This is a super common issue and many women are hesitant to discuss just what goes on and how to take care of things.
A couple of things to know-your cycle can kick in early due to the added stress of hauling yourself and your pack over miles. It also is usually heavier than at home for the same reason. The upside to this is that it means it’s usually of shorter duration! Also, if hiking for several days with other women, your cycle may surprise you as you sync up with one another, so always head out prepared.
If you usually need a heating pad, be sure to pack a few chemical hand warmers to use instead. You may need to shorten your miles for a day or two as well. Pay attention to your body and don’t push it too much!
Have extra wet wipes along for easier cleaning up. These will need to be packed out, not buried.
There are several different options for taking care of the flow. Tampons and pads, of course, and either of these will need to be carried out, not buried or left in a privy. Animals can dig them up and they do not biodegrade, even when buried. When they are left in privies, someone else has to come along and fish them out and carry them out for you. So, be a better person than that.
To carry used hygiene products for several days, place them in a plastic ziplock bag. Many women either buy a dark colored bag or cover a gallon size bag with tape to keep the contents out of sight. You could also use dog waste bags-they are small, lightweight and already colored to disguise contents. Get past the ‘dog poop’ connotation, as long as they work for what you need, they are what you need. A small amount of bleach on a cotton ball or gauze square or a tablespoon of baking soda will keep the smell minimal. This will have to go in your bear bag at night if you are in bear country!
Another option is a sea sponge, which is inserted like a tampon and must be squeezed out and rinsed but can be reused and doesn’t create waste to carry. The most popular option is a cup that is inserted and placed against the cervix to catch the flow. A few times a day, it’s removed, emptied, rinsed and replaced. This, as well as the cleaning of the sponge, needs to be done with clean hands over a cathole and the fluids buried. After washing up beforehand, leave the containers out and open to minimize how much handling is required to wash up afterward.
If the cup or sponge appeal to you, try them out at home first. There is a learning curve and would be best to have several cycles to perfect the skillset. Always bring along a few of your usual pads or tampons for backup if you are not totally comfortable with an alternate method before you head out. With a plan in place, it’s no more than an extra few minutes a day.
A final option for dealing with it is to not deal with it. If you know you will be on a trail for several months, talk to your gynecologist about birth control options that lessen or stop your monthly cycle, remember there are low-hormonal options like the IUD. This may be particularly good for women with irregular periods, very heavy flow, who tend to get migraines or have very bad cramps, all of which can wreck your fun!