Hygiene is still important in the backcountry.
Hygiene is still important in the backcountry. (Photo: iStockphoto)
Gear Guy

The Gear You Need to Stay Clean(ish) in the Backcountry

The tools and strategies you need to maintain proper hygiene on long camping trips

Washing up in a pristine lake after a long day of hiking in the Sierra Nevadas

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Sure, everyone lets their normal hygiene ritual slip a bit in the backcountry. That’s part of the fun and freedom of it, right? But there’s still a cleanliness bar to clear if you’re going to stay happy and healthy. For tips on how to hit that baseline, I called up several outdoor pros who’ve dialed in their habits over years spent in the backcountry. Here’s what they said.

Be Consistent

Just like at home, trail hygiene should be a repetitive action. You need to force yourself to take care of the basics every day. Ultrarunner Mike Foote says he always carries a brush and toothpaste and brushes his teeth in the morning and at night, even when he’s exhausted during the middle of a multiday trail race. Having clean teeth is a morale booster, and it ensures his teeth won’t rot from all the sugary food he consumes. “My teeth are the only thing that feels clean on my whole body on day nine,” says Foote.

Keep Your Tools Separate and Clean

Charlie Ebbers, an Outside fellow and veteran trail crew boss in Glacier National Park, stores his toothbrush in a Crown Royal bag instead of a Ziploc so it can air out and dry. A toothbrush locked in a plastic bag can quickly get funky. Ebbers also keeps his toothbrush separate from other hygiene tools so they don’t infect one another.

Wash Your Hands

Using hand sanitizer on the trail is easy, but Ebbers avoids that quick fix and washes his hands instead, especially after using the bathroom and before meals. Over seven years in Glacier National Park, he’s found that washing is a much better way to keep people healthy, because soap, water, and a good scrub do a better job of removing bacteria.

Take Care of Your Nails

Bacteria can hide under your nails, so in addition to frequent hand washing, Ebbers keeps his nails short with clippers and file. (He likes the clippers from Revlon.) If you keep your nails short, there’s also less of a chance they’ll get torn or ripped off, which is painful and can expose your hands to infection.

Keep Your Feet Dry and Socks Clean

When you’re on the trail, your feet spend all day in a dark, warm, damp environment—a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. To prevent infections and rot, Ebbers takes off his boots during lunch to let them air out, and then tries to completely dry his boots each night. He also switches his merino wool socks every day and washes the used pair so they’re clean for the next switch.

Only Bathe in the River When Appropriate

Jason Grubb, outreach manager at Leave No Trace, a nonprofit that educates people about outdoor ethics, says if you’ll be camping by a river, read up on local policies about whether it’s OK to clean yourself in the water. If you can’t find anything specific, here’s the rule of thumb: in larger rivers, like the Colorado, it usually creates less stress on the environment if you bathe in the river with biodegradable soap. In smaller rivers—1,000 cfs or less—it’s better to fill a bucket with water and bathe with biodegradable soap at least 200 feet away from the river. Grubb says it’s a bad idea to bathe in any high-alpine lakes because all the bug repellant and sunscreen you’re wearing can contaminate the water. If you want to go for a swim, wash off away from the shore before jumping in.

Dispose of Body Waste Properly

Grubb says people should pee away from camp and water sources, but he doesn’t classify urine as a major health or ecological concern. Poop is a different story. “There are over 100 known pathogens in human waste, which we want to make sure we are keeping out of water sources and the environment in general,” Grubb says. He suggests being 200 feet from rivers, lakes, and your camp. Once you’ve identified a spot, he then suggests digging a hole six to eight inches deep. You don’t have to pack out your toilet paper—some studies are showing that it biodegrades faster than your poop—but make sure the paper and poop are buried and covered well. Feminine hygiene products should be packed out.

Wash Your Face with Hot Water

Erik Sol, an outdoor leadership teacher at Southern Oregon University, goes an extra step and washes his face with warm water, even when he’s way into the backcountry. “You can heat up water almost anywhere, even while you are mountaineering,” Sol says. The warm water does a better job or removing sunscreen, sweat, and bug spray, and it’s a small luxury.

Bring Wet Wipes

In the most dire situations, where you can’t bathe in a river or heat water to wash your face, a wet wipe does the trick. Kyle Allred, a physician’s assistant and guide, has led clients on floats and treks on three continents and says that even one wipe is enough to get the grime off your face, hands, and feet.

Sleep in a Clean Base Layer and Underwear

It’s a bad idea to sleep in the same base layer and underwear you’ve been wearing all day. Clean extra clothes add weight and take up space, but they’ll keep your body fresher and reduce your chances for infection. Tip: if you don’t want to carry extra weight, and the temperature and audience allow for it, you have our permission to sleep naked.

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