Since I’m on a roll listing all the issues that women face with backpacking that men do not, I figured it’s really time to dive right into a hard-hitting topic. Men, this post is strictly for the ladies. Consider this a warning. No, really, you should legitimately turn back now. See the little “x” in the top corner of your screen? Do not hesitate: click it. This isn’t a joke or a “women mean the opposite of what they say” sort of thing.
If you haven’t stopped reading by now, there’s only one thing left in my bag of tricks to convince you. Here goes. Deep breath. MENSTRUAL CYCLE!
OK, ladies, I think I got rid of all the men. Now we can speak freely. I have to be honest: I’m a little embarrassed to be talking about this in such an open forum, but I was curious for information and so thought other women could benefit from it as well.
Six months of walking through the woods means six months of tending to my menstrual cycle: carrying tampons and pads, using them, changing them every few hours, and packing them out of the woods. Not only have I been thinking about the extra weight in my pack, but also I’ve been anxious about hygiene (can’t shower every five seconds), not to mention the discomfort of hiking while using a sanitary napkin.
About a month ago, I went to an all-day thru-hiker workshop hosted by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. During a lesson in digging cat-holes (a hole in which to “do one’s business”), I pulled aside the woman instructing us and privately asked her about dealing with one’s menstrual cycle. First and foremost, she told me that menstrual blood has to be buried in a cat-hole. She also pointed out that tampons and sanitary napkins could not be buried (they do not biodegrade) and instead had to be packed out.
She then mentioned that, although she had never tried it, she knows of women thru-hikers that have used the DivaCup. When I asked her what it was, she explained that it was a pliable funnel-shaped cup that is inserted similarly to a tampon that collects menstrual blood.
When I got home, I visited the company’s website at http://www.divacup.com/ and did some research on the product, which – I’ll admit – looked a little intimidating. However, I figured it was worth a try and emailed Diva International, Inc. requesting a sample, to which the company generously agreed. As a disclaimer, the company provided me a DivaCup for my personal use free of charge but no other form of compensation for my review.
Diva International offers the DivaCup in two different models: one for women under 30 that have never born children and one for women over 30 and/or who have born children. Fitting in the former category, I requested a Model 1 DivaCup, which arrived in the mail a week later.
So that I don’t have to fumble my way through an explanation of the product, I’ve taken this description directly from the company’s website: “The DivaCup is a reusable, bell-shaped (silicone) menstrual cup that is worn internally and sits low in the vaginal canal, collecting rather than absorbing your menstrual flow.” The Cup has a capacity of one ounce with incremental tick marks lining the Cup vertically to measure the volume. At the top of the Cup, there is a thick rim that, when inserted properly, abuts the woman’s cervix, creating a seal against leakage. At the bottom, there is a stem that the woman grips in order to remove the Cup for emptying, rinsing, and reinserting.
The Usage Guide that came with my DivaCup said that – since the average woman’s monthly flow is approximately 1 to 1.4 ounces, this proverbial “average woman” can wear her DivaCup for 10 – 12 hours before needing to remove, wash, and reinsert. As I’m guessing some of you are now, I was super skeptical about the “12 hour” claim. I’m going to be a little crass to drive home my point; I’m a woman with a heavy flow, such that I often marvel that I’m not internally hemorrhaging.
When I got my period last week, I thought, “OK, ready or not, let’s give this thing a whirl.” So that the lip of the product is small enough to insert comfortably, the Usage Guide recommends either folding the DivaCup in half and then in half again or folding it closer to the base (stem) to create more of a triangle at the lip. I found out the hard way that the first option is awfully uncomfortable and bordering on painful (for me), whereas the second option creates a smaller shape – more the size of a tampon – for insertion.
The first 12 hours using the DivaCup I almost completely forgot it was there. I’m prone to cramps, and my cramps were neither worse with nor alleviated by the product. I will say that, although it abuts the cervix, it also comes lower down than a tampon, which – when I used the restroom – made it feel like a tampon that was coming out, even though the Cup was perfectly secure; that difference took a little getting used to.
