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 dishwater or water you’ve used to wash 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 scarce. 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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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 :-)

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

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

  7. 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.

  8. Thanks for your comments. I also used to soap-up in lakes, rivers, etc. when I was young! :( Now I’m all for scrubbing with cotton wash cloth and plain ‘ole water! Is soap even necessary? Most cleaning is physical, not chemical.

    • I’m good with no soap at all. Dip a washcloth in the last of the boiling water from breakfast or dinner and wipe down. Wring it out over a hole and air dry it on my pack and I’m good to go.

      • I have started using just hot water and a cloth on my face even at home. My skin has never looked better.

  9. I find it interesting that no-one seems too concerned about the horrible chemicals going on their skin from baby wipes. This compartmentalised view of a problem such as the one being discussed here, I find fairly typical these days, as well as the attitude of valuing convenience over personal health. But there is always a bigger picture to consider. It is all very well to get on ones high horse about environmental pollution, however I think people should be more concerned about their own health at the same time. Baby wipes might seem like a convenient solution, but for the sake of your long term health I wouldn’t recommend most brands.

  10. There are many great thoughts here about how to minimize our impact while trying to maintain modern era standards of clean. Each must choose the commitment and actions they feel are reasonable.
    As an older guy I know that my awareness of my impact has grown as I have matured. I do things now that weren’t in my repertoire 40 years ago. I’ve taken ideas shared by others, invented some of my own and, hopefully, passed these on to others I’ve travelled with.
    Simple is best, chemical avoidance is critical, washing or waste disposal directly in streams and lakes is an unfortunate choice for all.
    The fact that you all care enough to share an opinion here is hopeful. It’s pleasant to read intelligent ideas shared in a respectful manner.

  11. Can I just put the used soapy water in the same hole I poop in?

    • Sounds fine to me.

    • Actually, putting the gray water in your cat hole is probably better than putting it in a different hole. I’m no expert, but I’ve read that in arid environments some water is needed to advanced the decomposition process. This might actually help your cat hole go away quicker.

  12. So-Follow the directions on the product. Not much of a “myth”.

  13. Ok- but why don’t you supply any studies or evidence about how biodegradle soaps destroy the environment & violate ‘leave no trace’ guidelines? Are we meant to take your claims at face value? There are so many other egregious ways that we destroy our environment, which makes me think that bashing biodegradable soaps might be a tad bit of overkill, vs calling out other environmental insults… I may be wrong here of course- but at least please prove it, otherwise this article should just be relegated as the usual ‘holier than thow’ stuff.

    • Although I’m happy to see the apropos skepticism of this comment, I would like to add that it seems reasonable to assume the worst about any manmade chemical left in the environment unless evidence is advanced to prove otherwise. If conservationism is plenary, then the burden of proof should be placed on those who wish to leave a trace – which is not to say that you were suggesting otherwise, of course.

  14. it amazes me people NEED to be told to ditch their graywater in a hole.. common sense.

    • The biggest misconception in the universe is that sense could ever be common!

    • It’s not common sense for people that are new to the outdoors. I didn’t even know what graywater was until recently. I am glad to learn about it so I can be environmentally responsible. It might be more helpful to educate people rather than judge their “common sense”.

  15. Surprisingly enough Himalaya salt can be used as a dual purpose item…salt for cramping, and cleansing the body while leave the perfect amount of natural oils behind. How?

    Tried a variation of the above bars & they really work, the drawbacks are that they’re a bit scratchy when applying to bare wet skin & too heavy to tote a large quantity in the back-country. However a couple one- inch diameter pieces can do their fair share.

  16. Getting ready to go whitewater rafting with a commercial outfit that had regular shampoo and soap on their packing list. Thinking it was a mistake, I called the company and asked. They said that they no longer require camp soap and shampoo because these days all shampoos and soaps on the market are biodegradable and safe. They believe that buying wilderness-specific soaps and shampoos is a waste of money.

    Has anyone ever heard of this? I was shocked!

    • It’s only safe if you bury the waste water.

    • They are referring to soaps that use lye and phosphorous as ‘cleaners and whiteners’. Most (if not all) soaps today are, in fact, ‘organic’ or ‘biodegradable’ predominantly. Look at ‘Dawn’ dishwashing liquid. They are touted as ‘environmentally safe’ and boast their public use in ‘de-oiling’ ducks in various oil-spill locations worldwide. Simple Green was given a MAJOR award as ‘extremely environmentlally friendly’ due to ‘environmental cleaning agents’ that are not harmful to the environment. The list goes on. Phosphorus and lye are no longer used in MOST retail soaps…and as such, there’s not a lot of ‘significant gain’ from using Campsuds over Dawn (in fact, you can make your own camp cleaner a LOT cheaper using Dawn, Simple Green and distilled water). So, yes, the Outfitter was in fact, basing his statement on general fact.

  17. First off, if you use it correctly, a 4-oz bottle of Campsuds (or equivalent) should last you a YEAR, if used properly/sparingly! In MOST instances, you only need ‘water and scrub’…and to this point, I found the ULTIMATE cleaning tool that isn’t AT ALL what people THINK it is…the ‘toilet tissue pellet’. It is neither ‘just for toilets’, nor is it a ’tissue’…it is more a recycled, woven piece of fabric. You add an ounce or so of water to it (or just get it wet in a stream) and you have a WOVEN fabric cloth to wipe ANYTHING with (dishes, hands, armpits, etc.)…so wet the cloth, wash up (away from water sources), then add the spent rag to your ‘trash pack-out’. 100 pellets are around $28, individually wrapped, VERY compact and light-weight. Best of all, they not only resolve ‘sanitation cleaning’ (you know what I speak of), but they give you 1000% better field hygiene than ‘soaking in the stink’ like a proud ape…water bathing sure beats ‘aromatic corpse flower’, any day!

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