I remember the first mention I ever heard of backcountry menstruation. It was during the orientation talk my first day on a trail crew. It was a brief mention, tucked in between a lecture on proper cat hole etiquette and a description of the three bin system of dish washing. The crew leader, a kind, generally knowledgeable young man, blushed and said, "if you are having your period put the used tampons and pads in a Ziploc bag and carry them out of the woods at the end of the week." Then he took a breath and quickly moved on to the topic of dishwashing after meals. A good start, but there's oh so much more one can know about menstruating in the woods. I've tried many different things over the years and talked to quite a few other women about how they handle menstruation in the back country and the following is a collection of what has worked well for us.
When using disposable tampons and maxi pads Ziploc bags are a pretty good means of storage for later disposal in a trash can. It is best to either reinforce the seams with adhesive tape or double bag your used goods though, Ziplocs will come apart at the seams after a surprisingly short period of time. Some women like to cover the entire bag with duct tape, for added durability and so that they won't have to look at the used tampons. Do what suits you. Draw pictures on the bag, tape cartoons to it, whatever makes you happy.
Burying used tampons/pads is a bad idea. They biodegrade veeerrry slowly, and smell quite interesting to a number of wild and domesticated animals, who will dig them up and scatter them around. Burning doesn't work very well either. And never, ever, put tampons or pads into a composting privy (aka composting outhouse). They don't break down in there, and the folks who care for the privy, that is, add wood chips and stir the poop, end up having to fish them out, put 'em in a bag and hike them out of the woods. Now I bet you can guess how much they like doing that. Please be responsible and carry your own trash out of the woods with you.
Disposables are not the only way to go, there are many reusable menstrual options out there, both home made and purchased products are available. Sea sponges, cellulose sponges, cotton pads and keeper style menstrual cups all work well. Sponges work like tampons, they are inserted and absorb menstrual fluid. Sea sponges are what the name implies, they are a primitive marine animal that filter food particles from the ocean with their nice spongy body. They can be purchased on-line and at some food co-ops and health food stores. Cellulose sponges are manufactured from plant fibers. They are found in hardware and grocery stores. It is very important to not choose ones with nylon scouring pads attached, and I highly recommend avoiding ones that are treated with anti microbial agents, as these can be irritating to vaginal tissues and I don't know if the anti microbial substances are easily absorbed into the human body or what they do when they get there. It seems safest to just avoid them. All sponges I have ever come across in a store are treated with something that makes them soft and squishy in their package. Wash this stuff out with warm soapy water. You'll regret it if you don't. Trust me, the stuff stings. I don't know what it is, just that you are probably going to be much happier without it. After the sponge is nice and clean take a pair of scissors and cut it into strips. 1.5cm x 1.5cm x 6cm is a good starting point, but make them what ever size works best for you. Tie a string to the end if you want, however, I find that they can be retrieved quite easily without the addition of a string.
Sponges, regardless of material, need to be cleaned and sterilized between uses. One way to accomplish this in the back country is to bring with you a plastic bottle with a tight fitting lid. Wide mouth 500 ml nalgine bottles work well, they are durable and usually don't leak. Dirty sponges are put in the bottle along with plenty of water for soaking. At the end of the day dig a cat hole (small hole, 6-8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water) and pour the soak water into it. Add fresh water to the bottle, put the lid on, shake vigorously, pour the water into your hole, add more water and repeat until the water comes off clear. Typically 3 or 4 rinses will do it. Next, boil them. 5 minutes at a rolling boil kills most types of bacteria. It might be possible to sterilize the sponges using water purification tablets but no one I know of has ever tried this. Allow sponges to air dry and then store them in a plastic bag so that they remain dry and clean for when you want them.
Reusable pads are a lot like the disposable ones, except they're made out of cloth instead of whatever the heck that stuff is in the disposables. You can make them yourself or buy them. Gladrags is the only company I've ever heard of that makes reusable pads. Theirs are 100% cotton and consist of a cover that goes inside your panties and has a snap to fasten it around the panty crotch. Inside the cover there's a pocket where additional oval shaped cotton pieces are placed to increase absorbency. A friend of mine makes her own pads out of a thin polyester fleece material. She crochets wool inner strips and uses them in combination with cotton inner Gladrags strips. According to her the combination of one of the cotton strips on top of a crocheted wool strip inside either a fleece or cotton cover will soak up anything. She favors the polyester fleece cover over cotton ones because the fleece dries faster and is softer. The cotton, when line dried can end up some what stiff and scratchy feeling. Others prefer to have natural fibers next to their skin, and when dried in a dryer the cotton is very soft. It all comes down to personal preference. Cloth pads can be cleaned in the same way as sponges, but due to their larger size a bigger water bottle is needed. A wide mouth 1 liter bottle works. Pull the liners out of the cover before soaking and make sure you remember to cat hole the soak water at least 200 feet away from streams, springs and lakes. On day trips it might be more convenient to just put the used pad in a plastic bag and wash it at home.
