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 brush my teeth before bed each night using Sensodyne toothpaste which you don’t have to rinse out of your mouth, using a special travel toothbrush called The Toob which can you use and put away without touching the bristles.
- 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?