A lot is written about the different needs of women and men but when it comes to hiking, are the considerations for women that different to those of men? The short answer is yes and no. There are some female-specific aspects such as managing the implications of a menstrual cycle on the trail but there are also non-gender-specific aspects such as safety, phobias and basic hygiene.
With your guidance through our Facebook post on Women and Hiking, we have identified six key areas that are important considerations women hikers.
Listen to the Australian Hiker podcasts on hiking with women at:
Personal safety on the trail is a big consideration for many people whether you’re hiking solo or in a small group, and whether you’re male or female.
I am sometimes concerned about our safety on the trail despite hiking with someone the physical size of Tim. On the other hand, I am very comfortable going on long solo walks in urban and city areas in most places of the world. And I also jog alone early in the morning when few people are around and at certain times of the year, in the dark. Logic suggests there are more grounds for me to worry about the solo urban walks and runs!
Concern about safety is a common reaction and there are things you can do to help you feel more comfortable whether you’re hiking solo in a group.
Tell a family member or close friend where you’re going, your expected start and finish time, and provide them with SMS text updates or GPS notifications at agreed intervals. Have a PLB, know how to use it and be willing to use it if required (occasionally, for whatever reason, people sometimes hesitate).
Think of multiple uses for your equipment for example, trekking poles could be used to defend yourself if needed.
You also need to be aware of your surroundings. Have you ever been startled by someone you didn’t see approaching?
Staying alert may be a challenge as our mind drifts off as we hike and being aware of your environment requires a bit of focus from a vision and hearing perspective. On this latter, point I suggest not wearing earphones as they can cut out the ambient noise as well as distract you resulting in you being less connected with what’s happening around you.
There are so many ways you can approach this one. However, some women can experience lighter periods during a hike and as your fitness increases, menstruation could have less impact on you.
But the first thing is to assume that menstruation could happen even if it’s not scheduled. So be prepared and have sanitary items with you, as well as some spares for other women who may need them – it’s easy to get caught out and fantastic if someone is able to help you out or vice versa.
As always, find the option that suits you best! If you’re new to hiking, trial a few options at home without the pressure of the hike. Everyone is different so think about tailoring or tweaking the options to meet your needs.
In terms of managing the consequences of your period, the options are many and include:
And those who have lived through the challenges of menopause know the one benefit that made it worthwhile – no periods!
I can’t explain why but for some reason, manufacturers of hiking gear for women have not yet worked out that we are different shapes and sizes. The most common feedback we’ve had is that hiking clothes that fit women are hard to source. And if you are different from the ‘average’ – whatever that means – its almost impossible.
I go for closer fitting stretch hiking pants that convert to shorts teamed with Icebreaker tops that accommodate movement. And besides, no one looks good in baggy clothes! The downside for me is that I don’t have ‘skinny’ arms and legs so getting the sizing right is problematic and I usually settle for ‘close enough’.
The good thing about gear designed for hiking is that it tends to be very durable and withstands the hard work it gets and it also seems to repel sweat more. But you don’t have to wear hiking clothing – anything that is comfortable is fine – so long as it is lightweight, and you don’t mind it getting dirty or cut from brushing against rocks etc. I would caution about wearing jeans – if the weather is too hot, jeans will make you hotter and if too cold, jeans will make you colder. They also get very heavy when wet and take a long time to dry. And let’s not mention the chaffing!
Hiking skirts and dresses are becoming much more popular and appearing increasingly on the female clothing stands in outdoor stores. They offer flexibility of movement and air flow in all the right places. Some women suggest that a skirt complements the use of a female urination device.
Peeing on the trail is slightly more complex for women than men but it’s not that difficult. The main thing here is to appreciate that you will never find the perfect spot. And sometimes you just have to drop your pants behind the wispiest shrub! So long as you make sure when you’re squatting that your pee runs away from you and not onto your boots!
I tend to wear a panty liner when hiking to eliminate the need to use toilet paper after weeing – just wait until you’re all dripped out and you’re set to go.
If dropping your pants is something you want to avoid then there are a range of female urination devices on the market. They tend to be straw or funnel-shaped plastic extenders that allow women to pee while standing and wearing pants, a climbing harness, or a backpacker’s hip belt etc. There are also disposable and non-disposable versions. Perhaps one of the best-known brands is GoGirl but there a range of others so shop around and test them out! And remember, this is a very, very personal peeing option so what suits one person won’t necessarily be right for you.
You should pee 50 metres away from water sources which can be a long walk at night. I’ve heard of women peeing into small containers or zip lock bags in their tents at night which are then emptied out in the morning. There isn’t much room in our tent once our gear is unpacked and Tim is inside, so I haven’t tried this one. However, I would give this a go if I was hiking solo.
Needing to poo on the trail requires a bit more planning and time. You should always carry toilet paper and some means of digging a hole even on day hikes – because you never know when that spicy dinner is going to re-emerge. Like peeing, you’ll need to find a spot away from water sources and dig a hole that is around 15 cm deep. This can take time when the ground is hard so hence the need to plan ahead and allow time! Make sure you refill the hole and cover everything, including your toilet paper, under a thick layer of soil and put some small rocks or twigs on top to weigh it all down and help others spot a potential bio hazard.
