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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: A Backpacker's Guide to Smart Personal Hygiene

6 tips for staying clean and fresh on the trail

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

Rig a clothesline to dry sweaty clothes. (Photo by Jason Stevenson)
Rig a clothesline to dry sweaty clothes. (Photo by Jason Stevenson)

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Hiking is all about compromise.

Since carrying every modern convenience isn’t possible, you need to decide what you can live without. Clock radio? Use the sun. Refrigeration? Try a cold stream. Jacuzzi? Not unless it's geothermal.

Personal hygiene is another compromise that hikers make.

No challenge worries novice campers and backpackers more than how to stay clean. On the trail, however, “clean” is a relative term. Instead of wearing fresh underwear every day, you’ll learn to rotate it. A moss-covered ledge makes a great nap spot, and the “three-second rule” applies to any food you drop on the ground. Since learning to be comfortable with a more relaxed state of hygiene takes time and experience, here are some questions and answers to get you started.

>>What do you mean, ‘No deodorant?’

Despite the persuasive arguments of the Old Spice Guy, deodorant isn’t one of hiking’s 10 essentials. In fact, you should always leave it at home. Why? Because deodorant does more than banish odors; its sweet smell attracts bugs and other wildlife, including bears. After a few days without deodorant, you’ll get accustomed to your new, “natural” odor. And this fragrance won’t bother you or your hiking companions as long as you regularly wash your armpits and groin area with soap and water or hand sanitizer as described below.

>>When should I wash my hands?

Doctors wash their hands whenever they see a new patient. Hikers should do the same after going to the bathroom and before cooking or eating meals. If you don’t, the germs on your fingers will end up in your eyes or mouth. Hikers are quick to blame trail illnesses on contaminated drinking water, but hand-to-mouth infection is a frequent culprit, too. Because washing with soap and water isn’t always convenient or available, carry a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer. This clear gel contains a small concentration of ethyl alcohol that kills germs on contact. Just add a dime-size drop to your palm, rub your hands together vigorously, and wait 20 to 30 seconds for the alcohol to evaporate.

 >>How do I clean the rest of my body?

Alcohol-based sanitizer will clean hands—but it won’t disinfect your entire body (and if you tried to, it would sting like hell). To get clean after a sweaty day on the trail, you have three alternatives. First, jump in a lake. Not only is a cool swim extremely refreshing, it also rids your body of sweat and dirt. Just be sure to swim away from where other hikers collect water, camp, or fish, and don’t use any soap. Second option: Take a trail shower by stripping down and washing yourself with biodegradable soap, a sponge or washcloth, and several liters of water. Shower at least 200 feet from any lakes, streams, or ravines, and pay special attention to your face, underarms, groin, lower legs, and feet. Third, if it’s too cold or impractical to take a trail shower, try a sponge bath. Strip off your soiled clothing and squirt some alcohol-gel sanitizer on a clean bandanna or cotton balls. Rub the gel on your skin, focusing on trouble areas like the groin, armpits, between your toes, and inner thighs. Moist towelettes also work well. Whichever method you choose, dry yourself off with a lightweight, quick-drying microfiber towel.

>>Why should I use biodegradable soap?

When you wash your hands at home, the suds vanish down the drain. But in the woods, the phosphates in soap can promote algae blooms in lakes and streams. To protect water sources, hikers should never use regular hand or dish soap in or near water.  Instead, choose biodegradable soaps that revert back to their organic ingredients like products from Dr. Bronner’s and Campsuds. Even when using biodegradable soap, Leave No Trace guidelines suggest you remain 200 feet from any water.

>>When should I change my clothes?

Maintaining good trail hygiene not only requires packing enough clothing, but also knowing when to change and clean it. Most hikers replace their sweaty shirt, pants, or shorts with cleaner, warmer clothes when they arrive at each night’s campsite. You can also change into new socks and underwear at this time, although some people wait until taking a trail shower or heading to bed. If you don’t remove your hiking clothes when you reach camp, you should change into clean and dry clothing before going to sleep. Wearing dirty clothing to bed not only sullies the inside of your sleeping bag, but it also creates a wonderful opportunity for rashes and other skin problems to develop during the night.

