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December 2000

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?"

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.

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