More than once I’ve stuffed my hiking boots full of tampons.
When I studied abroad in Morocco, I was warned that no tampons were available outside of major cities. Female exchange students who had stuffed their boots and shoes with less essential items frantically emailed their mothers to FedEx boxes of the precious supplies as soon as possible.
In Pakistan, I found that tampons were available at upmarket department stores, but a regular-sized box can go for more than $10 and they aren’t always in stock. Several times I found myself on a hygiene hunt around the city, desperately looking for a box before the onset of the dreaded monthly flow.
A year’s supply of tampons and pads takes up a ton of space in your luggage, especially if you’re traveling with only a backpack. In some countries, customs officials may not have seen tampons before and could consider the strange tubes as objects worthy of investigation.
In Morocco, I heard about an expat who packed a huge stash of tampons in her luggage and was questioned by officials at the airport. The men inspecting her bags thought the tampons, the applicator type, were being used to transport illegal drugs. The men opened up every single tampon in search of illicit substances. All they found inside the suspicious plastic containers was cotton, but they kept opening them nonetheless.
When I couldn’t deal with hygiene hunts and shoe stuffing anymore, I resolved to find a way to live happily without tampons.
Usually made of latex, silicone or rubber, menstrual cups are small, re-useable tampon alternatives. The cup works by sitting inside your vagina and collecting the blood that would usually get absorbed into a tampon. A cup can be worn for up to 12 hours, even during heavy flow, and when you are ready to remove it, you simply take it out, dump out the contents, wash the cup and reinsert it.
When your period is over, sterilize your cup and store it for next month. It usually takes women a few trial runs to get used to inserting, wearing and removing a menstrual cup. Since a cup doesn’t put you at risk for toxic shock like a tampon does, you can try it out when you’re not having your period and get used to wearing it.
A variety of brands are available, including the American-made Keeper and the Canadian DivaCup. International brands include LadyCup (Czech Republic), Fleurcup (France), Miacup (South Africa) and Lunette (Finland). Before buying a menstrual cup, check out pictures and read reviews at Menstrualcups.org. Personally, I have the LadyCup, although I must admit I was swayed by the variety of colors and cute cloth bags that come with the cups.
Menstrual cups are usually good for 10 years of use and cost between $30 and $50. If you are traveling in an area where it is not possible to properly wash your menstrual cup, have a backup and some plastic zip-locks with you. Dump out the first cup, rinse it with some water from your canteen, and store it in a plastic bag until you get a chance to sterilize it.
If you prefer pads to tampons or aren’t yet ready to try a menstrual cup, washable pads are another alternative. They come in a variety of sizes and colors and can be reused for three to five years. For a lighter flow, get washable pantyliners, and for a heavier flow go for larger maxi pads. One brand that is popular is Luna Pads; the company also offers washable underwear with built in pads.
A single maxi pad runs around $15 – $20, but most women will spend much more than that during a single year on disposable maxi pads. You can expect to get at least three years of use out of a washable pad, so in the long run Luna Pads are a cheaper, greener alternative.
The pads can be washed by machine or by hand, although it’s best to pre-soak the pads as soon as you take them off. Washable pads are light, easy to travel with, and don’t leave you with any waste while backpacking or traveling. If you can’t wash your pads right away, put them in a plastic bag and then soak them in hot water when you get the opportunity.
Going with reusable menstrual cups and washable pads instead of regular hygiene products will free up space in your luggage, save you money and cut down considerably on the amount of waste you produce during your period. I keep a LadyCup in my purse or travel bag even when I’m not expecting to use it.
In Gracia Burnham’s book, In the Presence of My Enemies, the author shares the story of being kidnapped and held hostage long-term in the Philippines. One of the major concerns among the women hostages was a lack of tampons and other hygiene products; their male captors were not exactly understanding and cardboard was the only viable alternative.
You won’t always be able to stuff your boots and bags full of tampons, but you can always have a menstrual cup and some washable pads on you just in case.