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Backcountry Hygiene Tips: Or How to Eat without Touching Your Food

How to eat like a horse - out of a food bag, rather than touching your food
Eat like a horse – out of a food bag, rather than touching your food

I don’t carry any hand sanitizer on day hikes and backpacking trips. I used to, but it’s pretty pointless when you get right down to it. Yeah, I’d slather Purell on after I filtered stream water or went to the bathroom, or before I ate a meal. But once you leave the trailhead, your hands are going to get dirty as soon as you touch the hand grips of your trekking poles or tie your shoes. Rather than worry about it, I’ve developed certain backcountry hygiene habits that have kept me healthy without trying to sterilize my hands all the time.

First off, I don’t put my hands in my mouth or touch my eyes when I’m in the backcountry. Never ever.

  • I never touch my food directly and never put my hands in someone elses M&M or gorp bag when they offer to share their food with me.  A lot of people pick up germs and bugs from one another this way and it’s often cited as the #1 reason people get sick in the backcountry.
  • If I’ve bagged some snacks in a plastic bag, I shake them into my mouth rather than reaching in and grabbing one. Packaging snacks in a small 16 ounce Nalgene bottle is also a good way to pour food into your mouth without touching it.
  • On longer trips, I carry a little biodegradable liquid soap (Campsuds or Dr Bronners) which is actually more effective for cleaning your hands than sanitizer because it actually cleans them, while sanitizer doesn’t. But I mostly use it for washing salt off my face and nether regions to avoid chafing.
  • On longer trips, I like to wash my shirt, pants, and underwear out every day to get accumulated salt out of them. You really only need water for this, but it’s best to wring out your clothes 200 feet away from water sources so you don’t pollute them with built-up DEET, sunscreen, and your funk. No one downstream wants to drink that.
  • I like to carry a pot and stove rather than going stoveless, so I can boil water and kill any bacteria and germs growing on my cookware and on my eating utensils. I wash my pot out after use, using sand as a mild abrasive, if necessary, to remove crud from the surface of the metal.
  • If you need to wash your crack, you shouldn’t be bashful about it. That’s one area you want to keep clean and your finger is as good a tool as any to gently reach into those delicate areas.
  • I try to wash my feet every day and rinse out my socks. Feet are happier when they’re clean and get a chance to thoroughly dry each night. Socks also last longer if you remove abrasive grit from them regularly
  • I re-purify the insides of my water bottles every morning by pouring water treated with Aqua Mira drops (chlorine dioxide) into them. Aqua Mira sanitizes water and is the only way you can get really “clean” in the backcountry. If you ever need to irrigate a wound or cut, you should use sanitized water to do so. Washing with soap and sanitized water is probably as close to really being really clean as you can get in the backcountry and yet another reason to carry Aqua Mira or a chemical purifiying agent.

That’s really all there is to staying healthy and relatively clean in the backcountry.

What other low-impact hygiene tips and tricks have you developed for backcountry camping and backpacking?

20 comments

  1. Do you use some kind of container for washing out cloths/socks? I know some people use oversize ziplocks, others carry a collapsible kitchen sink/bucket. Because we know you’re not dunking your funk into the stream….

  2. Purell kinda creeps me out because it feels like I’m simply spreading the germs about rather than getting rid of them.
    Question – After rinsing do you find that things are able to dry sufficiently before putting things on in the morning? I’ve found that things don’t seem to dry and putting on cold, clammy socks/undies/shorts is not fun :( Tips for drying things out?

    • I’m not Phil, but I know what Andrew Skurka says he does is wash/rinse/change socks mid-day, and that way they have some daylight hours to dry.

  3. Wouldn’t you know it; the next article in my To-Read list after this one was in the NYT and concerns the practice of cultivating a personal bacterial biome. In effect, it means not using most of the soaps we are familiar with, and instead letting natural bacteria do the dirty work. I suspect that it is something that most of us know and practice intuitively. The practice does not seem to be a replacement for how we treat our feet, hands, and nether regions while in the backcountry, but it is interesting that showering with harsh soaps is not the necessity many think it is.

    http://tinyurl.com/latl5vt

  4. “#1 reason people get sick in the backcountry.” I agree 100%, very good tips. Thanks.

