- Erin Ranney is a 32-year-old cinematographer who spends months at a time recording wildlife.
- Over the past decade, she has made an essential period pack to bring along when doing fieldwork.
- Discussions about managing periods while working are vital in an industry dominated by men.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Erin Ranney. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I never thought I would become a wildlife cinematographer. Growing up, I loved animals and decided to become a veterinarian. Halfway through college, I realized I didn’t enjoy it and switched to wildlife ecology and natural resources.
When my mom saw the wildlife photos I took in Madagascar, she invited me to share them with the children at the school she worked at. After my talk, all the books on Madagascar were immediately checked out of the library. I had an aha moment, realizing how enjoyable it was to educate people about science. It led me to my master’s degree in wildlife-documentary production.
During fieldwork, every shoot is different. I could be staying on a sailboat, in a tent, or in a lodge for months at a time, working 12-plus hours a day.
Managing my menstrual cycle as a cinematographer was a nightmare
For my first fieldwork experience 10 years ago, I was camping in Madagascar for four months. Before I left, I asked my doctor how to manage my periods while I was away. At the time, I was on birth control, so one option was to skip my cycle by not taking the placebo pill. It seemed like a great plan, but I packed plenty of tampons just in case.
The plan worked and my period skipped the first month. Unfortunately, I then had a period for an entire month and ran out of tampons. I improvised by using a new pair of hiking socks for two weeks. Each day I would take the used one out, wash it in the river, and let it dry.
While it did the job, it was really uncomfortable. I was hiking up to eight hours each day. Even though I look back and laugh now, it wasn’t fun at the time.
After that experience, I decided to be better prepared.
Items such as menstrual cups and medication for UTIs have saved me on shoots countless times
For my next trip, I packed menstrual cups, menstrual-cup wash, tampons, and ibuprofen. The menstrual cup is ideal because it means less garbage and is easier than tampons when working long days. I also don’t need to worry about toxic-shock syndrome, as long as my hands are clean when changing it.
For each subsequent trip, I’ve continued to add to my period pack.
One of my next additions was period underwear. On my heaviest days, when working long hours, period underwear provides the perfect protection if my cup leaks.
Over the years, I have had urinary-tract infections during shoots. UTIs are not only painful but also can also be dangerous if the bacterial infection gets to your kidneys or bloodstream. I used to tolerate the pain until I returned home for antibiotics. Now I carry antibiotics with me. Even when I practice the best hygiene I can, there’s still a chance I could get one. Carrying medication has been a good way to ensure I’m not enduring pain and a more-serious infection.
Additionally, I drink a lot more water during my menstrual cycle, since this helps prevent UTIs.
Soap, wet wipes, and a field bidet help with hygiene
I’ve also upped my hygiene game and now carry soap to wash my hands, sensitive wet wipes, a travel bottle of clean water, and a field bidet to clean the menstrual cup. Just like with tampons, when you’re cleaning a cup out in the field, you want your hands to be clean because any type of bacteria that gets near your urethra can cause a UTI.
If I’m in a “leave no trace” location, I pour my menstrual blood into a water bottle fully taped with red tape so I know not to drink from it. In these areas, regulations require you to pack everything and bring it out with you. This is especially important for areas where you cannot dig a hole or bury items within at least 200 feet of a water source — such as glacial environments.
I carry ibuprofen for times when my back aches, which occurs often when I’m on my period. It’s extra painful when carrying a heavy bag for hours. I also bring a hot water bottle that I use in the evenings.
Now I’m ready for any scenario
Here is my entire menstrual cycle kit, which I keep in a waterproof bag:
Two or three menstrual cups.
Sensitive wet wipes.
Tampons and pads as backups — and to help other women on the trip.
Three pairs of period underwear.
Ural sachets, which provide relief from UTI symptoms.
A field bidet.
Soap for washing hands.
Spare sandwich bags.
A Kula Cloth: an antimicrobial pee cloth.
A field trowel (to dig a hole for all bathroom needs).
A field medical book.
It may seem like a lot, but I’ve found all the items indispensable.
While I’ve had my period pack for nine years, it’s only in the past few years that I have talked about having a period while working. So many other women have found that opening up the conversation is helpful because of the lack of information on the topic.
I don’t want others making the same mistakes I did because it creates added stress in an already stressful work environment. When you’re in the field, you don’t want to be worrying about blood leaking, toxic shock, infections, and pain. It puts you at a disadvantage because in wildlife filming, less than 5% of camerapeople are women.
We want to do our best work and be comfortable while doing it. My period bag has been my solution.