Most gear is pretty straightforward and non gender specific- tents, sleeping bags, filtration systems. But there are a few things we ladies need to think about. The things a Google search or guidebook will rarely tell us; only experience and sometimes tough learned lessons. I’m getting personal here, so no weirdness please. Here are my five gear essentials for women hikers:
1. Pee rag
Yes, that’s right: a piece of bandana or shammy rag to wipe after going pee. To those outside the hiking world, this sounds ridiculous. But, it’s really not. Toilet paper must be carried out or buried properly, and drip drying when laundry is not often cleaned or humidity is high is a recipe for bacterial infections. When you see female hikers with bandanas hanging off their packs and assume its a handkerchief? Guess again. Hanging the rag outside our packs allows the sun to dry it out and kill off any bacteria. When crossing a stream or coming to a real bathroom, give it a rinse. The only issue I ever have with this? I’ve lost a few from falling off my pack when I don’t tie it tight enough. But they are easy to replace, avoid waste, and are far more hygienic than you think.
2. IUD or Diva Cup
Probably the most common challenge for female hikers is what to do for birth control and/or periods. Hands down my most valuable piece of gear is my IUD (Intrauterine device). Politics and opinions aside, backcountry birth control and menstruation can be highly stressful. IUDS are over 99 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, last up to six years, and eliminate periods altogether for myself and half of women who use them. The other half experience predictability and lighter flow. Finding tampons in rural towns is difficult and expensive, not to mention the garbage they produce that must be packed out. Simply put, an IUD and not getting a period makes life in the woods SO much easier and less stressful. If that’s not your style, or birth control isn’t needed, a waste-less menstruation device is the most eco-enviro move you can make. Menstruation cups like the Diva Cup are a popular, and my personal choice (even when not in the backwoods). Last year on the PCT I was getting a period and my Diva Cup was a lifesaver since it only needs to be taken out and cleaned once in the morning and once before bed. This does require a bit of planning, to be sure you have water nearby or on hand for rinsing it out. It’s easily buried and don’t freak dudes, it’s hardly that much blood and won’t attract bears. So, unless you enjoy carrying around a ziplock of soaked tampons, consider how amazing these options are.
3. Ditch the shorts liners
I wish I’d cut the linings out of my shorts sooner. Most women wear running shorts with a lining in them while hiking, or with underwear. Even in dry climates, we’re sweating all day.. everyday.. in those same shorts. Cutting the lining out provides the BEST breathability. In humid climates, linings can be very unhealthy. Bacterial (or yeast) infections are common because our bodies are constantly sweating and not cleaned often. I discovered this trick last summer and now cut the lining out of all my hiking shorts. With the exception of the occasional flash, this is the most comfortable, easiest gear modification I’ve made.
I carry probiotics on hand just as I would Advil or Benadryl. A few doses help fight against bacteria we may experience from various water sources or… like I mentioned above… yeast infections. When I feel my stomach getting weird from a funky water source, I’ll take a few probiotics to try and avoid a Giardia stint. Prevention is the key. Yeast infections are common on East Coast trails that are wet and humid. A few hundred miles into my AT hike, I got a yeast infection and had to send some dude friends to town to find a pharmacy with probiotics. Uncomfortable for all of us. Best solution is to always carry them (and ditch those shorts liners!).
5. PROPERLY fitting pack
Finding the perfect backpack for a trek can be challenging. Especially as a beginner. Women typically have smaller frames than men, so we need different fitting packs. We can’t walk into an REI and pick up the best-seller and assume it’s the one for us. Finding a small framed pack isn’t always easy; sometimes it involves special orders or modifications. We want the weight of the pack to sit on our hips, not shoulders, and properly fit our torsos. When ordering online, take measurements or talk to sales reps. Wearing a pack that doesn’t fit will make a hiking trip miserable on your body. Ask questions, find resources, and don’t end up with your dad’s old pack.