After a grueling three-hour hike in a thunderstorm to a tiny site in remote Northern Ontario last summer 22-year-old Karen Halley riffles through her backpack in a fruitless attempt to find some dry clothes. She is freezing cold, her jeans are dripping and her sleeping bag is more than moist. Worst of all, the rain got to the necessity she had carefully packed in an evidently leaky zip-lock bag. The closest Shoppers Drug Mart is two days behind her and her entire stash of tampons is drenched.
Ladies listen up and gentlemen don't cringe. The most rugged outdoorswoman is reduced to a girlie-girl when fumbling with the fancy paper packaging, sticky tabs, strings and wings that are all part of the female menstruation experience. The use of traditional feminine hygiene products (read: pads and tampons) affects everyone who enjoys the wilderness. Not only are pads and tampons a pain to fiddle with when doing your business in the great outdoors but a lifetime of use by a single woman results in the disposal of 10,000-15,000 menstrual products into the trash. According to the website Pacific Coast North American women dispose of 20 billion chlorine bleached menstrual pads and tampons every year.
How to deal with your period while enjoying the outdoors is something they don't talk about in Girl Guides. Ultimately it is up to each individual woman what products she will use to collect her menstrual blood. The THRIVE guide to menstruating in the wilderness outlines your options and some pros and cons of each one. Sticking with Tradition: Pads with Adhesive Strips
Women of our generation have had little experience with the belted pads our mothers may have once used. We first bled onto a cottony maxi-pad with a sticky strip on the back. As countless feminine protection television commercials have revealed pads aren't associated with an active lifestyle. As Karen points out, "there are few things more disgusting than sitting in a canoe with a huge bulky pad between your legs."
Pros: There aren't many to speak of but some women are most comfortable with what they've always used.
Cons: Pads are over-packaged and made with cotton bleached with chlorine -- harmful to the environment and harsh on the tender skin they touch. The disposal is a pain. Since animals can smell the blood you can't bury the used products or dispose of them in an outhouse. "I hate having to pack down everything and then keeping the trash until the end of the trip," says Karen. A week's supply of pads takes up precious room in your backpack.
Cost: Pads can cost between $5 and $10 per month. If the average woman menstruates 12 times a year for 30 years this ads up to over $3500.00.
The Tried and True: Tampons with and without Applicators A Tampon is a small wad of cotton with a string attached which, when inserted into the vagina, offers a certain freedom from fretting about your period for around six hours.
Pros: A properly inserted tampon can make you forget about the blood and uterine lining flowing from your body while you swim, hike and rock climb. The creation of the applicator-free tampon reduced the number of applicators being disposed of or flushed, which is good news for wildlife that often mistook the used feminine products for food.
Cons: In an outdoor environment where you're not really watching the clock it can be easy to forget to change your tampon. This puts you at an increased risk for Toxic Shock Syndrome. TSS (as we know from reading the pamphlet that comes in the Tampax box) is the possible result of leaving your tampon in too long and can be fatal. According to the ladies at Ecologique tampons also release a variety of harmful chemicals directly into your body such as absorbency gels and glues, which contain organochlorines. Exposure to these chemicals can increase your risk of breast cancer and has been linked to endometriosis and cervical cancer. As well, the used product must be saved and properly disposed of at a site where garbage facilities exist.
Cost: Similar to the above-mentioned pads.
An Alternative from the Sea: Sponges Isabelle Gauthier of Blood Sisters, an organization of women in Montreal, created a publication called Hot Pants which describes the use of sea sponges for menstruation. Often sold as cosmetic sponges in pharmacies sea sponges can be inserted into the vagina and can be left inside until saturated. The sponges should be soaked overnight in water with white vinegar before and after each period. It is necessary to dispose of the sponge in the garbage once it begins to fall apart.
Pros: This option is environmentally friendly and chemical free.
Cons: Being aware of the saturation level of your sea sponge may be the last thing on your mind as you portage across a rushing creek. Although Gauthier insists that the sponge will not get lost "up there" it may be difficult for some to get used to reaching up to extract the sponge. There may not always be fresh water available to rinse your sponge.
Cost: Pharma Plus sells a bag of 3 natural sea sponges for $6.49. Gauthier approximates that a single sponge could last "six months if you take good care of it." A lifetime of menstruation could be yours for just over $100.00
An Innovative Alternative: The Keeper Menstrual Cup The Keeper is a 100% rubber cup with a tiny stem that, when inserted properly, fits on your cervix and gathers menstrual blood. The easiest way to insert it is to bunch it up into a clover shape and hold the stem with your fore finger and thumb. The cup holds 1 ounce of liquid and can be emptied and rinsed as required. Considering that most women release 2 to 4 ounces of menstrual fluid over the course of their entire cycle, the Keeper is a practical alternative.
Pros: No chlorine is involved in the manufacturing of the Keeper and there are no nasty chemicals being released in your body. Trees are tapped for rubber, not cut down as they are for traditional feminine hygiene products. There is a three-month money back guarantee and the website Ecologique reports a 97% satisfaction rate.
Cons: The Keeper takes some getting used to. Testimonials on the website reveal that there can be some discomfort involved while getting the knack of inserting the device. As with the sea sponge you must have a supply of fresh water on hand for proper rinsing.
Cost: The makers of the Keeper say that it should last for at least 10 years. The best price in Canada for a Keeper is $37.59 (including tax) at Frigo vert (2130 McKay, Montreal, H3G 2J1). You can also order on-line by emailing. $112.77 should cover you from puberty to menopause.
Experienced camper Alyssa Fielder offers these tips to remember when camping during your time of the month.
Karen resolved not to repeat her experience of this summer's camping trip. Her Keeper just arrived in the mail and although she hasn't tried it yet she can't wait.
It is ultimately up to you how you deal with your period while camping or hiking. The key is to choose what makes you the most physically comfortable and has the least impact on the wilderness that you are out there enjoying.