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Menstruation in the mountains

Image of the August 2021 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
August 2021 Issue

Getting your period on a tramping trip can be anything from annoying to a disaster. Jane Evans looks at how period products for the outdoor woman are changing for the better.

For those who have never experienced bleeding while in the bush, there are several situations that can disrupt your fun. 

A woman’s cycle can be disrupted by a change in diet, lack of sleep and physical or emotional stress. Travellers often report well-timed breaks in their cycles due to the stress of being in a new environment. On the flip side, a period can arrive early, without the necessary supplies. I was once caught short in a remote camping situation and after asking around I ended up with a huge pile of sanitary products thanks to the generosity of strangers. It seems many people, like me, keep a pad in their first aid kit. 

Another time I wasn’t so fortunate. I had to ask a group of about 12 people if anyone had spare sanitary supplies. The only one on offer came from a young woman who handed me the tiniest tampon I had ever seen. Having had three large babies I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, knowing this minuscule thing wouldn’t last two minutes. I cut up my travel towel instead. 

A heavy period can arrive with a vengeance and soak through clothing and sleeping bags onto mattresses. This is uncomfortable at the best of times, but in a hut or tent, with no washing machine in sight, it can resemble a crime scene. Fear of this situation can mean a tense night, with extra clothing or your travel towel wedged between your legs, or sleeping on a plastic bag and trying not to move around too much. 

A heavy period is exhausting, too. I once dragged myself up Panekiri Bluff with a painful and heavy period, stopping every 15 minutes to empty an overflowing mooncup and feeling weaker with every step. 

I talked about periods with my network of over 50 outdoors wahine and discovered we all had something in common: having a period in the outdoors did not prevent us from going tramping, but it did affect our enjoyment. 

Luckily there is a great sense of solidarity in the bush and coupled with Kiwi ingenuity and humour, we are left with great stories. One friend who was teaching at Outward Bound in the Appalachian Mountains was caught short with flooding and cramps and used the only thing to hand, Rhododendron leaves. 

Moss and other plant material was used traditionally and has sometimes been called upon by modern outdoorswomen, but more often spare clothing is sacrificed to the cause. One brief answer I received amused and intrigued: “Kayaking in Alaska while bleeding. There were bears. Big problem!”

On a kayaking course, wearing a wetsuit, thermals and life jacket another young woman realised her period had suddenly started and was too embarrassed to quit the course. So she stuck out the day in the water and made sure she was the last to exit the river after a decent cleansing plunge.

Photo: Toni Bragg

What do we do‭?‬

Privacy to wash or change may be fleeting, tiny or creatively sought. A sleeping bag is an obvious place to change under. Wearing a dress or skirt can provide much-needed privacy in a crowded hut or on a barren alpine ridge. Taking a billy or bucket of water into the bush, away from the hut is often necessary, although you can’t beat a good river swim. Wet wipes are commonly used as a quick bath alternative, but these come with their own single-use problem and should be treated as landfill rubbish and carried out.

In fact, the Department of Conservation asks women to pack out sanitary items like any other rubbish and not to burn or put used menstrual products down toilets, including long drops. It suggests that menstrual blood be treated like other body waste and dispose of it in a longdrop or bury it away from waterways and huts.

With the average woman sending around 12,000 single-use sanitary items to landfill during her lifetime, we can only celebrate the increasing availability of more eco-friendly period products. The big win is that for outdoor enthusiasts, these sustainable options are also proving to be revolutionary in terms of cost, weight and ease of use while in the wild.

Period underwear: Look and feel like ordinary underwear, but with a super-absorbent technology that works like a pad. You need a running water source to clean. Brands available in New Zealand include AWWA and Modibodi.

Menstrual cups: Soft, flexible, non-toxic, long-lasting, reusable silicone cups are becoming popular and for good reason. Practise before attempting to empty one while on a long drop. Bodies and brands vary, if yours leaks, try a different brand or size. Cleaning is easy, just rinse or wipe out. Brands available here include Wā Collective, Lunette, MyCup, Hello Cup.

Sponge: An alternative to a tampon. Must be rinsed, so a running water source is required. Can compost at the end of its life. 

Reusable pads: Many companies are now selling these, but check if plastic is added. They need to be soaked, so carry a lidded container, then wash out and let the sun add its natural disinfecting power. Try Mama Cloth.

Contraception: The Depo injection, pill, IUD or implants are commonly used to stop or manipulate a period.

Free bleeding: Tramping is probably one of the few places to try this. Using nothing to contain or collect your period has been done in recent times to promote awareness of period poverty or to help stop the stigma of bleeding.

Patience: Time rewards female adventurers with menopause and great freedom from bleeding. But that is another story.

Period products for outdoors women

Wā Menstrual Cup $49
Each Wā Cup replaces 2500 disposables, holds three times more than a tampon or pad, is ethically made with full material traceability. Each purchase subsidises Wā Cups for Kiwis in need. www.wacollective.org.nz


AWWA Organic Cotton Brief $35
Absorbent, anti-microbial and leak-resistant Period proof underwear. Made from GOTS certified organic cotton, these mid-rise briefs hold the same as two regular pads or tampons. Available in Black, Midnight Blue, Violet and Teal. www.awwathelabel.com


Lunette Menstrual Cup $55
A safe, smooth, sustainable, silicone alternative to disposable period products. Hygienic and odour free, wear up to 8 hours between emptying. www.lunette.co.nz