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Reader Poll: How Do You Stay Clean on a Backpacking Trip?

Drying Out the Laundry, 100 Mile Wilderness
Drying Out the Laundry, 100 Mile Wilderness

When I go backpacking, keeping completely clean is out of the question, but there are a few strategies I employ to prevent myself from getting sick or developing rashes on the parts of my skin where salt builds up.

  • I try to carry enough Purrell so I can sterilize my hands after taking a number 2. Two ounces usually holds me for a week. If I run out, I also bring along a few old pieces of soap that I can use to wash my hands.
  • When I go to bed, I always change into a pair of sleeping clothes, usually a thin base layer top and long johns to keep the built-up oil and funk on my skin from soiling the inside of my sleeping bag. I also try to wash my face with a little leftover cooking water to get the built-up salt off my forehead, eyebrows, around my ears. I wipe my shins with a damp wash cloth to get rid of salt build-up which can develop into a painful heat rash, and change into a clean, or cleaner, pair of socks to sleep in.
  • After I cook, I always rinse out my cook pot and try to get it as clean as possible. I mostly make soup or noodles at night so this is usually easy. Since I always boil water before I eat anything or make tea, I don’t worry too much about keeping my long handled spoon or cooking gear absolutely spotless, because they’re self sterilizing.
  • When it comes to clothing, I try to do a load of wash about once a week if I’m passing through a town. Otherwise I rinse out my pants during stream crossings or dip my techwick hiking shirt in water and wear it dry. I try to rinse out a pair of socks at night and hang them up under my tarp when I go to sleep. I never bring more than one hiking shirt, pants, and underwear on a trip.
  • Other than brushing my teeth periodically, that’s pretty much all I do to stay clean on trip.

How do you stay clean on backpacking trips?

Please leave a comment.

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38 comments

  1. Baby wipes. They’re not just for babies…

  2. Purell, baby wipes and WISP disposable toothbrushes.

    • +1

      The hand sanitizer and the baby wipes can be a bit of weight so they are important items to right size. Fortunately they sell travel size packages for both. I really like the wisps, so so easy.

      I was able to use the hand sanitizer as a fire starter but not the baby wipes or the wisp.

  3. Pretty much same as you – minimum wash the face at night, sponge bath if I can, sleep in totally different clothes, and bring biodegradable baby wipes.

    I bring a collapsible dog bowl as my bath tub so I can carry water away from a stream to bathe, wash clothes etc. If I am near water during the day with sun, I’ll wash clothes and hang from my pack to dry. I stopped using socks plus liners, so I bring about 4 pairs of socks so I can have at least one I can keep fairly dry and the others in various states of clean and dry to wet and filthy.

    I do as much of my cooking as “add boiling water to a bag of something” to keep cook gear as clean as possible.

  4. I have serious allergies to smoke (campfire) so baby wipes aren’t effective enough to remove odor & provide an all-over clean (removing bug spray in warmer months).

    There are bathing wipes – larger than a baby wipe & have cleanser on them. The ones I use are pre-moistened but I let them dry out & pack in ziploc bag. I’ll add water when needed. I also bring along some shampoo powder to toss through my hair to remove the smoke odor.

    I always change into sleeping clothes & either air out clothes or pack in spacebag to keep fumes in check.

  5. When I take my boots off at the end of the day, I always use hand sanitizer on my feet. It kills any bacteria from the day, removes excess Glide and keeps my feet (and people around me) happy.

  6. I practice the same habits as you, except for hand sanitation. Instead of Purrell, I use Dr. Bronner’s soap. Dr. Bronner’s comes in eucalyptus scent, which keeps helps a bit in keeping the bugs away. Also I believe that washing your hands is more sanitary than rubbing them with Purrell. Dr. Bronner’s is also great at cutting the dirt from the cracks of your hands, leaving your hands looking clean and fresh. Lastly, if you’re a bit more adventurous you can also use Dr. Bronner’s as toothpaste.

