8 Tips for Women Backpackers

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One of my favorite campsites on the Colorado Trail.

This summer, I hiked for a month on the Colorado Trail and spent months reading everything I could find about thru hiking before I left. So I bumped into Backpacker Magazine’s 11 Key Tips for Female Thru Hikers.

Don’t bother clicking the link. It’s terrible.

Well, I suppose I’m being unfair. There are one or two pieces of advice that are reasonably helpful. But the rest of the article is embarrassing. Among the advice it provides is tip #8 — “cry” because, the article explains, “it will make you feel better.” There’s also “embrace your feminine side” which includes putting a razor in your resupply box and packing some “nice lotion” and wearing earrings.

I wish I were joking.

There are actually things women have to worry about when they backpack, and wearing earrings is pretty low on the list. I’m not a backpacking expert. The month I spent hiking the Colorado Trail was my longest trek by a lot. But I’ve backpacked for a few years, and I’ve learned a few things the hard way. So here is my humble starter list for things I’ve found useful as a female backpacker. I think this list will likely change as I spend more time on the trail, so think of this as a work in progress.

Most of the advice for long distance backpacking applies to men and women equally. For me, the minimal differences specific to hiking as a woman boil down to three things: menstruation, breasts, and being of smaller size than many other hikers. So my tips are built around those three core differences. However, I also recognize that many women won’t have my experiences. Women come in all shapes and different sizes. Many don’t experience periods — for example, if they were born without or later removed a uterus, if they are post-menopausal or premenarcheal, or for other reasons. This list is a compilation of what I found most useful plus some advice from other women hikers, but at the end of the day you are the only one who knows what’s right for your body.

