In the run up to my first experience of Arctic Expeditioning, I realised that I was due to get my period a day or 2 before I left for Norway. For me, this was a hugely stressful discovery. I’ve always suffered cramps and heavy bleeding which make me feel awful for several days each month, and I would be alone with 6 men for 5 days, in an unfamiliar environment. While Thorsten is an excellent team mate, I was also worried about this first experience of sharing a tent with him. Should I tell him? Would it be really uncomfortable to try to manage things discreetly without telling him?
And how would it go? Could I pull a loaded pulk with cramps and my usual sluggishness? Would I let the team down? Cry? What if I got a leak? I’d been warned about the dangers of getting damp from sweat at very low temperatures – wouldn’t a leak be dangerous as well as hugely embarrassing?
I spent several hours researching, sure that I wasn’t the only one to have had this problem. The brilliant Women’s Adventure Expo has a research project ‘Managing Menstruation in Extreme Environments’ which is looking at exactly this issue and their blog was certainly encouraging. But sadly most of the practical advice out there is vague. “Be well prepared”, “just deal with it”. No one really delved into the nitty gritty of how debilitating, and messy, periods can be.
Something like 25% of the world has periods (roughly 2 billion people), and of those about 17.3% (or 334 million people) are on their periods right now. So why do we talk about it so little?
A survey by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals found that during their periods;
You’re tired, in pain, feeling low AND dealing with the mess of blood, and you’re expected to still, literally, pull your weight on an expedition. Less than fun.
So, what did I learn, and what advice can I offer? (There’s some advice for anyone who wants to support people having periods below)
You’re likely to be tired. Some of this may well be due to low iron levels, or even full blown anaemia. See a Doctor for a blood test if you get wiped out during your period. Even if you’re within ‘normal’ ranges, ask if a small dose might be of benefit. My ‘low-normal’ levels have been raised by regular low doses of Ferrous Fumerate on prescription, and I feel great for it. And be gentle with yourself; your body is going through a lot. Get the best sleep you can, eat well and don’t take on extra work – your team will do better with you doing the basics well, than doing more than your share badly.
Be sure to carry plenty of painkillers close to hand and know your optimum combinations and doses. I recommend timing taking them on the hour wherever possible to help you keep track of how long till your next dose. Also consider taking stick-on heat packs to help you sleep, or use on the move if you can.
Change more often than you would at home to avoid leaks. Consider doubling up on tampons and towels. Carry intimate wet wipes to help with the mess (inside your outer layers to stop them freezing!). Thin merino underwear and under layers will wash and dry well, meaning you should be able to do a reasonable cleanup when you stop for the evening if needed, and use extra protection at night – you don’t want your sleeping bag getting stained! You can close yourself in a tent porch fairly easily to avoid dealing with this in an outdoor trench toilet, where you’re at the mercy of the cold and elements, although preparation here is key – get everything you need lined up and open as much as possible before removing any clothes! You might even want to practice this multiple times at home before you go, so you know your full no-water-squatting-in-bulky-clothes routine before you get in to the cold. And I recommend keeping a small 1-2l dry bag on hand with everything you need inside, so you can reach it all easily.
One specific note – I found pads refused to stick in the wind drift snow, so I ended up just changing pads in the tent, and relying on regularly changing tampons during the day.
You shouldn’t be leaving products behind – even pure cotton tampons which are technically biodegradable. In optimum conditions they’re likely to be around for 6 months to a year, in the snow, they’ll be there potentially forever. So you need to get rid of them. Pure cotton tampons can be burnt, if you’re ok with everyone watching them smoulder away on a fire for several minutes. A better option is just to take them with you. I used dog-poo bags on my trip. I had a small pack in my jacket pocket that had in it wet wipes, tampons (unwrapped and inside a tiny ziplock bag), towels and a poo bag. Each morning I put a pack together for what I thought I’d need during the day (plus some spares). When I needed to do the change, I’d go carefully (so that the wind wouldn’t steal anything I needed!) and efficiently, wrapping any waste in a poo bag and stashing that in a different pocket. The beauty of extreme cold is that everything freezes very quickly, so I didn’t have to worry about smell or mess once everything was bagged. At night I’d then transfer any small bags to a carrier bag in my pulk.
This was probably the hardest thing for me. I decided not to tell anyone on the trip and just let them draw their own conclusions about why I needed frequent complicated toilet breaks. Fortunately this worked out just fine, but I would like to have an honest conversation about it with groups in future. I’m thinking of it as being a period pioneer – by having that difficult first conversation, you’re making (mostly men) aware that having a period won’t stop you, but does need additional considerations. The more of us doing this, the more likely we are to be able to smash stigma for future adventurers.
I was lucky, as my period came a couple of days early and most of the worst symptoms were out of the way before the trip started. As it was, it was inconvenient, but no barrier to me having fun. Dealing with it was no worse than having it at home, and except for weirdly rustling around in the porch of the tent I was able to keep it discreet. I was tired, and crampy, but it really didn’t affect my performance as much as I’d expected, and I slept so well I felt better than I do most days at work.
I’m due on this summer during my Viking Ship expedition – 7 days on board an open boat, living closely with 50-60 other people 24hrs a day. The toilet is a bucket with a bit of curtain around it in the middle of the ship. The challenges of having to change my protection every couple of hours in that environment, and row, and remain cheerful with the crew while I feel terrible are, again, occupying most of my thoughts.
Added to this I’ve recently had a coil fitted, lured in by the promise of lighter, shorter periods and the possibility of no periods at all! But now my next period is a totally unknown entity. It could well be heavier and much more painful than before. I’m bracing myself for a seriously tough week…
My recommendations above reply a lot on plastic, something I’m trying to use a lot less of. As it stands, hygiene, convenience and necessity mean I’ll be erring on using the plastic in the field for the time being, but will be working on finding alternatives that suit me in the future. The Women’s Environmental Network has some vouchers and a guide on some plastic free products, and this link has some good information as well.
Mountain leader in training, Skipper, sometimes Viking and total coffee addict. Runner, hiker, Girlguiding leader, animal lover. British/Irish, aspirant Norwegian.