    • I think Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint soap is actually not bad at all to use as toothpaste. A little goes a long way too.

      I can’t comment about any of the other “flavors.”

  7. Looks like I put more energy into keeping clean. I bring the bottom 1/3 of a plastic milk container and a very small, face-cloth-sized towel. At the end of the day before changing into sleeping clothes I dump a few containers on my head and “wash” without soap, taking the opportunity to do a tick check. (Is that a spec of forest litter or a tic?) Of course, if the weather’s fowl or I’m cold this all gets truncated. I find washing is wonderfully refreshing and I think I sleep better.

    After I’ve washed and changed I rinse my shorts, shirt, socks, and bandana. This doesn’t really make them clean, but it does wash away a good deal of the salts I’ve sweat and limit hiker stink.

    After using a cook pot to make a meal and drinking as much what remains as possible, I use a tiny tuft of 00 steel wool–kept in a sandwich bag closed with a tie twist, it weighs almost nothing and a very small amount lasts weeks–to wash the bowl and my spork. If the meal was oily I use a drop of bio-degradable soap. Typically, I do this when I decide it’s time to brush my teeth, take my vitamin.

    Purrell is for post-privy sanitizing, with soap and water backup.

  8. Matt you might try the bottom 1/3 of a tropicana orange juice container in place of the milk jug as the bottom has a ribbed wash board built into it. I also find that my tent fits nicely in it when I pack up so I don’t have to worry about any poles or stakes rubbing my bag or other gear. And lastly if my four legged friend is with me it serves as a great water bowl. Thanks to you all for the great ideas.

    • i have to check that out – just a 1/2 gallon carton? Thanks!

      • The plastic variety of cartoon. Empty I keep many of the smaller things in my “miscellaneous” stuff sac in the carton to help it keep its shape. Eventually the container will get a whole in it, but by then you’re probably ready to drink a half gallon of milk. :-)

    • I’ll definitely take a look. Thank you.

  9. *Hand sanitizer for after the bathroom and before eating.

    *Action wipes for taking a shower when on the trail.

    *For laundry, if I’m near a town, I’ll swing in about every 7 to 10 days, although I’ve gone longer. I’m a kayaker instead of a hiker, so I do have a different set of clothing that I use in camp vs. when paddling, which really helps. The stink from the paddling clothing is sealed inside a drysuit, so I can’t smell it during the day, but it gets really bad. Last year, I went about 20 days without being able to wash my clothing. My camp clothes weren’t too bad as I use a wool shirt.

    * I wash my face with fresh water every day and if I feel really grimy after a day, I take a swim (unless the water is cold), which it often is where I paddle.

    * I usually just clean my pot with my hands. Sometimes a little Dr. Bs.

    * I brush my teeth twice a day.

  10. I always sleep in different set of pants, shirt, and socks since I tend to sweat more when I sleep so those clothes are separate.
    Right when I wake up in the morning I like to wash my face and rinse my hair with water (if it isn’t completely freezing, this is much more pleasant during the summer) It is worth the extra few ounces to me to bring along special face wash since my face tends to get rather oily during the day.
    Daily or twice daily teeth brushing is also a must for me.
    Small stick of underarm deodorant. Again, carrying a few extra ounces for basic hygiene is a trade off I’m willing to make.
    I also carry a small 2 ounce bottle of hand sanitizer. This is invaluable to me. I love clean hands.

  11. I bring a camp towel and use it to dry off after splashing water all over myself. I do this before it gets dark or by a fire if there is one. In warm weather, I splash water on my face everytime I cross water to keep cool and fresh and get the salt away from my eyes. I’m an Aquarius so I can’t resist running water.

    Once or twice a day I will scrub my hands and feet with dirt or preferably sand and rinse in a stream. Definitely keeps foot odor down. I multitask and take a break, have a snack while I wash up, and its usually cooler by water. I like taking dips in swimming holes on a multinight trip even if its freezing cold for 10 seconds.

