While cleanliness is a key social contract when it comes to living in the civilized world, in the wild we give stink some slack. Few backpackers even notice their own smell after a day or two — although a tent partner might beg to differ. Often times, as long as you have access to fresh water, vigorous scrubbing can actually go a long way in making you a less stinky trail companion.
While you may be in the “embrace the stink” camp, there are a few tips and tricks to make yourself feel fresh in the backcountry. After all, nobody likes going to bed sticky with sweat from the day. In this post, we’ll outline what hygiene essentials to pack, which ones to leave at home, how to keep as clean as you can in the wild, and how to deal with certain health hazards resulting from letting things slide a bit. Most importantly, we’ll give you all the goods you need to stay clean while still being mindful of the environment.
Backpacking Hygiene Essentials
WHAT TO PACK
When you’re trying to shave ounces off your pack weight it can be hard to decide what gear makes the cut in terms of personal hygiene. Below we outline what we bring along on every backcountry trip and what we leave behind.
HAND SANITIZER– Keeping your hands clean is imperative to your health in the backcountry. It prevents fecal matter from being transferred to your food or your mouth, which can result in some pretty nasty stuff, such as giardia. We always keep a small 1 oz. container of unscented, alcohol-based gel hand sanitizer in our hip belt pocket for easy access. It’s important to note that the CDC warns that hand sanitizers are not as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy, so give them a quick water bottle rinse if they’re extra grimy. Also, don’t ignore your fingernails, where bacteria can hide.
BIODEGRADABLE SOAP (optional)– We usually just clean ourselves with water in the backcountry and that works great. But some hikers like to use soap to clean up after a long day of hiking. We recommend biodegradable soap such as Dr. Bronner’s Organic Pure Castile Liquid Soap (Unscented) or Sea to Summit’s Wilderness Wash. But their biodegradability isn’t an excuse to be careless with them. Never suds up or rinse yourself directly in a water source, even with biodegradable soap. Instead, fill a water bottle or two and walk at least 200 feet away from any water sources to clean up. This makes a huge difference for the wildlife, large and small, that live in wilderness areas.
TRAVEL TOOTHBRUSH & TOOTHPASTE– There’s no reason to let your dental hygiene slip in the backcountry. We always bring a folding toothbrush and travel-sized toothpaste to minimize weight and bulk. Carrying along a small amount of floss is also a good idea (backpacking food often sticks to the teeth). The best way to Leave No Trace when brushing your teeth in the backcountry is to use the Eco Spray, which is explained as the dispersal of toothpaste using a little bit of water, high pressure, and full commitment. See demo of the Eco Spray in the video below.
WASH CLOTH OR BANDANA – A cotton bandana can double as a washcloth for cleaning and dries quickly. You can also pick up expandable and reusable washcloths such as Pack-n-Wipes, which are super compact, lightweight, and dry quickly.
PACK TOWEL – In addition to a bandana or wash cloth to clean, we always pack a Quick-dry Microfiber Pack Towel to dry ourselves. They’re lightweight, super absorbent, and dry quickly. You don’t need a full-body towel – a size equivalent to a bandana should do the trick.
UNSCENTED MOIST TOWELETTES/WET WIPES (optional)- When backpacking in areas such as the desert or canyon country where you’ll have very little access to reliable water sources, carrying body wipes can make all the difference in feeling fresh. Remember never to bury wet wipes; always pack them out. Even the so-called biodegradable ones take a long time to decompose. We recommend Sea To Summit Wilderness Wipes.
TOILET PAPER AND ZIPLOC BAGS – Save a partial roll of biodegradable TP, pull out the cardboard, flatten and place in its own ziploc or plastic bag. If you are a hardcore minimalist, ditch the TP and use leaves, snow or smooth stones but bury all of it after use. Burning toilet paper to avoid littering or carrying it out is not a great idea. TP rarely burns completely, and can lead to devastating wildfires. Instead pack out your TP – in a plastic bag. Alternatively when in an area that permits it, use as little as possible and bury it in a hole dug 6-8 inches deep.
Pee rags are another practical option. Dedicate a bandana or small rag that you can clip to your pack. Use it to wipe yourself when you urinate instead of using toilet paper. This will allow it to dry out between uses and ultraviolet rays from the sun will keep it disinfected.
WHAT TO LEAVE AT HOME
- DEODORANT – smells attract creatures and insects and you really don’t need it if you’re cleaning your pits every night with water. Embrace your new natural odor.
- SHAMPOO & HAIR RINSE (even all-natural products are polluting). Consider using dry shampoo or just embrace the dreads.
- RAZORS (here’s your chance to grow that beard, on your face or legs)
- ANY DISPOSABLE PRODUCTS – you’ll just have to carry them out!
Cleverhiker Hygiene Video
Do you learn more effectively with audio/visual mediums? Below is a CleverHiker tutorial which outlines Backpacking Hygiene and How To Stay Clean in the Backcountry. Enjoy!
Leave No Trace Considerations
Minimizing environmental impacts to the wilderness while maintaining modern standards of cleanliness is always a challenge. Here are some best practices.
- Always rinse off thoroughly before swimming in creeks, lakes, or rivers. Lotion, sunscreen, insect repellent and body oils contaminate these vital water sources. Deet is particularly an issue, so you’ll want to make sure you wipe it off very well.
- Never use soap product – even biodegradable ones – directly in a water source. Always walk at least 200 feet away from all water sources to clean up.
- Pack Out Tampons/Pads and bury contents of your menstrual cup in a 6-8 inch cathole.
Having your period on the trail can be a real drag. Carrying out used tampons or pads is unsavory, at best. Menstrual cups, such as the Diva Cup or Lena are a good option for minimizing waste and weight in the backcountry. To dispose of contents safely, you’ll have to dig a 6-8 inch hole and empty the contents daily. If you’re not quite sold on menstrual cups, we recommend using tampons without applicators to minimize weight and waste. Never bury used tampons, as animals will dig them up. Also, we recommend carrying a sealable plastic bag to carry them out. Check out the video below from LNT.org for more information on how to deal with you period in the backcountry.
For most backpacking trips under 5 days, most people just embrace their trail grime and deal with greasy hair. For those spending more time on the trail, you may want to have a plan. At some point excess hair oil combined with dead skin cell accumulation can lead to clogged hair follicles, inflammation, and even an overgrowth of yeast on your scalp. If water is plentiful, use your collapsible water cache bucket to carry water away from the water source so you can rinse your hair using a biodegradable shampoo/hair rinse combo. Make sure you dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and and rinse over it.
Another option is to carry a small portion of a solid shampoo bar, such as the Ethique Eco-Friendly Solid Shampoo Bar. Dry shampoo brushed through hair is very effective at lifting dead skin cells, dirt, and other debris off your scalp. One of our favorites is Hask Monoi Coconut Dry Shampoo, which is available in a 1.7 oz. travel size.
Cleaning your Clothes in the backcountry
If you’re on the trail for multiple days, chances are your clothes will start accumulating a musk you’ll be eager to shed. They’re probably also filthy. Giving your clothes a quick wash in the backcountry will make you feel trail fresh.
If you find a lake with hospitable water and you’ve rinsed the sunscreen and/or bug spray off your body, we usually just jump in with our clothes on and then sit out in the sun and dry yourself. This is best reserved for hot days and for non-synthetic clothing (anti-microbial silver nanoparticles in many athletic clothes are harmful to the environment).
If you like to wash your clothes on the regular in the backcountry, it’s important to bring clothing that will dry quickly. Below are our recommendations and top picks for backcountry clothing.
- Choose underwear that are easy to wash and quick to dry. We really love ExOfficio Give-N-Go Boxer Briefs for men and ExOfficio Give-N-Go Briefs for women. For small-chested women, ExOfficio has a great lightweight bra as well. All of their products dry ridiculously fast and are odor-resistant. We usually only bring two pair on any backpacking trip, regardless of length – where one pair while washing/drying the other.
- Choose tops, shorts or pants made from lightweight and quick-dry materials. We really love Nike Dri Fit Running Shorts and T-Shirts.
For those who want to properly wash their clothes in the backcountry, there are some options, though it’s a bit high maintenance for our backpacking style.
- Pack a large gallon-size zip style bag with a small amount of biodegradable cleaner in the bottom of it. Add clothing, add water, and squish around for a while. Empty into a hole you’ve dug in the ground, and rinse, empty and repeat until soap free.
- Another option is a Scrubba™ wash bag. This convenient, pocket-sized washing bag weighs less than 5 ounces (142g). It’s a bit like an old fashioned washboard in a bag and are lot more effective than hand washing. Grip backing on the outside prevents sliding on rock or hard surfaces during the washing process, and it has an air release valve (that allows them to doubles as a dry-bag).
While you’ll inevitably get off trail with that nature-kissed musk, theres no reason not to do what you can to feel fresh in the backcountry. We hope you’ve picked up some tips and tricks to help make your next adventure more enjoyable and safe.
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