An ode to backcountry birth control in a time when the conversation around it is more fraught and politicized than ever
Last summer, before I set off on a two-month river trip on the Green River through Wyoming and Utah, I spent an obsessive amount of time going through my gear list. I debated base layers and nerded out over water treatment options, trying to guarantee that everything I packed was going to make my trip easier.
Some surprising things made long-term life in the canyons more pleasant (spray-on sunscreen and Pringles, for instance), but the one item that made the biggest difference wasn’t something I’d even considered when I was laying out drybags in my garage. Of all the feather-light, waterproof-breathable, high-tensile-strength pieces of gear I brought with me, I was most glad about my intrauterine device (IUD). It’s a form of birth control that’s more than 99 percent effective at preventing pregnancy and lasts for five years. And for half of all women who use it, myself included, it eliminates monthly periods.
I didn’t get my period the whole two months I was gone. In the carefully calculated time-and-space Tetris of what I was bringing, where I was going to stop, and what I had to pack out with me, I didn’t have to think about tampons or trash or trying to find a pharmacy in a remote Utah canyon.
There are a lot of reasons women use birth control. Likely number one: to prevent having a child they’d have to care for over the next 18 to forever years. Another important reason is to have control over their period—knowing when it’s coming, or if they’re going to have periods at all. More than half of American women who use contraceptives say they do so to help regulate their periods.
I don’t put much stock in the idea that men and women recreate differently. But since most women get 350 periods over the course of their lifetime, and most dudes do not, it’s a dividing line that seems uncrossable. For women who do a lot of backpacking, raft trips, and other long-term outdoor activities, not getting your period makes things way easier.
To be clear, I don’t think periods change anyone’s athletic ability. And it’s not a safety thing. (I don’t think so, at least. Are we supposed to be worried about bears being attracted to the blood? Sharks? I can never remember.) But it is another major factor in the mental math of the backcountry—gear, garbage, and bodily functions. It’s added stress that an IUD eliminates.
Carrying around a bag of tampons soaked with uterine lining is not cool. Neither is trying to boil your DivaCup in your group’s ramen pot. Grossed out? That probably means you haven’t had to deal with it. It sucks, and not the sufferfest, it’ll-be-a-good-story-later kind of suck. It’s the mundane, no-one-wants-to-hear-you-whine-about-it kind of suck.
Here’s the best advice the internet has on backcountry periods, courtesy of the REI blog: “Before leaving home, you can make your own waste/biohazard bag by completely covering a zip-top plastic bag with duct tape and marking it with a skull and crossbones.” It also advises keeping it in the bear hang. This is awkward, especially if you are traveling with anyone other than yourself. “Sorry, bro, don’t mind my mystery pirate bag. I’m just going to stick it here next to your trail mix.”
I spent several summers leading backpacking trips with high school–age kids who had been labeled “troubled.” Most had never been higher than a top-floor elevator, so we navigated them through everything about being outside and camping. The night before we headed into the mountains, we’d give them a Leave No Trace personal hygiene talk, and inevitably one of the tweenage girls would pull me aside after the cat-hole jokes and quietly ask, “Miss, but what if…?”
Taking a shit in the woods is funny and easy to talk about. Periods are not. And the weird, awkward stress of having a period in the woods can prevent people from going into the woods in the first place.
A 2016 study found that 51 percent of girls had stopped playing sports by the end of puberty. Periods aren’t the only reason for that, but they don’t help, especially if they’re coupled with a new, uncomfortable environment. I saw the girls tick through questions as they tried to figure out how to live in the backcountry. Am I different? Am I gross? What do I do with this? Where is the hand sanitizer?
Being able to remove your period takes away some of those questions. It gives you agency. And isn’t that what we’re trying to teach girls in all other areas of life?
Access to contraception is fraught and politicized these days, maybe more than it ever has been. At the root is the question of how women exert control over their bodies. When the Senate voted to block family planning funding, which will restrict access to birth control, I can’t imagine anyone was thinking about river trips or whether to put tampons in the bear hang. But that’s part of the fundamental problem with separating reproductive rights from any other kind of health care: it doesn’t line up with real life.
I take my whole body into the backcountry with me, and I want to have control over all of it.