  5. I think this is way over-thinking it… I’ve never gotten sick on the trail because my hands were dirty and I don’t exactly take many precautions. I use common sense and *wash my hands* before I eat. Either with soap & (stream or potable) water, Purell, or alcohol. I also make sure to wash my eating utensils if I have any. Then again, I do dry my hands on my shirt/pants (:gasp: germs!).
    Also: ” Rather than worry about it, I’ve developed certain backcountry hygiene habits that have kept me healthy without trying to sterilize my hands all the time.” just doesn’t make sense. Clearly the author worried about it to such an extreme that he altered his habits! That’s not an easy task! I think this is indicative of our germ-a-phobic culture and many of the problems with it.

  6. I boil water, dump it in a freezer bag and let it cook. I do save about 1/2 cup and dip my spork in it while it is still hot. I eat my meal out of the freezer bag and again dip my spork in the boiling water. Did this on a 45 day hike and never got sick.

    I washed my hands every chance I got and used hand sanitizer all the time. I also carried biodegradable wipes to clean the nether regions and other areas of my body when I felt grubby.

  7. I fill my pot or rehydrating jar with cold, clear and running stream or spring water. I’ll rinse it out away from the source, then use it for a bandanna bath and rinse it out again. I’ll carry a scrubbie if I’m using a pot but haven’t found the need for soap. Many park’s recommend against biodegradable soap in the alpine zones anyway since it changes the pH of the water as it biodegrades. After my hands are clean, I use purell after bowel movements, it doubles as a firestarter. I think I’m more likely to get sick from my own poop than snowmelt or groundwater in the backcountry.

    I have yet to get sick, your results may vary!

  8. I generally agree with you, but I still keep a small bottle of sanitizer just for après-poop.

  9. I’m not at all afraid of dirt. If my hands are a little grimy, it’s not going to stop me from tossing back a handful of chips or a few m&m’s. I am afraid of germs though, so I definitely used hand sanitizer after doing my business and before taking my contacts out.

    I once inadvertently sprayed Deet onto a salami and cheese tortilla. I’m still alive to tell the tale of eating it (with my dirty hands, no less).

  10. Kurt in Colorado

    Like many commenters, I have never worried much about it, and I’ve never gotten sick in 35 years of backpacking. In fact, living and eating in the wild, surrounded by dirt, has shown me that many of the things we worry about at home are maybe not that important.

    It may be a case of correlation vs. causation to assume that your efforts to avoid germs in the wild are the reason you have never gotten sick. That is, how do you know you WOULD have gotten sick? Most likely, based on others’ experience, you would not. But to each, his own hygiene!

  11. Germs as such, are way over played and the results of massive amounts of Marketing to sell you all kinds of items to make you thing your protecting yourself agains germs, Viruses, bacteria etc. etc…Anyone who has studied beyond the initial Biology 101 knows you constantly are inhaling, spreading and eating all kinds of germs, viruses and bacteria. In my Bio Lab experiments we used to sneak into the cafeteria and get samples of the new cleaned stainless steel countertops and then grow all sorts of things back in the lab from the samples. The cleanest places I found were actually out in the outdoors comparatively. Our food is loaded with bugs even if you wash it, washing does a semi good job of getting rid of some Pesticide residue to some extent. Do you pick your nose and eat it? Or Sniffle and swallow, mucus is loaded with bugs. Do you constantly wash your hands every hour on the hour? In that case you have a paranoid psychosis..But there is just no way you can avoid Germs and Bugs etc. etc. no matter what the Marketing Maggots lead you to believe. Bugs are actually good for you to some extent, I won’t go into all the details, but this paranoia about Germs created by the Marketing Maggots of America has actually done more damage than good, along with the teaching people to run to the Doctor for every little ache and pain or slight infection. Americans are pretty uneducated and ignorant when it comes to Health and First Aid otherwise the Marketing programs would be a huge failure. . It is amazing how many people cannot tell the difference in sympthoms between the common cold and the flu and go running to the Doctor or ER thinking anti-biotics will cure them…Anti-Biotics ONLY WORK ON BACTERIA NOT ON A VIRAL INFECTION, which the common cold and flu is caused by a Virus, and to make you more paranoid there are thousands of viruses out there wating to kill you.. What we used to have back in the old days was in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts we had First Aid and Health Classes taught by representatives from the Red Cross. The Red Cross also would have a regularly monthly scheduled program for the General Public where they would teach First Aid and wound care treatment and signs and symphtoms, health issues and CPR. I do not know why they stopped these classes but I have no doubts the size of their inhouse Executives salary increases had something to do with it..and probably the Lawyers and the Insurance Industry whose greed has ruined thousands of beneficial programs in our Country including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Veteran Organizations Drum and Bugle Corps, etc. etc. etc.

