Camping is full of many wonderful things. When you go camping you are given access to fresh air without the city’s grim quality. You are exercising to keep your body strong and healthy. Camping is proven to reduce stress and get you out of your negative mood. It can reconnect you with friends and loved ones as well as connect with yourself as you reconnect with nature.
Camping and backpacking have so many benefits to give. But one gift you probably could do without is the filth. A few days spent underneath the stars in the wild can leave you feeling incredibly dirty. And hygiene really can be a challenge when you are backpacking in the middle of the wilderness. Luckily bathing in streams or lakes is one way to combat the dirt. A daily rinse can do wonders even if it’s a sponge bath versus a full on soak. And using a biodegradable soap will make you feel even better because you will be helping yourself and the environment.
What Exactly Is Biodegradable Soap?
Biodegradable is a popular term to look for when looking for eco-friendly green practices. The meaning of biodegradable is, in layman’s terms, when the environment can naturally break down a substance without any added chemicals or machines.
A biodegradable soap follows that general idea. A soap is generally considered to be biodegradable as long as at least 90% of the soap is able to break down into water, carbon dioxide and natural biological material. All of this decomposition of the soap must also occur within six months of being discarded.
Many of today’s commercial soaps have added fragrances, harsh detergents, surfactants, and water conditioners that negatively affect plants and wildlife when they are deposited. These harmful toxins find their way into a river or stream even if you sponge bath on soil.
Why Switch Over?
I agree that biodegradable soap tends to be more expensive than dollar bargain options, tougher to find in the supermarket, and you may not achieve the truly clean feeling you are familiar with. But, even with all those cons, there are pros to switching over with so many benefits.
Since most biodegradable soap is in bar form you can help stop the alarming amount of plastic bottles that hit the ocean. Many of the commercial soap options are packaged in plastic bottles that are not even recyclable! Even when they are recyclable material, did you know only 9% of plastic is recycled? That means 91% is tossed to make its way to landfills and our oceans. Besides doing your own part to recycle, limiting the amount of plastic consumed is a way to battle pollution.
Speaking of ocean life, soap suds no matter where you bathe have the potential to eventually end up in lakes, rivers, and oceans. A synthetic based chemical used in commercial detergents breaks the surface tension of water and lowers the oxygen level. What this means is the oxygen level is reduced which makes getting around the chemicals and up to the surface difficult for marine life. Phosphates found in commercial soaps are also connected to causing freshwater algal blooms. These blooms release toxins and ultimately deplete oxygen for aquatic life. They are dangerous for dogs and humans as well.
Not only are these chemicals commonly used in the soaps we use to wash ourselves bad for fish, they can be bad for your skin as well! If you have sensitive skin you are likely to have some sort of allergic reactions to the toxic chemicals. A naturally produced biodegradable soap is a wonderful alternative for sensitive skin since it lacks any harsh ingredients and is a much more gentle wash.
Now that you know why you should switch over, what are the best biodegradable soaps to switch over to?
- Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap: This liquid soap comes in a recyclable bottle and is made with all natural, organic ingredients. There are no synthetic preservatives, no detergents and no foaming agents. Another great thing about Dr. Bonner’s company is its dedication to fair trade practices. They only work with fair trade suppliers with fair price wage conditions for farmers. They seek regenerative organic farming practices that enrich soil, increase biodiversity, and help combat climate change. You can find Dr. Bronner Pure/Castile Liquid Soap at your local Whole Foods Market or online. You can also find Dr. Bronner’s in bar form for easy packing.
- Sea to Summit Pocket Hand Wash: These small pockets of biodegradable soap options are perfect to slide into your backpacking pack. Each container contains 50 leaves of organic, toxin free, biodegradable dry soap. They have a light green tea fragrance and you can choose from Body Wash, Conditioning Shampoo, Hand Wash, Laundry Wash, and Shaving Soap. They are TSA approved if you find yourself flying and are not harmful to the environment while following Leave No Trace practices. You can find Sea to Summit Pocket Hand Wash either online or at REI.
