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Girl Talk

Going With the Flow: A Period Piece

By Tamia Nelson Red-Letter Days?

Content Advisory! This article contains a frank discussion of what were once called "women's problems." If the subject doesn't interest you, or if you think you'd find it off‑putting, stop reading now.

June 24, 2014

Call it what you will: the curse, the monthlies, going on the rag, or — and this Britishism is a particular favorite of mine — "having painters in." By any name, menstruation is a nuisance. That's particularly true in the backcountry, where keeping clean is often a chore in itself, without the added burden of dealing with your womb's bloody dejecta. Put simply, menstruation is a royal pain. I'm not speaking metaphorically here. For all but a few lucky women, each period is a minor symphony of discomforts, both small and large. Abdominal cramps, backaches, nausea, headaches, and bloating are the themes, with occasional mood swings thrown in by way of variation. All and all, the one week in every month that a woman spends bleeding into her pants is not made up of seven red‑letter days.

Happily, I can now appreciate this sanguinary melodrama from a seat on the sidelines. The tapering off of a woman's monthly flow is one of the few unqualified benefits of aging. But the memories of my bloody days are vivid still. And since I wasn't prepared to go into purdah for three months of every year, I had to learn to cope, even in places where the toilet was nothing more than a hole scratched in the ground, and the only source of running water was the river flowing under my keel.

How did I manage? Well, that's the subject of this column. Call it …

Living With the Red Tide

The good news first. For many women, moderate exercise of any description can lessen the painful intensity of cramps and reduce bloating. Canoeing, kayaking, hillwalking, and cycling all fit the bill. (NB:  My authority for this, and for all that follows, is personal experience and conversations with other women. I hold no medical qualifications. If you want professional advice, you'll need to talk to the doc, and I recommend that you do just that.) It's also an act of healthy defiance: a statement of a woman's determination not to have her life ruled by her plumbing. And that's therapeutic, too.

Now for the bad news, already alluded to: Menstruation is uncomfortable. It can even be disabling. And it's messy. Very messy. Which poses problems in its own right. Let's look at the difficulties confronting menstruating women in the backcountry:

  1. Staying clean, comfortable, and healthy
  2. Managing the flow
  3. Controlling pain
  4. Disposing of the effluvia
  5. Did I hear a bear?

There's some overlap here, of course. Managing the flow helps you stay clean, and controlling pain is part of being comfortable. But I think these headings deserve to stand as they are, and first among equals is probably …

Cleaning Up Your Act

Many paddlers regard backcountry trips as holidays from hygiene. If this means omitting the daily rituals of coifing and de‑scenting, I'm in complete agreement. But 20‑odd years of living in a house without running water taught me that neglecting elementary cleanliness can have serious (and unpleasant) repercussions. To take a worst‑case scenario, toxic shock syndrome will definitely spoil your day. It might even stop your clock. So it pays to stay clean when the red tide is running. This requires …

  • Changing tampons or pads (i.e., "sanitary napkins") at least as often as you do at home. And be sure you bring more than enough to last out your trip, even if it isn't your time of the month. Whatever the calendar says, alterations in your daily routine, especially when coupled with the (sometimes) hard work of paddling and portaging, can trigger the start of your cycle.

  • Keeping all the area "from pink to stink" gunge‑free. Washing your hands before and after cleaning up is also important.

  • Packing several changes of underwear, and laundering soiled pants as soon as possible.

Be warned: Cleaning your nether regions is never straightforward in the backcountry. It's a world without showers, after all, where the only hot water comes out of a pot. A bidet makes the job easier, but since not many campsites boast bidets, you'll have to bring your own. Fortunately, a laboratory‑grade wash bottle or bicycle bidon (water bottle) will serve. You can also buy bottles made expressly for the purpose. An online search for "peri‑bottle" will turn up many candidates. Then, once you have your bottle, you'll need to fill it. Use only clean — boiled or disinfected — water. Do I have to remind you to allow freshly boiled water to cool first? I hope not.

Whatever you do, don't yield to the temptation to use alcohol‑based hand sanitizers to scrub away the red tidewrack. That's not smart. But your private parts will likely smart for hours if you're foolish enough to attempt it.

