Clean, Green Backcountry Hygiene

February 24, 2017
backcountry hygiene
Ryan SmithWashing with eco-friendly soap is just one aspect of smart backcountry hygiene.

Stepping into the backcountry means leaving behind your cushy standards for immaculate hygiene. That doesn’t mean you should sacrifice health or basic cleanliness while camping or backpacking. It just means you need to understand what really matters—and how to stay clean in the most eco-friendly way possible.

Handy Tips
Dirty hands are a primary cause of gastrointestinal distress, especially if you eat or prepare food with unwashed fingers. To minimize the risk, carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer and use it regularly, especially after a bathroom squat in the woods. Look for alcohol-based hand sanitizers that don’t contain antibacterial compounds, such as triclosan or triclocarban, which are toxic to aquatic life.

Soap Dos and Don’ts
Do you really need soap on a camping or backpacking trip? For many hikers and campers, the answer is no. You can keep yourself (and your dishes) sufficiently clean without it, even on longer trips. If you do use it, purchase an eco-friendly option and understand the proper way to use and dispose of it.

First, avoid soaps and detergents that contain surfactants and phosphates: common and long-lived ingredients in many household products that boost algal growth in water sources. (As with hand sanitizers, avoid soaps that contain antibacterial agents.)

Choose biodegradable camp soaps instead. A slew of options are available from brands such as Campsuds, Sea to Summit, and the iconic Dr. Bronner’s line of organic soaps. Biodegradable soaps will break down entirely over time—but only if properly disposed in soil. Never use biodegradable soap directly in water sources, such as streams or lakes.

Instead, dig a small hole at least 200 feet from the nearest water source and drain your soapy water into it. Also know that most camp soaps are very concentrated. You need only a few drops to induce sufficient suds and lather for washing.

Rinse Cycle
When washing off or freshening up in the backcountry, you can:

  1. Jump in a lake or a river to rinse off—again, no soap in the water!
  2. Carry a lightweight camp shower: typically a glorified sack with a small tube and a nozzle (or a twig directing the flow of water, as in the photo at left) that you hang from a tree, away from water sources.
  3. Use wipes to freshen up key areas of stink, funk, and grime. (You know where they are.) Baby wipes are useful and lightweight; thicker bath wipes cover a lot more ground. Just remember to pack out those soiled wipes. Or dedicate a bandana to your wipe-down needs.

Backcountry Brushing
You’ll want to keep your pearly whites clean and fresh, which means carrying a toothbrush and a small amount of toothpaste. (Try to find one without artificial sweeteners, preservatives, or colors, like Tom’s of Maine.) Keep in mind that only a small amount of toothpaste is required for a quality brush.

After brushing, the proper Leave No Trace technique is to walk at least 200 feet from your campsite and the nearest water source and to broadcast your spit by blasting it out of your mouth into as many fine particles as possible—a.k.a. the eco-spray.


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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.