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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 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. 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.

      • That outfitter is ignorant. All soaps are not equal and most are not biodegradable or safe. Dawn dish soap (as well as Seventh Generation), Simple Green, many shampoos and almost all baby wipes, laundry detergent and dryer sheets contain the chemical preservative methylisothiazolinone to which many are allergic. Manufacturers don’t have to list it on the packaging and many call their products “free and clear” or “natural” or “hypoallergenic” when they are NOT!. It causes severe skin rash and blistering upon contact. Imagine what it must be doing to the environment.

  2. 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”.

  3. Wet wipes are the way to go

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