Last year, I went backpacking for eight months and I only packed one box of tampons. When I got home, eight menstrual cycles later, I still had a handful left. How is that possible?
I packed a menstrual cup.
Menstrual cups had been on my radar for years, but it was only my fast-approaching around-the-world trip that made me seriously consider adding one to my period arsenal. I had friends who’d used them for years and friends who recoiled in horror at the very thought, but it wasn’t anyone else’s opinions that finally inspired me to add a Diva Cup to my Amazon shopping cart. No, it was the simple mathematical problem I was facing. I wouldn’t have space for anything else in my backpack if I packed eight months’ worth of tampons.
In the end, I’m so glad that I chose a menstrual cup. In fact, when I think about my own personal travel style (a very contradictory mix of roughing it and luxurious indulgences) I can’t think of any other period product that would have worked for me.
I’m going to tell you a little bit about why a menstrual cup ended up being the perfect choice for my trip, as well as my own personal tips for using a cup while traveling. And, in case you’re wondering, I’ve been home for eight months now but I’m literally wearing my cup as I write this.
Why Pack a Menstrual Cup for Travel?
There are lots of advantages to using a menstrual cup while you travel. In retrospect, having worn one for eight months of travel, these are the ones that made the biggest impact on my happiness and comfort while I was traveling.
It’s Where You Are
Many countries have very limited feminine hygiene products. In some cultures, tampons are taboo. In some places, women can’t afford disposable products. And in some other cultures, menstruating women are literally banished until their period has stopped. As a traveler, you don’t want to spend all your time rationing your pads and tampons, worrying about when you’ll be able to buy more. If you have a menstrual cup in your pack, you’ll always know that you have period protection on hand.
It’s Compatible With Your Lifestyle
You can wear a menstrual cup during almost every activity. Yes, I even wore my menstrual cup while I was scuba diving! With no strings, no wings and a capacity equal to five or six regular tampons, you can wear it all day to the beach, while you’re hiking, on a bicycle tour or during any other adventure activity. Yes, you can wear it in the shower. You don’t have to remove it to pee. You usually don’t have to remove it to poop (there are a few exceptions to this, depending on the alignment of your internal organs and your digestive health). As far as I know, the only thing that you shouldn’t do while wearing a reusable menstrual cup is have sex.
Although each brand is different, most reusable menstrual cups are proven to be safe and effective for up to ten years. Assuming you use 25 tampons per cycle and menstruate 12 times per year, if you used a menstrual cup for five years you would have kept 1,500 tampons and pads, and the associated waste, out of the trash. I was shocked to see how much garbage there was in the streets in India, and I felt good knowing that my period products weren’t creating more waste.
Like I said, menstrual cups generally have long lifespans. Most are made from medical-grade silicone that is designed for long-term use. When I returned home from my trip I continued using my cup on a regular basis (and wearing one today inspired me to write this post singing its praise!).
Menstrual cups have a moderate up-front cost but ultimately result in major savings with long-term use. I picked up my Diva Cup from Amazon (and confirmed its authenticity by scanning the holographic sticker on the box). It cost about as much as 125 tampons from my local pharmacy. That means that after five cycles it paid for itself (and now, almost two years after buying it, I’m way ahead financially!).
Some female travelers choose to take hormonal birth controls pills continuously during their travels, skipping their periods altogether. This is an option that you could discuss with your doctor and that might be right for you, but I’ve had a lot of negative experiences with hormonal birth control in the past and it wasn’t an option that I would have considered. Menstrual cups don’t stop, delay or pause your period, but they do allow you to go a lot longer without thinking, “Do I need to find a bathroom to change my tampon?”
It’s Fun to Talk About
I don’t walk around telling strangers about my period, but when I’m talking to other female travelers and the topic of periods comes up, I like to share my enthusiasm for menstrual cups. Some women have never had the chance to talk to someone who uses one, and some have never heard of them at all, so it’s fun to do a little female bonding over a cone-shaped piece of silicon.
How to Use a Menstrual Cup for Travel
Menstrual cups are simultaneously intuitive and confusing. They’re easy to use but surprisingly complex. And what works for one woman won’t work for someone else. Here’s what works for me when I use a menstrual cup for travel, but if it doesn’t work for you, don’t give up. Seek another opinion or try a different technique… it’s a bit like riding a bicycle!
Before Your Trip
If you take only two pieces of advice from this post, I hope they are a) buy a menstrual cup for travel and b) practice using it at home for at least two months before you depart!
