A foray into the woods often means you’ll get sweaty, grimy, and even straight-up smelly. But just because you’re in the wild doesn’t mean you have to ignore personal hygiene. After all, nobody enjoys going to bed sticky with sweat after a grueling hike. Simple backpacking hygiene like washing up and staying clean will help you feel fresh, happy, and more confident while also keeping illnesses away.
Without a constant water supply, backpackers must be a little more creative when it comes to staying clean. So, be ready to make some compromises. This article will cover how you can maintain your personal hygiene during overnight backpacking adventures and how you can do so without creating an environmental impact.
Here’s what we will discuss:
When you are putting together your backpacking checklist, don’t forget these hygiene essentials:
If you want to bring all your personal backpacking hygiene items without weighing down your backpack, invest in lightweight gear that packs small. An ultralight synthetic sleeping bag will provide sufficient warmth and comfort and pack to the smallest size possible. Throw in a quality inflatable sleeping pad and you won’t have to wake up with numb hips each time you sleep outdoors.
Make sure you give your hands a good squirt of alcohol-based hand sanitizer after going to the bathroom, changing a sanitary product, cleaning yourself with a wet wipe, before cooking, and before eating. Also, remember that hand sanitizer is not as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy.
Most backpackers blame trail diseases on contaminated water, but often, hand-to-mouth infection is usually the cause. Wash your hands with soap and a little water after taking a poo and before having a meal. Also, fingernails can trap a lot of dirt and hide bacteria, so trim them before you head outdoors.
Washing your feet and giving them the chance to breathe will help them stay fresh and ready to take on long treks. It also keeps them from getting itchy or growing fungus. Use these tips:
Taking a shower isn’t always straightforward when you decide to camp in the wild. But after a sweaty and grimy day on the trail, you still need some proper scrubbing to get your body ready for the next day's challenge. There are several options for showering while camping, such as:
Sponge bathing is one of the most common showering methods when camping outdoors. It saves water and time, and it protects the natural environment.
If you're camping near or have access to a river, stream, or lake, take a cool swim in it. On hot and sunny days, this is a great and refreshing option for maintaining your hygiene while backpacking. It will rid your body of sweat and dirt.
However, do not lather up with soap and shampoo, then jump in the water to clean off. Any soap will contaminate the water. Remember that other campers may also want to use that water for drinking or fishing. Also, don't dip yourself in small streams or low-volume bodies of water, as you can harm delicate plants and animals.
This method will make you feel like you're taking a regular shower. But the downside is it's gear-intensive, and it’s only practical when you’re camping near a water source. You need a backpacking shower device, which is essentially a large but compact bag that you fill with water.
Use the bag to collect water from a river, locate a good branch at least 200 feet away from the water source, and hang the device overhead. Gravity will create the water pressure you need. However, the flow rate is pretty low, and the bag can’t hold a lot of water, so be quick!
Whichever bathing method you choose, dry yourself with a small quick-dry towel, put on fresh underwear, and wash the dirty one. If you’re hiking in an area where water is scarce, you can turn your undies inside out and wear them the following day.
It’s common to hear backpackers going as long as a week without pooping because of being uncomfortable with the process. Some women hikers also try to avoid peeing in the woods by dehydrating themselves. But be warned: ignoring or postponing the call of nature can have some nasty consequences.
Holding your urine can cause urinary tract infections and involuntary leakage. On the other hand, delaying a bowel movement can cause extreme discomfort, chronic constipation, and vomiting, things you wouldn’t want to experience on the trail.
Here's how to make relieving yourself easy, clean, and environmentally friendly.
First, locate a generally private area away from other hikers. Preferably behind a tree or large rock and at least 200 feet away from water sources. If you’re a guy, just go about the business in the usual standup way.
Women have several options. You can squat it out and use a pee rag to wipe your nether regions. Remember that just a few drops of pee in your undies can leave you smelly, so take your time to wipe carefully. And make sure you clean your rag in the evening.
Alternatively, you can pee while standing using a pee funnel. This female urination device comes in handy if you’re using a trail with no trees or huge rocks that offer privacy. You also don't have to deal with splashback, squatting with a heavy backpack, or worry about exposing yourself to the elements.
When choosing a pee funnel, look for a device that has a good seal, a large funnel space, and is easy to clean. After doing your business, give yourself a quick wipe and rinse the funnel with a small amount of water. This technique takes practice, so learn how to use the funnel at home before your trip.
Lastly, if you are menstruating, be sure to pack feminine products in a sealable plastic bag to carry it out.
Going number two in the woods is a cause of major anxiety for many backpackers. However, once you get used to it, it's no longer intimidating. You’ll need to bring a camp trowel and a small plastic bag. Locate a private spot at least 200 feet away from a water source and make sure it’s in an area where other backpackers are unlikely to walk or camp.
Use your trowel (or if you don't have one, you can use a stick) to dig a cathole that’s at least 6-8 inches deep and 6 inches wide. Once do your business, backfill the hole with the soil you dug out, then place a rock on top to disguise the spot. Burying your poop will ensure no hiker will come across it accidentally and it prevents it from washing into nearby water bodies and transmitting diseases to humans and animals.
You can pack out the used tissue paper in the plastic bag. After finishing, wash your hands thoroughly and sanitize.
Washing your hiking clothes isn’t an issue for those camping for a few nights. You can just keep your dirty clothing in a trash bag and then clean them when you return home. But for anyone on a longer sojourn in the backcountry, laundry has to be done at some point. Sleeping in dirty gear not only soils your sleeping bag, but it can also cause rashes on your body. Here's some clothing tips for the trail:
To keep your clothes clean and smelling fresh when you have no access to washing facilities, use the following steps:
Pro tip: Make a habit of changing and washing your underwear and socks every night. That way, they’ll have time to dry and be ready for the next day.
Using a dirty bowl or pot is not only gross but can also expose you to illnesses. Here are some essential camp kitchen hygiene tips:
Bad breath and tooth decay don’t stop just because you’re camping in nature. Yet, many people tend to ignore dental hygiene when they go for a short backpacking trip. Bringing a small toothpaste and a short-handled toothbrush on a long hike is worth the negligible weight.
Clean your teeth before going to bed and in the morning before you head out. Preferably use an organic toothpaste that won’t harm the environment or attract animals.
Use these tips to keep your sleeping bag and tent clean in the backcountry:
Anytime you want to spend time outdoors, use the above backpacking hygiene tips to make your trip more comfortable and safe. And as you strive to stay clean in the wild, remember to also protect the environment by following the leave no trace principles.
What items do you include in your go-to backpacking hygiene checklist? Do you have any helpful products or ideas that we’ve left out? Feel free to leave a comment below with your best tips for staying fresh on the trails!
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