I remember the first time I anxiously checked my period tracking app to see if my monthly visit from Aunt Flo will align with the dates of my next camping trip. Much to my dismay, it did. I was suddenly faced with the prospect of how to camp on my period.
The thought of it filled me with dread. I didn’t want to have to deal with the discomfort of menstrual cramps while living outdoors, and I really didn’t want to think about how messy and uncomfortable it would be to try and use feminine hygiene products.
I’m not going to lie—camping on your period can be kind of a drag. This may be especially true if you suffer all those delightful PMS symptoms like I do, including pain, bloating, insomnia, low energy, brain fog, mood swings, and cravings.
If I could, I wouldn’t plan camping trips when my period is expected. But life doesn’t always work out that way, so I’ve had to learn how to make the best of it.
Honestly, if you just plan ahead, you can still have a great trip. You’ll have to bring extra supplies and you may have to be more flexible with your itinerary if you need to rest more, but overall, it’s doable, and it can even be enjoyable.
Let’s start with the biggest question you probably have: What feminine hygiene product is the best choice for a camping trip?
Option #1: Pads
Pads aren’t for everyone. Personally, I never went back to them after I learned how to use tampons. However, I know plenty of women who prefer them.
Pads are easy to use—plain and simple. You can simply take them out of the package, peel off the adhesive strip, and stick them in place.
If you’re planning to be active while you’re on your period, pads might not be the best choice. They can shift around and rub against your skin, which can be irritating, and they can also leak if they get too full.
Pros of using pads:
- Easy to apply to and remove from underwear
- Provides the least amount of contact between your hands and your body (compared to tampons and menstrual cups)
Cons of using pads:
- Greater potential for leaks
- Can shift around and rub against your skin if you’re active
- Not suitable if you’re going swimming
- Can add a lot of extra weight and bulk to gear you’re bringing
- Must be packed out after using (including packaging), adding more waste for you to carry around
Option #2: Tampons
Tampons are a lot of women’s go-to choice for camping, and for most activities in general. They don’t move around or chafe against your skin, making them a much more comfortable option.
You can also get tampons without applicators, which are the plastic or cardboard portions you use for insertion. These can help you save on weight, bulk, and waste. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to get a little bit closer to your body when inserting them.
Pros of using tampons:
- Won’t leak if used properly
- More comfortable for active women
- Don’t add as much weight or bulk as pads
- Applicator-free tampons available to save on space and waste
- Create less waste compared to pads
Cons of using tampons:
- Require clean hands for insertion and removal
- Can be tricky to insert for some women
- Can leak if inserted improperly or used wrong size type
- Can be easy to leave in for too long or forget to take out, which can be dangerous
- Must be packed out after using (including packaging), adding more waste for you to carry around
Disposing of used pads and tampons:
I recommend bringing an extra one-litre resealable bag for you to use exclusively for your used pads and/or tampons. The resealable feature is important to help contain odours, however you can insert a brown paper bag or two pieces of paper on each side to help conceal the contents.
Although it’s fine to keep this bag in your own pack during the day, it needs to be kept with your food and garbage at night to prevent animals from getting into it.
Unfortunately, bringing a pad/tampon with you every time you need to do your business and then disposing of your used one can make it difficult for you to hide the fact that you’re on your period if you’re camping with friends or family. If you’re fine with everyone knowing, then it shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’d like to be more private about it, the next option may be your best choice.
Option #3: Menstrual cup
I started using a menstrual cup maybe 7 or 8 years ago—mostly because I was sick of spending money on tampons every month and I thought it was a more environmentally-friendly alternative. If you’ve never used one before, I recommend practicing with it for at least a cycle or two at home before you decide to go camping with it. It can take a while to get the hang of it, and you’re better off learning when you have access to a bathroom.
There are all sorts of different menstrual cup brands out there, but I prefer the DivaCup. Out of the ones I’ve tried, which isn’t that many to be honest, this one has always been the easiest to insert and revert back to its cup shape once it’s in place. With others, I’ve had trouble trying to get it to snap back into its cup shape after insertion.
The advantages of using a menstrual cup are pretty obvious—no need to bring extra feminine hygiene products with you, and no added waste. The downside is that you need to be able to clean your menstrual cup before you reinsert it, which is tricky (but not impossible) when you’re living outdoors.
Pros of using a menstrual cup:
- Lightweight and reusable
- Comfort is comparable to wearing tampons
- Leak-proof when inserted and used properly
- No need to bring extra pads or tampons
- No extra waste created
- More discreet than using pads or tampons
Cons of using a menstrual cup:
- Requires practice at home to get used to insertion and removal
- Requires extremely clean hands to insert and remove
- Blood must be disposed somewhere
- Requires cleaning before reinsertion
- Similar to tampons, potential for leaks if not inserted properly or left in for too long
- Similar to tampons, can be easy to leave in for too long or forget to take out, which can be dangerous
Disposing of menstrual blood
Unlike pads or tampons, which soak up your menstrual blood, a menstrual blood catches the blood and is meant to be emptied. At home, this is typically done by pouring it down the toilet.
