The Ultimate Guide to Women's Health in the Outdoors

Camping, backpacking, and hiking are great ways for everyone to enjoy the outdoors! However, longer trips may entail unique planning needs for women. For instance, have you ever looked at the calendar & hoped that your period won’t come during your upcoming trip? Or, perhaps, you’ve wished you didn’t have to squat to pee and when your legs are already burning from a long hike? Maybe you've looked at racks of sports bras and underwear & wondered what you should be looking for? Many other women have these same thoughts!

We realized there wasn't a comprehensive resource with all this information, so we wrote a guide. We want women to know that with a few simple steps, you can plan any kind of outdoor adventure, any time, any where! We tried to provide you with a wealth of information to help you decide & plan, since these are not one-size fits all topics. Feel free to skip around to what is most relevant for you! Click on a section below to expand it.

This is a tool for anyone with female biology or who wants to learn more. This is NOT meant to be a substitute for a doctor’s consultation or manufacturer’s instructions.

General Hygiene

Because washing, keeping clean & managing waste are important to health, we want to briefly introduce general hygiene with some tips & tricks for the backcountry.

Tips & tricks for cleaning

General Hygiene

Whether for managing menstruation, going to the bathroom, or even eating a meal, hygiene is important. Keep in mind the following:

  • When using water to wash, use clean, potable water (i.e., filter it first)
  • Avoid washing directly in the water source, bring water to you, treat it, then wash with it, at least 200 feet from the source. Same logic applies to not going to the bathroom in or near a river: keep freshwater sources clean for all to enjoy & get water from
  • Generally, soap is not great for the environment. If you need it, try to find something biodegradable & environmentally friendly (like soap nuts!). If using soap to wash any products, be sure that it is manufacturer-approved for use with that product
  • Wet wipes & hand sanitizers are often easier to use and can be packed out so as not to damage the environment, but may not be as effective at cleaning. As with soaps, if using these to clean products be sure to check they are manufacturer-approved for use with that product
  • Disperse dirty water broadly or bury in a "cat hole" (see popup on Menstrual Cups)
  • You can air-dry from a branch or your pack! If hanging anything from your pack, remember before setting your pack down to remove it, otherwise it may get dirty again
  • Follow guidelines in your area for packing out trash in an animal-safe way (especially in bear country, for which we have specific advice by a ranger!)

Leave No Trace (LNT)

Leave No Trace has created guidelines so that everyone can enjoy the outdoors safely and appreciate its beauty without causing unnecessary harm to the environment. Imagine if people picked every beautiful flower they saw so no one else got to enjoy them, cleaned their underwear in streams other people will drink from, or left their trash lying in the middle of the trail! Leave No Trace helps keep the outdoors pristine for everyone! Check out their guidelines here

Managing Menstruation

When heading into the backcountry it is always good to bring supplies to manage your period in case you get it on your trip. Changes in exercise level & food consumption can alter your cycle, so your period may come at an unexpected time or you may miss it all together (for extreme deviations, remember to check in with your doctor!). In this section, we compare the different methods of managing your menstruation.

Bears can't smell your period!

MEDICATION: Your cramps may be better or worse in the backcountry. It is a good idea to bring any medications that you usually take during your period (e.g., painkillers or medications that help with digestion, constipation, or diarrhea) . You may also want to consider bringing something even if you don’t normally use it. In general though, exercise improves cramps and makes your flow lighter.

PERIODS DO NOT ATTRACT BLACK OR GRIZZLY BEARS: Nor do they attract sharks! Whether you're on your period or disposing of menstrual waste, neither are more likely to attract a black or grizzly bear to you than food is. But do be sure to store & dispose of waste in accordance with wildlife regulations & Leave No Trace principles!

The method (click on name for more info)
Does it save you from packing out soiled products?
Does it minimize chafing Depends on person & product
Does it work in water?
Will become waterlogged & may fall apart
Does it reduce waste? Depends on the type used, click above for more info
Are most women familiar with it?
(Practice at home if not!)
Similar to regular pads Similar to regular underwear
Is it chemical free? Depends on brand
How much do you need to carry? Enough for your usual needs + extra ~ 2 1
Is it internal or external? Internal External Internal
How often do you need to buy a new product? Single use 3-10 years Like normal underwear 2-4 years
How often do you generally need to change it? 4-8 hours 3-6 hours 3-6 hours
May be able to switch out inserts
8-12 hours
Depends on style & whether you're combining with another method
12 hours

Menstrual sponges are NOT a safe option! They are not clean enough and can lead to infections including toxic shock syndrome and pieces of sponge can break off & be left inside

Peeing Hacks

Peeing in the backcountry means beautiful views & no lines! However, when your thighs are burning after a long uphill & you have to avoid hitting your shoes it can seem a little less amazing. Luckily, there are some strategies to help make it all easier!

