Keep it Clean: Low-Impact Backcountry Hygiene

June 22, 2011

In 25 years of backpacking, I’ve never once carried soap. Gross, you say? Not really. I have never become sick from unsanitary camp conditions. The fact is, if you are careful with your toilet routine (a topic for another day), water-rinse hands of sunscreen and other residue (particularly before handling food), and you scrub dishes with warm water before they crust over, you can stay pretty clean without suds. Besides a small dab of toothpaste, my one nod to real-world hygiene is antibacterial wipes, which I use before handling my contact lenses and pack out as trash.

“If you can get away with not using soap, why not?” says Ben Lawhon, educational coordinator of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. After all, part of the joy of camping is leaving behind your workaday routine—and the showering, shampooing, moussing, shaving, and deodorizing that go along with it. But traveling sans cleansers isn’t for everyone, and soap is only part of the story. Here are some basic techniques to minimize your impact on the outdoors while keeping yourself clean.

To read more about Leave No Trace principles, visit

Rinse—Before Rinsing
Pristine pools and babbling brooks can call you with a cool siren song after a hot day of backpacking. Most of the time it’s fine to go ahead and swim, says Alex DeLucia, AMC’s Leave No Trace program coordinator. But before plunging into the refreshing oasis, carry a bottle of water 200 feet away and rinse your body of sunscreen and bug repellants, the residues of which contaminate water sources and can harm plants, fish, and other wildlife. Even after rinsing, you may be polluting the water a bit. “You shouldn’t take a dip if the water source is small or limited,” DeLucia says, since you would be contaminating your camp’s drinking water.

The Dope On Soap
Never use soap—even the biodegradable kind—in water sources. “It’s the biggest mistake I see people make,” says DeLucia. “People think, ‘It’s Dr. Bronner’s, so I can jump in the pond and wash my hair.'”

All soaps can cause problems in water sources, from increased nitrogen to decreased surface tension, which harm aquatic life, Lawhon says. The term “biodegradable” means that soil bacteria will eventually break down the soap, not that it will have no ecological impact. Even Campsuds, a staple soap for backpackers, instructs on its bottle: “Use 200 feet away from lakes and streams.” Also, it almost goes without saying, use the smallest amount you need.

Be Hands-On
“If there’s one aspect of your body to keep clean, it’s your hands,” says DeLucia, who once earned the nickname “Squeaky” for his camp hygiene habits on volunteer training trips. When backpacking in a group, he sets up a hand-washing station of a small bottle of biodegradable soap and a hanging water bladder. With a sump (a rock-filled hole) underneath to catch the run-off, soapy residue can be buried and allowed to decompose. Handling food, sharing a pocketknife, and plunging hands into bags of trail mix can spread germs like wildfire. To prevent illness in your group, wash hands regularly, and pour trail mix out into your palm instead of reaching in the bag. If you don’t bother with soap, at least use hand sanitizer, which kills surface bacteria, though it doesn’t actually clean your hands.

Let Us Spray
In terms of Leave No Trace, experts say it doesn’t matter what kind of toothpaste you use, standard or “natural.” It’s the spitting that’s important. If your campsite has a designated dishwashing station or fire pit, spit there in order to limit your impact to an already soiled area. If you are in a pristine area, spread your impact by having the members of your group spit in different places. DeLucia recommends using the “broadcast method” of spewing a wide, fine spray “like an elephant,” he says. It’s a technique especially fun for kids. Keep in mind, though, that spreading your spittle also spreads odor, and might attract wildlife, says Lawhon. He recommends spitting normally, and away from your tent, especially if you’re in bear country.

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