Backcountry Body Odor: What's That Smell?

Body odor can get pretty bad on the trail. Here's how to make sure you never again hear the words, "What's That Smell?"
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Body odor can get pretty bad on the trail. Here's how to make sure you never again hear the words, "What's That Smell?"

I've never actually smelled a squirrel simmering in a vat of refried beans, but I'd hazard a guess that the aroma tickling my olfactory senses at this particular moment is pretty darned close. What I'm smelling is offensive, a real nose-wrinkler, and it's so strong that I can't sleep. Then the shocking reality hits me like a sack full of month-old sweaty socks. The source of the putrid aroma is inside my sleeping bag. It's me.

And that should be no surprise. After all, I've spent 4 hard days hiking through the desert, and going without bathing is a backpacking fact of life. When we're far from our plumbing-plentiful, shower-ready, work-a-day world, getting rank is a wilderness rite of passage. We yearn to get back to nature, back to the animal ways. Problem is, I think in my current state, I'd offend most nonhuman critters, too.

As I lie awake, nostrils flaring and failing to locate fresh air, I wonder why I smell so bad. Why is it that on this night, on this particular trip, I reek like never before? More to the point, is smelling like this actually bad for my health? And are there ways to stop it in the first place? I need answers just as badly as I need a bath.

The Science

What causes Heinous Hiker Syndrome?

Next time you're sitting 'round the camp stove, impress your hiking buddies with this bit of science: Sweat doesn't stink. The bad smell comes from harmless skin bacteria in your armpits and groin that feast on fatty goo excreted with the sweat. As these bacteria eat, multiply, and break down the goo into aliphatic acids (scientists refer to them as "goat acids"), stink results.

"The bacteria on the axilla (armpit) keep growing unless they're washed off," says George Preti, a body-odor specialist for the Philadelphia-based Monell Chemical Senses Center. "There are reports, from periods in history when people didn't use soap, that the bacterial populations became so numerous they were visible (to the naked eye) as little nodules hanging from the axilla hairs," says Preti.

Visible or not, the obvious concern is whether smelly pits and dirty skin can become unhealthy.

"It's not a serious hygienic issue," says veteran backpacker William Forgey, M.D., president of the Wilderness Medical Society. Diseases associated with poor hygiene, such as leprosy or lice, aren't contracted merely by being dirty. They come from contact with infected people or animals. "It's far more important, from a health standpoint, to wash your hands and dishes thoroughly than (to wash) your armpits," says Dr. Forgey.

A Lofty Di-stink-tion

A survey of Backpacker staff, friends, and family revealed that former Rocky Mountain Editor Mark Jenkins (above) holds the dubious honor of going the longest without bathing-75 days.

According to Jenkins, who's spent his longest unwashed periods in the Himalayas, "Your body reaches a state of stench equilibrium after about 3 weeks. You won't smell any worse after 9 weeks in the wild than you do after 3." And "as long as your comrades smell as bad as you do, no worries. It's only when some sourpuss can't take it anymore and decides to use a bar of soap that everything goes to hell."

Avoid A Soiled Reputation

A wipe is all it takes.

Smelling like corpse hasn't killed anyone-not that we know of, anyway-but there are some basic hygiene practices that Doc Forgey says health-minded hikers should follow. "Everything else," he says, "you can pretty much let go."

1. Clean those loins. Unscented baby wipes are the easiest way to stay clean, or designate a special bandanna to use with water.

2. Wash your feet. Actually, washing isn't as important for avoiding stink and blisters as keeping your feet dry.

3. Brush your teeth. Your mouth is a haven for bacteria, and a few days spent without brushing leads not only to a serious case of doggie breath, but all sorts of dental problems.

4. Wash your hands. And do so religiously after every bowel movement and before food

preparation. Not only is this a smell-squelcher, it helps prevent the spread of disease.

5. Wash your wounds. Dirty skin isn't okay when you cut yourself, because opportunistic organisms will jump into an open wound. Irrigate the wound with filtered water, clean it and the surrounding skin with antiseptic or soap, and then apply a sterile bandage.

Note: If you're traveling abroad, especially to tropical climes, check with the World Health Organization (202-974-3000; www.who.int) for advice on hygiene practices.

