The Complete Guide to Feminine Hygiene on River Trips

12 Min. Read
A group of women posing on a raft in Grand Canyon

Ladies, we’ve all been there. You’re about to embark on a multi-day river trip and have a million questions about staying comfortable when you step out of your comfort zone. Deciding what to pack for your trip can be daunting, especially when you start thinking about feminine hygiene on the river and how to manage things like your menstrual cycle. But don’t fret because the women of OARS have your back. With decades of on-river experience, we’ve gathered tips and tricks to put your mind at ease and take the guesswork out of preparing for ALL your personal hygiene needs while in the backcountry.

How to Maintain Personal Hygiene on Multi-day River Trips

A woman stands under a waterfall
Waterfalls can provide a refreshing shower on some river trips | Photo: James Kaiser

Staying Clean on the River

Let’s face the facts…there are no showers in the backcountry, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep your river funk under control. Body wipes are your best friend on a river trip and are an excellent way to freshen up each day. You may also want to pack face-specific wipes that are better tailored to your personal face care needs. Consider choosing a wipe with a gentler formula, since you’ll already be exposing your skin to sand and sun, which can cause extra irritation. 

If you prefer a full-body cleanse, a river bath is also an option on most trips. Be sure to use a river-friendly, biodegradable soap to wash with, and consider bringing scrub gloves over a washcloth. Scrub gloves are a lot harder to lose in flowing water, and their exfoliating surface is excellent for getting every last bit of caked-on dirt, sunscreen, and sweat off your skin with minimal effort.

“But the water is DIRTY!” Yes, you may be on a river that isn’t necessarily crystal clear, but on rivers like the Colorado that run brown with silt most of the year, you’re basically getting a free spa treatment. That “muddy” water is chock-full of minerals that people pay big money for at fancy spas in the form of mud baths and face masks. You may just be surprised at how soft and fluffy your hair is after taking a Colorado River bath. Speaking of which…

Keep in mind that every river system is different as far as what is and isn’t allowed to go directly into the river. You should always check with your guides before washing in the river, even if you’re using soap that is biodegradable and considered river-friendly.

Haircare Advice

Your hair will get dirty and greasy on a multi-day river trip. That’s the nature of being in, well, nature. Luckily, there are a number of ways to keep your locks in check while on the river.

Many guides embrace braids, buns, bandanas, and hats to keep their hair under control without the need to constantly brush it (always be sure to bring plenty of hair ties!). Daily swims with a quick scalp massage are a great way to manage greasy hair without the use of soap, but you can also wash your hair in most rivers with biodegradable shampoo and a bit of river-friendly leave-in conditioner, like those made by Stream2Sea.

On cooler weather trips, consider keeping your hair stuff in your day bag and washing up while your guides prepare lunch, which is usually the hottest part of the day. If you don’t want to fully submerge your head in cold water, ask the guides for a bucket or pitcher you can use to rinse your hair over the side of a boat.

Women on a raft in long-sleeves and hats for sun protection
Long-sleeves and hats are essential for sun protection on the river | Photo: Cindi Stephan

Skincare Essentials

Taking care of your skin and protecting it from sun exposure is one of the most important things you can do while on the river.

Sun Protection – Keeping covered with long-sleeve tops, lightweight pants, and a hat is the easiest way to avoid a nasty sunburn when out on the water, but if you don’t want to be fully covered all the time, slather on an eco-friendly sunscreen and bring a sarong and sun hoodie to cover up with if you feel like you’re getting too much sun. Sunscreen sticks are an excellent option for folks who generally hate wearing sunscreen, as they’re easier to apply, less messy, and take up less space in your day bag; consider bringing a smaller, separate stick that you can use exclusively on your face, along with a good SPF chapstick to protect your luscious lips from getting chapped. And don’t forget your feet! While coming home with a Chaco tan is a badge of honor after your trip, sunburned feet while on the river are no fun, so chuck an extra pair of socks into your day bag that you can throw on if you feel like they are starting to burn. The river is one exception to the no-socks-with-sandals faux pas. 

Moisturize – River trips run in harsh environments and when combined with constant exposure to water and dirt, your skin will be quoting Lady Cassandra from Doctor Who screaming, “Moisturize me!” Equally as important as sunscreen, make sure to bring plenty of heavy-duty lotion that you can apply often and generously throughout your trip. Many guides like to bring along a pair of cotton socks that they can wear at night with plenty of lotion after giving their feet a good cleaning; this helps prevent dry, cracked feet (equally as bad as sunburned feet).

Women posing at a scenic overlook on Idaho's Lower Salmon River
Women posing at a scenic overlook on a Lower Salmon River Women’s Wellness Retreat | Photo: Sam Studley

Tips for Managing Your Menstrual Cycle While Rafting

Undoubtedly the biggest question on any woman’s mind when preparing for a backcountry adventure is how to manage their menstrual cycle while out in the wilderness. But, it’s 100% doable and doesn’t have to stop you from getting out there and having a blast on your trip. Here are some tried and true methods for dealing with your period on a river trip.

Menstrual Cups & Discs – Reusable menstrual cups and discs are by far the most commonly used products among women who spend their lives on the water. As a zero-waste alternative to tampons, you can empty and clean your cup or disc in the morning and evening at camp either by emptying it in the toilet system or by finding a secluded spot on the river to take care of your lady business (a sarong or long skirt are great for creating privacy). 