The one little hiccup I experienced came when – 12 hours after initially putting it in – I went to remove the Cup. See, I had read how to insert it but not how to remove it (and didn’t have the Usage Guide with me). At first I couldn’t grip the stem and had a “holy crap” moment, but then I realized that flexing my Kegels (pelvic floor muscles…like when you’re urinating and purposefully stop) brought the Cup downward such that I could grip it and gently (and very carefully!…I was nervous) pull it out. I later read the Usage Guide, which recommended just that technique.
I was surprised that, not only did the Cup not overflow, but it wasn’t even full. Just as surprising is that there was not a drop of menstrual blood anywhere except in the Cup. I emptied it, cleansed it (with toilet paper…which was all I had), and reinserted, all the while baffled at how clean I was and how clean I smelled. Without getting too graphic, I know I’m not the only woman out there that has spent many years feeling unclean during her menstrual cycle, so this really was quite a shock.
Over the course of my period (just shy of two and a half days), I went to work, went for a four-hour hike, sat in a movie theater for three hours, and slept three nights. In that time, I emptied it six times with a cumulative flow of just over 2 ounces (so much for “average”). I had one small leak (very small; just a couple of drops on my panty liner) on the second morning of my period after a restless night. Even so, the Cup was not full at the time; I think it was more of an issue of not having maintained a perfect seal with my tossing and turning.
The first time I removed, emptied, and replaced the Cup, I’m pretty sure it took over five minutes (although it felt like an hour!), and it was quite uncomfortable. It kind of reminded me of the first time I put in a tampon when I was a young teenager (“This goes where? How?”). By the time my period was done, I’d gotten the hang of it, and it was a 30-second (painless) process.
I haven’t yet spoken about sanitizing and product life. Besides thoroughly washing your hands before and after, the company offers a product called the DivaWash, which is a soap meant to be used externally on the Cup, or – like I did – the Cup can be washed with any fragrance-free soap. It should also be stored in a porous cloth bag, which comes with the product, as opposed to a sealed plastic bag (such as a ziploc). Although it is reusable, the company does recommend replacing one’s DivaCup once a year since it is a personal hygiene product, and – as most man-made things – it is prone to deterioration over time.
The DivaCup is available at a variety of drugstores in the U.S. and Canada as well as online. If you’re interested, I recommend you go to the company’s website and check out the Store Finder link. But, having done a search myself, the cheapest place I was able to find the DivaCup was Amazon’s website – $20 for Model 1 or $18 for Model 2.
I was crossing my fingers that the DivaCup would work for me because I was really stressed about my menstrual cycle on my trek, but I wasn’t particularly hopeful. This product has far exceeded my expectations, and I can’t believe I’d never heard of it before. Not only do I plan to use it during my trek, but also I’ve resolved to stop using tampons and sanitary napkins altogether. No longer do I have to change tampons/pads every few hours, which becomes both costly and – all things considered (that don’t need to be described) – makes me feel unclean.
I know that this product is not for every woman. Some of you out there may be squeamish about inserting something internally. Others of you may not have a heavy enough flow to warrant the use of tampons, nonetheless the DivaCup. Or, for all I know (and I don’t really), there may be anatomical differences that affect fit. For those of you out there with IUDs, be warned that the DivaCup may not be an option for you – anecdotally I’ve heard that it could cause your IUD to come out (speak to your physician first).
All that being said, if you are interested, give the DivaCup a try, and – if you like it – the company has asked that I encourage you to “like” it on Facebook and “follow” it on Twitter. Usually I’m not into “pushing” a product in that way for a company, but in this case I truly believe this is something that women should know about and am happy to spread the word.
Step 1: the blogosphere. Step 2: up and down the Appalachian Trail.