UKC

ARTICLE Managing Menstruation in the Mountains

© Laura Barraclough

Amanda Vestergaard writes about managing menstruation in the mountains following a conversation with hill runner and climber Laura Barraclough, who organised a student mountaineering club talk on the topic.


On the 15th of August this year, Scotland became the first country in the world to adopt legislation granting free period products to women and people who menstruate. This was a big step towards gender equality not only in financial terms, but also in relation to how periods are perceived and handled more generally throughout society.

A women's day out in the Lake District.  © Laura Barraclough
A women's day out in the Lake District.
© Laura Barraclough

However, as we move towards equality, we must also work to acknowledge the areas in which inequalities persist. One way we can do this is by recognising the ways in which menstruation still acts as a significant barrier to women entering the world of mountaineering, climbing, walking and general outdoor recreation.

Over the past decade, momentum has been building in the mountain community to make this once-taboo topic something we can engage with and discuss, in order for more women to feel confident and comfortable in the mountains. This momentum has been shaped by trailblazing women taking on advocacy roles, and breaking silences surrounding a subject that has been avoided for far too long.

One such woman is hill runner, climber and general outdoor enthusiast Laura Barraclough. Last year, while sitting on the committee of the Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club (EUMC), she decided to organise a talk dedicated to all things surrounding menstruation in the outdoors, from the practical issues of how to carry and change period products without access to a toilet or bin, to the emotional needs that come with hormone changes throughout the menstrual cycle. I sat down with Laura to discuss her inspiration behind the talk, why she thinks being open about menstruation in the outdoor community is important, and what she thinks we still need to work on to improve inclusivity in the mountains.

Meet the organiser: Laura Barraclough

"The inspiration behind this came about through different conversations I've had over the past few years when talking about barriers to women in the mountaineering community," says Laura. Throughout her time at university, Laura became increasingly aware that for many of her friends, anxiety and uncertainty surrounding how to deal with their period during long days in the outdoors was something that often restricted their participation.

Laura Barraclough in her element.  © Laura Barraclough
Laura Barraclough in her element.
© Laura Barraclough

As an example, she reminds me of a conversation she and I had a few years ago, where I myself admitted to her that I would sometimes avoid attending club trips if I knew I would be dealing with my period throughout it. "It broke my heart a little to think that this holds anyone back," says Laura, who grew up surrounded by a group of older women who taught her how to go about the practicalities of menstruating in the outdoors early on. "I was lucky enough to grow up in a community of people who love the outdoors, so I learnt from an early age how to deal with my period whilst being out in the mountains."

Laura wanted to organise an event that would encourage the club's more experienced female members to talk about their own experiences, and give advice to those women who were just starting to explore and enjoy the outdoors: "The main goal of the talk was to get people comfortable talking about their menstrual health in our community," Laura says. "Even though this happens to almost all women, we can be quite secretive and ashamed about it. I always thought my period was something I should hide, though I was never explicitly told that. As I've gotten older, it's something that I discuss much more and am more comfortable with."

More than just pads and tampons

When we think about periods, what most often comes to mind is likely to resemble what we were taught in school when we were twelve: endometrium layers thickening, then shedding; how to use a pad or tampon; that bleeding is normal and a sign that we are becoming healthy, fertile women. What we don't often discuss are the peripheral, more abstract parts of women's health such as hormone and physiological changes throughout the entire menstrual cycle. As we are talking, Laura admits that it is only recently that she's gained "a better understanding of menstruation as a cycle and not just the bleeding at the end."

This is why she wanted the talk to be about more than just period products and what to do with them in the hills. "The cycle of hormones causes changes in our moods, energy levels, anxieties, and injury vulnerability," Laura explains. "Appreciation of this is as important as knowing how to deal with a bloody pad or tampon."

Laura was thrilled to have ultrarunner Jasmin Paris come to the talk to discuss and answer questions about wider topics of women's health in the mountains, most notably that of staying active while pregnant. Jasmin holds an impressive list of fell running feats, but is most widely known for becoming the first woman to win the Spine Race in 2019, setting a new overall race record all the while expressing breast milk for her baby at aid stations along the way.

"Jasmin spoke about topics of female physical and mental health that I'd never considered before," Laura says, highlighting issues such as increased injury risk, mental health, and societal stigmas surrounding women who stay active throughout their pregnancy. The latter topic has recently gained more publicity thanks to pro climbers such as Shauna Coxsey and Emily Harrington, who have been documenting their journeys through pregnancy with continued participation in sports and hobbies many pregnant women would traditionally have avoided.

Not Just a Women's Issue

As menstruation and women's health gain more attention and discourse, it is becoming clear that the all-round health and happiness of women is about much more than female empowerment. Yes, openness about menstruation is a vital part of breaking down barriers to women entering our outdoor community, but it is also an important aspect of creating an atmosphere of acceptance, support and tolerance of each other's needs more generally.

"Menstrual health is incredibly personal and complex, but it's not just a women's issue," says Laura, emphasising that conversations surrounding menstruation should not be reserved for the women of our community, but should include all the boyfriends, husbands, coaches, mountain leaders and other male friends we share our time in the mountains with. "A lot of feedback we got from the talk was from men asking what they could do to support their menstruating partners."

In response to this, Laura emphasises that starting an open conversation about menstrual health that spans all genders is perhaps the most important way to generate support for women participation in mountain sports: "When I speak to women of my parents' generation, they're often really happy that our community is in a place where talking about this is becoming normal… I think the best way to begin this discussion is to be honest about your own physical, mental, and emotional health, whether you're menstruating or not. Being more open about all aspects of our health can only help all of us."