Squatting technique

Squatting technique
  • Hold your clothes out of the way
  • Find a slope & face uphill
  • Face into the wind, if the wind changes direction, change with it while peeing!
  • Take off your backpack or, if you want to save time & are strong enough, keep your backpack on while you pee. Be sure to watch out for dangling straps!
  • Bend your knees enough that your pee stream doesn't hit your clothes. You can do a full squat, though it's not necessary. Be careful to not go too low (all the way to the ground) or else your stream may hit your clothes!
  • Prop your back against a rock for additional support, it's like a wall squat
  • Peeing on dry ground may minimize splashing if the ground is not too-firm

Bonus technique!

Bonus peeing technique

If you're wearing something flexible (e.g., hiking dress, swimsuit, shorts), you may be able to pull it to the side and just pee standing up! Be sure to keep your legs wide enough to not get splashed on.

  • Do not lean against a tree when you pee! The salt in your urine can attract wildlife that can damage roots & trunks.
  • When using a outdoor toilet, always close the seat, lid, door, & trashcan to reduce smell & not attract wildlife visitors!

Drying Methods

  • Drip dry: Wait for a bit of breeze to dry off and/or shake yourself slightly to get rid of any drips
  • Pee rag: Pee rags are a small piece of quick drying material, often a bandana, that you can use to wipe & then tie to the outside of your pack. Your pee is clean and the pee rag will dry fast, but it can be helpful to keep one corner free of pee for tying it to your pack. Be sure to not dirty it when setting down your pack. You may want to rinse your pee rag every so often & let it air dry as well as wash it in town or when you get home.
  • Toilet paper: Be sure to bring enough and to pack out the used toilet paper in a waste bag.
  • Natural materials: Use leaves or smooth rocks to wipe. Be sure you aren't wiping with anything poisonous! NOTE: this may cause irritation for some

Female urinal device (FUD)

FUDs allow you to pee standing up! It's totally optional but can be useful in cold environments (when you don't want to take your pants off), or when wearing restrictive clothing (e.g., a climbing harness), when discretion is important, when you don’t want to squat, or when you want to stand up & write your name in the snow!

To use, hold the device against your body or insert it (depending on device). It then catches your pee & funnels it away. Be sure to aim downstream & away from anything you don't want to get pee on. If you have never used one before, practice in the shower first. To store it, place it in a resalable bag or manufacturer’s case. If it is still wet you may want to let it air dry, wipe it with your pee rag or toilet paper. There are various models, this is a good guide, please follow manufacturer's instructions for use, storage, & cleaning.

Preventing & Treating Chafe

Chafe is caused by the rubbing of skin on skin or skin on material. It plagues some people more than others, but it can happen to you even if it has never happened before.

Chafing hotspots

Prevention & Treatment

These two go hand-in-hand. Keep in mind not all preventative measures will be appropriate once you are actually chafed, depending on the degree of chafing.

SHAVING: Shaving choices can sometimes affect chafe or skin irritation depending on the person & their shaving practices

If symptoms become severe stop the activity causing the chafe

Type of chafe
External & minor Exernal & open-wound Semi-internal (e.g., labia, anal sphincter)
Clean hotspots regularly
Rinse, don't use soap internally
Adjust gear or clothing to decrease rubbing or add extra protection
Washing gear or clothing to keep clean
Rest & stay hydrated (reduce irritating salts in sweat)
Keep dry
Some people use drying powders

Don't use drying powders
Cover (e.g., with bandage or tape) or otherwise provide padding
Non-adhesive over open wounds
Apply lubricant Product must be safe for intended use; when in doubt, ask a doctor!
Apply antibiotic (existing chafe)

Understanding Underwear

Packing underwear for a trip takes a little bit more thought than just grabbing some from your drawer. Here we lay out of the pros and cons of wearing underwear as well as what to look for in terms of materials and fit.

To wear or not to wear?

Understanding underwear

Some people like underwear, some people go commando, & then there are those who like the in-between with clothes that have built-in liners. We recommend you experiment & figure out what works best for you. While experimenting, pack some underwear just in case.

