In the season 3 finale of Broad City, there's a memorable scene that many travelers can relate to: after being forced to gate-check her suitcase, Abbi gets her period during the flight and can't find a tampon. Despite asking around the cabin, the only solution her best friend Ilana can put together is a DIY contraption involving a pita and some shoelaces. Unsurprising, it doesn't fly with Abbi.
Traveling as someone who menstruates adds a particular set of things to deal with — and if you're a nomad on the road for months at a time, being prepared gets a bit harder. Some tips learned from over a year of nomadic life and other travel:
1. Know travel can affect your schedule
My cycle is normally really regular, and so when many years ago my period was first delayed by another week or two I was kinda freaked out. It was only after some concerned Googling that I discovered that travel, especially across multiple timezones, can often affect one's schedule.
Dramatic time changes that disrupt your circadian rhythm not only cause exhaustion and mess with your appetite, but also can affect the hormones that control your menstrual cycle. Changes to your diet and exercise — which often happen when you travel or move homes — can also play a role.
2. Manage stress
I often have fairly painful cramps when bleeding, sometimes to the point of not being able to work or leave home easily. Over the years I've noticed a handful of factors that seem to influence the level of discomfort — sleep deprivation, missing regular exercise, and especially stress.
Unfortunately, travel — packing up all your stuff, keeping track of flight times and bus schedules, navigating a new neighborhood, finding a good grocery store, dealing with a new language, all that stuff — can be pretty stressful at times! The result can be more painful cramps than usual, or cramps when you normally don't experience them.
On the flip side, some of the irritability that can happen at certain points in your cycle (if that's something you experience) can make travel more stressful than usual for you and your travel-mates! (While I don't like to perpetuate stereotypes of PMS, rather predictably I experience a day or two of groundless frustration and lower self-esteem right before my period, so you do you.)
In both cases, knowing your schedule (more or less, since it may have shifted) and managing stress levels is really helpful. I've started creating calendar reminders for the days when I'm usually more irritable, reminding myself to be extra patient and kind to others. Other great ways to get some of that calm are yoga, meditation, and walks — or even reading a novel or watching Netflix. At any rate, I've found that knowing my body and its signals is super crucial to not ending up in tears the morning before an international flight!
3. Be prepared
When you're on the road, it's even more important than usual to have supplies on hand — after all, even if you're going for a short trip and you're not expecting your period, you never know how travel will affect your schedule. Abbi's plight on her international flight is comedic gold because so many of us can relate to the problem of being stuck on a plane or a bus or at work or wherever without a tampon. It sucks, so be prepared.
It can also be harder to find your preferred stuff on the road, especially during international travel. When doing archaeological fieldwork for entire summers in rural Turkey, at least a quarter of my hiking backpack was stuffed with tampons, since they weren't commonly used there. At one point during a long hike exploring the ruins of a medieval castle I started bleeding early and had to ask around among my friends for supplies; all I could get was a thick, awkward pad that reminded me of middle school.
Even if you're traveling within countries where tampons are typical, you may find yourself overwhelmed by different options and brands, as I was when living in a small village in Germany, trying to determine whether I wanted tampons ohne oder mit Einführhilfe (with or without an applicator) and with what Saugfähigkeit (absorbency). It can be rough figuring out how to get what's most comfortable for you in an unfamiliar place, especially if you're also dealing with cramps or stress at the same time.
If you're just on a quick trip, stuffing a handful of tampons or whatever else you use into your bag isn't that challenging. When you're living a nomadic life, however, or even just spending a few months on the road, bringing supplies for several cycles at a time quickly gets very bulky. While in the field, many of my archaeologist colleagues swore by various kinds of reusable menstrual cups. It took me a while to become convinced, but now that we've been nomadic for over a year I'm firmly enthusiastic about cups (over tampons).
