“You’re supposed to treat it like a beautiful flower—that it is, the delicate flower that it is. And you’re supposed to nurture it in all the ways that it needs nurturing.” Cameron Diaz
Before I start, Men folk this is one for the ladies. If you want to better understand what your female expeditionary companion has to deal with however that’s ace and I thoroughly commend you!
The Vagina. You’d think it was a mythical place, a lost city the way the media and society whisper about it or keep silent. It is a subject enshrouded in mystery and it was even believed in early Russian culture that the display of a single vagina would fend off a marauding bear attack. Please note, flashing your hooha at an attacking Bear really should be the furthest thing from your mind when dealing with that situation.
If for a moment we fend off our bashfulness and seriously consider the Vagina for what it is, it truly is an incredible part of the female anatomy. A self cleaning and self lubricating, sensitive muscle that connects the outside world with the internal uterus and ovaries.
For the very reasons that the vagina is so amazing it can also play against us ladies on expeditions or during intensive exercise. The health of the vagina is affected very much by what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, how we feel mentally and our hygiene habits. After years of working with women and girls in extreme, physically and mentally demanding environments and through my own experiences I’d like to share tips and issues I have seen. I’d also like to show that the threat of having a period on expedition should not put you off signing up for your dream trip.
Periods. Managing menstruation in the wilds.
For many women and girls, the thought of having to deal with periods on expedition or on an outdoor course can be enough to put them off participating or signing up and causes them a huge amount of stress. Below I’ve put a few tip and tools I’ve learnt through the hundreds of women and girls I’ve guided into the wilds and how I’ve learnt to manage the issue myself. It can be a nuisance at times but it certainly shouldn’t limit you! Don’t forget you’re probably not the only one on the trip with these concerns.
One of the hardest parts for some women whilst menstruating on a course or expedition is finding the privacy to change pads or tampons. The best thing to do is to source a local toilet or spot away from the trail where you can sort yourself out. Take a friend with you who can keep an eye out for you while you focus your balance on your task if this makes you feel more comfortable. Buddy systems work really well for checking for leaks and for support and for making a joke out of the situation. Be prepared! Always wash your hands before and after, you don’t know what bacteria you have picked up, hand sanitiser is good too. Take water with you, I tend to encourage women on trips particularly if it hot and humid to have a quick rinse down there to freshen up and clean away any nasties, you’ll feel a whole lot better for it. I know some women like wet wipes, I’m not a fan personally as I find that standard wet wipes dry out sensitive skin down there and this can lead to chaffing which can be painful or can encourage the overgrowth of the yeast which naturally occurs on the body. If you do take wet wipes, go unscented, the chemical in the scented products does not get on well with the sensitive skin.
How accessible are sanitary products?
Sanitary towels are readily available the world over and can definitely be found in any major city and on many tourist routes. This is great as a packet takes up so much room in your bag. In some countries however, it’s maxi pads or nothing. If you like to have more discretion in a thinner towel or wings to hold things in place while you’re trekking then pack your own. If you are on a trek with porters or mules, you can put the ones you don’t need during the day in your bag for them to carry, they are not heavy just bulky. If you are slightly larger it may be worth bringing a small tin of vaseline, I know a few girls suffer mild chaffing from the wings, particularly in humid environments. If you are travelling to a hot and humid environment, I would definitely recommend changing pads regularly. Being dark, warm and damp down there for long periods of time can encourage yeast growth and thrush. This is not too fun on expedition. I always carry an oral anti fungal and anti fungal cream, both can be used to treat a range of yeast infections from vaginal to foot and yes boys, even penile. The oral capsules can be bought over the counter in the UK and got on prescription on mainland Europe. I always ensure my sanitary towels are dry bagged so I don’t lose them to the rain or a river crossing.
Tampons in some places can be harder to source than sanitary towels depending on the beliefs of the culture, some cultures think sticking a tampon up your vag is evil. Even Texas in the USA had a tampon ban in 2013 when I passed through. Tampons with plastic applicators if you are going to be out in a dirty environment give you minimal contact with dirty hands but then it does add weight to your pack and brings up questions as to the ethical issue of disposing of plastic waste. Tampons normally come in a watertight package which is brilliant if your bag gets wet, I still recommend dry bagging them just incase. They also double up as a brilliant fire starter.
