Menstruating in the Grand Canyon

3 weeks on a river. Not a restroom in sight. No sinks or stall doors. Not even a vault toilet, you know the ones, the deep and plunging campsite caverns where human waste goes to stockpile inside a giant hole in the ground where you’re pretty confident there are beastly creatures just waiting to chomp on your bare booty. Not even that. It was going to be my first time on a multi-day rafting trip, and it was going to span the length of at least one menstrual cycle. Because thanks to recently going hormone-free, there was the possibility that I could get my period twice. Needless to say, I’ve never googled anything harder than this: MENSTRUATING IN THE GRAND CANYON.

menstruation grand canyon

I ditched disposables a few years ago, three I think, and I’ve never gone back. Not once. Cloth pads are easy enough to deal with when backpacking or traveling. And my menstrual cup is my bestest of best friends when I go swimming or it’s 103 degrees at night and I want to sleep naked without having to wash my sheets in the morning. But the first thing that turned up in my feverish googling for a Grand Canyon period solution was this:

“If you are going to be menstruating during your trip, we recommend you use tampons. Using pads is not ideal during the day as you are constantly getting wet. If you must use pads, we recommend wearing a good pair of waterproof rain pants, although rain pants can be extremely uncomfortable in the heat of the summer. We suggest you bring pre-packed sandwich size zip-lock bags to carry new and used products.”

Great. So they were saying I needed to switch back to tampons — which need to be changed often (and I’d be on a raft in the middle of a river for a solid 6 hours everyday) — and then I’d have to keep the used ones with me until I could throw them away in a garbage can 226 miles further down the river. I wasn’t looking forward to my vagina being as chafed and dry as a burro’s backside, nor to toting around used tampons. So I googled even harder and found the rafter’s mantra: DILUTION IS THE SOLUTION TO POLLUTION.

Basically, just put it in the river, folks. The mantra applies to urine and other (non-toxic) liquid waste, including menstrual blood. Our toilet for 3 weeks would be the groover, a tightly-sealed metal canister fashioned with a toilet seat. With every stop along the river the groover would have a new and scenic home, so after that first cup of coffee in the morning, the solid waste would go into the groover. Then the groover would be sealed and packed out on a raft. No poop left behind! But urine had to be separate; if mixed in with the solid waste it would take up valuable groover space and create a particularly gross groover slushee. Next to the groover would be a yellow bucket for urine, which would be emptied into the fast and furious diluting solution of the Colorado River. Of course peeing directly into the river was an option, too, and I definitely preferred river-peeing over bucket-squatting next to the groover. (Peeing on land is discouraged, as it disrupts the delicate ecosystem and can grow a funky slime.)

Google-satisfied, I packed my things. Sleeping bag, PFD, lip balm for dayssss, neoprene pants, puffy jacket, Chacos, inflatable unicorn head, and my menstrual cup … among other things. Despite “just in case” advice from friends, I didn’t bring any tampons. Just my cup, and a couple of GladRags cloth pantyliners for layover days when I wasn’t on the raft. Then after checking my period tracker app (which wasn’t all that reliable given my recent fluctuating cycle) and determining which week I needed to be extra in-tune with my period cues, I headed down to Lee’s Ferry with my crew, strapped Universe the Unicorn to “The Party Barge,” and began the long float down the heart of The Grand Canyon, menstrual cup at the ready.

menstruating while rafting

We were two weeks in when I felt my PCH (period chin hair) poke through on my chin. The Russians were coming soon, I knew. At this point I was quite familiar and comfortable with the groover and yellow bucket process. There was a ziplock bag near the yellow bucket that contained a few wrapped and used disposable products. But not many. There were only 2 women of menstruating age on the trip, and the other one had hiked out after week 1. So anything else that went in that bag would have been mine alone, on display for every groover visitor. The yellow bucket wasn’t lidded, so I knew that when the moon began to flow I wouldn’t want to empty my cup into the bucket for all to see. I knew instead that I would have to empty my cup directly into the cold Colorado.

And so as it has since the dawn of human time, my period came. I wore my cup comfortably as we rocked our rafts through the tumbling and tumultuous Lava Falls Rapid. I never had to worry about having to change a tampon every few hours. My hands may have been chafed from tying down straps, but my lady bits were chafe-free. And when my rafting crew and I watched a disposable pantyliner float alongside our boats from some camp upriver, I vowed I’d share my cup story with others, so that others might choose to ditch disposables, too.

grand canyon

It seems we tend to forget that disposable is only a recent status quo. That it wasn’t really all that long ago that the Anasazi women bled into the Colorado River, no garbage can required. The first time I waded into the Colorado River with Operation Dilution is the Solution on my mind, an incredibly peaceful feeling overcame me. The water swirled around my toes, my tush hovered over the chilly water, and I felt connected to the earth in a way that I hadn’t before. My period-on-the-river experience became almost spiritual and I quickly came to anticipate my moments in the cold water with joy, not the dread that I had feared before my trip. Beneath the early morning sun, the rising moon, and the stars at night, The Colorado River and I flowed together.

Heads up: Don’t ever pee or empty a menstrual cup into side streams or pools. All liquid waste must go into the moving water of the main channel of The Colorado River.