Menstrual cups are really cool. Made out of either rubber or silicone, they are inserted, more or less like a tampon, but instead of soaking up the fluid they catch it in the cup. When full, or when you just want to, the cup is removed, emptied, washed, dried and reinserted. The great thing is, you only need one of them. Imagine never having to worry about running out of tampons again... nice idea isn't it? Gladrags makes several types of menstrual cups, these can be purchased from their on-line store. They come in several materials and sizes. Make sure you read the descriptions and get the right one. Gladrags has a very generous return policy, so it's not the end of the world if you get the wrong size or realize that menstrual cups just aren't for you. Fluid from the cup should be poured into a cat hole. When it comes to washing my cup I like the squirt top sort of bottle, the sort that bicyclists are so fond of. The squirted stream of water gets it cleaner than just pouring water over it from a regular water bottle. Do the rinsing over your cat hole and use drinking quality water. The cup is going to go inside you and introducing the sorts of microscopic organisms that live in untreated water into one’s body seems like a bad idea to me. I use my trusty bandana to dry off the cup. If the cup is reinserted while still wet it tends to leak. Toilet paper can be used to dry it off, but little pieces of the paper will stick to it and trying to pick all of them off can be an annoying process. When you get the chance give your cup a good scrub with soapy water. Wash your bandana often.
Then there's the don't have your period option. Birth control pills, when taken continuously, instead of the more typical three weeks of pills, one week of placebos, result in not having a period. There are also some schedules where the week off from pills happens every three months, this gives you a quarterly instead of the monthlies. Birth control pills are basically doses of hormones that override your bodies natural hormonal cycle. There are risks and benefits that go along with that. If you're interested in trying birth control pills you need to talk to someone who is more knowledgeable than me about the various risks, side affects and benefits. They are a prescription drug, and as such need to be prescribed by a qualified individual.
A bandana or wet wipes can be useful for general clean up purposes. Wet wipes should be put in a bag after use and carried out. Bandanas just need to be washed when you get the chance. Don't wash them directly in a water source, instead, get some water, carry it 200 feet or further from the water source (that's approximately 75 steps) and do the washing there. My period bandana is made of nice absorbent cotton and tie-dyed red and black. The tie-dye pattern hides blood stains well.
I don't like washing my sleeping bags. Washing a bag, no matter how carefully done, results in loss of loft. Loss of loft means the bag is less warm. Less warm bag ends up becoming a cold, cranky, sleepless me. Therefore, I go to great lengths to avoid having to wash my sleeping bag. During the night I like to double up on menstrual fluid containing devices. A tampon or menstrual cup on the inside and a pad to catch anything that gets past the first line of defense. Sleeping bag liners also help in the quest to avoid washing the sleeping bag. Yes, I do wash my sleeping bags, but only when I really, really have to.
When going into the backcountry it is a good idea to bring menstrual supplies with you, even if you don't think you'll be needing them. Changes in environment, diet, and exercise can have surprising impacts on your menstrual cycle. And then there's the phenomenon of groups of women who live together spontaneously synchronizing their cycles. If you go out into the backcountry with other women your cycles can influence each other, resulting in your period coming at an unexpected time. The emergency solutions women come up with when pressed to it are endlessly creative and make for good campfire stories, but who really wants to sacrifice the bottom few inches of their shirt? To be on the safe side bring along plenty of supplies just in case.
Menstrual cramps are a miserable thing. Lucky are those who never experience them. I find it interesting the way a good solid case of menstrual craps so closely resembles the symptoms of giardia. There's the intense abdomal cramping, frequent loose bowels and nausea. In short, a smashing good time. Ibuprofen often reduces the agony. Take it according to the directions on the bottle. If you suffer from horrific disabling cramping talk to a doctor about it, there could be a serious underlying condition.
Websites of interest:
http://www.gladrags.com/ supplier of reusable menstrual products
http://www.lnt.org/ information on low impact backcountry practices
http://www.toxicshock.com/ Toxic Shock Syndrome Information Service