My first trip to Sequoia National Park was so breathtaking that as soon as we were in the car driving down the mountain, I was asking my boyfriend if we could go back on the next three-day weekend. Except for this time, I would be bringing a dreaded friend with me. My period.
I’ve been an avid day-hiker most of my life. My parents took me and my older brother out often when we were kids. Living close to the Angeles National Forest now, I hike almost every weekend. The idea of backpacking intrigued me, but I was always hesitant to give it a try because of two things. First, pooping in the wild—after your first time, it feels quite normal—and second, my period.
I’ve had painful periods for as long as I can remember and they don’t respond well to pain medication for the first 24 hours. I just have to wait it out. I can dull the roar, but it’s still there. I also can’t use the typical methods most people use when experiencing pain, like NSAIDs (Ibuprofen, Advil, Aleve, etc.) due to an extremely sensitive stomach. Even eating food with them doesn’t help.
I opened the period tracking app on my phone to see exactly when I was due to start. Last day of the trip on the hike down. Hmmm. I think I can manage that. I mean, at least I won’t be hiking uphill that day.
Except, I don’t just suffer from painful periods, I also have PMDD. PMDD is like PMS’ nasty older sister. The acronym stands for Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder and it’s as awful as it sounds. It afflicts approximately 5% to 10% of menstruators and interferes with daily activities such as work, school, social life, and relationships. Symptoms include depressed mood, anger or irritability, trouble concentrating, lack of interest in activities normally enjoyed, moodiness, increased appetite, insomnia or feeling very sleepy, and feeling overwhelmed or out of control. Fun, right?
Similar to PMS, PMDD symptoms typically start 7-10 days before your period starts and taper off once you begin bleeding. Unfortunately for me, that’s when my pain starts, so I get to deal with my PMDD symptoms before my period, and then extreme pain for the first two to three days of bleeding.
I had recently adopted the practice of seed cycling — consuming certain ground-up seeds during the first and second half of your cycle to support hormone production; pumpkin and flax seeds during the first 14 days and sunflower and sesame seeds on days 15-28.
I’m more of a morning person. I like to do the important things shortly after waking up because if I don’t, it’s less likely I’ll remember to do them later in the day. That’s why I typically add my seeds to whatever I’m having for breakfast. I knew I needed to bring them with me on my trip and since I usually eat oatmeal when I backpack, I simply dumped my daily portion into my Ziplock with it.
My cramps usually start shortly before or immediately after I start bleeding — depending on how diligent I am with my seed-cycling routine — so I knew I had to bring my pain-relieving remedies. I lovingly refer to this as my “warrior kit,” since the struggle with painful periods and PMDD can sometimes feel like being on a battlefield. My NSAID alternatives include turmeric (with black pepper as it helps with absorption), Tylenol (easier on my stomach), and CBD gummies (these help with inflammation and pain).
My First Backpacking Trip with My Period
I was feeling good on our hike up to Pear Lake and even hopeful that the increased physical activity would help ease my chances of cramping or push my period back a full day. When we got to our campsite, it had started to sprinkle and was threatening full-on rain, so we frantically set up our tent and ducked inside.
We peeled off our hiking clothes, did the classic baby wipe bath, and pulled on our warmer sleep clothes. Once the rain clouds passed over us, I walked over to the pit toilet to ensure I hadn’t started bleeding, since my cramps were threatening to make an appearance. When the toilet paper emerged stark white, I sighed with relief. The next morning, I wouldn’t be so lucky.
As soon as we were starting to break camp, I knew my period was on its way. We were hiking down to the campsite below us and I wanted to stop at the pit toilet to confirm I had indeed started bleeding. After putting in my tampon, I opened my warrior kit and took everything at once in an attempt to block as much pain for as long as possible.
The hike down was slow, as my cramping started to increase, but I was grateful to be hiking out instead of in. I was singing to myself in my head that everything was okay, and we were getting closer and closer to the car and then home with every step we took. I find positive self-talk to be a helpful tool when experiencing extreme pain and it can help battle the negative, angry thoughts that come with PMDD.
When we reached the car, I threw my pack into the trunk and slid into the passenger seat for the six-hour drive home, thankful to have a partner who was willing to drive so I could focus on managing my pain. I had survived my first backpacking trip with my period.
Tools I’ve Found Since My Trip
While I use a menstrual disc at home, I opted for tampons on this trip, because I hadn’t found the perfect disc yet. I have since taken the quiz on Period Nirvana that matched me with the Saalt disc, which has changed my life. I highly recommend taking the quiz if you’re unsure which product is best for you, or if you're simply new to cups and discs. (XO Flo Menstrual Cups are available on GGG.)
I also carry Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap with me since I wear contacts and need my hands to be clean before removing or putting them in, and I want my hands to have a good wash before inserting a menstrual disc, too. There are a lot of bacteria inside to keep balanced, so it’s critical if you’re inserting your fingers into your vaginal canal, that your hands are as clean as possible.
I also switched up my daily vitamin routine to one that aids with hormone balancing. I use The Daily Hormone Balance by Semaine Health, but there are several on the market. This one specifically helps with mood swings, cravings, smoother skin, and healthy hormones. I love that they put their products through third-party clinical trials since supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA. It’s important to research whichever company you choose to purchase from.
Overall, I’ve noticed vast improvements in my PMDD symptoms since switching my vitamins and becoming an avid seed cycler. The best part is that both are easy to bring with you into the wild—and they don’t weigh much! While I haven’t been able to eliminate painful cramping, I do have solutions I can bring with me, so I never have to cancel my backpacking trips just because I’m going to be on my period.
>>> Also check out, GGG's related article: Menstruation in the Mountains: Period Tools & Tips!