    For cookware, dirt or sand works good as well if needed. It’s counter intuitive to use dirt and sand but people don’t take mud baths fer nuthin! I bring Purell but never use it. People survived thousands of years without Purell. I keep a small amount in my first aid kit for emergencies.

  12. I carry a salt deodorant stick to minimize body and foot odor. It applied just like a standard deodorant, is all natural and chemical free, but it doesn’t have the bear-attracting perfumes. It works so well I’ve completely done away with traditional deodorant. Since I stick will last a couple of years I just cut off a 1/2″ slice from the top to minimze the weight and space it take up. Here is a link: http://www.thecrystal.com/
    For washing up I like to carry RV grade personal wipes. They degrade much faster than traditional wipes (5-7 days) and can be buried in the cat hole.

  13. I like to be clean and take a sponge bath every night. If on a relatively short hike, I’ll take a travel pack of baby wipes or use squares of paper towel soaked with soapy water. I bring an extra set of nylon briefs and wash out my old pair at night and set them up to dry–they probably also work as critter repellent. On a multi day hike, I also have two nylon shirts and wash the old one and set it out to dry overnight. I’ll also wash the base layer.

    I have a few shards of deodorant sticks in a film container to try to make me smell somewhat acceptable. I’ll try out the salt stick.

    I also keep an old Ozarka type bottle for hand washing. When heating water for cooking, I’ll pour off a bit into the bottle with some dish soap. If the weather is cold, I’ll put it into my extra wool socks to keep the temperature more moderate. I use the soapy water to clean my hands after visiting lonely trees along the trail.

    If on a long hike, I might take a dip in a lake or river, get thoroughly wet and try to get grunge off there and then go back into the woods for the rest of the sponge bath with a bit of soap. I don’t want my detergent dumping into the streams and lakes.

  14. I used to carry a 3 oz collapsible water bucket for washing but have switched to the Anti-Gravity Gear 1 Gallon Water Bag for washing clothes and myself. It weighs 0.6 oz and is great for an evening wipe down with a bandanna. If it is cold outside and it is only a weekend hike, I will forgo the water bag but in mild weather, it goes with me.

  15. 1oz of my favorite Bronner’s soap, 1oz of hand sanitizer for quick washings, the wisps for my teeth, a bandana for washing off feet and underarms, and my biggest tool for keeping clean, My backpacking hammock! Staying above the ground does more than anything else to keep things clean for me.

  16. I am using hydrogen peroxide in a sqeeze bottle these days. I can brush, gargle, disinfect and treat wounds and is completely odorless. I also warm some water, add a couple drops of soap and rinse my face and hands, then sponge neck, arms and legs. I may not be spotlessly clean, but at least I feel clean and very refreshed.

  17. Since as long as I can remember I have always had to wash down before beddy by…Otherwise I just can not sleep that sticky feeling just makes my skin crawl resulting in no sleep.. For more years than I can remember I used my Military Issue Canteen cup, (yes I know some groan at the weight) but I have yet to find such a multi purpose metal cup that will stand up to the rigors of use over a long period. I can wash my socks, undies and if I really push it a T-Shirt. I have fried fish in it, fried Squirrel, Duck, Rabbit, venison, boiled water, and made all sorts of stews in it was well as fried some trail bread. Turned upside down on a very flat Rock and surround with fire I used it as an Oven of sorts for biscuits which were not that bad but a pain to make..