On trips lasting two days and longer, try rotating your outfits. After you remove soiled clothing, dry it on a line so it’s ready for the next transition (you can also tie it to the top of your pack if you’re still hiking). For a typical warm-weather weekend trip (three days, two nights), I normally bring two pairs of underwear, one pair of hiking pants, two wicking t-shirts, one mid-weight insulating layer, one heavy-weight insulating layer, rain shell, and two pairs of socks. With this setup, I always have a cleaner/drier T-shirt, pair of socks, and underwear to slip on.

>>What should be inside my toiletry kit?

Car campers can pack all the toiletries they would bring on a normal vacation, but backpackers should carry only the basics. In addition to leaving the deodorant at home, you should ditch shampoo (environmentally unfriendly), razors (not practical), mirrors (too fragile), and of course, the hair dryer (unless you brought a five-mile extension cord). Here’s what you should pack: 

  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Dental floss
  • Alcohol gel-based hand sanitizer
  • Cotton bandanna or wash cloth
  • Moist towelettes or baby wipes
  • Biodegradable soap
  • Absorbent pack towel
  • Toilet paper in its own plastic bag

Do you prefer fresh leaves or toilet paper? Share your backcountry bathroom tips in the comments below, or send an email to

—Jason Stevenson

idiot's guide to backpacking and hikingJason Stevenson is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

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Reader Rating: -


Aug 25, 2014

I had some bad chafing one time and was told by my dermatologist to use antiperspirant between my legs (as long as it's unscented) to help and it has. So, the part of leaving deodorant home is right, however the one I talk about above works. I guess the ladies have to be more careful but they can still so this.

Jul 06, 2014

About washing hair during hiking, good to refer this article:

Jul 06, 2014

About washing hair during hiking, good to refer this article:

Jul 06, 2014

About washing hair during hiking, good to refer this article:

Nov 15, 2012

I ask a dermatologist about field hygiene and she told me that over the counter Acne medicine makes an extremely effective deodorant for going extended periods without bathing.

May 01, 2012

trimming underarm hair and other parts really cuts down on odor. yes guys.. we can do it too...

Larry F
Jun 08, 2011

I too have used the crystal deodorant, and found that is works really well, I just have a really hard time finding in the part of NC I live in. As for potty paper, I use baby wipes for that too. I make sure to use Gold Bond foot powder alot, But it gets quite cool on the private parts, but it does make you feel cool!!!!

Biff Condor
Apr 02, 2011

Get Gold Bond Medicated Powder! It works great as deodorant, cools your feet, and prevents/cools hot-spots around your privates. No scent and comes in small travel size which is the right size for 10-12 days on the trail.

Mar 29, 2011

I find that snow works much better than leafs for TP.

Mar 29, 2011

Great article, thanks Backpacker!!! When I was younger, I got myself and my father extremely sick from not properly washing my hands before preparing the evening's dinner. We both had diarrhea right after dinner! Lesson learned and it hasn't happened since!!!

Mar 27, 2011

When using leaves, remember that some of them may have tiny tick larvae attached. I know from experience. During a visit to the bushes along the AT, I tried some leaves. A few days later I was removing a dozen or more tiny ticks from my bare skin inside my underwear. I would have thought they were flecks of dirt if it weren't for a rash, itch and irritation.

Liz Case
Mar 26, 2011

Bring 2 squeeze bottles and a scrubbie puff: one bottle to dilute the camp soap and squeeze it on your body (I use Dr. Bronner's), then scrub, and one bottle for clean water to rinse. Small nozzles mean you're using less water -- refill it from a larger container. Takes a while, but eco-better than a big splash. Tip: use only DRINKABLE water to wash your privates, face, teeth, and any broken skin, like blisters. None of these spots needs a nice new colony of micro-crud growing in/on them. And best tip of all: practice this kind of washing at home, a lot, and you won't think twice about it.

Ryan The Rollerblader
Mar 26, 2011

I am a huge advocate of sticks for TP. Twist the bark in opposite directions with your fingers to reveal a smooth piece of wood inside. About the thickness of your thumb and with a slight curve. Enjoy!