PROs of Wearing Underwear PROs of Going Commando
  • Keeps clothes clean by catching pee drips or sweat
  • Serves as a swimming suit (may want to pick darker colors!)
  • Special underwear can help manage menstruation & sports bras can provide additional support & may minimize discomfort and/or risk of future sagging
  • Fewer items to carry and clean
  • Don't have to worry about wet underwear making you cold

Impact on Chafe depends

On the one hand, going commando allows more air flow and can decrease chafe because there's no fabric (no friction, risk of poor material choice, ill-fittedness, etc.). On the other hand, fabric can be a barrier that increases chafe, especially with nipple chafe.

Choosing what to wear

When shopping for underwear be sure to pay attention to the fabric, size, and intended purpose:

  • Fabric: Look for quick-drying & wicking material to minimize cold, chafe and infections due to a wet environment. Good choices include synthetics (which usually dry fastest), wool (with natural antimicrobial properties and a looser weave allowing for easier cleaning!) and bamboo. Choosing products with fewer seams can also help reduce chafe.
  • Fit: To avoid chafe, underwear and bras shouldn't feel too tight nor should they bunch up while exercising. We have some general guidelines below for sports bras

Remember: bringing a spare set will allow you to clean & dry one pair while wearing another. Hand washing (also gentle machine washing) & air drying will also help prolong lifespan! Replace your bras when they show obvious wear, usually at least once a year.

SPORTS BRAS

What sports bra you should use depends on the activity you're doing & breast size. Some general guidelines are below:

  • Activity type: The more high impact the activity, the more support you need. This also depends on breast size: bustier women may find they need more support even for low impact activities
    • Low impact - an encapsulation bra that supports breasts individually
    • Medium impact - a compression bra that compresses breasts against the body together
    • High impact - a hybrid compression & encapsulation bra that does both!
  • Breast size: use a cloth measuring tape to measure the below, in inches. It can also help to try a bra that is down a band size but up a cup size, or vice versa.
    • Band size - measure across chest, with tape against ribcage under breasts, be sure you can breathe normally
    • Bust size - measure across chest, with tape over the fullest part of your breasts
    • Cup size - bust size minus band size

For more detailed information, see this awesome guide

Reducing Infection Risk

The two most common types of infections in the backcountry that are particular concerning for women are Urinary Tract Infections (UTI)s & Yeast Infections. We discuss risk mitigation & treatment options in the backcountry.

Strategies to mitigate risk

  • Drink water: Staying hydrated helps clear things out of your system to decrease chance of infection
  • Pee: go when you need, don't hold it in! (It doesn't have to be hard! See section on Peeing Hacks)
  • Wash hands: Clean your hands before & after switching out feminine hygiene products, use water & soap or if not possible use hand sanitizer
  • Clean the vaginal & anal areas: Ideally, clean once a day with water & soap (if possible following LNT guidelines) or just rinse & wipe clean. Do not clean internally & do not use things that will kill natural bacterial (e.g., antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers or alcohol wipes). When cleaning, always take water away from the water source & filter it as necessary so that it is potable water. The only exception to this is if you are swimming or doing a river crossing, it can serve as a great opportunity to just rinse & then dry off afterwards.
  • Wipe: For peeing, see section on Peeing Hacks. For pooping, wipe from front to back. To be extra clean some people use slightly damp toilet paper or a wet wipe (ensure wipes are not antibacterial wipes & be sure to pack out); or use water like a bidet! This is a great guide
  • Change underwear: If you choose to wear it, cleaning and/or changing it daily creates a cleaner & drier environment. Having designated sleeping underwear or changing into clean underwear before sleeping can also help. See section on Understanding Underwear
  • Get medicine: Consult a doctor in advance to learn about your unique risks & whether it's possible to carry precautionary antibiotics as well as how to self-diagnose (especially for longer trips)

Prevention & Treatment

Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) Yeast Infections
Common symptoms
  • Pain or irritation with urination
  • The urge to urinate with little successful urination
  • Discolored urine
  • Fever (in conjunction with above)
  • Itching
  • Pain
  • Abnormal discharge
Risk increases when
  • Wiping incorrectly after defecation
  • Having sex
  • Changing feminine hygiene products
  • Holding in pee
  • Wearing dirty or wet underwear for long periods
  • Using antibiotics
  • Taking hormones (e.g., birth control)
  • Wearing dirty or wet underwear for long periods
Treatment
  • Hydrating to flush things out
  • Taking appropriate antibiotics (following doctor prescription)
  • Using antifungal cream or tablets
  • Using other methods following doctor consultation

If UTIs progress, they can turn into bladder infections, and eventually potentially life-threatening kidney infections!

