Managing periods on expedition. No stress. Period.
Mountain Expeditions Leader Rebecca Coles is one of the most experienced expedition leaders in the country having travelled to over 75 countries and having climbed on all 7 continents!
In this post, Rebecca draws on her vast experience and talks through the options women have for managing periods on expedition. If you’re planning to switch to any of these options, it is important to do so in advance of your expedition, not just before or even on expedition, in case it doesn’t suit you. You should try out any new options well in advance in order to make sure they’re right for you.
Traditional sanitary products
An important planning consideration when thinking about using traditional sanitary products on expedition is how to manage the waste. Tampons and disposable sanitary towels cannot be buried as they contain either non-biodegradable or very slow to biodegrade waste. All used tampons and sanitary towels, and their packaging therefore, need to be carried out with you. I have a stash of nappy sacks and simply pop sanitary waste in the bag, tie it up and dispose of it when I’m back to civilisation. Another option is to use a screw top bottle, such as a wide neck water bottle – this is a more robust option if you need to carry the waste for an extended amount of time.
Tampons are the most popular method of sanitary protection. One key thing to know for expeditions is that they are not always as widely available in some countries as at home so, if you are planning on using tampons on an overseas trip, make sure you carry enough with you. The second key thing to remember is that, if tampons are not removed regularly they can cause Toxic Shock Syndrome. This is especially relevant on expedition as it is more difficult to take toilet breaks and find privacy, which potentially means that tampons aren’t changed as regularly as they should be. You should try to plan ahead and anticipate where you’ll be able to find some privacy during each day.
Disposable sanitary towels
One benefit to disposable sanitary towels is that they are widely available in many countries. Even if you don’t usually use them, you might find that you end up using them on an overseas expedition if your usual option has failed or is unavailable. This could be due to lost luggage, an ineffective contraceptive pill because of a stomach bug, or an infection preventing the use of tampons.
A second benefit of sanitary towels is you are not at risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome making them a good option for light flow when it will be hard to change protection.
If you speak to your GP, they can recommend various options which prevent a period occurring, either as a one-off or over a more prolonged timescale. Many of the medication options are primarily used as contraception but some are specifically designed to prevent a period occurring – you should speak to your doctor to find out what the best option is for you. When you speak to your GP, make sure you do so in plenty of time (ideally 4 months or longer before a trip) as you may need to try different options and you’ll want to make sure you don’t suffer any unwanted side effects. When discussing options with your GP you should let them know that you are travelling, tell them about the other medication you might be taking on the trip and tell them if you are going to high-altitude. This will ensure they are fully informed and they will therefore, be able to better recommend the most appropriate medication.
One thing to consider with this method is that oral medication options may not work if you suffer from an upset stomach, which is something that’s quite likely to happen in certain parts of the world. You’ll want to make sure you have a backup sanitary protection option in case this happens.
New developments in Sanitary products
Menstrual cups have been around for a while, in recent years they have become much more widely available and I think these are a game changer for women going on expeditions. A menstrual cup is used in a similar way to a tampon but collects the blood in a cup. It is then removed, emptied, washed and then reused. There are many advantages to using them over tampons but the most useful advantage for an expedition is that they are reusable. This means there is no waste to manage or carry out, which in itself, has environmental benefits.
There have been fewer recorded incidents of Toxic Shock Syndrome with menstrual cups, however manufactures rightly err on the side of caution with their recommendations as to how often the cup should be emptied. These recommendations range from 4 to 12 hours. Another advantage I have found is that they can be used comfortably for those ‘I think I might be about to get my period, but I haven’t yet, and won’t be able to stop to do to deal with it later’ moments.
They do require clean water to wash them out before reusing. Water suitable for drinking is adequate which does require a bit of planning when camping. I find that they don’t use much water to wash and using a small amount of drinking water from a bottle is enough.
I only began using a menstrual cup about a year ago. The first one I bought I didn’t get on with. I found it uncomfortable, fiddly to remove and it wasn’t that convenient to pack and carry in my rucksack. I’m glad I followed advice to try a different one, as on second try I discovered the Intimina Lily Cup. It’s comfortable (I don’t even notice it), I’ve never had a leak, is easy to remove and has a neat design which means it folds away into a small case, perfect for carrying in my rucksack. All I can say is if you haven’t tried a menstrual cup yet – DO IT!
Period pants and cloth sanitary pads
I’m yet to try period pants and cloth sanitary pads but would like to see what they are like and how practical they are for expeditions. Period pants are basically knickers with an integral pad, and cloth sanitary pads are a reusable pad, both are reusable after washing. I can see their potential for women who don’t want to use, or can’t use, tampons or a menstrual cup. They may also be a great backup option in combination with tampons to prevent leaks.
If using them on expedition there would be a need for multiple pairs and it depends on the expedition as to how easy washing them would be. On most trekking expeditions, I can’t see using them being a problem, as there is plenty of opportunity for hand washing clothing but I think it could be trickier in cold climates or during high mountain expeditions. Some planning as to how to carry dirty ones would need some thought. I’d recommend putting them in nappy sacks or a wide-necked bottle, until they could be washed.
In summary, there are ever increasing options for women managing periods on expedition. As mentioned, if you wish to skip a period through medical options, your GP can advise you however, these aren’t fail safe and it’s important to have a good backup. It is also not necessary to stop having periods in order to go on expedition and having a period on expedition is not something to be feared. It does take a bit of research and time to try out different products to get it right, so that you feel comfortable and confident. I’d suggest planning a camping trip when you’re on your period to put things to the test. Once you have found a system that works for you, it’s worth the preparation time when you have one less thing to think about and have the ability to focus more on the trek, climb or summit.