When it comes to backpacking, camping or hiking, myths about menstrual periods abound.
But let’s get it straight. The smell of your period doesn’t attract bears (more on that later). And you don’t need to sit out a serious trek because you’re menstruating.
We know it’s not always easy for Scouts and leaders to talk about this topic. But educating yourself on how to handle menstrual care in the outdoors will make it easier to talk with Scouts and share environmentally friendly guidelines on something very natural and very common for many Scouts and Scouters.
We talked with women with experience both in the outdoors and as Scout leaders to get their takes.
One veteran leader explained, “From speaking to some kids in Gen Z, some are much more open to these topics than we think.”
And the guidelines for how to handle menstrual products in the outdoors are some that most people involved in Scouting are very familiar with: Leave No Trace.
That’s why we turned to our friends and partners at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for their well-used, well-tested tips for making your period just part of the journey.
Pads, tampons and other disposable menstrual products
These items don’t break down easily, so it’s ultra-important not to leave them behind. Wrap used pads and tampons in toilet paper or a wipe — or fold them into a glove to keep your hands clean (see the video below for the surgical glove trick).
If you can’t nail the glove trick, check out another pro tip from a real Scouter. She shared, “Take some dog-poop scoop bags and put used products in there. The smell is blocked.”
Make sure to pack your used and wrapped-up products into a designated disposal container. This could be a plastic bag with a zipper or — a favorite of many Scouts BSA troops — a water bottle covered with duct tape and marked “TRASH.”
This waste container can pack into your daypack or backpack for privacy (just make sure it’s super secure to avoid spills), or you can clip it to your pack with a carabiner.
Menstrual cups and other reusable menstrual products
If you can, dispose of the blood in a trash receptacle. But if there isn’t a receptacle nearby, treat the blood like you would other human waste. That’s right — it’s cathole time!
To dig a cathole, move 200 feet away from water sources (that’s about 80 adult paces). Then dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep (or 4 to 6 inches deep in the desert) and 4 to 6 inches wide. Dispose of fluid, blood or natural human waste in the hole, and cover it with the same dirt you dug out of it.
Note: Urine doesn’t belong in catholes. You can pee on rocks and other areas that won’t attract wildlife since urine, for the most part, doesn’t hurt plants and soil.
And don’t forget to sterilize your menstrual cup like you would at home: Boil water to keep it clean (This works best when you have access to running water. You don’t want to use limited supplies of drinking water in the backcountry for this.) Never use natural bodies of water to rinse your cup. This helps keep you and the water healthy.
The choice to use menstrual cups on the trail is a personal one (and not everyone loves the additional steps it takes to keep them clean on overnighters), but some Scouts and leaders swear by them. Check out this review of menstrual cups from one Scout leader: “I practiced and successfully used a menstrual cup during my trip. But in the unfortunate event I had dropped it down a latrine, I also brought enough pads and tampons to last me three days.”
Storing menstrual waste
According to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, there’s no research linking black and grizzly bears and an attraction to menstrual waste. But like all your smellable items (that includes non-waste items like deodorant and toothpaste), menstrual waste should be stored in a hanging bag or an animal-proof container when at your campsite.
On a hike or if you’re backpacking, your plastic bag with a zipper or menstrual waste bottle can hold your used menstrual products.
According to Philmont’s guide to feminine care, the point of processes like this are “to minimize the concentration of smell, minimize the chance of animals investigating the smell, and prevent animals from digging up waste products.”
In other words, while menstrual waste combined with other trash can attract animals, your period itself does not.
Other tips for period care during an outing
- Philmont also recommends coming prepared with doctor-recommended over-the-counter pain reliever if you tend to get cramps. Remember: Don’t share medicine, and only take it as recommended. Make sure to follow the “Medication Use in Scouting” guidance.
- When wiping after changing menstrual products or peeing, you can use a pee rag, toilet paper or wipes. Make sure you put used toilet paper or wipes in the same waste bag you’re using to store your used menstrual products.
- Period care is the same in the backcountry as it is anywhere else. Take care of your body by changing tampons and pads as frequently as you normally would. Be Prepared to speak up if you need to make a pitstop to change or clean menstrual products.
- Think ahead: Bring the menstrual supplies you need, but don’t overdo it. One experienced Scout leader had a suggestion for Scouts: “Start counting how many pads/tampons they normally use and to bring a few extras. And to maybe pair up with someone else if they knew their period was not going to fall in the trek.”
Keep the conversation open
Topics like menstrual care and waste disposal should be ongoing and adjust as Scouts grow and get comfortable with certain products.
“I talk frankly with the girls, just like I would about foot care,” one Scout leader shared. “If they aren’t sure about their supply needs, because they’ve never started their period or have recently started, I encourage them to talk to me separately at the meeting or with their parents about pad/cup/tampon choice and quantity.”
Leaders should remain open to talking about these topics. And there’s a lot to say!
Let’s keep this conversation going by talking through some of the other elements of menstrual care on an outing. How do you talk about these subjects with your Scouts? Any tips to share?
Let us know in the comments and you may see your advice shared in a coming post.