Moon-cup / Diva cup, for those that haven’t encountered this, it is a small rubber cup that gets inserted in a similar way to a tampon. It then collects the blood and all you do is pull it out, wash it and reinsert. A great option for the environmentalist and someone restricted on space. Hygienically these take a bit of TLC but easy ways to deal with this are to boil wash in a pan or wipe down with hand sanitiser and rinse with treated or bottled water. Definitely have a practice before going on expedition, sometimes you need to change the size or reposition if you encounter leakage. A great alternative for water based trips, super easy to insert and remove and easy enough to clean.
To pop the pill or not?
I am not a Dr and any advice involving your heath and contraceptive taking should be checked with your GP if you have any concerns.
Many women choose to opt for the contraceptive pill in the hope or belief that this will stop menstruation occurring while on expedition. This can and does work for some, but what I have experienced is that different women respond in different ways. For some it is problem solved, others experience random bleeding at unpredictable times. What I have seen on a few occasions is that a female has started taking the pill just before expedition, not letting her body get used to the hormones in the pill and the change of diet, exercise and environment and she keeps bleeding. If this is the case and she has started taking the pill purely for the expedition, I usually suggest she comes off the pill as in many developing world countries it is hard to get iron rich foods and she potentially runs the risk of anaemia. In these situations, the bleeding normally stops within a couple of days of ceasing.
The pill can definitely be a good option for some but I would totally recommend starting it at least 2 months before you are due to depart so your body has got time to settle into its new routine.
Cystitis and Urinary tract infectionsAnyone who has ever experienced the stinging and pain of cystitis knows that this is not something to laugh at. Most women will experience cystitis at some point and speaking from experience it is a total ruiner of the day. While on expedition cystitis can normally be put down to dehydration or poor hygiene. As amazing as the vagina is, we have a slight design flaw in that the anus is situated very close to the urethra where we pee from. When we are hot, sticky and sweaty fluids and bacteria can mix and bacterial infection can enter the urethra and cause cystitis. Dehydration, not drinking enough can also cause crystals of uric acid to irritate the bladder. Another way I have seen of contracting cystitis on trips is by people holding off going to the toilet for too long, whether through lack of privacy or lack of confidence in peeing outside. To avoid cystitis on expeditions, stay hydrated, wash regularly and embrace going to the toilet outside, believe me, once you’ve cracked it, it is quite empowering.
The company We are SASS who make ‘intimate skin care products’ recently sent me a large box of goodies to try out. (I will only endorse a product if it has worked for me and I have trialled it out myself.). I have been mega impressed! I’ve used their sport range of ‘prepare me’ and ‘recover me’ putting it through its paces while mountain biking, running, hiking and hanging about in my harness. Any of you ladies who mountain bike and ride with guys who tell you ‘you ar
e lucky you don’t have balls’ will have experienced the thoughts of ‘little do you know!’ as we experience the mild bruising after a long day in the saddle on rough terrain (I am not a
road biker so I can’t speak for the ladies that pedal the tarmac but I’d imagine its similar). Hanging around in a harness all day can also cut off blood supply and make clothing sit in awkward places. These two sports products plus the intimate cleansing wash after a ride have seriously impressed me. I haven’t had that ‘ow’ moment when getting on my bike again the day after a long ride.
We’ve been suffering in silence for too long, us ladies just take the discomfort for granted. No more! PH balanced to match our lady bits, these products truly are a breath of fresh air down there!
I also tried the wipes, as I mentioned in the post above I had my doubts about what the outcome would be and I was worried about the drying effect. This didn’t happen! I am in love! I also had a female client with me who had a recently prolapsed haemorrhoid. This can be excruciatingly painful to wipe with normal paper. I handed rather reluctantly over my SASS wipes and thy solved the problem, no pain on wiping. The wipes got nicknamed ‘Special Arse Service’. These would be fantastic to take on expeditions.