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Should You Carry Hand Sanitizer When Backpacking?

Should You Carry Hand Sanitizer When Backpacking

When I started backpacking I always carried a small bottle of hand sanitizer to use on my hands after filtering water and using the bathroom. I’d repackage it from a big bottle of Purell into 1 or 2 oz polyethylene squeeze bottles and put it into a hip belt pocket for easy access. It made perfect sense. Purell also sells 2 oz travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer that you can use and reuse.

When you purify or filter a backcountry water source to remove viruses, bacteria, and protozoa, touch the doorknob on a privy door, or a trail register, your hands can get contaminated with foreign bacteria, viruses, and organisms that you don’t want to ingest. This can happen when you reach into someone else’s food bag to eat some gorp, rub your eyes, or pick your nose. While your body’s immune system does a pretty good job of fighting off infections, it’s not always successful.

For example, Norovirus is prevalent in the hiking community, especially on more crowded trails where many hikers use the same hostels, outhouses, and shelters. Research has shown that it only requires 10 – 20 Norovirus particles to become infected, so taking precautions is probably warranted if you run into strangers or camp with them.

After a few years, I stopped carrying hand sanitizer because I trained myself not to put my “dirty” hands where they could infect me. I also avoid trails and campsites with a lot of people because I prefer solitude when I’m out backpacking and enjoy having more of a wilderness experience.

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  1. Good contemplation. Worth noting is that sanitizer is a multi-use item; you can use it to light fire, clean wounds, clean skin of oils before attaching a band-aid/blister patch, and in a pinch you can drop some salt in it to get fuel for alcohol stove (this precipitates the gel part, after a while you get running liquid). I also use it to wipe my feet clean before putting on moisture barrier salve in the evening.

    I carry sanitizer even when not staying in wilderness huts. Ground is commonly littered with animal droppings and it is far too easy to touch them without realizing it. Also, having a noro infection in the backcountry is literally the stuff of nightmares (although AFAIK sanitizer might not work that well against noro).

    • Yeah, I remember a hike leader mentioning that your shoes can get really dirty from whatever is on the ground and that that might actually cause more health issues than drinking unfiltered water. Not that I’m going to start drinking unfiltered water, but I do try to clean my hands after putting on and/or tying my shoes or doing anything involving my feet when I’m hiking. Can’t hurt, I figure. Anything I can do to keep me from having stomach issues is worth doing, IMHO.

    • Don’t forget hand sanitizer is also good for removing pine sap from hands/clothing!

  2. Thanks for this article! Great advice, and I lean on my little bottle of hand sanitizer (also repackaged in those same little bottles from REI) when I’m hiking probably more than is actually necessary.

    I do think it’s worth pointing out (as exposedpaths also alludes to) that hand sanitizer is ineffective or less effective than hand washing against a few of the little bugs we tend to worry about–giardia and crypto in particular, but also C. diff. and (to some extent) norovirus. I use it too, and the risk is probably very low, but I try to remind myself that “sanitized” hands are not magically clean. A little soap, water, and friction will always keep you safer if you have access to them. (And LNT!)

    • I tried soap at the beginning of the summer, but just couldn’t work it into my “routine,” especially with the added requirement of disposing the grey water in a hole for LNT. We’re religious about handwashing at home, but you’re right about its effectiveness. Maybe I should try again and just slow down.

      • This comment by Joe needs additional clarification. The standard hand sanitizers sold in stores before the COVID pandemic were between 60-65% ethanol. There are a wider range of sanitizers being produced now with higher ethanol percentage. If you can find a sanitizer with ethanol >70% and a thickening agent such as glycerin that will be more effective than the standard 62.5% solution. It will also have less residue and be more multi-purpose for other uses described by exposedpaths. Although best practice is washing hands with soap, for most hikers and campers I think it is a practical trade off to use sanitizers especially if you can find higher ethanol % sanitizers with thickening agents.

      • Richard Sullivan

        I use and recommend medical alcohol wipes. Super cheap and almost weightless, around 1 gram each. Sterilize hands, scrapes and wounds, remove tree sap, prep before repair tape, start fires etc. Hand sanitizer is a much heavier option due to the weight of the bottle and the thickeners added.

  3. NEVER, ever, let other people put their grubby hands in your gorp bag! Pour it into their hand instead.

  4. Nowadays, I carry both hand sanitizer and a tiny amount of concentrated soap. Soap is more effective, but sanitizer is better than nothing, when you can’t dispose of soapy water correctly. I carry a gallon ziplock baggie as a washing “basin,” to move soapy water away from the water source. Rather than burying the grey water, I spread it widely well away from water drainage areas. Maybe I should re-think that. I’m avoiding shelters, hostels, cabins, formal campgrounds, etc. at least until the COVID-19 pandemic abates. I try to remember not to hand cell phones, maps or any other objects from person to person. You wouldn’t want to leave electronics in the sun, but most other objects can be reasonably well disinfected with a half hour of sunlight.

