Hygiene is a relative term in the wild. And, beginners are quick to find out that staying clean while on the trail is fairly complicated. Backpacking hygiene requires preparation and an established routine. As you go on more and longer adventures, you will begin to adjust and find clever ways to stay clean and relatively stink-free.
Fortunately, you do not need to sacrifice your cleanliness in the wilderness. This article will show you what to bring during your trip to ensure you are clean even when water is scarce. After all, you do not want to sleep with the sweat of the entire day. This post will also cover how to clean yourself while on the trail, key feminine hygiene tips, and how to wash your clothes, especially for weeks-long hikes.
Backpacking Hygiene Gear and Supplies
It is difficult to decide what to bring during a backpacking trip. After all, every ounce or gram counts. But, every hygiene gear and supply also ensures that you are safe and clean. Below are some of the things that you can bring along and even shave off a few grams here and there.
- Toothbrush and Toothpaste – Reduce weight by bringing along travel size toothpaste and foldable toothbrush in your pack. You can also carry a tiny bit of floss as backpacking food usually sticks between the teeth.
- Hand Sanitizer – The importance of keeping your hands clean in the wilderness cannot be overstated. Hand sanitizer in the form of an alcohol-based gel in 1 oz.-bottle is always easy to clip in your hip belt pockets. If your hands are particularly filthy, clean them with a water bottle before applying hand sanitizer. Also, don’t forget about your fingernails, which are a breeding ground for germs. It stops fecal particles from getting into your mouth, which might lead to giardia. A good alternative for hand sanitizer is a small amount of rubbing alcohol to sanitize your hands right before eating.
- Washcloth – A cotton bandana may be used as a washcloth as it dries fast, making it ideal for cleaning. Additionally, you may get expanding and reusable washcloths, which are lightweight and small. These are available in your local pharmacy or department store. They can be used to quickly clean your face, arms, and hands, especially when you feel sticky and grimy.
- Toilet Paper – You can easily remove the cardboard from a roll of toilet paper, flatten it, then secure it in a Ziploc bag. If you’re a stickler to minimalism, drop the toilet paper in favor of leaves, snow, or smooth stones, but be sure to bury everything afterward. Do not burn your toilet paper as it seldom burns entirely, and it may cause disastrous wildfires if it is not handled properly. Your TP should instead be placed in a separate plastic waste bag.
- Pack or Camp Towel – Aside from a washcloth, a pack towel makes it easy to dry yourself after a bath. You do not need to bring a full-body towel, but a sizable super absorbent microfiber towel will do the trick. These are easy to dry under the sun, so you can reuse them right away.
- Biodegradable Soap – In the wilderness, you generally just wash with water, and that works fine. Some hikers, on the other hand, prefer to clean up with soap after a long trek. Even when using biodegradable soap, never suds up or rinse directly in a water source. Biodegradability is not a reason to be irresponsible with these products. If you want to clean up, fill up a water bottle or two, walk at least 200 feet away from any water source, and do your cleaning. The local flora and fauna will thank you for not contaminating their precious water source with any type of soap.
Obviously, there are some products that you want to leave out at home for many reasons. One of which is to protect the wilderness from harmful chemicals and trash. Some smells, like those in fruity soaps or shampoo, may attract critters in your camp. Avoid these products on the trail:
- Razors – Unless you will be spending weeks or months on the trail, it’s time to embrace the fuzz. You especially want to avoid disposable razors as they just introduce unnecessary trash in your pack.
- Shampoo, Conditioner, or Hair Rinse – Chemicals in these products, even those marketed as all-natural, are harmful to the environment. They can even damage water sources where animals and plants live.
- Deodorant – As long as you are washing your pits every day, there’s no need to worry about your natural smell in the wild. The strong smell of deodorant may attract insects and small animals which you do not want inside your tent at night.
- Any Other Disposable Products – Always remember the Leave No Trace Principle. You are a visitor in these places, so it is important to leave as little impact on the environment as possible. For disposable products you can’t live without, keep them in a separate trash bag and keep them in your pack.
A Note on Body Wipes for Camping
Not all backpacking trails have good sources of water. And, in some places, water is only for drinking. As such, wipes for camping and backpacking will be your sole supply for keeping you clean until you find a way to take a shower or, at least, wash for a bit.
