Backpacker Hygiene: A guide to staying clean in the backcountry
When I take someone backpacking for the first time, the question of how to stay clean when in the backcountry always comes up at some point or another. For good reason, there is a lot of concern around how to maintain a proper state of hygiene when you’re living in the dirt for a few days, and while there are a lot of products out there that can help, a lot of it just isn’t all that necessary.
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An intro into backpacker hygiene
Walk into any REI or outdoor store and you’ll eventually find an aisle that is full of all the things you probably don’t need, but that looks very tempting to take with. We often try to turn an outdoor experience into something resembling our daily lives in the city by bringing with us all the things that we’d have access to while at home. Here’s the deal though, it’s kind of a lost cause trying to remain as clean as a whistle out there because dirt just is what it is. You’re going to get sweaty, have dirty hands, feel a little grimy, and yes, maybe even stink a little. I’ll never forget doing a bag dump the day before kicking off my 2017 PCT hike and being told that the travel sized deodorant wasn’t needed because no amount of it would be able to fix whatever smell was coming off of my body after hiking day after day for miles and months on end.
I remember thinking about it and telling myself “oh, yeah..that makes sense” and eagerly tossing that deodorant into the trash and never thinking about it again. From then on I had a completely different mindset when it came to being hygienic when backpacking. Stores are full of shampoo, body wash, soaps, and whatever else you might think could be a cleaning tool, but at the end of the day you’re going to have to accept that if you’re living out of a backpack, you’re going to get dirty. The key is to be intentional about the parts of your body that matter and what you do to take care of them.
The body parts that matter
Everyone has their own preferences on what needs to be cleaned and how. I personally like to make it as easy and streamlined as possible so that I’m not bringing with me some sort of travel kit with me like I would on a weekend trip to the beach. When trying to remain clean in the backcountry, it’s important to focus on what parts of your body need the most attention.
We are grubby little creatures and if you’ve spent any amount of time in the backcountry, you’ll find that your hands are dirty in no time at all. Among the thru-hiking crowd, it’s a given that you simply never shake another hikers hand. Instead, you give them a fist bump and call it a day. At some point or another, we all have to go to the bathroom and if you don’t have a way to clean your parts and your hands afterward, then you’re putting yourself and others at risk of just being gross. Whatever you do, don’t be that guy or gal who goes into the woods with the idea of using some sort of leaf from a bush to wipe yourself. First off, that’s just weird, and secondly, we don’t live in the wild west anymore so use something that is a little more normal. Also, you never know where that leaf has been…
Once you’re done with your business, you’re going to need to clean your hand and washing them in a creek just isn’t an appropriate move. Bring with you a little bottle of hand sanitizer and sterilize your hands before you touch anything, especially food. Use that sanitizer as often as you can. Keep it close and do your best not to put your fingers in your mouth when you’re backpacking unless you need to.
ass and body Wipes:
We all poop. Don’t be gross about it and don’t be the jerk that unloads next to a camp site then leaves it there for my dog to find. If I ever find you, we’re going to have some choice words to exchange.
There are a number of different wipe options on the market, so choose whatever you wish, but just make sure it’s a wet wipe and not dry toilet paper. Contrary to what you think might work out there, in reality, dry toilet paper is a terrible option. If you don’t clean your ass the right way, you’re going to be in chaff city and trust me when I say you don’t want to live there for any period of time. Having a sweaty ass that isn’t clean is a recipe for disaster and a painful experience.
I’ve found that any sort of wet wipe you can get your hands on works great. They make travel size wipes that don’t take up much space and because they’re wet, they don’t require you to use very many of them (unless you’ve just had your own version of a baby blowout). Not having to use many wipes does a number of things for you. You don’t need to bring many wipes with you and you reduce impact to the environment. Principles of Leave No Trace need to be applied when you’re off loading ass baggage in the woods. In short, drop your business far away from water sources and dig a cat hole to the proper depth for that region you’re in and cover it back up. It’s actually advised to pack out your wipes rather than leaving them in the hole.
With regard to body wipes, I’ve found that a nice wipe down at the end of a day is quite nice. Some wipes are better than others so you might just have to try a few of them out before you land on one that doesn’t make you feel like you just lathered up with some sort of chemical. I landed on the Adventures Medical Kit Bath Wipes after realizing that I could literally bath my entire body with just one wipe. They’re thick and don’t leave a weird residue. They feel good on the face as well, but if you have sensitive skin, you might want to go with something for your face that you know works. I personally have sensitive skin and figured I’d breakout like a teenager when I hiked the PCT, but it turns out that nature took over after a while and I didn’t need a single bit of skin care. Apparently the natural oils my body creates was enough.
