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

6 tips for staying clean and fresh on the trail
Rig a clothesline to dry sweaty clothes. (Photo by Jason Stevenson)

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 profhike@backpacker.com.

—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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