Sex outdoors

Sex when you're not clean and/or in an outdoor environment increases risk of infection. That said, if you do have sex in the backcountry, try to:

  • Clean the parts of your body (and your partner’s body) that will be involved, both before & after sex
  • Keep nails short (keeps dirt out)
  • If applicable, use condoms to keep things cleaner, and remember to pack them out
  • Pee afterwards
  • Stay hydrated

Women-specific gear

Almost every gear company has started making women’s specific gear for every type of item. Some differences are important (like sizing, shape and insulation), other differences are superficial (like color and style). In general, don’t rule out a gear item just because it is men’s or unisex, as long as it fits you and your needs go for it! We’ll summarize some of the more important distinctions here.

Sleeping bags

Ultimate Guide to Women's Health in the Outdoors
  • Insulation: on average, women tend to sleep colder than men, so women-specific sleeping bags often have extra insulation throughout and even more in specific places (like the feet and/or torso area). If you’re using a men's or unisex bag, the EN comfort rating (the higher number) may be a better metric for determining the correct temperature rating. Of course, personal preference & weather conditions are also critical considerations in picking a sleeping bag.
  • Shape & length: sleeping bags can come in short, regular, or long. Sometimes, a women’s regular is shorter than a men’s regular, but this depends. Women’s sleeping bags in general have more room in the hips but are narrower at the shoulders. Find a sleeping bag that fits you without being too constricting and without large amounts of "dead space" (which can make it harder to stay warm). Note, if your sleeping bag is too long, reduce the dead space by folding the sleeping bag under you or rolling up clothes & putting them in the bottom!

Backpacks

Ultimate Guide to Women's Health in the Outdoors
  • Shape & length: on average, women are shorter, so backpacks have smaller torso lengths. Additionally, certain backpack strap and hip belt shapes may be better designed for a woman's comfort, especially for bustier women

Clothing

Ultimate Guide to Women's Health in the Outdoors
  • Footwear shape: women-specific shoes are designed to account for the fact that women have narrower feet. When long-distance hiking, feet may get wider, so women may be able to fit in men's shoes
  • Clothing shape: women's clothing caters to the "average" and typically has larger busts & hips, slimmer shoulders, & shorter stature (i.e., pant lengths) than men’s or unisex clothing.
  • Clothing insulation: women tend to be colder, so women's clothing may be more heavily insulated (e.g., the maximum amount of insulation available in a woman's jacket maybe higher than that available in a man's jacket)
  • Headwear shape: if you have long hair, how you do your hair may change how headwear fits, some companies have even started designing hats compatible with ponytails

Raynaud's disease is much more common for women. Symptoms are cold fingers & toes, skin color changes, and feeling numb or tingly when warmed. Be sure to keep extremities warm & see a doctor if symptoms become severe. We have several protips on how to keep warm outdoors, here's one example. There is not yet real understanding of the exact cause or a perfect treatment.


Overall safety in the backcountry

The outdoors is not inherently more dangerous for women, for instance a tree is no more likely to fall on you, nor is a bear more likely to attack you. For anyone going on trips, it generally increases safety to go in a group, but more important than having others there is being appropriately prepared for your trip! Always leave a trip itinerary with someone you trust. If stalking is a concern, delay your social media posts so people do not know exactly where you are. Lastly, never enter a situation that feels unsafe!

Related topics

Some topics we chose not to cover because, while they may be different for women & men, everyone should plan for their individual needs, such as nutrition, and hair care (particularly for women of color); other topics don't differ much between men & women, such as pooping. or blister care. We also chose to not cover topics related to maternity as these are not applicable to all women; as with above, here are some links to get you started learning more about hiking while pregnant or as a new mom.

Ultimate Guide to Women's Health in the Outdoors

Now get out there & enjoy!

Illustrations provided by Allie Ghaman, or "Knock on Wood," an award-winning art director & editorial illustrator. In recent years, she's hiked over 5,000 miles on the Appalachian, Colorado & Pacific Crest Trails.

Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, and we'll do our best to get you ouside!


Share this protip with friends using the social media buttons below!