Fortunately, body wipes come in different kinds with various benefits. Here are a few factors to consider when choosing backpacking wipes to bring in the backcountry.
- Softness and Durability – Body wipes and tissues are not all made equal. Some issues are so delicate that they dissolve quickly when you wipe, while others are so tough that they don’t feel nice on the skin. Neither of these situations is ideal. Preferably, you’ll want something that’s both soft and comfortable on the skin, as well as durable, and won’t dissolve when touched.
- Compact Quality – Always consider compacting the wipes when packing. While they may be lightweight, they take up space in your backpack. One trick is to put the body wipes inside a ziplock bag, remove any cardboard, and get all the air out as much as you can before zipping them close.
- Scent – Always choose unscented body wipes as scented ones usually come with chemicals that may harm the environment. Not to mention the odor can attract insects and animals.
Of course, you do not want to spend too long shopping for body wipes. Fortunately, there are different types of cleansing, each with its own advantages.
- Toilet Paper or Tissues – It is common for beginners to bring toilet tissues during their first hiking trips, and rightfully so. They are lightweight and can be compacted when needed. Most are biodegradable, so they can be buried when needed. However, ensure that you bring high-quality ones and invest in body wipes with a few layers.
- Bamboo Wipes – These body wipes for camping are increasingly becoming more popular. They are typically durable and relatively soft, so they are ideal as cleansing wipes to remove the day’s dirt and grime. However, note that they disintegrate after a few weeks, so purchase them right before your camping trip.
- Baby Wipes or Wet Wipes – These are a favorite among campers when maintaining personal hygiene. Wet wipes can be used right out of the pack, and they do not disintegrate easily, some not at all. Some even come with tea tree extract or aloe vera, which will help you feel fresh in the outdoors. However, many brands contain plastic which prevents them from disintegrating even when wet. These are best for car camping or short hiking trips. Do not dispose of them in the wild. If you want to bring some, consider biodegradable wet wipes.
Cleaning Yourself While Backpacking
While staying clean during your backpacking and camping trips is relative, you should still ensure that you do everything you can when it comes to outdoor bathing and going to the bathroom. Aside from minimizing the funky smell, you also need to prevent infections that can be fatal when you are out hiking.
Now that you have all the gear and supplies for backpacking hygiene, here’s how to use them:
Bathing in the Great Outdoors
Rivers, streams, and lakes are perfect places to shower in the backcountry. However, these large bodies of water are also home to various animals and plants. They also serve as valuable water sources for other creatures in the area, not to mention yours as well.
As such, shower with the environment in mind, avoid jumping in the water fresh from your hike. Sunscreen, perfumes and DEET will contaminate the water and may harm the native flora and fauna. Scrub yourself using your body wipes first, then swim to your heart’s content.
Remember to avoid using any products while taking a bath, even if your supplies say biodegradable. And, make sure to always take a bath downstream for obvious reasons. In any case, these are your best option to stay refreshed and wipe away the sweat and grime of the day.
Outdoor Sponge Bath
When you do not have any nearby water sources, a sponge bath is your next option. A sponge bath is also necessary to avoid dumping soap, shampoo, and other chemicals straight into waterways. It is also a perfect way to quickly clean yourself before sleeping.
Once your campfire is ready, grab your pot and fill it with water. Heat it up without getting it too hot. Get yourself nicely situated about 200 feet away from any water sources and lather up.
You can get a full-body sponge bath if you have enough water. Or target the sensitive spots like arms, back of the knees, face, and groin. Rinse off and pat yourself dry.
Be mindful of where you dispose of the soapy water. It should be away from any water sources. Also, do not go jumping in the river or lake while you are covered with soap.
Use a Backpacking Shower
If a sponge bath is not cutting it for you, you can still take a full-body shower even when a large body of water is not accessible. A backpacking shower is the perfect mobile cleaning gear. While it’s not a luxurious bath, it is enough to get clean outdoors.
Backpacking showers are available in many camping shops. You can choose from different types from ones that can hold a few gallons of water to pocket showers which are great for quick clean ups.