Scrub-A-Dub
Simple and quick ways to take a tubless backwoods bath

Washing with good ol' soap and water is the best way to stifle body odor, says Ward Billhimer, a senior scientist with Procter & Gamble. The more you scrub, the more bacteria you'll eliminate, although "you'll never wash off 100 percent of the organisms," he says.

Antibacterial moist towelettes will give bacteria the boot in a low-impact way. Be sure to pack out the used wipes.

Or, give yourself a sponge bath with the warm water left from making dinner. If you use soap, lather up with a phosphate-free, biodegradable type well away from all water sources. Some options:

The LNT "200" Rule

Wash at least 200 yards from water sources, even if you're using biodegradable soap. Dripping soapy water onto durable surfaces like rock or gravel is preferable. Dispose of gray (waste) water far from springs and streams.

Camp Suds is an odorless soap that's eco-friendly, highly concentrated, and can be used to clean almost anything, including body parts.
Price: $3, 4-ounce bottle.
Contact: Sierra Dawn Products, (707) 588-0755.

No-Rinse Body Wash and Shampoo are sweet-smelling powders for use when water's at a premium (for a review, see www.backpacker.

com/gear).
Price: $1.19, 2-ounce bottle.
Contact: N/R Laboratories, (800) 223-9348; www.norinse.com.

Camp-n-Travel Hygiene Kit: This has it all: peppermint soap, a pack towel, a dish scrubber, and a booklet, Camping Healthy, that offers advice on cleanliness in the wild. Weight: 13 ounces.
Price: $10.
Contact: Atwater Carey, (800) 359-1646; www.

destinationoutdoors.com.

Dr. Bronner's 18-in-1 Pure-castile Soap

is one of the most effective all-natural soaps. It works well on body, hair, clothes, and dishes, and can be used as a shaving cream, massage solution, and mosquito, tick, and fly repellent. It's scented, so use sparingly in bear country. Price: $2.25,4-ounce bottle.
Contact: Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, (760) 743-2211; www.drbronner.com.

PackTowl: This 27-by-10-inch chamoislike synthetic cloth weighs little more than a cotton bandanna, but sops up as much water as a full-size bath towel.
Price: $5.50.
Contact: Cascade Designs, (800) 531-9351; www. cascadedesigns. com.

Sun Shower: Fill the 3-liter bag, hang it above your head, and turn the nozzle for a shower about 2 minutes long. The bag is metallic on one side, so you can have a hot shower in about 3 hours, courtesy of the sun. Note: Cannot double as a water bladder.
Weight: 3.5 ounces
Price: $8.
Contact: Basic Designs Inc., (707) 575-1220.

Getting Gear To Come Clean

How to make putrid equipment smell as fresh as a daisy

You can bathe, roll in sweet-smelling powder, even stick lilacs in your pockets, but if your gear is pungent, it's all for naught. Here's how to de-scent equipment:

  • Dry boots each evening. Pull out the insoles and stick them vertically into the collars of your boots. Remember: Wet feet are smelly feet.
  • Make a camp boot freshener. Take two 4-inch-long pieces of pantyhose and put one inside the other, to create two layers of stocking. Tie a knot in one end and fill the bag with baking soda. Tie a knot in the other end to keep the soda inside the stocking. Put a baking-soda ball in each boot whenever they aren't on your feet.
  • If your gear reeks, use a gear cleaner. MiraZyme Odor Eliminator is a biodegradable cleaner with enzymes and microbes that prey on the bacteria, molds, and fungi that are making your stuff smell (even skunk scent). It's recommended for any gear (except sleeping bags) that can be submerged in a bathtub. For a review, see www.backpacker. com/gear. Price: $8.80, 8-ounce bottle. Thunder Wash is a multipurpose soap for cleaning everything in camp. Price: $1.75, 2-ounce bottle. Both are from McNett, (360) 671-2227; www.mcnett.com.
  • Protect your bag with a sleeping bag liner. A liner is easy to remove and wash. You can sew one yourself out of fleece or buy one. Design Salt's CoolMax Mummy-Liner weighs 9 ounces and costs $39. The Polypro Bag Liner from REI, at $29, is 1 pound 2 ounces. Kelty offers the fleece Light-weight Mummy liner (1 pound 10 ounces) for $60. For $85, you can own Marmot's 14-ounce Black Magic liner, made of taffeta outside and microfiber inside. Design Salt, (800) 254-7258; www.designsalt. com. Reader service #140. REI, (800) 426-4840; www.rei.com. Kelty, (800) 423-2320; www.kelty.com. Marmot, (707) 544-4590; www.marmot.com.
  • Air out your bag each morning (left). Turn the bag inside out and place it on top of your tent, across a branch, or atop trekking poles.
  • On a long trip, get into camp a little early one night and rinse out your clothes, especially socks and underwear. Hang the laundry on your pack to dry as you hike the next day.
  • Wash the bag at a laundry. Use a large, front-loading washing machine without an agitator; do not dry clean a sleeping bag. Use a mild powdered detergent or a detergent specifically designed for sleeping bags. Try McNett Thunder Down, Nikwax Down Wash, Nikwax Tech Wash, REI Loft II, or Tectron Pro Wash. Read the directions to make sure you can use the detergent on your down or synthetic bag.
    Contact: McNett, (360) 671-2227; www.mcnett.com. Nikwax, (800) 335-0260; www.nikwax-usa.com. REI, (800) 426-4840; www.rei.com. Tectron, (800) 289-2583; www.bluemagic. com.