On clean and clear rivers, you can rinse your cup/disc directly in the river and wash it with a little bit of biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronner’s before reinserting. On silty rivers, like the Colorado, you can bring a bottle of clean drinking water with you to rinse with after soaping up and avoid exposing your delicate ecosystem to anything that might cause irritation or a yeast infection. It’s always a good idea to pack a backup cup/disc (or tampons), just in case you accidentally drop it in the river and it gets swept away by the current.

Tampons – If you use tampons, be sure to have more than you think you’ll need. It’s also a good idea to pack some supplies in your day bag to change at lunch or for on-river emergencies. 

You can purchase menstrual kits designed specifically for backwoods adventuring that come with everything you need, or you can put together DIY “lady packets” for your trip. Place a tampon and individually-wrapped feminine wipe in a snack-size zip-close bag, which you can then use to dispose of the used products in the trash system at camp and lunch. If you prefer to be more discreet, you can also bring small brown paper bags or even a roll of small eco-friendly waste bags (or similar) to help conceal your trash. The bonus of bringing a small roll of bags is that you can also use them to stash trash in your tent, like body wipes, snack wrappers, bandaids, etc. When you’re ready to throw it all away, you won’t have to juggle a big pile of trash as you walk it from your tent to the main garbage in camp.

Pads & Period Underwear – Pads and period underwear are not great options while on the river since you’ll constantly be getting wet on the boats and potentially sitting in puddles of water, even if you don’t jump in for a swim. This can cause the products to soak up the water, rendering them useless. They are, however, options that will work in camp once you’re done playing in the water for the day if this is what you’re most comfortable with. Like tampons, you can bring zip-close bags and a more discreet bag option to dispose of pads in the trash system.

Even if you’re not expecting your period during the trip, always bring supplies; being in nature has a funny way of affecting your cycle, and you don’t want to be caught unprepared. As we like to say, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

Portable toilet system for river trips sitting in a field outside.
The portable toilet on a rafting trip is set up in a private location away from camp | Photo: Rob Aseltine

Going to the Bathroom on a Multi-day River Expedition

It’s no secret that women face more challenges when it comes to relieving themselves in the wilderness. But if answering “nature’s call” has you concerned, know that you have lots of options to make the process less intimidating. Female urination devices have been a game-changer for women in the outdoors, and bringing along a sarong or longer skirt can add some extra privacy.

One option for peeing (and perhaps the easiest) is the wade-in method. Get waist-deep in the river and just “let it go,” as Elsa would say. Go ahead and strike a Wonder Woman pose as you gaze at the magnificent scenery before you. When you’re done, give your hips a few swishes to clean out your britches, and you’re good to go. This method is especially nice during the heat of the summer, as it provides an evaporative cooling effect.

Another option is to find yourself a secluded area along the shore where you can squat down and urinate directly into the river while being camouflaged by the landscape or even the boats. If you can’t find a totally secluded spot, find the best spot you can and “face your danger” with your front half facing towards the shore and your bum towards the river. It’s common practice on river trips for anyone nearby to turn around and let you do your thing in private. When you’re done, you can use a free hand to splash yourself with some upstream water to rinse off, or go ahead and drip dry. A pee cloth, like those made by Kula Cloth, is also an excellent choice to clean up if you don’t want to drip dry.

For other bathroom needs, there will be a portable toilet system called the groover set up in a discreet location at camp, as well as a pee bucket with a toilet seat lid so you don’t necessarily have to go in the river once you’ve changed out of your wet clothes for the day. 

On OARS trips, there will also be small pee buckets available to take with you to your tent at night, in case you’re worried about navigating to the groover area or shoreline in the dark. Be sure to use your pee bucket outside, not in the tent, and set it somewhere stable where it won’t get accidentally knocked over. The next morning, you can empty it directly into the river, and there will be a sanitizing solution available to rinse the buckets.

Taking Care of Your Teeth

Pack the things that are a part of your typical teeth-cleaning routine. You can brush your teeth at the river’s edge and spit directly into the river, or you can do so in the bucket of one of the handwashing stations in camp. Bring some clean drinking water with you to give it a quick rinse when you’re done. If you use an electric toothbrush, pack it! Many guides and guests use their electric toothbrush on trips; just be sure it’s got a full charge before you launch. Mouthwash strips are also a great option to save space and freshen up throughout the day, such as after lunch.

Three women on a raft with colorful sunscreen on their cheeks
Colorful sunscreen products protect from the sun and make a fun fashion statement on the river. | Photo: Sam Studley

Add River Flare to Your Beauty Routine

Just because you’re on the river doesn’t mean you can’t have a blast with your beauty routine! There are loads of ways to bring some fun and funky river flare on your trip, like wigs (the bonus is they cover that greasy hair), temporary tattoos and tattoo pens, nail polish for river pedicures, and colorful and glittery, eco-friendly, plant-based SPF products like those made by Unicorn Snot. Throw on a tutu or a pair of butterfly wings (or both!) and shine on you crazy diamond!

Did we miss anything? Leave your river trip hygiene questions (or tips if you have them!) in the comments below and we’ll respond as soon as we can. Or, call to speak with one of our friendly Adventure Consultants directly.

Kate Rhoswen

Kate Rhoswen is the Marketing Assistant for OARS. A storyteller through many mediums, she loves writing about the river and sharing her experiences with the world.

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