These hiking accessories are quite easy to use. Just fill your backpacking shower with water, then hang it on a sturdy branch to elevate it above your head. The gravity creates pressure that mimics a shower.
If the water is too cold, you can place the bag under direct sunlight a few hours before you take a shower. Many are dark-colored, so they heat up efficiently. Some bags even have an attached thermometer that will show you if the water is hot enough.
Feminine Hygiene While on The Trail
When your camping adventure coincides with your menstrual cycle, proper cleanliness is critical. Keep in mind that canceling is not necessary, and you do not have to be uncomfortable during the entire backcountry adventure. Everyone has their own preferences, so it’s important to stay with what you’re used to doing at home when you’re hiking to prevent problems.
Be sure to pack out your feminine hygiene products ahead of time. Use two resealable bags to carry the items in and a resealable bag filled with baking soda to absorb odors where you store used ones. You should plan on bringing double the amount you anticipate using because it is not possible to rush to the pharmacy if you run out.
If you want to go completely waste-free, a popular option is a menstrual cup or a diva cup. Make sure that you have tried this several times at home before considering it for a hiking trip. You do not want to deal with an ill-fitting cup while you are on the trail.
Menstrual cups are made of silicone which makes washing easy. They can also stay in for up to 12-hours without discomfort or any smell. As such, they are becoming a popular choice among female hikers to stay clean and fresh.
At the end of the day or when it is close to full, empty your diva cup in a hole (about six inches deep) and cover it up thoroughly. You do not want wild animals smelling it and digging it up.
You can rinse it using a small amount of water and biodegradable soap. Make sure that it is completely dry before reusing it.
Keep Your Hair Fresh While Hiking
Haircare is obviously quite easy when you have water sources nearby, but what do you do when you can’t find a river or a stream?
Use Dry Shampoo
Dry shampoo is a great alternative if you don’t want to wash your hair in a lake or bucket but don’t want to risk never washing it. In other words, this shampoo may be used without using water. The process is as simple as applying a little bit of the material to your hair, and that’s all there is to it.
As soon as you have found the perfect dry shampoo, you will want to ensure that you are taking extra care of your scalp, as this is where oil is first accumulated. The condition of your hair will stay the best possible as long as you can keep the oil out of it.
Also, be aware that dry shampoo isn’t a long-term solution. It is simply adding chemicals to your hair when washing is not an option. This substance builds upon the skin and causes skin issues over time. Your hair might start to lose its luster, causing dandruff or even acne to appear on your scalp.
Carry Shampoo Caps
A shampoo cap is another great option when you do not have access to water. It allows you to easily clean and rinse your hair in one place, reducing mess and waste. Shampoo caps are often available in packs, which is ideal if you are on the trail for more than five days.
Using shampoo caps is an exceedingly simple process. It just takes you a few minutes to be ready, as all you have to do is brush your hair, open the cap, and then set it on your hair. Massage your hair for a few seconds to a minute from the outside of the cap. The amount of hair you have will determine how long you should massage. Caps have the ability to condition your hair as well as cleanse it all in one go, making the procedure rather fast.
Once done, remove the cap and dry your hair using a towel. Remember that you cannot bury these products in the wild as they have plastic components. Bring them with you in a trash pack to properly dispose of after your trip.
Cornstarch and Baby Power
Cornstarch and baby powder is great when you want to clean your hair in a pinch. Preventing your hair from getting too oily makes it easy to clean later on. These products are also unscented and gentle, which prevents any scalp irritation.
Add a small amount to your hair to remove the oil. Make sure that you get them near your roots, where most of the oil builds up. Then, brush your hair thoroughly, removing any excess oil absorbed by the cornstarch or the baby powder.
Going to the Bathroom While Camping
Going to the bathroom outdoors can be complicated. However, humans have been doing it for thousands of years, so it’s nothing to be scared about. Here are a few tips when using the bathroom in the backcountry.
Going Number 1 in the Outdoors
For men, this is a simple process. However, it’s a bit complex for women. You will need to find a private spot to do your business.
Recently, a device called a urination funnel is becoming more and more popular. It allows women to pee while standing. This makes urinating much simpler without women having to expose themselves to itchy leaves and insects.
