Introduction from Skurka:
I’m qualified to write about many backpacking matters. Female hygiene best practices is not one of them. For this topic, I asked Trinity Ludwig to share her wisdom, figuring she must have a few pointers — in September 2012 she and her two hiking partners, Shelley and Sarah, finished an 11-month 1,785-mile trek the length of South America. And right now she’s backpacking in Argentina.
Even if you’re a guy, it’d be worth reading this article: If you ever want your girlfriend, fiancee, or wife to join you on a backpacking trip, your ignorance on this subject could be major roadblock.
A female should develop a plan to maintain their hygiene in the backcountry before the trip begins. In this respect, it’s no different than the food you’ll eat, the shelter you’ll use, and the routes you’ll follow — it usually works out better to plan it than to wing it. The plan should account for the likely conditions on your trip, e.g. temperature, humidity, snow coverage, water availability, vegetation, group size and privacy, etc.
Females have two chief worries with regards to their hygiene while in the backcountry:
1. A vaginal infection (e.g. yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis) is due to an imbalance of bacteria in the vagina and results in discharge, itching, soreness and discomfort.
2. A urinary tract infection (UTI) is caused by germs getting into the urinary tract system, and potentially travelling up to the bladder or even the kidneys. Preventing UTI’s is critical because they can escalate quickly and must be treated with antibiotics, unless you can flush out the infection through hydration at the beginning stages.
The goal of this article is to share with you backcountry care and infection prevention tips.
1. Inspect your V
I’m not sure that Skurka would be stoked with a full inspection how-to clinic on his blog. So, I will leave you to browse The V-Book by Elizabeth G. Stewart, M.D. and Paula Spencer on your own.
2. Keep your V comfortable and dry
Wear comfortable underwear that will promote a dry environment, as bacteria is better able to grow in wet environments. Arguably, cotton underwear is the most comfortable because it is very breathable; however, it may not foster a dry environment because of its long dry time, especially when trapped under your shorts or pants.
Active performance underwear is typically made mostly of polyester or merino wool; smaller amounts of spandex (for stretch) and/or nylon (for durability) are often added, too. I prefer merino wool for two reasons:
- Synthetic underwear is like synthetic clothing — it smells after 10 minutes of exercise. Wool is naturally more odor-resistant.
- It’s easier to clean the wool, the weave of which is looser.
I prefer light-colored underwear so I can see, rather than mask, what I am cleaning, unless the underwear will double as a swimsuit.
It may be popular, but I’ve never been a big fan of hiking commando. However, during any downtime, some air time is always refreshing.
3. Keep it “hygienic”
You have lots of good bacteria in your vagina that keep its delicate, self-regulating environment fully functioning. It’s just as important to maintain the good bacteria as to avoid bad bacteria. Hence why I recommend to keep it “hygienic” rather than “clean.”
For example, if you use an alcohol pad to wipe after you pee, you will kill the good bacteria along with the bad bacteria, and thus increase your chances of getting a UTI because there’s nothing left to fight one. Some gentle soap and water around your V (but not in it) should suffice. How often? Ideally, daily. But it depends on your perceived risk of infection: Have you been sweating a lot? Are you well hydrated? How dirty are you? Have you been able to take advantage of a river crossing by going bottomless?
I recommend that underwear washing become part of your daily routine. If conditions are not optimal, like if it’s raining or cold, you can just wash the crotch. During my 11-month South America trek, my two girlfriends and I each used only two pairs of underwear. If one pair wasn’t being worn, it was being washed and dried. We never complained about our lack of underwear, though we dreamed of cotton t-shirts.
For shorter trips, an alternative strategy to regular underwear washing is a panty liner. Swap the panty liner each day — and pack out the used ones.
4. Wipe well
It took me three months into our eleven-month South American adventure to begin using a pee rag. Something about it grossed me out, even though I accepted previous backpacking partners for using them. Once I tried it, I never went back. It’s drier and less stinky, and unlike natural materials (e.g. rocks, twigs, leaves) there is little risk of abrasive particles getting into your V.
I started out with a lightweight microfiber (high-absorbent) towel and then switched to a traditional cotton bandana. Like a dried-out sponge, microfiber towels are not always immediately absorbent. In contrast, cotton absorbs immediately so you can wipe quickly. And since you’re only wiping a few drops, the dry time is insignificant.
Make a pee rag using one-quarter of a square bandana. Tie a knot in one corner for a handle, and to help attach it to the outside of your pack via a clip or stretchy cord.
To those who may question whether a pee rag is sanitary, consider that ultra-violet rays from the sun are one of earth’s most powerful disinfectants. A pee rag on the outside of a backpack is probably cleaner than the toilet paper rolls in many public bathrooms.
Finally, learn to poop in the woods correctly. The most common way to get a UTI is the transmission of bacteria from the backdoor to the frontdoor, so always wipe front to back, always. There is good information online and elsewhere on how to poop in the woods.
5. Stay hydrated and go to the bathroom
If you are dehydrated or just trying to avoid having to pee outside, you will increase your chances for a UTI because you are not adequately flushing your system.
I learned this lesson the (very) hard way. When I was twelve years old at summer camp, I was too cold and afraid to get out of my bed in order to use the bathroom. So, I held it. Shortly thereafter, I found myself in the hospital for five days with a kidney infection.
Fifteen years later, I am still too cozy to get out of my bed at night so I’ve adapted preventative measures: I remain well hydrated during the day, and I stop drinking liquids after dinner.
6. Mange your period
I am asked about this topic more than any other. You have three options:
Option 1. Use a traditional maxi pad or tampon — ideally, an applicator-less model, which has less waste — and pack it out.
Option 2. Use a DivaCup, which is a reuseable, bell-shaped menstrual cup that is inserted into your V in order to catch your menstrual flow. It’s quickly gaining popularity but it has one drawback: insertion can be uncomfortable to get used to. However, it has several advantages:
- Reuseable and eco-friendly
- Can be worn for 12 hours
- No “icky” tampons to pack out
Option 3. Schedule your period via birth control so Flo doesn’t visit during your adventure. Or, better yet, use a birth control method such as the Mirena IUD or Depo Provera injection and don’t see Flo at all!