So, here goes: 8 Real Backpacking Tips for Women

  1. Find the perfect bra. Your perfect may be very different from someone else’s perfect, so this is very much a subjective choice. But here are some ideas to consider:
    -It shouldn’t smash your breasts down. That’s fine for a day or two, but not for a week or more.
    - It should be able to double as a bathing suit, in case you can’t go naked in a mountain lake for some reason.
    - It should dry really fast, which lends itself toward a thin sports bra. But lots of people wear simple underwire bras on thru hikes and are perfectly happy.
    - Try it for a 3 day trip or more before you commit to wearing it for a month or longer.
    - Some people swear by two bras. I was fine with one for a month-long backpacking trip. But I would not have been OK if it hadn’t been the perfect bra. The bra, if you’re curious, was the Patagonia Barely Bra in Medium. I’m a 34 D, and sometimes that’s a 34 DD to be honest. I think it’s a fantastic bra for well-endowed women.
    - Take it off when you’re sleeping but keep it in the sleeping bag with you so it doesn’t freeze in cold temps. Nothing sucks like putting on a frozen bra.
  2. Customize your calorie count. Your calorie count is not the same as your male companions. On a backpacking trip, I typically factor about 300–400 calories burned for hour of hiking, unlike lots of guys who may burn 550–600. Food is the one place I can save on weight, and it’s the one place women have an advantage in backpacking. I’m smaller, I can carry less food and still hit my daily calorie expenditures without much trouble. I normally carry about 1.5 lbs of food per day, but I could carry less if I didn’t love cheese so much.
  3. Iron up. Consider checking your iron levels before you go. Anemia makes backpacking rough going, and iron pills are very light.
  4. No ibuprofen before exercise. If possible, try not to take ibuprofen for menstrual cramps before exercise. Take it after exercise if you want — lots of people do to combat swelling in their legs on thru hikes. Also: I found a Gatorade bottle filled with warm water tucked against my abdomen was great for menstrual cramps, though it only works when you’re settled in for a while rather than while you are hiking. Some people do swear by ibuprofen before exercise, so there’s disagreement on this specific tip.
  5. Consider a form of birth control that will stop or slow your period. This might be pills, an IUD, or the Depo-Provera shot. Specific advice:
    - Don’t try it for the first time right before a thru hike! I would try it at least 6 months before a long distance hike, if possible. I cannot stress this enough.
    - I’ve been trying to hack my period for years, with a ton of bad luck in the process. Some folks (like me) have bad reactions to birth control. For example, on a low-dose birth control pill, I will bleed every day continuously. Same thing with the shot. However, if you’re one of the lucky people who can eliminate your period with birth control, then hallelujah.
    - Hormonal IUDs will frequently slow or stop your period. I’m having luck with that, even though I had no luck with other forms of hormonal birth control.
  6. Consider a sleeping bag liner. Like lots of ladies, I get really cold, really fast. Not all women have this problem, but lots of us are just smaller in size than men and need to add in a few things to stay warm. It’s a conundrum: we’re smaller, but we may have to bring extra stuff to stay warm so our packs may be as heavy or heavier than a guy’s. The thing that has made the biggest difference in my comfort on cold nights is a serious sleeping bag liner. You can add anywhere from 5 to 25 degrees to your sleeping bag, though you pay for it in added weight. Also, ignore what a sleeping bag says it’s “rated” at. My backpacking bag is rated at 15 degrees, and I’ve been damn cold in it at 30 degrees. The liner is incredibly helpful.
  7. Shop online. Some camping stores — including the best ones — won’t have any decent ultralight women’s wearable gear in the store. This includes top-quality rain gear, puffy jackets, etc. Frustratingly, I’ve found stores will carry the men’s version of some ultralight gear but not the women’s version of the same gear. If you want the lightest stuff, (expensive but so worth it for a long trip) my experience is that you’ll have to research and buy it online, then send back what doesn’t work. Sorry! It sucks!
  8. Menstrual cups > tampons. (Warning: stop reading now if you’re uncomfortable with specific details about dealing with menstruation on the trail.)
    If you haven’t been able to stop or significantly slow your period, then a menstrual cup is your best bet. Diva cup works for me. You should try it out at least once before you go. Here are some sad realities:
    - You’re going to have to stick your fingers deep inside to get it in and out, and there’s really no way to get your hands all that clean either before or after. You can try hand sanitizer or some Dr. Bronner’s soap, a bit of water, and a bandana. I’ve done it with hand sanitizer on a few trips and it was not awesome, so I’d try it with soap next time.
    - You have to dump the blood into a cat hole, and you typically do this in the morning and then once or twice during the day or in the evening, depending on how much you bleed. It’s gross, there’s nothing else to say about it. Having some wet wipes to clean it out before you stick it back in helps. I have been using women’s personal single-pack wipes and they work pretty well. I then tuck the wet wipe back into the original wrapping and then put it in a ziplock bag, and then I stick that ziplock bag into a larger ziplock bag that holds my trowel.
  9. Update: Bonus extra tip! Bring a pee rag. After publishing this article, I shared it with the Colorado Trail Facebook group. I got tons of feedback from women who had finished the trail. The number one suggestion I got was also bringing a pee rag. I actually started off the Colorado Trail without a pee rag, then picked up an extra bandana about 100 miles into my trip for just that purpose. Some women on the Facebook group suggest absorbent underwear or pantyliners instead, so that’s also worth trying (though in my experience, both Thinx-style absorbent underwear and traditional, synthetic pantyliners don’t offer adequate air circulation. I found reusable Luna Pads were superior, and a simple pee bandana even better.) Other women mentioned the Freshette (which I haven’t tried) or just going commando and wearing a skirt (which doesn’t work well for me as I don’t have a thigh gap).
    Other assorted tips that came in through the Facebook group included: getting a women’s sleeping bag instead of a men’s, taking Magnesium supplements, learn to French braid your hair, and using women’s athletic underwear.

It’s not that I think Backpacker Magazine’s 11 Key Tips are awful advice. Crying on the trail, eating chocolate, and packing nice lotion might make a lot of sense for some people. But I don’t think those people are necessarily women.

Thanks to all the women who provided feedback on this article!

Did I miss anything? Please let me know in the comments. And if you’re interested in reading more about backpacking, I have an incredibly detailed trail journal from my 2016 Colorado Trail trek with photos and such. (As of this publishing, I still haven’t brought all my trail journals over.)

Note: this article first appeared on my Colorado Trail blog.

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Writing on personal privacy, government transparency, nonprofit leadership, and whatever else intrigues me. Views are my own. EFF/Groundwork Consulting/FPF.

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