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How to Stay Clean on a Backpacking Trip

How to Stay Clean on a Backpacking Trip

While the popular media bombards us with tales of stinky long distance thru-hikers, you don’t have let go of your personal hygiene on a backpacking trip. The fact is, you’ll stay a lot more comfortable and avoid a lot of health issues by washing up daily and staying clean.

Here are a few items of gear and best practices to keep you healthy and odor-neutral on hiking adventures.

Wash Your Hands with Soap

Wash your hands with soap and water after taking a poo and before eating a meal. When packing, grab a few slivers of soap from your bathroom soap tray and throw them into your food bag since they’re smellables (What to Put in a Bear Bag). Wet your hands and rinse them with water from a water bottle or collapsible wash bucket (1 oz) instead of a stream or lake to leave no trace and keep soap out of the water supply. While you can also bring a hand cleanser like Purell, soap and water can be much gentler on your hands and remove dirt and grime more effectively.

Wipe Yourself Clean

It should go without saying, but polish your butt crack clean after doing a number two. A dirty crack often leads to chafing and monkey butt, an extremely painful condition that will make you feel like you have the ass of a Baboon. It doesn’t matter if you bring toilet paper, paper towels, or use natural materials like sticks and rocks, bury everything using a leave no trace trowel or carry it out, if regulations require. If you do experience monkey butt, calm down the inflammation with zinc oxide cream or Boudreaux’s Butt Paste. “Butt” prevention is really the best medicine.

Rinse Out Your Hiking Clothes

Hiking clothes get smelly and can irritate or chafe your skin when they soak of a lot of perspiration. Perspiration is mainly salt and dissolves easily when rinsed out with water without the need for laundry detergent. Soak your clothes with water from a bottle, in a plastic bag, or a collapsible bucket, and ring them dry away from water sources to leave no trace. Hiking shirts and pants made with synthetic fabrics dry very quickly when worn or hung up to dry. Bring a locking safety-pin (so it won’t come undone) so you can pin damp socks to your pack while hiking, if they take longer to dry.

Sponge Off Before Sleeping

Wet a bandana or buff with water from a bottle and rinse the salt off your head, face, body, and feet before you go to sleep. You don’t need soap because it’s just salt and will dissolve easily with water. Do this away from water sources so people don’t have drink your funk (because it won’t be filtered out by a water filter). You can also bring a simple shower attachment that screws onto a plastic water bottle or platypus soft bottle, which can make the process easier.

Bring a Separate Set of Sleeping Clothes

Pack a separate top and bottom that you only use for sleeping. I typically pack a long sleeve top and bottom that I can use as a warm baselayer if it turns cold. Sleeping in cleaner clothes will also keep the inside of your sleeping bag/quilt cleaner and oil-free, so you don’t have to wash it as often to get the funk and smell out. You don’t have to rinse these out daily because you’re not sweating in them all day. Wool baselayers can also be more pleasant on longer trips because they mask smells longer.

Brush Your Teeth

You’ll feel better if you brush your teeth at least once a day.  Also, bad breath and tooth decay don’t stop just because you’re backpacking.

Don’t Eat Out of Snack Bags Shared with other People

If someone offers you a snack from a bag of goodies that’s been shared with other people, politely decline. Germs can easily spread if the people reaching into a food bag have contaminated hands.

Wash out Your Cook Pot

If you cook your meals in a cook pot, take the time to wash it out before putting it away at night to remove any lingering food particles. Soap’s not necessary. You can easily throw in some sand or river pebbles and get the same effect as rubbing steel wool. Drain the dregs into a hole dug with your trowel, away from the water source, so animals don’t dig it up and micro-organisms can break it down quickly.

Backcountry Hygiene Gear / Supplies List

The gear it takes to stay clean in the backcountry doesn’t have to weigh a lot. But it will have a big impact on your comfort level. Here’s a quick summary of the items I recommend you carry.

  • Leave no trace trowel
  • Buff, bandana, or very small camp towel
  • 1/2 gallon size plastic bag for clothes rinsing/agitation
  • Slivers of soap
  • Locking safety pins
  • Toothbrush / small tube of toothpaste
  • Toilet paper and/or pee rag for ladies (separate from wash towel)
  • Small repacked tub of zinc oxide or small container of white Dermatone

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  1. I use plastic bread bag closures for clothes pins .

