5 backpacker problems only women will understand

Getting your period on the road

Most female backpackers on a long-term trip will have to go through the ordeal of having their period on the road, whether that involves changing tampons without running water or sitting out of a leisurely swim. Let’s face it: periods aren’t very fun. Even Bodyform – who peddled the idea of the miniskirted, roller-skating, skydiving girl-on-period for years – admitted in 2012 that they were lying. In truth and seriousness, periods are a pain especially if you’re planning the kind of active trip I am. There are volcanoes and mountains and diving and trekking and wild camping on our list – and the thought of having my period during any of that leaves me cold.

My solution: The first thing I did was stock up on tampons. If you’re still using sanitary towels, you should consider switching. At the risk of sharing TMI (too much information), I only swapped over in my late twenties and it was a revelation. Tampons are far cleaner and much more convenient. The second thing I did was get 6 months’ worth of Microgynon 30 contraceptive pill to control my period. Normally, doctors prescribe a maximum of 4 months but can prescribe more at their discretion. This I plan to take for 3 months without a break, which means I will only have 4 periods instead of 12 over the course of the year. It does mean that my first batch will only last me 5 months, so I’ve arranged for my sister to collect a repeat prescription and post me a new batch of pills. Other options are the menstrual cup (which I hear can be uncomfortable!), an IUD or a contraceptive injection – your doctor will be able to give you more details.

Public toilet seats

Ah, to escape the drudgery of arranging tissue across a toilet seat with the attention and care of a bomb disposal expert every time you need to pee. And then the delicate hovering and silent prayer that your upper body strength will last the course. Oh, to be able to answer nature’s call standing up like a man.

One thing I can be almost sure of is that I’ve already used the most disgusting commode I ever will (a cesspit in a Bangladeshi village crawling with maggots). This offers some comfort but I’d rather not get that close to anything remotely that bad again. It would be far easier and more comfortable if I could take care of business as easily as a man.

My solution: I’m going to do it, boys and girls – I’m going to order a Sheewee. It’s not the most ladylike thing I’ve admitted in public but it had to be said. I’ve read mixed reviews of this ‘female urination device’ but the general consensus seems to be that it works as long as you practise several times before your big trip… and fully clothed at that. I may pair it with a Peebol, an absorbent patch that turns liquid to gel – but that’s quite enough about that.

Unwanted hair

One of my life’s greatest regrets is not being born with the type of hair that can be coaxed into the flowing, voluptuous tresses you see in adverts and on runways. Alas, it is just too fine. The only benefit is that it’s fine everywhere else too, which thankfully means I can go a couple of weeks without shaving my legs. On a long-term trip, however, I’ll have no such luxury. There are several options available but all have their pros and cons: professional waxing lasts longer but is an expensive habit for a backpacker; home waxing is cheaper but less reliable especially when it comes to untested products; shaving offers a great finish but doesn’t last long and can become expensive.

My solution: I plan to pack an epilator. These devices of torture are long lasting, effective and have no recurring cost. I have an old one consigned to the bottom of a box somewhere after I decided the pain wasn’t worth it but tech progresses fast, so I’m on the hunt for a better one. I’ll update when I’ve found one I like. If you have any recommendations, please share.

Unwanted attention

Travelling in a mixed-gender pair or group is great as it allows you to integrate with people of both sexes. For example, a male driver may be wary of offering a ride to two female backpackers for fear of what he might be accused of. Equally, he may be wary of offering one to two male backpackers. A mixed-gender couple is often more neutral. It also offers the woman a safety net she may not otherwise enjoy. I believe in and encourage solo female travel but I have to say that in my experience it has drawn the type of unwanted attention I just don’t get when I’m travelling with Peter.

My solution: I hold my head high and walk with confidence to signify that I am not daunted. Naturally, I will have researched the country to make sure I am aware of appropriate dress and conduct. In some countries, it’s acceptable to smile, engage with the instigator and politely say no; in others, you shouldn’t make eye contact at all. In others still, it’s advised that you shout the local words for honour or shame to embarrass the man into skulking away. Research is key. Finally, many female backpackers swear by a fake wedding ring to deter would-be Don Juans. I haven’t tried this myself and hopefully won’t need to.

Keeping up appearances

Research shows that the majority of women spend about an hour on their appearance every day. In a self-inflicted ‘tax’ of sorts, we check our reflections more often than men, spend more time adjusting our composure and body language, and fret more about the shape of our bodies. Despite the idea of the carefree female backpacker who’s more concerned with experiences than appearances, the truth is that many of us do worry about the way we look. In fact, when Peter asked if he could post a video of me atop Nevis Peak in St Kitts & Nevis, my response wasn’t “Sure, I worked bloody hard to get up there!” but “Nooo, I look awful.”

A one-hour beauty routine just isn’t a good use of time on the road so how to work around it?

My solution: It’s important to focus on getting healthy rather than getting pretty: healthy hair, healthy skin, healthy body. I’m focusing on long-term solutions that will negate the need for a panoply of makeup on the road: vitamins, exercise and nourishing oils for my hair and skin. I’ll cover exactly what these are in a separate Beauty Tips for Backpackers post. On top of this, I’m planning to chop a few inches off my long hair to make sure I can wash and dry it easily on the road.


I’ll be chopping a few inches off my long hair to cut down on maintenance.

Lastly, I’m working on my attitude and training myself to care less what I look like. And what better time to start now? Here’s me on the top of Nevis Peak. It’s not exactly Sports Illustrated material but that’s okay.

Mud streaked, sweaty and exhausted. I'll be training myself to stop worrying about the way I look.

Mud streaked, sweaty and exhausted. I’ll be training myself to stop worrying about my looks.

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