Additionally, both men and women should wipe and clean thoroughly. This prevents any bad smell and infection from developing.
Going Number 2 in the Backcountry
Now for the more challenging stuff. When pooping, always remember the Leave No Trace policy. That means preparing a makeshift latrine when setting up your camp. Fortunately, some camps have compost and pit toilets available.
If you are hiking in the wilds, then you need to prepare ahead of time. You do not want to be frantically digging when you really need to go.
For your makeshift toilet, choose a private spot about 200 feet away (about 80 steps) from your camping area. It should be far from any water or food sources as well as any possible trail. You also need to mark it as your toilet just to make sure no one will accidentally step on it.
Once situated, dig a hole that is about six inches deep or much deeper. This soil layer is where bacteria live, which helps break down poop faster. It also prevents any animals from digging it up. The smell may attract more animals and critters to your camp.
Remember to pack your used cleansing wipes even if they are biodegradable. They still take more time to break down, giving animals more time to dig them up. Additionally, remember that some wet wipes or baby wipes have plastic components which should be disposed of properly. And, do not consider burning them.
Finally, you may not be able to dig up a latrine in some cases, such as snowy locations or canyons. As such, you will need to bring a toilet kit or at least a waste bag. Check and research all guidelines and regulations before entering any park or wilderness area.
Doing Laundry While Hiking or Camping
Laundry will become an issue if you are planning on spending more than a week or so on the trail. Remember that you have very limited space on your backpack, so you cannot exactly bring your entire wardrobe. Here are some tips and tricks to remember when doing laundry during your hiking trip.
Be Mindful of the Type of Fabric You Bring
Trying to figure out how to wash your clothes on the trail is mostly an easy task, especially for shirts. The actual difficulty is not being able to dry your clothing which can lead to funky odors.
For obvious reasons, certain materials are more convenient to care for than others. A synthetic fabric that is labeled as moisture-wicking or rapid drying is one to watch out for. Nylon, spandex, and polyester textiles are better choices. You need to avoid cotton as it takes time to dry.
A wonderful alternative is merino wool. Wool dries quickly and keeps you warm even when it is wet. This also prevents odors from developing when it’s damp and sweaty.
With the right fabric, drying your clothes under direct sunlight should only take a few hours. For most synthetic fabrics, it should only take one to two hours to dry fully.
How to Wash Your Clothes While Hiking
You should not wash your clothes in streams and lakes, even with biodegradable detergent or soap. It will kill critters and organisms in the water, especially in small natural bodies of water.
Here are a few things you need to do outdoor laundry:
- Biodegradable detergent – There are numerous options for biodegradable soaps in the market, which are great for laundry. If you cannot find some, make sure that you only carry and use very small amounts of regular detergent when doing laundry outside.
- Resealable Bag – Ideally, you want to use a Ziploc back that can handle a gallon or more. Dry bags are also great and sometimes a bit easier to use. Black bags can also be used if you want to heat up the water to do the laundry.
Just like taking a bath, avoid using detergent directly on water sources. Here’s how to quickly wash your clothes while hiking:
- Fill up the bag with enough water to shuffle things around. Put the bag under the sun to warm the water.
- Add your clothes to the bag with a bit of detergent. It should be enough to remove the grime and the smell, but not as much as you would at home.
- While inside the bag, rub the clothes together. The friction will remove the dirt from the clothes. Do this for five to ten minutes.
- Then, shake the bag for five to ten minutes to mimic a washing machine. Make sure that the back is tightly sealed.
- Dispose of the soapy water about 2000 feet away from any bodies of water.
- Wring out the clothes and refill the bag with non-soapy water. Rinse the clothes by shaking the bag for five to ten minutes.
- Dump the soapy water out. Repeat the rinsing cycle until all the suds are gone.
- Wring the clothes and hand them up to dry. Hang them under the sun or near a fire source.
Staying clean and fresh while on the trail need not be a complicated matter. However, proper preparation is necessary to avoid any issues during your trip. As with any adventure, you will eventually develop your own habits to clean yourself and stay fresh.
Just remember that you are a visitor in the area. As such, it is always imperative to follow the Leave No Trace principle. Any gear or product that you brought in should be brought out with you as well.