  2. Instead of soap slivers I usually pack a very small container of Dr. Bronner’s unscented liquid soap. A couple drops go a long way and can be used for both personal hygiene and cleaning cooking utensils.

    • If you can handle the bubbles, it’s also great as toothpaste! (I pack the peppermint soap)

      • Great post! Right on abouy the pre-sleep rinse and separate sleeping clothes. This routine makes me feel clean before bed. Keeps the bag and tent from becoming rank from cross contamination. I use a Norwex wash cloth, which does not require soap.

  3. Good topic. On some trips I have washed clothes in a zip lock as you suggest, but I had read somewhere a long time ago to add a small amount of baking soda to the water. That seems to work better than just water to reduce the “stink” in shirt that has been worn multiple days. The downside is that you need to rinse it, so if clean water is at a premium, you may not want to waste it rinsing.

    Another vote for the small container of Dr. Bronner’s. I use it like David, a few drops is all you need.

  4. I use some water and a squirt of hand sanitizer to wipe myself down. It does a good job of breaking down the oils and grime at the end of the day and the evaporation of the alcohol from the hand sanitizer feels good. I have a small piece of packtowl ul for a washcloth and a larger piece for my towl/tent wiper etc. They are larger and more absorbant than a bandana and I find they dry faster than my buff or bandana does. Plus they weigh an ounce combined. No mention of baby wipes? The dead down wind base camp wipes are soft, unscented, and biodegradable. These are the only biodegradable unscented wipes I’ve found that don’t feel like I’m cleaning my nethers with a piece of paper.

  5. (Sarcasm warning)
    You make it seem like water is readily available, fall freely from the sky and magically collects itself on the ground.

    (More sarcasm)
    You’re not from around here….
    I live on Mars, geographically Southern California. Water is more precious than diamonds.

    Joking aside, I love reading your articles, I enjoy your writing style, thank you for the good work you do.

  6. I’ve had positive results using the blue colored paper towels from the hardware store. The weight is similar to kitchen paper towels but the blue shop towels are industrial strength.
    With scissors cut up squares for toilet paper and mever have to worry about TP triple ply or tearing.

    Use the full sheet to wipe the face and its very durable… and somewhat reusable.

  7. What is a locking clothes pin? Like a safety pin?

  8. Multi-day hiking along the coast is a big convenience with an abundance of saltwater and sand filtered fresh water to bathe and easy to dig scat holes below the high tide line. Still, a small plastic scrub for cleaning pots and dishes is likely a far better option than abrasive sand or steel wool and weighs next to nothing.

  9. I can’t use alcohol-based hand sanitizer or many soaps, because I have eczema. I use Gold Bond Ultimate hand sanitizer/moisturizer cream after washing with gentle soap. I learned about it from my eye doctor.

    I also use a snow stake as a poop trowel, since it can be multi-use and only costs 3 dollars.

  10. I take a small drink bottle with push/pull top and put some water in it along with some Dr B’s soap and keep it in my pack for quick hand cleaning after I find a lonely tree. When I heat water for drinks, etc. I top off the bottle so my hands don’t freeze when I use it. If I’m hiking in really cold conditions, I might have to put my bottle into an extra pair of socks to keep it from freezing.

    A larger bottle of the same will be in my vehicle for car camping or just general use. How many times have you had to clean up a gas station rest room before you felt inclined to use it?

  11. Thanks for mentioning cleaning your teeth (I am a dentist). I use toothpaste at home but switch to baking soda when hiking. No scent and it is a natural product consistent with leave no trace.

    • I thought baking soda was too abrasive to be used on its own?

      • I have not seen any science on that but it does not worry me. All the people buying “whitening toothpaste” are paying a lot of money for highly abrasive toothpaste. Decay is from bacterial acids. Baking soda is basic and buffers acids. Given that we all are likely eating higher levels of sweets when hiking then baking soda is an appropriate counteragent

  12. I use a bandana cut in two. One half for a wet rag and the other half for a clean towel.

  13. Phil
    I actually shower daily on the trail, wash my under
    Clothes and socks.
    I can’t stand putting on insect repellant on over
    Dirt and sweat and get into a sleeping bag
    I carry one of those sea to summit showers. I also
    Store my night clothes, clean socks, and sleeping
    Bag in it to stay dry while I’m hiking
    After marking camp, I boil 16 ozs of water and
    Mix it with 16 ozs of cold, and 5 drops of Dr Bonner’s for a secret weapon hang the shower
    And then shower!
    One lightweight towel for my head and another
    For the rest of me
    Sure it’s only about 95 % effective but I’ll take it!
    Oh and a very lightweight swim suit for modesty,
    The bears have eyes
    I then wash out my underclothes, day shirt , socks
    With any left over hot water
    Oh and I do it without polluting the water supply

  14. The first thing after pitching tent is to hang a clothes line, then get water for by collapsible bucket. If I get into camp early on a warm summer day, I fill I or two platypus with water and leave it out in the sun on top of a black stuff sack. After they are warmed, I hang the platypus for a shower, squeezing the bite valve and hope that a chilling wind doesn’t blow by.

