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Biodegradable Soap in the Backcountry: The Campsuds Myth


A lot of people I meet on backpacking and camping trips think that it’s ok to pour soapy water into streams and rivers if they use biodegradable Campsuds, Sea-to-Summit Wilderness Wash, or Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap to wash their hands, shampoo their hair, or clean their camp cookware. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Generally speaking, getting any soap in a water source is not acceptable or recommended by Leave No Trace guidelines. The soap can cause all sorts of issues from increased nitrogen to actually causing significant harm to aquatic inhabitants. The impacts are further amplified in high use areas.

It’s important to understand that  there are still significant impacts from “BIODEGRADEABLE” products and soap manufacturers say as much, when you read the fine print on the label:

Campsuds - The Fine Print

Campsuds – The Fine Print

Low Impact Disposal of Soapy and Contaminated Water

So how should you dispose of soapy dish water or water you’ve used to wash yourself with in the backcountry?

It’s pretty simple. Dig a hole 200 feet away from other water sources and pour your wastewater in it. Putting it in a hole lets the soil act as a filter, helps accelerate the biodegradable process, and protects wildlife from disturbing it by helping to hide the scent.

Having the foresight to dig a hole requires a little planning on your part, and if you’re washing dishes it helps to have something to carry water away from other water sources like a camp bucket or a water reservoir. The same goes for washing your hands or taking a sponge bath and aiming your wastewater in the hole. No one’s aim is perfect, but the important thing is that you’re not pouring your soapy wastewater back into a stream, pond, lake, or river, but into the ground where the chemicals in the soap can decompose.

Even if you don’t use soap, think twice before swimming in creeks or potholes where water is scare. Lotion, sunscreen, insect repellent and body oils can contaminate these vital water sources. No one wants to drink downstream water, that you’ve used to wash DEET off your body. Dig a hole. Please.

None of these extra steps are difficult to do or terribly inconvenient, but they can help if you want to preserve the backcountry so it will be there for you or others to enjoy later on.

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22 Responses to Biodegradable Soap in the Backcountry: The Campsuds Myth

  1. Chris March 13, 2014 at 2:53 am #

    I agree with everything except the digging a hole part. In most cases water enters the ground just fine without a hole and the distance between the disposal site and the water should ensure filtering.

  2. Robert Ballantyne March 13, 2014 at 3:52 am #

    Washing with soap? In the backcountry? Are you expecting a visit from your mother?

    • John March 13, 2014 at 6:56 am #

      Agreed. A quick once-over with a few unscented baby wipes (which are then placed in your trash bag and carried out) is entirely sufficient for backcountry bathing.

      • Mike March 19, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

        Exactly. Thanks for making me feel a little more normal about this. =)

  3. Marco March 13, 2014 at 6:43 am #

    Soaps by nature are mostly boidegradable if made with vegtable oils. The reverse is very true with many. The phosphates added to most soaps, except laundry soaps, act as a ferilizer, increasing bacterial action in most of our waste treatment plants. It is not generally, of itself, a polutant, but needs to be kept out of waters where uncontrolled fertilization can occur…resulting in algae blooms, etc.

    Of those detergents, or soaps made from oil, many are not a problem either. One treated with the alkali’s they tend to degrade pretty rapidly too. But these are never a good choice for camping. Anyway, in some areas they will tell you to scatter “grey” water, in others burry it. In all cases keep it out of the water till it can be degraded.

    Most “castile” soaps are made with olive oil. Others use palm ouls, and other vegtable oils. Some, like Dr Bronners, Clearly Natural, or Dr. Woods, are liquid. Small amounts can be used as “sports” washes, but the scents can be pretty overpowering, insure you get the unscented versions…

  4. Bob H March 13, 2014 at 10:56 am #

    Use Sparingly! I see tons of people kill a whole bottle on a weekend. I’m for the unscented wipes any day.

  5. Happy Hiker March 13, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

    I agree with John, baby wipes are my go to instead of soap.

  6. Tripp Clark March 13, 2014 at 9:01 pm #

    Nice article and discussion, and I agree with most. I generally carry little or no soap on backpacking trips, though I have carried very small amounts in droppers. By carrying wipes and sanitizer for personal cleanup, and planning meals that require no dishwashing (freezer bag meals), the need for soap in the backcountry is eliminated, or nearly so. However, the LNT training that I went through advised that for gray water or dishwater that, after straining, the water is scattered by widely rather than concentrated in a hole. I guess that is part of why LNT is an ethic composed or guidelines and principles rather than rules.

    • Philip Werner March 13, 2014 at 9:07 pm #

      I completely agree with you Tripp. This post is to help many different audiences, from backpackers and campers, fisherman, and others understand that the word BIODEGRADABLE doesn’t mean that pouring soapy water into a water source has no impact, as much as the companies who throw the word around might want you to believe. Granite is biodegreadeable. It just takes a very long time to break down.