After emptying, you might wipe any excess blood out of the cup with toilet paper before giving it a rinse and perhaps a quick lather with some mild soap in the sink. This is what I do, at least.
In the backcountry, however, the process is much different. There are no bathrooms. No toilets. No sinks. Sometimes there’s even very little privacy, depending on where you are.
If your campsite has a privy, or “thunder box,” you can pour your menstrual blood in there. If not, you need to find a spot that’s well away from your campsite and dig a hole in the ground about 10 to 20 centimetres deep. Here, you can dispose of the blood.
Cleaning your menstrual cup before reinserting it
Even if you do have a thunder box where you can dispose of the blood, you still need to dig a hole to clean it. This can be really frustrating if you don’t do this in proper order, so here are the sequence of events I like to follow:
Step 1: Before doing anything, take your camping bathroom trowel and dig a hole somewhere off your campsite and/or several feet away from the thunder box.
Step 2: Wash your hands thoroughly with biodegradable soap and water over the hole. You need clean water (filtered, boiled, or purified) for this. I like to simply bring a Katadyn BeFree microfilter bottle with me.
Step 3: Pull down your pants, remove your menstrual cup, and pour the blood into the thunder box or into the hole.
Step 4: Do your business in the thunder box or over the hole.
Step 5: Use a small section of toilet paper to place in your underwear and pull your pants back up. If your flow is heavy at the moment, maybe use a bit more. This is just temporary while you clean your menstrual cup.
Step 6: Holding your menstrual cup over the hole, squirt or pour water over it to get it all wet.
Step 7: Optionally use a very small amount of biodegradable soap and using your hands, later it all around the outside, inside, and stem. I don’t do this every time (rinsing is sometimes enough), but I definitely do it at least once a day.
Step 8: Again, making sure to hold the cup over the hole, squirt or pour enough water over it to rinse off all the soap.
Step 9: Pull down your pants again, remove the toilet paper from your underwear, use it to dab any excess blood away, and throw it in the thunder box or in the hole. If you put your toilet paper in the hole, you can optionally burn it with a lighter.
Step 10: Reinsert the cup. (I don’t bother drying the cup because it’s easier to insert when it’s wet.)
Step 11: Repeat step 2 to wash your hands again.
Step 12: Use your trowel to cover up the hole. Optionally put a stick in it when you’re done so you remember not to dig there again.
I know this is a lot of step just for going to the bathroom, but hygiene is extremely important when using a menstrual cup during a camping trip. You really don’t want to introduce bacteria into your body—especially when you’re in an environment where infections can run rampant.
What’s the best feminine hygiene product for camping on your period?
Each option has its upsides and downsides. I prefer my menstrual cup, but that’s only because I’ve been using one for so long and I’ve got the process down pat. If you don’t want as much of a hassle, pads or tampons might be best for you.
Just keep in mind that if you plan on using tampons, you’re going to need to wash your hands before you remove or insert one to avoid introducing bacteria to your nether region.
What you should have in your “camping on your period” kit
I recommend carrying your own personal bathroom kit, separate from other people on the trip, just to keep things simple and to maintain privacy. Here’s what you’ll need:
- If using pads or tampons, bring as many as you think you’ll need—plus 3 to 5 extras (just in case)
- If using a menstrual cup, bring the small fabric bag it came in if your period ends on your trip and you need to put it away
- A small trowel for digging holes
- Biodegradable toilet paper (bringing extra is always better)
- A small bottle of biodegradable liquid soap
- A Katadyn BeFree microfilter bottle (or other clean water container option)
- Lighter (if throwing toilet paper in hole)
- Unscented baby wipes as an extra cleaning option (but make sure to pack these out after use)
- Unscented pantyliners for light days
- You can carry your kit in any bag you want—I usually keep my trowel in its own separate resealable bag and then put it and everything else in a lightweight cosmetic bag.
How to camp on your period when you’re in pain
Let’s not forget one of the most inconvenient parts of being on your period: menstrual cramps. Here’s what I do when I’m expecting them to arrive during a trip.
Bring extra pain relief medication
An over-the-counter pain reliever like Tylenol or Advil should be a part of your camping first aid kit no matter what, but make sure to bring a few more when your period is expected.
Bring a hot water bottle
I love my electric heating pad when I’m at home, but in the backcountry, a hot water bottle works just as well. Just boil some water over your campfire or camp stove, fill the bottle, and place it over your lower abdomen to help ease the pain.
Have a plan B for your itinerary
Look, I know I’m not the only one who feels sluggish on their period. If Ross and I are keen on doing a big canoe camping route, we’ll also have a backup plan with shortcuts, rest days, or access to closer campsites if I just don’t have the energy to paddle and portage all day. It’s actually a good idea to always have a Plan B just in case someone feels under the weather for any reason at all.
Don’t stress too much
Learning how to camp on your period isn’t as daunting as it seems. Unless you suffer from severe PMS or PMDD symptoms, I wouldn’t consider changing your trip dates just to avoid having to go when you’re on your period.
Life is too short to be controlled by our menstrual cycles. So get out there and enjoy the outdoors—whatever time of the month it might be!
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).