  5. It’s really best to use both sanitizer + soap. It’s a rather tiny weight addition for your health and safety. Commercial food prep, breweries, etc. use 2 different sanitizers/cleaners just in case of a microbe being resistant to just 1 method, and the second round of cleaning doubly ensures a sanitary/sterile environment. We can’t guarantee that level of cleanliness in nature and while interaction with dirt has been shown in all sorts of studies to encourage healthy microbiomes and other health benefits, poor sanitation is an all-too frequent trip ruiner. For those who wear contacts in the backcountry, getting clean hands is an extra challenge to your daily routine. I use sanitizer first, then soap after for that 2-factor cleaning benefit, and splurge on daily contacts while backpacking to cut this chore down to once a day (and get to leave contact solution behind too).

  6. Is that the recommended method, i.e. sanitizer first, soap wash second? I have not put much thought into this, but always first washed with soap and used sanitizer afterwards (on dried hands) as a “finishing touch”. (Except when using outhouses, there the first thing I do after leaving the outhouse is put sanitizer on my hands, and then wash my hands asap.)

    I know that if there’s visible dirt in your hands, it is better to remove it with soap first. But usually my hands are not visibly soiled, so would it be better to use sanitizer first in this case? Certainly it would leave my hands free from the goo in sanitizer.

    Probably splitting hairs, but I’m just curious if there are standard procedures in the food industry for this.

    • You’re fully right about ordinary sanitizing – sanitizer on cleaned hands works best. But you’ll learn a painful lesson if you put in contacts with freshly freshly sanitized fingers!

      • Why? Is there an additive like a bittering agent in yours to prevent people from drinking it? That would be very unpleasant on eyes, indeed!

        You could just mix your own, 3/4 pure ethanol (not denaturated), 1/4 distilled water. No bittering agents, no glycerine, nothing unpleasant. Should be pretty safe for eyes even if you substituted pure IPA instead, the IPA would just evaporate leaving no trace. We made our own from a large supply of lab grade 99.8% IPA the whole spring. Although I am not a contacts wearer, I didn’t notice any unpleasant feelings when I forgot and rubbed my eyes.

        It wouldn’t be a gel (although you could add a gelling agent) and you’d need hand cream to prevent dry skin, but I prefer a natural hand cream (climber’s balm!) to glycerine anyway.

  7. Being in the foodservice business I can tell you that A LOT of foodborne illness and the common side affect: Diarrhea!, is passed along from the bathroom to your food. While I’m sure you are all careful, I still use hand sanitizer after visiting the Privy.

  8. Joseph Buettner aka Nitrojoe

    You will get a kick out of this. I hiked with a Catholic Priest on the PCT between Ebbetts Pass and Echo Lake. We stopped at Showers Lake for camp. I warned him about camping in areas where others have camped and to protect your food especially from rodents. I chose a site farther away and more isolated from previous used areas. The next mourning we met up heading towards Echo Lake. He seemed somewhat unsettled and i asked whats wrong. He said when he woke up and began to dress he noticed his shoe laces were chewed up and the tips gone. So he laced up his shoes and he had trouble getting the laces through the eye-lights so he puts the ends of the shoe laces in his mouth to get them pointed enough to go through the eye-lights. It was only when we were hiking that he seriously thought about what he did and thought he may have exposed himself to Huntavirus. I checked on him several weeks later and all was fine. Hand sanitizer would have worked here, but one would not have thought to use it for such a freak event.

  9. Hand sanitizer prevents /cures jock rot! A little dab will do ya!

  10. Hand sanitizer kills bacteria. Bacteria in armpits causes that famous odor. So… a drop or two once in a while in your armpit does much to keep your tent mate happier.

  11. As a side note I was really happy I had hand sanitizer gel when I managed to get tree sap all over my gear, my clothes, and me. Hand sanitizer gel is probably the best tree sap remover thankfully. Sadly and a little embarassed to admit, but I’ve been sapped more than once.

  12. Cathie the Microbiologist

    The best way to avoid catching Norovirus is simple, avoid people exhibiting symptoms. People who’ve recently had it will continue shedding the virus for a few days after recovering. Not staying in huts and hostels is key strategy. Especially if you hear rumors of it going around. Remember that most filters do not catch viruses (Sawyer Squeeze, Katadyn BeFree, etc). An EpiPen will kill viruses. You could use a regular filter to remove particulates, bacteria, and parasites then use the EpiPen to kill the viruses. Using biodegradable soap and washing hands thoroughly will remove everything. Hand sanitizer doesn’t always work very well. This PSA brought to you by your friendly neighborhood microbiologist.

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