For YEARS I hated brushing my teeth when I was backpacking. The whole thing just seemed so annoying and I never felt like doing it after a day on the trail. It took up water I didn’t want to give away, made a mess of my face, and I always felt bad seeing toothpaste on the ground. That all changed for me one day when I took a friend backpacking for her first time.
We hike in, make camp, and she pulls out these tiny disposable tooth brushes called Colgate Whisps and my jaw dropped open. I watched as she sat there brushing her teeth all comfortable like while I was brushing my teeth as if I were back home like an idiot. From then on, I was sold. These little guys are small, portable, cheap, and have made brushing my teeth when backpacking a pleasure. I’ll keep one in my pocket during the day and clean my teeth whenever I feel like it. No water, no toothpaste, and no fuss. Unless you’re on a long trail for months on end, these things will do just fine. On my thru hike, I kept a normal brush in my pack for weekends and used the whisps while on trail.
If you’re a flosser, you might as well bring that as well. Any type of floss product is lightweight and easy to pack.
Your body and the clothing you wear
Aside from wiping your various body parts down at the end of the day with a body wipe, you really don’t need much. It’s not like you’re going to be out there long enough to warrant a full bath and honestly, any sort of biodegradable soap just isn’t good for the environment. If you’re dirty and want to “take a bath” just jump in the water and scrub yourself off with your hands. Who are you really trying to impress out there anyhow?
Believe it or not, you can actually reduce stink by choosing the right kind of clothing. We’ve all smelled our cotton shirts at the end of a workout and been disgusted at the rank of our own body. Cotton tends to be a terrible fabric of choice to wear in the backcountry because it not only stinks to high hell after no time at all, but it does a terrible job of regulating body temperature when wet. There’s a reason why they say “cotton kills” so just avoid it at all costs if you can.
Instead of cotton, choose a material that is anti-microbial like Merino Wool or a quality synthetic. If you’ve read other posts on this website, you’ll know by now that you don’t need a bunch of clothes if you’re smart about what you bring. I’ve found that a Merino shirt takes a long time to start stinking. I’ve hiked for days without creating much of a smell which means that bacteria isn’t building up, which in turn means I’m not a ball of disgusting. After the day is over, I’ll take my sweaty shirt off, air it out, wipe my body down, and voila…clean with no stink!
The same goes with socks and underwear. I hiked the PCT with two pairs of Merino socks and eventually 1 set of ExOfficio boxer briefs. I washed my clothes every weekend and by body every night. Sure my gear may have smelled pretty bad, but my body wasn’t TOO bad. I mean, when you’re thru-hiking you’re never really clean, but it was good enough. For a weekend trip, I rarely ever smell which means I’m clean, which then means I’m not risking poor hygiene.
Your hands are gross, your feet are gross, your nether regions are gross, everything is gross! And now you just popped a blister or cut yourself. Great work!
Unless you want to risk some sort of staff infection, do yourself a favor and sanitize your hands and the area first before you do anything else. Use whatever first aid kit or tools you have on you to do what needs to be done and cover that thing up asap. Do NOT let it go unattended. Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to first aid so bring what you think you should bring. For me, I have a very small kit. I’ll address the issue, clean it, cover it, and if needed I’ll take some meds. Adventure Medical Kits has some great options for backpackers so until you’re to the point of building your own, it might be worth starting there.
Good hygiene isn’t just for smell and stank, it’s for safety.
Pack it out
Don’t be a jerk and leave your wipes, tooth brushes, and whatever else along side the trail or at your camp site. If you don’t know any principles of Leave No Trace, go to their website and educate yourself. Planning ahead for how to deal with trash is as easy as either bringing a zip lock bag or an OPSAK that is a little more durable. The OPSAK also keeps odors in so animals aren’t as curious. It’s not just bears you’re worried about, mice are terrible to deal with. A friend of mine gave me one of these bags for my trash on the PCT and I’ve never looked back.
Staying clean when you’re backpacking isn’t hard or complicated. Yes, you’ll be dirty, but that’s kind of the fun part. It feels good to be dirty from time to time and it feels GREAT to get home and soak in a hot shower when it’s all over. Don’t overthink it and do what you can to plan ahead.
If you apply some or all of the guidance I’ve laid out above, you’ll be just fine. If something works, stick with it. If it doesn’t, change it up and find something that does. Backpacking is all about trial and error. Enjoy it!