    For years I have carried Bonner’s soap since I lived so close by the factory but then my skin didn’t seem to like it out in the Desert and would dry very rough, So at the former Wife’s hint I switched to Ivory Dish Soap in a small Labrotory grade glass container with an eye dropper until I knew exactly what I needed and switched to a bottle without the eye dropper. Now I carry the Ivory pure and clear. A little goes aaaaalllllooooonnnnngggg way and is bio friendly. Neutrogena makes a small bar which I have carried on occasion as well as their Bath Liquid which really is not great for cleaning dishes but for everything else though. I also tried some homemade lye soap for a couple of years and that worked well too but I like the convience of the Dish soap in the bottle versus a sticky wet bar of something. For grit, nothing like some fine sand and the shredded end of a stick to scour out the canteen cup with..The long handle of the stick helps with keeping the hands clean too.

    For a few years I used a Standard Bandana that I washed a dozen times to get it to the right softness. Then I met a woemen who could sew and I increased the size of the Bandana to a 24×24 versus the standard 18×18. I should have had her make me a dozen.She’s passed on now and nobody else I know, knows how to sew that tiny bead around the edges.. I used it for everything one uses a Bandana for. It disappeared at a Campsite on the Pinhoti Trail while I was fishing as it was drying over a branch in the wind…

    I carry a children’s size hair brush with the handle partially cut off and rounded on a bench grinder that handles all the hair problems and whose bristles are stiff enough to where I scaled a few fish with it.., I have a good mane that has not thinned like all my brethen’s seems to have so they hide it by going bald but they have to shave it almost every day..I just brush. For a toothbrush I have used a shredded willow branch which has always been plentiful around water sources except in the Desert, for those trips I carry one of the standard travel brushes with the handle shortened. I tried the finger cot types but was dissatisfied with the results plus it was more trash to carry out,,same with the Hoodah’s Military type baby wipes for body washing, just more trash to carry though I may put a couple in my resupply box just incase there are no showers about

    Hope this info helps someone…

  18. Laundry – Gallon Ziplock with water and a couple drops of bleach.

    Myself- Depends on camp location and my Grime level, but I usually have extra water and I always wash my face with soap. I also love the polished feel of baby wipes (as most do)

  19. Day hikes not a problem but for longer trips take a wash rag, small bar of soap, sealed packages of wipes, tooth bush & paste, comb. Take a second set of light weight long underwear (wicking type) then at night give yourself a light washing with wet rag then put your long john’s on before crawling into the sleeping bag…keeps you dry and comfortable and if you get up at night you’re not freezing and trying to put your clothes on in the dark. Always put your shoes in the same spot. During the day if you find a small water fall, lake or river by all means wash your hair, hands, neck, feet. Make it your break. In dusty areas put a handkerchief around your neck and straps around the bottom of your pants. We always wear long shelves for UV protection and keeping the dirt off. You’ll be glad you did. If your hands, feet, pots or pans get really dirty use sand, pine needles, leafs first to get most of the derby off then brush off and wet rag to finish the job. The real secret is to wear synthetics clothing like nylon and fleece that dry quickly and doesn’t retain odors. Take extra socks and a few pair of underwear. HiTech stuff works great. Socks and underwear can be washed on hung on your pack if weather permits. The places we go we’re not too concerned about others and if we did they would be doing the same thing. My wife will take a bath in water that polar bear wouldn’t. She also takes underarm deodorant on the longer trips. Hope that helped and have fun:)

  20. Just remembered something we tried for awhile but only on long trips but got away from it do to Hoohahs and other ionized water wash systems and light weight Solar Showers..The 45 gallon plastic trash can bag bath…We used to partially fill the trash bag with warm water and then wormed our way into the bag and took a nice bath.

  21. on long trips i use a silnylon stuffsack as a wash basin and use a wet bandana with some Dr B’s on it to clean up. i also use the bag as a washing machine – toss in my dirty clothes with a few drops of Dr B’s and a 2″ rock and shake that for a bit. i’ll rinse that a few times and then hang the clothes to dry.

    i’m fresh and clean as a whistle and the stream stays fresh and clean too.