  7. pd March 13, 2014 at 10:26 pm #

    Good post and reminder, Philip. I repackage any soap into smaller containers, like breath mint bottles. That way I am not tempted to overuse soap and of course, less weight. A tiny bottle like this can last me and my wife up to a week in the backcountry.

    Re: DEET and other bug repellants, including natural/essential oil based ones. I CAN’T STAND THEM. I’d rather wear clothing. In most of the areas I travel in, this works very well. Long sleeves and pants of tight-woven fabric (windshells work great), plus lightweight “dust” gaiters and a headnet work wonders. No nasty sticky oily stuff that will cause the rubber on your trekking poles to blister or to contaminate your expensive down sleeping bag or the pristine water.

  8. BeeKeeper March 14, 2014 at 9:09 am #

    I watched a gal lather up her hair then dive into a pristine lake, made me realize how much education is needed. I once heard a comment that I reiterate as part of my campaigns, “you can’t filter out soap.” So at least that reminds campers they may be enjoying a bit of diarrhea later on, not to mention all the environmental concerns.

  9. Mazzachusetts March 17, 2014 at 11:34 pm #

    As a weekend warrior there is zero need for soap. Even if you have a hot date waiting for you the second you walk out of the woods, they know what they signed up for.

    I have witnessed people lathering up and jumping into lakes however which always horrified me. Poop biodegrades but you don’t squat off of a dock. I was always under the impression anything biodegradable more or less needs soil and the bacteria from such to accomplish this.

  10. Gage March 19, 2014 at 10:11 am #

    Yes Freezer bag meals since dehydrate all my own stuff, but good article for those that don’t. I have seen many a backpacker wash and rinse right in the stream and I watch foamy suds floating down the stream or pool up in a pond. Mentioned to a couple once and they got upset and said its fine don’t worry about it. I guess teaching only works when they want to learn.

  11. outdoors March 19, 2014 at 10:50 am #

    Next time tell them about these magic drops to put in your water, then offer some label free visine for their nalgenes. Then they be learning.

  12. Vonnie October 23, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    I’m personally in favor of a quick dry reusable travel washcloth and a tiny drop of Dr. Bronners – sustainable baby wipe! Baby wipes tear up (especially in whiskers) and create trash. I don’t like to haul around trash. It stinks (really) to run out of wipes. The washcloth without any soap is good for getting a layer of dirt off.

    • Josie June 11, 2015 at 1:41 am #

      Vonnie – think I will use the tip on the washcloth with drop of Dr. Bronners. New to camping and am looking for a low maintenance way to stay fresh. Heading to Oshkosh for 10-12 days and camping. They do have shower houses on site but last time it seemed a hassle to head back and forth (and, being a low maintenance girl, it was annoying to deal with all the more feminine females spraying their hair, blow drying, curling, putting make-up on, chattering away about a bunch of nonsense….ick). I choked every morning on perfumes and hairspray. I am looking to clean up and stay fresh at my site this year :-)

  13. Danielle May 12, 2015 at 10:58 pm #

    This thread has been extremely helpful & I thank each of you for your time & comments. My question hasn’t already been answered, so here it goes: If you were camping for 6 days in the California desert and wanted a shower or two, what is the best way to capture the grey water for disposing into a hole? Also, do you then fill the hole or leave it?

    • Jake June 9, 2015 at 5:39 pm #

      well you could just dig a hole and stand in it if you were actually using one of those portable showers, just wash your feet last. Baby wipes are more then sufficient for most people for that short of a time, if you haven’t tried it, give it a go. They are on my list of essential backpacking gear. You want to fill in your holes though.

  14. Michael Lang June 2, 2016 at 7:01 pm #

    You need common sense: use biodegradable soap and keep yourself at least 200 ft from water but I will say this. I went camping in New Zealand for 4 months after I sold my company. The first two weeks I used the hut system. There were people in that hut who had not bathed for two weeks and the smell was horrible. Life would have been a lot more pleasant if these people had brought a large sponge and used it with soap. After that experience< I love my tent.

  15. Ken A June 9, 2016 at 11:01 am #

    As a backpacker in my teens, I used to think I was environmentally responsible by using Dr. Brommer’s while “taking a bath” in The Adirondacks’ Ausable R. Now in our 50’s, my wife and I do use the Castile oil products, but not like we’re sitting in the tub at home. Unscented, sparingly and disperse gray water on land seems to be a better option. Sometimes digging a hole on an island in the Lower Saranac Islands feels kind of laborious getting through the hair roots of the hemlocks and criminal, lol! Thanks everyone, for this site!

  16. Geoff July 10, 2016 at 11:17 am #

    Very informative, thanks. I have been one of these lake bathers for ages… Had no idea. Will change my ways asap.

  17. Rob July 19, 2016 at 5:37 pm #

    I’ve been looking up biodegradable soap. Glad for your write-up, I’m going to be a lot more cautious of how I use and dispose of any soap.

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