Laura leading on Beinn Eighe.  © Laura Barraclough
Laura leading on Beinn Eighe.
© Laura Barraclough

Guidance and tips

Aside from a general discussion surrounding menstruation and women's health in relation to mountain sport participation, Laura also wanted the talk to provide guidance for women who are just entering our community, as well as for the guys we share our time in the mountains with. What follows is a small guide on how to make your (or your partner's) time menstruating in the mountains a bit more comfortable.

Choosing the products that are right for you

Over the past decade, the variety of period products available to women has expanded immensely. The classic options are pads, tampons and pantyliners. They are easy to carry in your pack in a dry or plastic bag, and nowadays many brands offer compostable options. Be aware however that while these can be disposed of in composting toilets (unlike their non-compostable counterparts), they do still need to be carried with you out of the hills, as they take a long time to degrade on their own. Therefore, make sure to carry a separate plastic bag or tupperware for used period products, which you can then dispose of once you are back home.

An alternative option is to go for reusable products such as a menstrual cups or period-proof underwear. Menstrual cups are easier to use in the mountains, as they simply need to be emptied rather than changed, and they can easily be rinsed in a stream (downstream of drinking water) or with water that you are already carrying. Products like these have the added advantage of not generating any waste for you to carry back out, which is especially nice if you are on a long expedition; although it is nothing to be ashamed of, carrying around a plastic bag full of used period products for days on end can feel less than ideal.

The most important thing when dealing with your period in the outdoors is that you feel comfortable. As long as you make sure to carry waste back out, this is not the time to feel guilty about choosing single-use products over reusable ones.

Blood, Cramps and Contraception

Depending on who you are, you will be more or less experienced with the unpleasant surprise of getting your period at a time when you were not expecting it. This is because periods, although on average occurring on a 28 day cycle, can often be irregular and unpredictable. For this reason, many women choose to regulate their menstruation and everything that comes with it through hormonal contraceptives such as the pill, implant or coil. These can offer a sense of control and security as they help maintain a more regular cycle. With the pill, you can even choose to "schedule" periods by planning when to start your pill-free week. Meanwhile, more permanent options such as the hormonal coil can help decrease your flow rate, limiting the amount of times you have to change your period products while out and about.

Being able to plan and regulate your period is especially useful if you suffer from cramps before or during your period. Cramps are perhaps one of the most significant period related set-backs while trying to participate in any type of physical activity, and knowing when they might take place can help you make plans to accommodate for their appearance ahead of time. For example, if you are planning a longer trip that includes rest days, it may be useful to match up low-intensity days with the days where you expect cramps to be at their worst.

The flip side of the coin is that hormonal contraceptives do have lots of side effects, ranging from changes in mood and weight gain to increased risk of blood clots. If regulating your period through contraceptive use is something you are interested in, make sure to do some research into the different options and their side effects, and always talk to a medical professional about which one would be best suited to your personal needs.

Amanda and Laura on the summit of Dibona.  © Laura Barraclough
Amanda and Laura on the summit of Dibona.
© Laura Barraclough

Tracking your cycle

Periods are about much more than blood and what to do with it. Even if a woman chooses to regulate her periods through the use of contraceptives, she will still experience the monthly cycle of hormones that menstruation is part of. These hormones can affect everything from energy levels to the physiology of muscle building. By keeping track of your cycle with apps such as "Clue" or "MyFlo", you can link your personal symptoms to specific times of the month, and start getting a better idea of the big picture surrounding your cycle.

For example, are you prone to tiredness or cramps at a specific point in your cycle? Are there times of the month where you might react differently to feeling scared or pressured? Are there weeks where you need more, or different kinds of food? These are all things to consider when you are planning activities in the mountains. Having prior knowledge of what to account for on a trip will both help you avoid uncomfortable situations, and set you up for success in whatever adventure you decide to pursue.

Taking this even further, tracking your cycle can help you optimise training sessions by tailoring your training plan to your hormonal state throughout the month. Traditionally, training guides for women have simply consisted of downscaled versions of those designed for men. In recent years however, the potential of designing training plans with women's menstrual cycles in mind has gained more traction.

Lattice Training especially has done lots of work and research into this, with Lattice Training coach Madeleine Cope leading the way in making training resources specifically designed for women more widely available. For more information surrounding this, check out the 'Female Climber Series' on UKC and the Lattice Training blog.

For the guys

Although the practical guidance provided here so far has been specific to women, it is also important that our non-menstruating climbing, running, skiing and walking partners know how to best support and accommodate the menstruating members of our community. When it comes to the bleeding-related practicalities of menstruation, this can be as simple as not questioning why longer or more frequent toilet breaks might be necessary on any given day.

In relation to this, if you are a guy organising a group trip, do consider where and when accessing toilets or private spots for changing period products might be possible along the way. Men should also not shy away from carrying a couple of spare pads or tampons just in case. Coincidentally, these products make great additions to any first aid kit, as they are very well designed to absorb blood. If you do decide to carry these products as a guy, make sure you let your female partners know, as they might not think to mention to you that they are in need of a tampon.

At the same time, it is worth once again reiterating that menstrual health goes far beyond the bare practicalities of period products. As a man, the most important thing you can do to help tackle the barriers to women feeling comfortable in the mountains is to be honest about your own mental and physical health. While the topic of menstruation is no longer as taboo as it once was, it is still something that women do not always feel comfortable discussing with their male partners and friends, not to mention guides or mentors. The best thing you can do is to respect this boundary, while fostering an open and accepting environment more generally. As previously suggested by Laura, learning to be more vulnerable and caring with one another can only help us all.

***

A big thank you to the lovely women Anna Pasteur, Lucy Ring, Meghan Durkin, Hannah Smith, and of course, Laura Barraclough for their openness and work surrounding the topic of women's health in the outdoor community. 



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