And don’t forget to clean those hands!
This is one for everyone – not just women. I sometimes wish more blokes on the trail paid a bit more attention to staying fresh!
There is nothing like a splash of water at the beginning and end of the day to freshen your view of the world. You’ll need a small lightweight cloth – a hack we heard from Amanda on our Women and Hiking podcast episode 045 was to use a CHUX cloth cut into the size of a face washer. Only the smallest amount of water is needed to wet a CHUX that size and it wipes away the grime well. Start with your face and work down. Make sure you have one or two separate, smaller sized cloths for your private bits! Rinse the cloths after use and reuse them for your next clean up. This is a very inexpensive and durable option.
And in the interests of having multiple uses for every bit of gear, if you carry hand sanitiser you can apply a bit to your cleaning cloth and do a bit of body disinfecting!
Another option is to use disinfecting wipes. You’ll need at least two per day. You can also rinse these out and reuse them once or twice if you get desperate – they won’t disinfect anything at this stage but they may help wipe away some grime. There are a range of wipes that are sold as everything from baby wipes through to face wipes. The main thing is to get the ones that work for you – some are alcohol based which I get a reaction to – and because they tend to be a bit heavy, the packet size will need to suit the duration of your hike. I’ve tried putting them in a zip lock bag (which is lighter than the commercial packaging) but they tend to dry out faster. For very short hikes, extra weight may not be an issue for you but you won’t want to carry two weeks-worth of wipes on a two-day hike! And another downside is the expense as well as the environmental impact – the disposable consumerism driven world strikes again!
And of course, if there is the option to immerse yourself in a stream, lake, river or creek, even for a split second, go for it!
We may be out bush but there is no reason for our breath to smell like a swamp. This one is definitely also for the boys – a toothbrush and a bit of toothpaste is not a luxury – it’s an essential. Enough said.
Once you’ve cleaned yourself off, you may want to think about a bit of moisturiser. I do carry the smallest amount of face moisturiser in a tiny, lightweight container. My face tends to dry out so a smear of face moisturiser is my little luxury.
Sun block out lotions also offer a moisturising layer however sensitive skin can react to the ingredients in sunscreen lotions and creams. Also, if you apply sunscreen for multiple days in a row without the benefit of washing it off at the end of every day, you may develop a reaction. Again, testing prior to your trail activities is essential.
Lessening the aroma
A regular clean up helps here but the type of underwear you wear will also add to or lessen the need to freshen up. For example, standard sports bras tend to stay sweaty longer. Not only is this uncomfortable for you, it also means that the sweat is transferring to your skin and clothes.
Underwear designed for hiking is a great option and will help you stay fresher for longer. I usually have two sets of underwear for multi day hikes of any duration – I’ll wear one set and have one set spare. My preferred underwear is the Icebreaker Racerback Bra and Boy Leg Pants. And if you do happen upon an opportunity to dunk yourself in a creek, they look more like swimmers than underwear.
So, we’ve talked about wiping away grime but we also need to be thinking of minimising infection. Hand sanitiser is a great quick fix after a loo break and before eating some food. Using soap and water to wash hands has gone out of favour a little but a good hand wash at least once a day on the trail and preferably prior to each meal, is important to keeping everyone healthy.
And did you know that recent studies suggest the benefits of washing your hands arises from the vigorous rubbing as well as the combination of soap and water.
I don’t know why but sometimes women hold themselves back. We have a million things on the go which are often for the benefit of others and the result is we tend to put ourselves last. If you want to be a hiker then you need to hike – it’s that simple.
If YOU don’t find a way to get out there, then no one else will find it for you.
If the thought of multi day solo hiking is overwhelming, then don’t do it. There are SOOO many options; explore what interests you, establish a goal and work up to it. You’ll develop your confidence and you’ll be comfortable adding incremental challenges to your hiking experiences.
If you have kids, take them with you. Infants can be carried in baby packs, and older kids (from around five and above) should be fine to start with a few kilometres building up to longer distances over time. I will acknowledge it is difficult with small children who are too heavy to carry and too small to walk a long distance. If this is the case for you, stick with short distances in anticipation of the day you’ll be able to work up to three plus kilometres and beyond.
If you can’t find a hiking buddy (or can’t barter favours with family or friends) and you don’t want to venture out alone, then bushwalking clubs and meet-up groups may be an option.
When I started to plan our Women and Hiking series and podcasts I was a bit concerned that I would be lost for words. I think of myself as a person first and a woman second (or maybe even third) so I assumed it was all pretty simple and obvious. Having written this article (likely to be my longest Australian Hiker article to date), I now realise that a lot of women (me included) assume that no one has ever experienced the same things and so we just work it out for ourselves. But of course, this is so wrong.
The answer? Share, share and share your hiking experiences, hints, tips and insights even about the smallest things. And let’s stop assuming no one is interested in what we have to say!