Periods can be frustrating. On trail, they can be a bit more of a hassle. If you use tampons or pads, you have to pack them out; if you use a Diva Cup or similar, you risk infection; if you choose to freebleed — well that’s on you (literally).
During my backpacking trips, I don’t have to worry about a period. I had an IUD put in when I was eighteen years old, and have not had a period since. I’m twenty-two now. I have the Mirena IUD which secretes the hormone progestin to prevent pregnancies, and in some cases — periods! It works by thickening the mucus in the cervix to prevent sperm from reaching the egg while thinning the lining of the uterus and suppressing ovulation.
The absence of a period might be disconcerting to some. Periods are a natural part of being a cis woman, and it can be fun to sync up with friends and commiserate together. Birth control, including IUDs, can cause breast tenderness, headaches, acne, cramping and/ or mood changes. Some mood changes can be severe. I have friends who needed to come off birth control because it was contributing to their depression.
I have been lucky with my birth control — or possibly, I just haven’t known anything different since I had it put in at eighteen. Either way, I’ve enjoyed not stressing about a period every month.
When I first had my IUD put in, it was not a pleasant experience. However, it was only an unpleasant experience for about five minutes. In fact, it was the length of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, which for some reason I chose to listen to in order to distract myself as it was inserted. I’d recommend listening to a favorite song, as music is known to decrease pain levels — as anyone who’s ever run for long distances, or backpacked into the wee hours of the night, can tell you. However, now Tiny Dancer reminds me of having an IUD put in…hold me closer tiny intrauterine device. It has a lovely ring to it.
On that note, IUDs are pretty small. The Mirena IUD is smaller than your pinkie — but that doesn't mean it does not hurt when first inserted. I’m going to be honest — it’s hard to sugarcoat a process where a gynecologist is inserting something up your cervix. Things are usually only supposed to come out of there, and your body will let you know it!
For some, it might feel like mild cramping (I have yet to meet a person who confirms this) and for most, it feels like super unpleasant cramping. If you have bad period cramps, or have experienced cramps associated with runner’s stomach, it’s similar to that. For me, this cramping drastically lessened after two days. It’s a great excuse to bum out on the couch and binge your favorite TV show.
My advice is to take Ibuprofen beforehand and not think about what’s going on (even though I just told you). Along with music, mindfulness practices can be helpful when experiencing discomfort. I tried to keep a sense of curiosity and distance during my procedure, thinking about how I am a physical body experiencing pain, instead of myself in pain.
Long story short, if you are willing to trade five minutes of pain for upwards of five years without a period, an IUD might be right for you.
With an IUD, I don’t have to worry about taking birth control. Granted, this isn’t really on my mind much anymore since I’m a lesbian. However, when I was in my experimental straight phase in college, it was helpful to have peace of mind knowing I was on a 99.9% effective birth control.
For my straight cis women friends, this can be very comforting on trail. An unplanned pregnancy could potentially end a thru-hike, not to mention completely altering the trajectory of your life, and making things with your Tramily a little awkward.
If you miss a dose of birth control pills, it can lower in effectiveness — not to mention the chance of misplacing the pills on a thru-hike, and the logistical headache of getting a prescription refill. I’d argue an IUD is an ultralight form of birth control (a kind of “worn weight” lol) — you don’t even have to carry the pill!
(SA Trigger Warning:) Additionally, one of my personal nightmares as a person who has experienced many incidences of sexual assault, is becoming pregnant as a result of rape. While I have had wonderful experiences with strangers on trail, and usually don’t worry about sexual assault as much as I would in an urban scene, it helps me have peace of mind knowing that if anything happened, at least I wouldn’t have to deal with a pregnancy on top of it. I hate that this is how I have to think in the world we live in, and hope no one ever has to deal with this.
IUDs also greatly mitigate the cost of buying menstrual products. I have not had to spend money on tampons or pads in five years — which cuts out a large expense! According to Huffington Post, if you use one tampon every six hours for the five days of a period each month, that $7 box of tampons from CVS can add up to over $1,700 per year. In five years without a period, I’ve saved more than enough to fund a thru-hike! With insurance, the Mirena IUD could cost as little as $20 out of pocket. Without insurance, it can be more expensive, but the website provides other resources to lower the cost.
To simplify things, here are some pros and cons of an IUD.
- Potentially no period for five to seven years
- Not having to remember to take birth control pills
- 99.9% effectiveness in preventing pregnancies
- Lowers cost of menstrual products
- No need to carry pads, tampons, menstrual cups, or birth control pills on trail
- No need to pack out used pads and tampons on trail
- Intense cramping for five minutes, recovery period of one to two days
- 20% chance of stopping your period (may still have a less intense period or spotting)
- Side effects can include: mood swings, breast tenderness, headaches, acne, cramping
So far in my five years of having an IUD — I’d say it’s worth it! And I expect I’ll feel all the more so during my Appalachian Trail thru-hike this year.
Abby Evans is currently thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. She is fundraising for the Venture Out Project, a nonprofit that brings queer and transgender youth backpacking.