetic bras. But, even wool is not for everyone.
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 Diva Cup, MeLuna, or similar. 3) Stop yourself from having a period at all.
I started using Diva 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 twice a day, so it is also less hassle than tampons. Diva Cup has never once leaked for me (I have been using it for 5 years).
The most accepted cup etiquette is to dig a cat hole to empty it. Then, give it 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 Diva 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 for several months altogether. I talked to my doctor, and she said it is perfectly healthy to do this, either while on the pill, or using the NuvaRing.
I would say on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a total tomboy and 10 being as girlie as a Kardashian, I am about a 3. But, I really do like having shaved legs and armpits on the trail. Not so badly that I am gonna carry a razor with me, but I do like to shave in town. If I do send myself a maildrop or a bounce bucket, I will throw a disposable razor in there. Or, 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. I find that my legs get much less dusty and my pits smell much better without the hair.
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.
One thing I like to do on trail is clean up with a Wet Ones wipe every day to every other day. I get the Sensitive Skin 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 girlie parts. It makes me feel a lot fresher.
I also try, when there is water around, to rinse my feet and legs before bed. I think it helps keep my sleeping bag cleaner and functioning better. I do not use, and do not recommend using, 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 deemed them pointless.
Whew. That is a lot. Thanks for reading. Please share any experience/feedback you have.