Aromatic Gear

Some manufacturers want to clear the air around stinky backpackers with products that don't hold nasty aromas as tightly as typical synthetics do. Here are some products we've tested that have proved less odiferous.

Socks

  • The "Socks With Sole" field test (September 1999) proved that good ol' wool socks ($9-20) stand up to stink better than the average synthetic.
  • Our editors have worn the Fox River X-Static Liner Socks ($10.50) for hundreds of days without raising a stink ("Editors' Choice '99," April 1999). Fox River, (800) 247-1815; www.foxrivermills. com. Reader service #135. Underwear
  • When antimicrobial fabrics made specifically to ward off stink were put to the test, Mountain Hardwear's ZeO2 underwear ($32-52) came up smelling nearly like roses (Outfitting, February 1998). Mountain Hardwear, (800) 953-8375; www.mountainhardwear.com. Reader service #136.
  • That SmartWool's Next-To-SkinWear long johns ($60-74) should receive a 1999 Editors' Choice Award became oh-so-clear when one stinky editor remarked "I couldn't get them to smell half as bad as synthetic longies I've worn" ("Editors' Choice '99," April 1999). SmartWool, (970) 879-2913; www.smartwool.com. Reader service #137. T-shirts
  • The North Face Performance Crew ($45), REI Cross-Training T-Shirt ($30), and Terramar EC2 Qwik-Dri Short-Sleeve T-Shirt ($19) earned the highest scores in the odor-control category of "The Great T-Shirt Test" (May 2000). The North Face, (800) 447-2333; www.thenorthface.com. REI, (800) 426-4840; www.rei.com. Reader service #138. Terramar Sports, (800) 468-7455; www.terramar sports.com.
  • The Pearl Izumi X-Sensor Short-Sleeve Crew ($50) is a wash-and-wear-and-wear-and-wear no-stink shirt (see www.backpacker.com/gear for a review). Pearl Izumi, (800) 328-8488; www. pearlizumi.com.

Deodorants For Trail Hounds

Who needs Right Guard when there's ginger?

Once you've bathed, you can keep odor from returning (at least for a short while). Some suggestions:

  • Dust talcum powder on your usually sweaty spots to help you stay dry.
  • A squirt of lemon juice hides just about any scent.
  • Baking soda or corn starch dabbed under your arms acts as a natural deodorizer.
  • Patchouli oil's distinctive scent overpowers the worst body odor.
  • Popular deodorants are available in tiny travel sizes at your grocery or drug store. Opt for the unscented ones.
  • Fresh ginger is a popular Vietnamese remedy for B.O. Chop fresh ginger and place it in a cloth. Squeeze the cloth to extract as much liquid as possible and apply.
  • Freesole Sport Fresh. This new "all-natural odor eliminator" comes in a pump bottle. Simply squirt clothes and body. It may sound too good to be true, but field testing by a few ripe Backpacker editors found that while the funk was by no means completely eliminated, Sport Fresh did take the edge off stinky armpits and clothes. The company won't divulge the magic ingredients, but will say it's organic. Price: $3.95, 2-ounce bottle. Contact: McNett, (360) 671-2227; www.mcnett.com.

A word of caution: Avoid smelly stuff in bear country. It's far better to smell bad than to smell like dinner.

Berne Broudy contributed to this story.