    The best prevention is good ole plain old Soap and Water. The Soap of our grandmothers made out of Lye and Fat are and were just as effective as all these Marketing Maggot created soaps we now have, in fact most are really bad for your skin and that is why they have to add moisturizers and conditioners etc. etc. Those Alcohol Gels dry out your skin that is why they add moisturizers to them. Plain old boring soap removes bacteria and to some point viruses from your skin. So to copy Andrew Zimmerman, if it looks bad, or rotten, smells bad or rotten, DONT EAT IT! Do you know in some third world countries and for 100 years in this Country people routinely eat dirt? It helps your bodies immune system in many ways…So if your child is out there in the sandbox eating a bit of dirt, especailly the dark brown kind, don’t panic, it just might be natures way of helping the child build up his immune system,,though we do not know that for sure but people did it for a couple of hundred years…Oh their short life span back then was caused by food factors as in not having enough to eat, it was normal for people to starve to death and or their bodies having lots of infections due to not having enough to eat..Only the rich could afford steak.

    • After I wrote the above essay, I went out to do my monthly grocery shopping. I stopped at a nationally known eatery for lunch. I observed the following. The food was prepared with out the staff using plastic gloves. The table I sat at was sticky to the touch. The Chair I pulled out to sit in was sticky, I sat down to wait for my order and looked about the room, there was left over food on the floor, chairs, tables and booth seats. I observed three employees come out and “act like” they were cleaning the dining area by pushing in the chairs and using a “Dry Cloth” without any kind of Cleanser to wipe the tables down with pushing the left over food unto the floor, then they went back into the kitchen and again went back to preparing food without having washed their hands after touching all those chairs and tables and they never did come back to clean the floor while I was there..I also noted the amount of Dust on the window sills and under the Cashier’s counter which told me the Management of this place gives little thought to how clean the place is. Which is about the norm for most places of this type especially if it is a Franchise outfit. So the least of your worries on a Backpacking trip is going to be eating with your bare hands out in the wilds..In case you did not know this, unless you have an infection of some type, Urine is Sterile..Feces on the other hand are not..I carry a PAW’s pad with me on all my trips and store 3 or 4 depending how long the trip is, in my baggie with my Toilet paper. I use it to wipe my hands with and since it is an alcohol based item I burn the TP and Towellette at the same time in the cat hole to ashes, bury it, and place a rock over the top of it all so no animals dig it up…It is my understanding that if everyone did this the forestry service would not have made up the carry in carry out rules in some of our parks and forests.

  12. I always carry a travel size bottle of Listerine for a mouth rinse in the morning and to have on hand for a cut or scrape. Lasts a week. It’s a small weight penalty but one of my few “luxuries.”

  13. I don’t worry much about this kind of thing. Getting filthy and dropping my standards is part of the charm of the outdoors. I work in a large city and come into contact with thousands of people’s germs everyday. Thats where I should be using hand sanitiser!

  14. Wonderful post, thank you so much.

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