Mar 25, 2011

If you're using leaves, be sure it's not poison ivy.

As some others have said, I use baking soda instead of toothpaste and bring a small unscented deoderant stick. Use Campsuds to wash my hair - it's short so I use less than 16 oz. of filtered water. That five-mile-long extension cord is pretty heavy, though.

Mar 25, 2011

Lavilin long life deodorant (available at health food stores and online) lasts up to two weeks and has no odor. Use it before you leave and you will not smell bad.

Mar 25, 2011

I do not pack TP, preferring leaves. If I anticipate hiking thru an area without vegetation I collect some leaves and carry them in a zip lock bag to use later. They will keep 3 days in the bag.

Mar 25, 2011

Tip for the ladies: Panty liners get me three day's use out of a pair of panties. New liner = a fresh pair of panties. Wash at the end of day 3 and wear pair #2 then next day. 2 pair will get you through an indefinte number of days without having to wash every day.

Deodorant is always an essential for me. Just use the unscented travel size.

Mar 25, 2011

Dennis L, you're cracking me up dude, step away from the 6 pack of energy drinks.

Anyone have advise on how to store dank clothes when paddling th bayou and it's too humid for anything to dry overnight. ? Can I sprinkle them with something? Is baking soda safe for the swamplands?

Mar 25, 2011

Oops, I meant I'd rather give up minty toothpaste than deodorant. The minty taste only lasts a short time while the deodorant lasts all day.

Mar 25, 2011

I use camp soap for shampoo and I do take a small travel size deodorant. It's one thing I prefer not to eliminate. I love hiking in the southwest because I wash underwear and washcloths daily and they dry fast on a rock. Leave toothpaste at home. I've been a dental hygienist for 30+ years - it's the mechanical action of the brush that does the work. The paste just gives you that minty fresh feeling. And frankly, I'd much prefer giving that up (only lasts a few minutes anyway) than body odor!

Mar 25, 2011

A tooth brush and water can clean the mouth just as well as the tooth paste. I don't both bringing it.

Seth F
Mar 25, 2011

I've had Raccoons break into my bag to lick my toothbrush because I was using Tom's of Maine's Citrus toothpaste. I recommend something less tasty.

C Turner
Mar 25, 2011

Just store your sleeping shirt in with your sleeping bag.

C Turner
Mar 25, 2011

A clean sleeping shirt can be a fresher as you get ready to bed down, but also a safety precaution; no food wiped on it from daily snacks, meal and food prep. Think about how your dog smells your pants/shirt after you wipe food on them, imagine a bear.

Mar 25, 2011

Should have added that a combo of baking soda and borax powders is effective in that borax is anti-fungal. Try a mix of 3:1 or 4:1 (bs to b).
For toothpaste just use straight BS.
Try it at home prior to hiking to insure no skin reactions.

Mar 25, 2011

Simple baking soda can be used as a toothpaste and odor blocker.

Mar 25, 2011

I don't use a standard deodorant, but I do pack a travel size deodorant crystal. It has no fragrance, takes up little space, produces no residue, works like a charm, and all it needs is a spritz of water to work. I've been using crystal deodorant, even at home, for over fifteen years, and have found it better than any spray, cream, or lotion. Unlike standard underarm products, "rock" deodorant can also be used on feet.

Mar 25, 2011

A mixture of cornstarch and baking soda is a great body powder and deodorant. Purchase a sample-size baby powder and replace the scent-laden contents with the cornstarch mixture. It's good for at least a week.

Dennis L
Mar 23, 2011

lol amazing love "helped alot ." My girlfreinds hates my sweaty feet :P lol" thanks :P

Tom L
Mar 23, 2011

I liked the bit about deodorant. It's what I have been telling people for years! But along the same line I have heard that toothpaste can also attract mice and bears. So typically I bring germ killing mints and a brush.

Terry Rich
Mar 23, 2011

When hiking or paddling around a salt water environment I have found talcum powder great to get rid of that sticky salty feeling and allow me to sleep much better. It even works in hair.


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