  15. Excellent post. Points 1 and 2 cannot be emphasized enough, since it appears that poor hygiene may be a bigger cause of Giardia infections than contaminated water.

    Unfortunately I can no longer access the original article in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. As for the rest, I do all of them except the not sharing snacks, but then most of our trips have been in places where there were no other sharers except the two of us.

  16. I’ve been suggesting hikers use a portable squeeze bidet available at Home Hardware. Then you don’t need to use TP. There is a regular size, about 5″ tall with a screw on spout, about another 6″. The spout/wand fits inside the squeezable plastic bottle (has a one way valve on the bottom of it.)

    There is the really small one, just a spout/wand, that fits into the end of a regular water or small plastic pop bottle. It has two thick O Rings. Pretty snug fit, but it doesn’t have the one way valve.

    One for the pack, one for home. (I have no vested interest in mentioning HH. Just glad they are available.) Imagine, no unsightly TP smears under rocks etc!!!!

    The bigger one is called BioBidet. 15$ U.S.? and the Hygienna Solo by Kleen is about 8$ U.S.

  17. yep, clean up is part of my post hike day. fill your bottles / cook pot from your source. walk away. minimum douse, soap up with dr. bonner peppermint. hit the hair, pits and bits. .5l douse 1.5 l rinse Even when cold you’ll be refreshed and ready for days end relaxation. With the east coast Lyme disease i can’t understand embracing the “hiker trash” scent as a badge of honor anymore. we’re talking literally 10 minutes from being at the water source to being in your dry clothes clean and comfortable…. just got to get the procedure down…quick and easy.

  18. I usually just bring a travel size container of my body wash and shampoo and use that directly in the nearest water source. In the grand scheme of things, it is a very small amount of pollution I am adding to the water and will not make any measurable difference at all to the environment. Why go to all the hassle you are describing? Backpacking is supposed to be enjoyable, not uncomfortable.

    • That seems so totally irresponsible. Soap can kill invertebrates that other creatures eat. And it’s disgusting to find your soap bubbles in the water others drink. Stay home and rent the movie! Please.

  19. Has anyone tried “sterilizing” clothing with AquaMira? I use a bit of bleach in every load at home, and it really keeps the base layer from building up odors. On the trail, I wonder if there is a way to rinse the undies in the AquaMira to do the same thing. Perhaps add it to the water, add clothes, let it sit for the required time, possibly no rinsing required — as it is similar to a public water supply.

    Note that I’m on a well here, so there is no chlorine added to my water supply. That bit of bleach makes a world of difference for my sweaty family.

  20. I use a Sea to Summit 10L folding bucket to bathe and wash clothes. I fill the bucket about 2/3rd full with creek water and move away from creek the proper LNT distance and hang bucket from a tree about chest height. I dunk my head in the bucket of water to get my hair wet and then use Dr Bonner’s as shampoo. I then dunk my shampooed head back into the bucket to transfer the soap to the bucket water. I then use the soapy water to wash down. After that I wash my clothes in the soapy water. I don’t use much soap, so I don’t rinse the clothes, just hang them from tree branch to dry, or hang from pack, or just wear them. The STS bucket weighs 1 ounce.

  21. In long distence hiking there are three things must have for me.
    1-Natural sea sponge. It’s extra weight but less then 1 oz. Totally worth it.
    2- Aloe vera gel. It’s for almost every thing. Soothing, chafing, itching, moisturizing, blister caring, etc.
    3- Baby powder. It’s also for every thing. Foot, armpits, oily hair, butt chafing.

  22. I’m inclined to use filtered water for bathing and clothes cleaning but wonder if this is overkill since one might swim in a lake to cool off after a hot day without worrying about giadia etc getting on skin. Thoughts/science? (New backpacker)

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