We're not done yet. Keeping clean goes hand in hand (so to speak) with …

Managing the Flow

To begin with, "managing" is a medical euphemism for making the best of something that can't be cured. In short, what can't be cured must be endured. That certainly describes menstruation, and the various stopgap solutions are familiar to nearly every woman: tampons, pads, sponges, and menstrual cups, though the latter two aren't yet common sights on HyperMarket shelves. Each of these alternatives involves trade‑offs. Soiled tampons and pads must be disposed of. This isn't easy in a riverside camp, which is why I'll have more to say on the subject in a minute. And since menstrual sponges require scrupulous cleaning and disinfection, I wouldn't consider them suited to backcountry use at all. But cups — though they must still be kept clean — have less demanding requirements, and there are also disposable cups to be had.

All of which is largely academic, I suppose. Most women decide on a method of stanching their flow by the time they reach their middle teens, and a canoe trip is no place to experiment with something new. My advice? Use what you know. During my bloody years, I preferred tampons. I found the diaper‑like feel of pads unsettling, and tampons also took up less space in my pack, while allowing me to wade or swim without hesitation. But if I were starting over today, I'd probably opt for a cup.

And from what I hear, these flexible friends are the up and coming thing, at least for active women. Though placing a cup requires some practice, it isn't much more difficult than inserting an applicator‑free tampon, a chore most women manage without formal instruction. (The molded stems on many cups also facilitate insertion and removal.) So far, odds are even between cups and tampons. But cups enjoy clear advantages in other areas. Tampons must be replaced as they become saturated, if not before. Frequent changes are recommended to reduce the likelihood of toxic shock syndrome. A word to the wise is in order here: Changing tampons in a canoe halfway across a big lake in a rising gale is no fun.

On the other hand, reusable cups — arguably a better bet in the backcountry than their disposable counterparts — require much less attention. If you start fresh in the morning, you should be good till it's time to make camp for the night. And what do you do when your cup runneth over? Just empty it! Dispose of the contents in a shallow "cat hole" located at least 30 double paces (150 feet) from your camp and any surface waters. Then rinse the cup (clean, disinfected water only!) and return it to duty. Finally, when the red tide has ebbed its last, give the cup a good wash, allow it to air‑dry, and stow it away. It will take up no more space in your pack than a ripe plum.

Are you worried about seepage in the night? Do you fret about waking to a sleeping bag that smells like an abattoir after a busy day? If so, just tuck a towel under you when you hit the sack, or carry an adult diaper or two in your pack for bedtime wear on the days — the nights, really — when the tide is flowing fast and full. There's no reason to be shy about this. You'll be in good company. Many expedition sea kayakers wear nappies in their boats on long, open‑water crossings.

What's next? Well, we can't put this off any longer, even if it is …

A Painful Subject

I can see no point in pretending that menstruation isn't a pain. Every woman understands this, though the level of felt discomfort runs the gamut from mildly irritating to incapacitating. Many women get by with no more than an occasional NSAID on their "bad days," but if you're one of the unlucky gals who's frequently laid low by agonizing cramps, it's high time you talked to the doc. Do it before you head for the put‑in. A backcountry campsite is no place to be writhing in agony. Not only will you be miserable, but you'll likely spoil the trip for your companions, too. It's a lose–lose scenario. 'Nuff (n)said?

Equally painful, though it's painful in a different way, is the problem of disposing of soiled tampons and pads. To be honest, it's …

A Bloody Nuisance

And I never found a solution I was happy with. Burying your saturated, smelly jetsam is a non‑starter. For one thing, many tampons and pads incorporate nonbiodegradable materials. Moreover, animals are almost certain to dig them up. Burning? Good luck. Blood‑soaked wads of fabric don't ignite readily, and even if you can somehow coax them to smolder away, you'll find yourself starring in a scene all too reminiscent of the Scottish play:

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw. …

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

I've played the First Witch's role myself on several occasions, gathering with my sister sufferers around a smoky fire — for poorly understood reasons, women on group trips seem to synchronize cycles — and chanting increasingly desperate incantations, in the vain hope of persuading our sodden leavings to burst into flame. Needless to say, we had a long wait.