I purchased my Diva Cup in March, four months before I was departing on my eight-month trip. There are many different brands of menstrual cups and I took the easy road by choosing one of the most well-known brands. I didn’t do any real comparison shopping, but I did choose the size that was recommended for my age group.
I spent the next few months getting used to inserting and removing the cup (including using the “phone a friend” option the first time I tried to remove it!). It also took time to really trust that it wouldn’t leak, but even on my heaviest flow days (and nights) it’s never leaked after twelve hours of continuous wear.
For me, the biggest challenge was learning to get the cup to fully open once it was inserted. After a few tries I found the right combination of folding technique (I like the “origami fold”), body wiggling and internal poking to get it open quickly, every time.
After four cycles, I was ready to begin using my menstrual cup for travel.
During Your Trip
Changing Your Menstrual Cup During Travel
My Diva Cup holds about 30 ml of menstrual fluid, which is equivalent to about six regular tampons (or two ultra tampons). I’ve never felt the need to change it more than twice a day (once in the morning, once in the evening) and, like I said, it’s never leaked.
I’ve only changed my menstrual cup in a public washroom a handful of times over the past two years. It’s as simple as pulling it out while you sit or stand over the toilet (follow your manufacturer’s instructions – mine recommend squeezing the cup before pulling, to break the “seal” around the cup’s edges), rinsing or wiping it clean in the staff (use tissue, toilet paper and/or bottled water) and then re-inserting it. It’s the same idea in a hotel or hostel, though it’s generally more comfortable when you have a private stall with both a toilet and sink.
Yes, you might get some blood on your fingers when you change your cup. There’s really no getting around this, so just be prepared with toilet paper, tissue or a wipe.
When I’m at home, I usually change my cup in the shower. I remove it, open the shower door, pour it into the toilet, rinse it in the hot shower and re-insert. If anything drips then it’s down the drain before I have time to notice. Oh, and it’s a good excuse to have a nice, warm shower before I put on my PJs and get into bed!
Cleaning Your Menstrual Cup During Travel
Many women worry about keeping their menstrual cup clean while traveling. Fortunately, it’s really easy! You don’t actually have to “clean” the cup every time you empty it. Instead, just rinse it with clean water and re-insert. After each cycle, give it a proper clean and store safely until your next period.
I packed a travel-sized bottle of Cetaphil cleanser, which I chose over Diva Cup’s own cleanser because it was a better size. After each period I would thoroughly wash my cup with the Cetaphil and clean water (tap water where it was potable, bottled or purified water where it wasn’t), leave it to dry and then pack it back in its bag and throw it in my toiletry case.
If I found myself in a hotel room with a kettle and disposable coffee cups, I would do a “bonus clean” by boiling clean water and then soaking my cup in the boiled water until it cooled. This isn’t the same as boiling the cup, which the brand says is an optional cleaning step. Personally, I only boil my cup at home, in my own kitchen, and only once or twice a year.
* Some people argue that using bottled water to clean a menstrual cup creates more waste. I agree, so if I’m traveling somewhere where the tap water isn’t safe, I buy large bottles of purified water (five- or six-liter jugs are my fave!) and pour from there into my reusable water bottle and/or a cup as needed.
The Disadvantages of Menstrual Cups for Travel
Honestly, using a menstrual cup while traveling is the same as using one when you’re at home, whether you’re on your sofa, in the office, out for brunch or at the gym.
If you’re squeamish, you might need a few cycles to get used to the sight of your own blood. Remember, girls, a regular tampon holds about 5 ml of menstrual fluid, but a Diva Cup holds six times that much. That means that each time you change your menstrual cup, you’re dealing with five tampons’ worth of liquid. That can take some getting used to!
The only time I consistently reverted back to tampons during my trip was when I was staying at yurt camps in Central Asia. Here, the outhouses were usually unlit, and even with a headlamp the visibility was very limited. I was worried that I might accidentally drop my cup into the outhouse when I was changing it, so for a few days I relied on the tampons that I’d packed. I have no regrets, and I don’t consider falling back on tampons to be something shameful, or a failure. It was the best decision I could have made in that situation.
Convinced? You can buy the same cup I use – the Diva Cup – from Amazon, or at your local pharmacy. It comes in two sizes, so get the one that is recommended for your age and body.
Questions? Let me know in the comments! I’ll do my best to answer, based on my own experience.
Already hooked? Share your menstrual cup travel tips in the comments!