While the Diva Cup (and the many similar options) might be one of the most well-known options, I found the bell-like cup rather intimidating, since it's larger than a slim tampon. People with smaller vaginas and/or people who don't have a lot of penetrative sex might be more excited about Instead Softcups. Whereas the Diva cup and similar options are all one piece made of semi-flexible silicone, the Instead Softcups are composed of a thin sac attached to a small, firmer ring (made from a polymeric material that is also used in catheters and baby bottle nipples). This ring folds in half for insertion, becoming quite narrow, and to remove it you can just hook one finger around the ring and tug gently. You can keep the ring folded while removing it, too, if that's more comfortable. Here's a handy guide to using the cups.
Although I'll admit it took a few tries to get used to the different process — especially learning to tell when the cup had shifted and was in danger of leaking — overall it's been fantastic, especially for traveling. The Instead Softcups are disposable after each menstrual cycle, so you don't have to worry about cleaning them while on the road or on the trail, but even a year's supply takes up a tiny amount of space. Same goes for having a whole day's supply on hand, too — when I used to travel with tampons, I'd have to bring a bulky handful in my carry-on for international travel days when I thought I might be bleeding, having learned my lesson from a really rough night in the Atlanta airport when I not only missed my connecting transatlantic flight, but was surprised by an early cycle and terrible cramps and spent a fortune getting supplies for the next two days at the airport kiosks. Now a single cup thrown into my backpack means I've got all the supplies I need for my entire cycle on hand.
Using the cups makes travel easier in other ways, too. The cups only need to be changed about every 12 hours (or a bit more often on heavier days), which makes your business easier while out and about — I find I can usually just empty the cup when I'm at home in the morning and at night, allowing me to explore the world during the day without needing to worry about anything. Public toilets around the world — or, y'know, behind a bush if you're hiking or doing fieldwork or otherwise away from plumbing — don't always have the perfect setup for switching out tampons, so it's nice not to have to deal with that.
Cups are also the logical choice for the budget-conscious nomad. You'll save a lot of money, since that same year's supply costs about the same amount as a box of tampons for a single cycle. You also won't have to worry about needing to spring for overpriced tampons at airports, like I did.
There are also some environmental and health benefits to using menstrual cups: less waste for the environment, less risk of toxic shock syndrome, generally fewer weird, untested materials and chemicals going inside your body. And you can do a lot more sexy things with the cup than with other methods! In pretty much every way, you're coming out ahead.
4. Take care of the little things
Of course, chances are that tampons / pads / cups aren't the only supplies you'll need to feel awesome. I also travel with a small bottle of ibuprofen, so I don't have to worry about finding a local pharmacy if cramps start up.
When we started our nomadic adventures we also traveled with a small electric heating pad, which is awesome for cramps and other aches. Unfortunately, it started smoking and giving off a weird burning smell when we tried using it in Berlin; despite all kinds of electrical converters I wouldn't recommend trying to travel internationally with heating devices.
Instead, if you have access to a microwave, you can easily make a small, cheap alternative. Find a lone (clean) sock or some similar item and fill it with a few cups of rice, then tie off the opening with a rubber band or hair tie. Pop it in the microwave for a minute or two, and it'll stay warm for quite a while. We also used these rice-warmers while learning about British approaches to heating homes (minimal) and to relax tense shoulders after long flights. They're super easy to travel with, too — since rice is so inexpensive, you can empty out the rice on travel days to minimize weight, and just travel with the empty sock. Easy!
We also travel with a hefty supply of chamomile tea, which is good for cramps and also relaxing your mind and body in general. Even if you don't drink several cups daily like we sometimes do, it's nice to have a few teabags on hand (just tuck them in with your cups and other supplies) for feeling extra cozy on bleeding days. We're a fan of Harney & Sons, which is NYC-based, but we've also found lovely local suppliers in many of the other cities where we've lived.
One final tip for the minimalist traveler that doesn't require adding anything extra to your travel bags: some yoga poses can be helpful for alleviating menstrual cramps as well.