  22. Lots of comments about Dr. Bonner’s . If my memory serves me correctly Backpacker back in the 70’s had a story on Bonner’s soap when actual real backpackers sent in Stories to Mr. Rodale who in turn printed them instead of the Marketing people we now see in the Rag, which I canceled years ago for that reason which was a shame for I was one of the original 200,000 who first subcribed to the rag when the Card poppped out of my Organic Gardening and then followed by I think a Advertising letter of some sort….. I think there was something like 152 uses Backpackers submitted submitted for Bonners..

  23. The cleanest trip I ever had was backpacking among hot springs in Yellowstone NP – there are areas where you can have a hot bath every day!

    Other than that, I try to keep the “critical areas” washed regularly. I take advantage of sunny days, which is a great time to take a dip in a river or lake with your stinky clothes on such that you can hang-dry them quickly. If you do this regularly enough, you won’t need to use soap very often. Always bring Purell for potty breaks. I also use Purell to make my own “wet wipes” with extra T.P. Practice good “sock hygiene” – never let your stocking feet touch the ground!

    The big inconvenience with backcountry hygiene is soap. What do you do with all that grey water? I try to do all of the above things to minimize soap use.

  24. I fell into an AMD (Acid Mine Drainage) polluted stream once and damn if my clothes didn’t end up cleaner than from a washing machine. Just an idea.

  25. I have a question about using those Alcohol based hand Cleaning agents…Doesn’t the alcohol burn your “private parts” should you use it to clean down there?? I for one am not brave enough to test it out, so I thought I would ask..

  26. I carry a washing bandana I’ll use to wipe off my face, back of the neck, boobs, underarms and crouch. Sometimes I’ll put some soap on it first, sometimes I just use water. I don’t do it every day, but whenever I’m feeling nasty it helps.

    I also brush my teeth. If I didn’t bring a toothbrush I’ll chew a stick and use that to brush my teeth. (Evergreens give a nice clean feeling)

    I tend to sleep as close to naked as I can get away with inside my sleeping bag since I’m easier to clean than my clothing.

    The big thing I’ve had to learn is hair management. I have waist length hair that’ll knot if you look at it wrong. I’ve discovered that letting oil build up in it before a trip (but still brushing it out daily) does a lot to help with the post trip (or during trip for longer hikes) brush out. I also am absolutely sure to keep it braided while I’m out. With that I’m able to detangle it pretty quickly in the shower. When I started in on the AT in 2009 I thought I’d have to shave my head until I figured some of this out. :)

  27. In the hospital for adult patients, we use a liquid “peri wash” to cleanse, reduce odor and moisturize when changing their briefs. It is fragrance-free, gentle, soothing, contains aloe and glycerin and can be used anywhere on the body. Simply spray on and wipe off. It is meant to reduce the odors of urine and feces, so it should be able to handle any hiker’s “funk” and odor. It can be purchased where home health care products are sold.

    As far as hand washing, nurses follow the same principals that I found summarized on the Pediatric Safety–One Ouch is Too Many, website under Hand-washing 101:

    – Scrub thoroughly
    – The purpose of washing your hands is creating friction to rub away germs, not to kill them
    – Clean your entire hand, including the wrists, backs of hands, between fingers and beneath fingernails
    – How long you spend washing up is key—rinsing with water for five seconds doesn’t remove any germs, but washing with soap for 30 seconds eliminates them all—rub all hand surfaces for 30 seconds, then rinse thoroughly, the water temperature doesn’t matter (30 seconds is roughly the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday,” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” whichever you prefer—twice)

    – Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are great when soap and water aren’t available
    – Germs can only survive in moist environments, and the rubbing alcohol in these sanitizers evaporates moisture on your skin, which kills any germs that may be on your hands

    I hope this helps!

  28. Germaphobes stay indoors. Healthy skin hosts a variety of bacteria and sterilizing it isn’t helpful and may be harmful. Just get the dirt, dead skin cells and some excess oils off for a proper cleaning. Unless you’re performing surgery.

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