Anyway, after a few such fiascos, I concluded that the withdrawal method was the only viable option, with the predictable result that I've packed out enough double‑bagged tampons to stem a Red Sea deluge of biblical proportions. But this less than wholly satisfactory solution failed to address another problem, best introduced with the fraught question:

Is That a Bear I Hear Out There?

At one time or another, most paddlers have found themselves camping in bear country, and no sensible person wants to have a bear stopping by for dinner, let alone invite one into camp for a midnight snack. For many years, the technique of choice for those wishing to discourage hirsute houseguests was "bear bagging," and this can still do the trick in truly remote areas that see few visitors. But such places are now few and far between, and bears who have frequent encounters with naked apes are quick to devise ways to defeat even the most elaborate bear‑bagging schemes. The upshot? Popular wilderness parks now require the use of bear cans, pricey plastic safes that purport to be proof against the best efforts of bears to share your grub.

Perhaps you're wondering what all this has to do with menstruation. If so, here's the connection: Bears aren't fussy eaters. To a bear, a soiled tampon smells like a particularly tasty bit of blutwurst. It's not a meal in itself, of course. More like an hors d'oeuvre. But it's in no paddler's interest to provide little things on sticks to entice peckish bears to linger long and chat. Nor is it in any bear's interest to acquire a taste for such fast food, come to that.

What's a girl to do? Well, the menstrual cup would seem to offer the best solution, unless lethargy prompts you to empty it close to your camp. (If so, your first encounter with a hungry bear will probably cure you of your sloth.) Tampons and sanitary napkins present a less tractable problem, however. Double‑bagging really isn't enough in itself. You'll need to treat your effluvia with the same care you lavish on your food stores. Does the idea of stuffing bloody tampons into the same container that holds your freeze‑dried entrées not appeal? Then you'll have to choose between toting a separate bear can and switching to a menstrual cup. I know which of these alternatives I'd favor.

Lastly, there's this to consider: If you "have painters in" while you're on the trail, will a hungry bear be drawn, not to your discarded tampons, but to … er, you? It's bad enough to lose your food to a bear, but no girl fancies finding herself on the hungry animal's carte du jour. Unfortunately, though, this is one fear that can't be dismissed out of hand. While there's little doubt that by far the most dangerous part of any paddling trip is the drive to and from the put‑in, blood will out, and blood smells like food to a bear. Nor can it be denied that "death hath ten thousand several doors for [wo]men to take their exits." And a handful of unfortunate women have indeed exited this life pursued by a bear.

But was this remote possibility something that I worried about during my scarlet years? No. And I've spent nights in camps crisscrossed by fresh grizzly tracks, both little 'uns and big 'uns. (It wasn't a choice campsite, I know, but at the time I had no choice in the matter.) If the prospect of becoming a bruin's breakfast worries you, however, I'd suggest (1) scheduling trips only for weeks when you're sure the risk of bleeding is minimal (but remember that a change in routine can cause your flow to start early), (2) talking to the doc about medication to suppress your flow for the duration of your trip, or (3) putting your paddles on the shelf and taking up blue‑water sailing (unless you sail in arctic waters, the risk of bear encounters at sea is minimal, though sharks are drawn to the scent of blood, too).

Me? Even if I were still visited by the red tide, I'd just take my chances. The risks and inconveniences associated with the curse, though real enough, are very small. Too small, in my opinion, to allow them to dictate what we women do and where we go. And as I noted early in this article, such healthy defiance is an affirmation of our resolve not to have our lives ruled by our plumbing. The way I see it, any other mindset is just bloody nonsense.

Day's End


Why can't a woman be more like a man? Most women today would find this question offensive. But we might make an exception where menstruation is concerned. And that's particularly true on canoeing and kayaking trips. I've yet to meet a woman who thought her holiday was improved by "having painters in." Still, there are ways of taking the curse out of this monthly visitation, and I've outlined some of them above. But if you have a better idea, don't keep it to yourself. Let your sister paddlers know. Just drop me a note. I'll do the rest.


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