Ahhh, the refreshing scent of pure mountain air, aspen trees and days-old B.O!
When out camping and hiking, you have to adjust your standard of cleanliness in many areas, including personal hygiene. Though you cannot jump into a shower with all of your favorite shampoos, conditioners, razors and washes, there are some simple ways to clean up outdoors that will make your- and anybody around you’s- experience on the trail much more pleasant.
Though it felt silly, one of the things I was most nervous about on my first long camping and hiking trips was hygiene. I was really concerned about smelling terrible, destroying my skin and hair, and generally being too “dirt-baggy.” To many who know me now, that is laughable! It is important to keep clean for health, but in reality, we tend to use more than enough soap and detergent, conditioner and beauty products in daily life.
Keep in mind that adjusting to life outside for a while will mean less of those things, but you can learn some valuable lessons on appreciating a more natural, and a little dirtier, version of yourself on the trail, that just might carry over into your everyday life.
Here are a few of the most tried-and-true ways to scrub away your stink and get into a backcountry “beauty ritual.”
Bathing in the backcountry isn't as simple as grabbing a bar of soap and jumping in the nearest lake or stream. In fact, even when using biodegradable soap leave no trace guidelines ask that you keep your soap at least 200 feet from any water. So instead try one of the following methods for a backcountry clean that won't leave a trace.
The best method of bathing on the trail depends on your trip length and location. For trips with no access to water, the impracticality of carrying a few extra liters just for hygiene is not worth the weight and space.
Pack more wipes than you think you will need, because you never know when you will have extra mud and trail-gunk take up residence on your skin. These wipes are also good for gently wiping off gear, so be certain to bring extras. My personal favorites are these 9.5”x 11.5” body wipes, which are biodegradable, all-natural, hypoallergenic and durable enough to scrub away and get a good clean! Look for biodegradable wipes from any brand, and be sure to choose soft scents or unscented wipes to keep bugs and furry friends at a safe distance.
Some companies make special wipes designed for your… ahem… nether regions, too, which are helpful in keeping dark corners fresh and yuck-free on long trips.
If you are concerned about the weight and space of wet wipes, these can be dehydrated beforehand and then rehydrated for use.
Somewhere in North Cascades National Park, I remember my first bucket-method bath. I knew a good clean must be wildly overdue because my cold-natured side begging me not to douse in icy cold river water was losing a mental battle. I really, really needed to “shower.”
Though the initial shock had me yelling and dancing like a madwoman, this method was easy, quick, and efficient for a (remote) water-side bath. I use a waterproof dry bag as my “bucket,” and I prefer Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soaps when bathing in the outdoors.
To bathe, make sure you have your container for the water, a dry microfiber towel, and biodegradable soap if needed. Find a secluded spot with a small, stable space for you to stand. Strip down, and be sure to keep your clothes and towel out of the splash zone! This method, depending on your aim and accuracy, might spray water in a radius of a few feet. My aim, being terrible, calls for my things to be three or four feet away.
Fill the bucket with water and dump it over yourself, repeating until you are rinsed all over. It is important to not let this water get into your mouth. Obviously, being unfiltered, a drop or two in your mouth could be contaminated and cause you trouble on or after your trip. Using your hands, rub off dirt and pay special attention to crevasses like toe gaps, armpits and behind your ears. It might take a few good bucket-fulls to rid your skin of buildup from bug sprays, sunscreens and days worth of sweat.
If you decide to use biodegradable soap, put it inside of your dry bag or bucket and then splash the soapy water onto yourself. The remainder of this water should be dumped on the ground to keep as little soap from getting into the natural water as possible.
Finish your backcountry bath time with a final rinse of water. Dry off with your microfiber towel, and be on your merry way. It is also important to dry out your dry bag completely before using it for anything else and remember to give your hands a good rub down with hand sanitizer before cooking or eating, even directly after bath time.
Lastly, some hikers and campers prefer to take a sponge-bath on the trail. This method works well if a flowing water source is not practical or available for the bucket method.
To bathe this way, you will need a sponge, washcloth or bandana dedicated to bath-time only, biodegradable soap, a microfiber towel and some water. Find a remote spot hidden from open views, campsites or trails and strip down. Wet the “sponge” of your choice and add a small amount of biodegradable soap. Many of these soaps are highly concentrated to minimize space and weight, so it is easy to use too much. Avoid having to rinse multiple times, running out of soap and drying out your skin by being a little stingy with your soap amounts.
Now… scrub away! The best part about this method is having something to really rub with for tough spots or caked mud, so be liberal with the water you use and put a little muscle into it. Of course, leave your dirtiest areas for last, and focus on your face first with a fresh, clean cloth.
Dry off with your microfiber towel, and head back to camp squeaky clean.
Another side of keeping clean in the backcountry is your gear. Smells come from bacteria buildup, which is common in wet, hot places. Make sure you choose a material that wicks away sweat and dries quickly, and remember that merino wool, bamboo and linen materials are anti-bacterial, making them clean and neutral smelling for longer periods than other fabrics.
If you have fabrics that are wet from sweat or water, try to sun-dry them as quickly as possible. Sunshine will kill bacteria, erasing that musky-stench from once wet gear.
In the case of especially dirty clothes, make the same dry bag from the bucket-method bath into a washing machine. Simply put your dirty clothes into the bag with water and a small amount of biodegradable soap. Close the bag, and go to town with shaking and massaging. Dump the water onto the ground 200 feet away from water sources to avoid contaminating them with soap, and continue with water only until clothes are fully rinsed.
Hang up to dry in direct sunlight, if possible. Remember to keep something dry ready to wear in case of unexpected rain, camp visitors, or a need to hit the trail sooner than anticipated!
After bathing and putting on some fresh or semi-fresh clothes, I find myself wanting to complete the freshness by brushing my teeth.
I brush my teeth every day when on the trail, but like bathing, I struggled a little at first to do something simple in a new way.
Dr. Bronner’s can be used for brushing teeth, washing clothes and washing dishes as well as bathing, making it a staple for many hikers and campers. If you choose to use it as a biodegradable toothpaste, I would highly recommend getting the peppermint flavor. Though I love lavender, it does not quite do it for me as a toothpaste flavor.
When brushing your teeth, you will need purified water, a toothbrush, and some sort of toothpaste. Wet down your brush and use a very small amount of soap on your brush.
As you need to spit, do so in a wide, half-circle spraying motion. This helps to spread the soap out, diluting it to make it less harmful to the plants and animals around you. My spray, much like my bucket-method splash, is still not a honed skill. Swish some water around for a final rinse, and try for the widest, tallest spray possible before rinsing your toothbrush to finish. Think of a rotating sprinkler and try to mimic that motion and force of the spray.
These tips should have you running through a ritual to clean up even on the dirtiest of days, keeping you healthy and clean for the miles ahead.
After spending months being what I call a “garden-variety dirtbag,” I feel freer to choose extra moments of peace enjoying my morning coffee over rushing to spend a little extra time on my unruly eyebrows or trying on three pairs of earrings. Though I still enjoy spending a little time on beauty here and there, I am willing to choose other things over how I look on many days. I feel a little more comfortable in my skin, as is. I hope that you discover a little of the same treasure- and men, I am talking to you, too.
Wanting tips on how to clean your gear as well as yourself? Stay tuned for another post soon on washing even the most particular gear pieces.
Enjoy your backcountry bathtimes, and remember the most important tip of all for hygiene in the wild- be willing to embrace the dirty, at least a little bit.