- Coleman Camp Soap Sheets: Similar to the Sea to Summit Pocket Hand Wash, the Coleman Camp Sheets are great, compact soap options. Each easily packed container has 50 leaves of lightweight and biodegradable camp soap. They are a tad more affordable than Sea to Summit Pocket Hand Wash and can be purchased at most outdoor stores.
- Campsuds: This is the only concentrated soap option on this list. All you need is a few drops added to hot, cold or even salt water to lather up a nice scrub. This soap is versatile for not only your skin but your dishes, clothes, and hair as well! Ingredients include purified water, vegetable-based biodegradable anionic and non-ionic cleaning agents, natural fragrance, oils and germaben. The bottle is durable and recyclable. You can find Campsuds at REI, Walmart, Cabela’s as well as online.
Make Your Own!
You can actually make your own biodegradable soap right at home. To make about three pounds of soap, you will need:
- 16 ounces olive oil
- 9.6 ounces coconut oil
- 6.4 ounces soybean oil
- 4.5 ounces lye (sodium hydroxide)
- 11 ounces water
As well as:
- Safety gloves
- Safety goggles
- Soap pot
- Kitchen scale
- Glass pitcher
- Mason jar with lid
- Plastic pitcher with lid
- Measuring cups
- Stick blender
First you mix the water and lye. Slowly add the lye to the pitcher of water. It is important to not do it the other way around. Stir the mixture gently until the lye is dissolved. As you carefully stir the mixture will heat up. Immediately rinse the tool you used to mix, put the lid on the lye-water pitcher and set it in a safe place.
Next place the soap-making pot with the solid oils on the stove over medium-low heat. Slowly melt the oils while stirring gently. When the temperature gets to about 110 degrees Fahrenheit turn off your heat source but keep stirring until all the solid oils are melted. Add the room temperature liquid oils to the soap pot which will bring down the overall temperature. When the oil mixture cools to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit then you add the lye-water.
The oils will immediately start to turn cloudy. With the stick blender turned off, blend the lye-water into the oils. This is the beginning of the saponification process or the chemical reaction that turns your mixture into soap. Slowly start to turn on the blender in short bursts starting with 3 to 5 seconds each blend. Keep blending in short bursts until the oils and lye-water are completely mixed. At this point, your soap mix is nearing trace, which is the indication that emulsification has occurred.
A way to test if the mixture has reached trace is to dip a spoon into the mixture and let it dribble back into the pot. If this process leaves a track on the spoon, the mixture is ready regardless of the thickness. With the blender this will occur within a few minutes. At this point you can add some fragrance to your biodegradable soap with some essential oils such as lavender or lemon.
When the soap has thickened and you have your additives in, start to pour the raw soap into a mold, using a back and forth motion to spread the soap evenly. Gently tap the mold on the countertop to dislodge air bubbles that may have been trapped in the mixture. After, simply place the soap mold in a warm, safe place to set up and begin curing. The soap mixture on its own will heat up as the saponification process starts. If the temperature of the room is chilly, lay a towel around or over the mold to keep it warm and keep the reaction going strong.
After about 24 hours, your biodegradable soap should be hard enough to unmold and slice. The soap is technically safe to use, but for best results allow it to cure it for about four weeks before use.
When washing in the backcountry you must always use Leave No Trace practices, even if you are washing with an eco-friendly biodegradable soap. You should not use any soap of any kind in any natural water source such as a stream, river, lake or pond. When you are ready to wash yourself, your laundry, or your dishes, start with filling a bucket or container with water from your water source. Carry the water at least 200 feet away from streams or lakes to set up your washing station. You only need to use a tiny amount of biodegradable soap since a little can go a long way with these options. After washing up, dig a cat hole that is 6 to 8 inches deep, maintaining at least 200 feet distance from natural water. Then pour wastewater into a cat hole to bury it.
A biodegradable soap will not harm or affect the environment and within 6 months leave no evidence that it was ever introduced. Disposal is simple, easy, and loving to the environment.
There you have it! All the reasons why switching to biodegradable soap is the best way to care for yourself and the environment while camping. Pro tip: Unscented biodegradable soap is recommended if you find yourself in bear country. Strong odors found in scented soap can attract wildlife such as bears.
Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her tall one husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would be a forever home for all of them they were able to adopt their daughter buckets and are legal guardians of their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus.