You’re nearly done planning for your year’s big hiking trip. You’ve obsessed over the route, planned your meals to the last ingredient, and triple-checked the supplies in your first aid kit.
But how will you keep yourself clean on the trail?
Even though hygiene isn’t usually at the top of your list, especially for longer trips, it’s key to keeping you happy and healthy.
Knowing how to stay clean in resource-limited environments will help you prevent spreading germs in your group, protect your skin from rashes and chafing, and make your tent a little less stinky on day 5 than it might be otherwise.
Here’s your complete guide for keeping up with good hygiene on the trail.
Part A: The Basics
1. Wash Your Hands
Even though hand sanitizer is quick and convenient, soap and water are still the most effective at killing germs and keeping you clean.
Soap is also easier to use for various purposes, which makes it more worth the weight in your backpack.
I usually bring Dr. Bronner’s because it’s concentrated and biodegradable, so I only need a few drops at a time, but any biodegradable soap will do.
Just like at home, wash your hands regularly. That means:
- After pooping
- Before cooking
- Before touching your face (ex., putting in contact lenses)
- Any time you touch something gross (like when you slip and your hand lands in the cowpie…)
Soap & Leave No Trace
Soap is really hard on water sources and the fish and insects living in them. So, when you’re washing up, it’s better to fill up a container with water and bring it away from the water source (at least 200 feet or whatever local regulations prefer), before you start to wash.
2. Wash Your Body
It can be challenging to clean your whole body. So at a minimum, the parts to focus on are the groin area (to prevent infections/fungus) and your feet (to prevent rashes from salt build-up).
You can either lather up your hands or a camp towel with soapy water and give those places a little sponge bath, or just rinse with plan water.
If you’re using soap, rinse thoroughly so that leftover soap doesn’t irritate your skin (you may consider only using water in your groin area if you don’t have sensitive soap).
3. Brush Your Teeth
There’s no big secret to this—just remember to pack a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste. Brush regularly, just like you would at home.
Part B: Going to the Bathroom: Poop, Pee, and Periods
Alright, let’s get into the potty stuff.
What to Bring
I’ve started carrying a dedicated “bathroom bag” for every trip. It’s an easy way to keep all of my hygiene items in one place and to keep them away from everything else in my bag. Any tiny stuff sack, Ziplock bag, etc. will do.
My bathroom bag has:
- Small bag for garbage
- Tampons or pads (optional)
- Wet wipes/toilet paper (optional - remember, these items cannot be buried in the ground, so you’ll have to pack them out with you if you choose to use them)
Let’s say you already know how to dig a cathole that’s the proper depth and appropriate distance from water (pop on over to Leave no Trace for a refresher) - and move on to what happens post-poop.
This part will introduce you to a method many folks call the “backcountry bidet.”
You’ll need your bathroom bag (or just soap) and a water bottle with at least a half-liter of water (it doesn’t need to be drinkable water). I recommend opening up the water bottle and soap cap before doing your business.
How to do the backcountry bidet:
- Wipe with your natural toilet paper (smooth rocks/sticks, leaves, snow, etc.)
- Choose a dedicated “dirty” hand for the next few minutes.
- Splash some water from your bottle onto your “dirty” hand or directly onto your rear.
- Give yourself a little gentle scrub with your “dirty” hand.
- Repeat steps 3-4 several times.
- Once your butt is clean, give it a shake to get rid of the excess water.
- Wash your hands (of course): squeeze your water bottle between your knees with the cap off.
- Using your clean hand, pour a bit of soap from onto your dirty hand.
- Rock your knees forward to get a little splash on your soapy hand.
- Suds up and get clean, treating your water bottle like a sink.
- Add more soap and continue washing your hands as needed - this is not the time to be frugal.
And you’re done! Your butt’s clean and so are your hands. Now, finish burying your cathole and head back to camp.
For going #1, plenty of folks prefer to simply “drip dry” and not worry about wiping. For folks who don’t like to drip dry, they’ll often carry a bandana that’s dedicated to wiping.
If you tie the bandana on your backpack, it will dry in the sun and usually won’t have any extra odor.
If you use products like tampons or pads, dispose of the waste in a garbage bag and pack it out (for me, this is where the bathroom bag is a super easy way to keep all that garbage organized).
If you use a menstrual cup, empty the contents into a cathole just like you’d dig for pooping. Wash your hands before reinserting.
You can clean yourself using the same method as the backcountry bidet, but for all of your private parts.
Part C: Washing Clothing
Washing a few select clothing items is a great way to cut down on weight and keep yourself clean and healthy.
Built up sweat on your socks, for example, can cause rashes that are easily avoidable if you know how to wash them, and change your socks regularly.
The method I’ll share is pretty simple and works great for small items like socks, underwear, and t-shirts. You might be able to make this work for larger items like pants, but for those it’s often easier just to rinse with water, or to wait until you get back home to clean them.
What you’ll need:
- Soap (Dr. Bronner’s works here, too)
- An empty plastic bag / other container you won’t need to use again
How to Wash Your Clothes:
- Put your item into the bag (fewer items is better here).
- Fill the bag with water until the items are just covered.
- Add a few drops of soap.
- Twist the top of the bag to close.
- Aggressively shake the bag around. Basically, you’re imitating a washing machine. You’ll likely see the water get sudsy and murky.
- Unseal the bag, reach in, and agitate the clothing with your hands to make sure the soap gets everywhere
- Empty the soapy water (200+ feet from your water source)
- Rinse the items using the same method, but without adding soap. Repeat as needed
- Lay out your now delightful-smelling clothing to dry
And there you have it! Now you know how to stay clean and happy on your next long trip - as long as you remember the soap!
Molly Herber is a NOLS instructor and writer who lives in Wyoming. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. Find her work on the NOLS Blog and follow her on Instagram @mgherber.