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For years, backpackers have been bringing their trusty multitools into the backcountry. It’s a way to be prepared for various scenarios while being as space-and-weight-efficient as possible. Single-use pieces of gear are inconvenient when you have to carry the weight of them all on your back.
I’m by no means an ultralighter, but I try to keep my pack a manageable size for my frame. While I was unpacking from my last excursion, however, I realized just how many single-purpose toiletries I normally carry: toothpaste, dish soap, face wipes, the list goes on. Enter Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap.
Castile soap is a type of soap made with all-natural oils, and Dr. Bronner’s has been selling it for a while—since 1948 to be exact. The crunchy-granola brand has become a mainstay on backpackers’ gear lists because of its purported eco-friendliness and versatility: It’s biodegradable and, according to the company, can be used for 18 purposes, several of which are applicable in the backcountry. It seemed like the perfect solution to my toiletry conundrum. I decided to ditch my usual kit and try out every hiking-friendly use that Dr. Bronner’s advertises.
A note to start: If you are going to adopt the sudsy multitool yourself, be sure to consult the dilution cheat sheet first. This soap is two to three times more concentrated than other liquid soaps on the market, and a little bit goes a long way. You don’t want to use more water than you have just to rinse off the soap because you overpoured it. Also, be sure to follow all Leave No Trace guidelines when you’re using this soap. Don’t dump it within 200 feet from camp or any water source, pack out any crumbs from your dishes, and broadcast spray dirty water over the ground.
Face wash: I typically bring some face wipes with me when I go backpacking, but I have to carry them with me and pack them out. With Dr. Bronner’s, I figured I could freshen up without the additional waste. I added two or three drops of soap onto my wet hands and lathered it on my face. It became sudsy very quickly and felt nice on my sunscreen- and sweat-caked face. The peppermint scent so close to my nose was more jolting than refreshing: It definitely could be used in lieu of smelling salts. Dr. Bronner’s worked much better than my typical face wipes. I felt like the dirt was actually off my face, and the peppermint (although too pungent) opened up my pores.
Body wash: This one was easy. I added a couple of drops of soap onto a wet washcloth and ran it up and down my dirt-coated limbs for a makeshift shower. I don’t mind getting a little dirty in the woods, but I always bring wipes just in case the dirt on my hands and body reaches a breaking point. Sometimes, though, I notice that the wipes don’t so much clean my skin as just push the dirt around. The Dr. Bronner’s, on the other hand, worked great. My skin didn’t feel tight or sticky after using it, and it washed off easily when I poured clean water from a bottle onto my skin. The soap took up much less space in my backpack than a packet of wipes, and it did a more thorough job of removing dirt.
Hair: Although I don’t typically feel the need to wash my hair on short trips, I could see needing to on a multi-week hike. The soap company recommends a couple drops for close-cropped hair, so I worked about half a tablespoon into my wet, just-past-the-shoulders, thick hair. The soap is so concentrated that it felt like it was still in my hair after a couple rinses using water straight from the bottle. I didn’t have the water pressure of a shower head to help work out the shampoo, and makeshift pressure from the bottle didn’t do much. If not washed out correctly, Dr. Bronner’s will leave a residue like any shampoo. This doesn’t seem worth it to me—I don’t typically backpack in areas surrounded by water sources, so I’d rather just live with greasy hair. On the other hand, if the weather is warm and water is abundant, Dr. B’s would work great to refresh my tresses.
Congestive Remedy: For me, a stuffy nose is basically a backpacking guarantee, especially in winter. Dr. Bronner’s claims to have the concoction to remedy that: The website says to add a tablespoon of soap to a bowl of hot water (no exact amount specified) and hold your head over the boiling pot. I JetBoiled two cups of water and added half the amount of soap. Turns out, that was more than enough: When I held my congested head over the peppermint water, the smell slapped me in the face. It was so powerful that it was actually hard to breathe in the aroma. The smell lingered in my throat like Vicks Vaporub, but didn’t do much for my sinuses. If anything helped, it was probably the steam itself. I backpack in the desert mostly, so it mostly seemed like a waste of water. I’ll give it this, though: My JetBoil is all clean.
Dishes: Here is where the soap became a superstar. The dilution cheat sheet says to mix 1 part of soap in 10 parts of water for dish duty. I don’t backpack with a bucket or sink, so I just added a drop or two of soap into my bowl, poured in a splash of water, scrubbed out any remaining rice and bean crumbs, and rinsed. The soap worked well; my peanut butter oatmeal the next morning didn’t taste like the chili spices I ate in my burrito bowl the night before. The soap rinsed off easily, but even if it didn’t, the ingredients are safer to swallow (in trace amounts) compared to the chemical-based soaps I’ve used before.
Laundry: Dr. Bronner’s instructions are to add 1 tablespoon of soap in a gallon of cold water, and let the clothes swish and soak in it before rinsing with clean water. That sounds great for a full load of laundry, but in the backcountry, I only ever need to wash an outfit or two at a time. I brought a gallon ziplock bag and added a couple drops of soap, about a quart of water, my hiking shorts, shirt, sports bra, and socks. I swished everything around in the bag and let it soak for 10 minutes. I rinsed with more clean water and let the garments hang to dry. My clothes smelled much better and no longer had sweaty salt stains on them.
Toothpaste: I approached one of Dr. Bronner’s most notorious uses with a fair bit of trepidation: The company’s own website warns that its soap tastes like, well, soap. Heed my warning: use only one drop. Much more, and you’ll start foaming from the mouth. The peppermint taste was fine, but almost unnoticeable once I realized my mouth was so soapy. Even though it rinsed out as well as toothpaste does, I felt like I needed a chaser after. Maybe it’s one of those things that you grow accustomed to over time, but I think that the fact I went searching for a handful of gorp immediately after brushing my teeth is pretty counterintuitive. No amount of weight savings was worth that experience—I’ll stick with Crest on my future backpacking trips.
Floor cleaner: No, I didn’t mop the forest floor. But you know where else dirt goes? Pretty much every surface that you take outside, like my tent floor. At the end of my trip, I added a couple drops of soap onto a wet cloth and swiped it along my tent floor before packing it away. This worked pretty well—just make sure you use a non-abrasive sponge or washcloth to avoid scuffing the nylon. I also used the sudsy cloth to clean dirt patches off my backpack. Regular light cleanings lengthen your backpack’s lifespan, especially when coupled with deeper cleanings at the end of each season. The soap has the cleaning power to remove dirt and scum from your tent and backpack without tarnishing their finish.
Reading Material: Okay, this isn’t technically one of the uses that the company advertises, but even the 2-ounce bottle has enough text for a night’s reading material. The original bottle has the founder’s entire 3,000-word manifesto on humanity printed on it and an abridged version on the travel size. Thanks to the long-winded founder, you can also leave your book at home.
I went into this experiment to see if carrying a 2-ounce bottle of soap was better than carrying several individual cleaning products like wipes, toothpaste, and dish soap. For the most part, it was: I was able to press the soap into at least 7 solid different uses. (I’ll give the congestion remedy half a point, but I’m never using this stuff to brush my teeth ever again.) One side note: I’d choose unscented soap from now on. I really appreciated the extra space in my backpack, but by the end of the trip, I had was trailing a plume of mint fragrance behind me as I walked.