Have you ever been on a pleasant day hike with your family? You have a water bottle, maybe a small backpack with sunblock and a snack or two for the kids. The weather is perfect with sunny, gentle temperatures. You are simply enjoying these few hours on the weekend, not worrying about the work week rush, connecting with nature when you are struck by a striking smell.
‘What is that…’ you begin to ask your hiking crew, when you see them. The sight stops you mid-pondering. They are clothed in worse for wear clothes complete with unexplained stains, and their legs reveal interesting tan lines you get the feeling are not from the sun. You wave hello timidly as you pass them on the trail while they stop to lean on trekking poles with a big pack which seems to you like overkill for a couple hours hiking trip. That’s when it hits you. You have finally seen the enchanted and mysterious creature you’ve read about in outdoor articles and on adventure blog posts.
You have met a thru hiker.
Thru hiking and hygiene don’t usually go hand in hand. The reality is, when you spend months on a trail, carrying your home on your back, dirt becomes a bedfellow you stop even noticing after a while. Dirt simply becomes forever etched along your skin unmoving between folds and wrinkles. And although I will admit that cleanliness expectations must be lowered when camping, you can still maintain some healthy habits even when on day 52 without a proper scrub.
Here are some tips, tricks, and expert advice on backpacking personal hygiene.
Basic Hygiene Kit
If you have backpacked or hiked or wrangled any type of child – even the adult ones – you may have purchased or assembled your own traditional medical First Aid Kit. It may contain Band-Aids for any cuts, a tube of antibiotic cream for infection, maybe some pain killer medication and a roll of gauze wrap.
But have you ever considered carrying a Hygiene Kit? Similar to a First Aid Kit, the hygiene version holds all the basic needs you may need on a daily basis to keep yourself healthy. Although the contents will vary from person to person, here is a breakdown of some foundational items to start your very own Hygiene Kit.
- Toothbrush: A toothbrush is vital but toothpaste is not. Pro Tip: Cut off the handle to make it easier to pack. A bright color will help you not lose it.
- Baking Soda: Remember how I said to ditch the toothpaste? Baking soda is why. Although long term having a fluoride toothpaste is better protection against cavities, baking soda will clean your teeth to squeaky clean. Another positive is baking soda will not damage the natural ecosystem of the trail like toothpaste will. Baking soda will also come in handy as an armpit deodorant option. Baking soda neutralizes bacteria and keeps the stink away. And if all of that is not enough, use baking soda as a dry shampoo to get rid of oil from your hair.
- Cotton Bandanas: This simple piece of cloth is so versatile and important. Dot soap on it as a soft and light rag. Douse it in baking soda to make for a deodorant application. Bring two and have a pee rag. I know that last bit sounds gross but not carrying and leaving toilet paper is a major issue in the wilderness. A bandana will not only keep you squeaky clean down there but keep nature clean as well. Not feeling a bandanna? Check out the product Kula Cloth for beautiful pee rag options.
- Biodegradable Soap: If you want clean, you want soap. But you also want soap that does not have toxins that will contaminate water sources. Popular and good for you and the environment options are:
- Plastic Tub: Having a tub with a lid comes in handy for collecting water from a water source. Then you can bring it to a safe distance from the river, stream or lake to wash. Try reusing an old sour cream or cottage cheese bin which will be the perfect lightweight option.
- Plastic Bag: This bag is the perfect, flexible vessel to carry your Hygiene Kit in.
When You Just Need a Shower
After a while, even with all the little hygiene tricks you get to a point where you just can not go another day without a shower. And preferably a long, hot, waterfall fancy one with a soaking tub. I can not guarantee that luxurious experience but here are some options to look for when backpacking when the wet wipes just stop cutting it.
- Established Campgrounds: Many campgrounds boast amenities such as power, water, and, you guessed it, showers! Even if you are not spending the night at one of the campground or RV sites you can still ask the camp hosts if you can utilize their restrooms. Be prepared however, most showers are coin operated and come with a time limit.
- Trail Angels: The triple crown long trails as well as other long distance thru hikes have a community of support behind them known as Trail Angels. These are volunteers who help maintain the trail, fill water caches, and offer rides to town. Some Trail Angels will even be kind enough to let you use their homes to clean off, do laundry, and get a night’s sleep. But be very cautious and trust your gut. Never go alone if possible.
- Stream Bathing: Take a step back in time with a good old creek washing. Although lakes look inviting, a stream or river are your best bet since they are rushing and can get you nice and rinsed. Look for a nice rock to perch your clothes on and make that vital choice to go nude or not nude. It definitely is an experience that will make you feel alive. The most important part of this bathing option is to make sure you use environmentally friendly and biodegradable soap.
- When you are washing, finding, or spitting do it 200 feet from your campsite. Your wash water will attract wild animals to your tent home.
- Dry out clothes and socks when you can during hiking breaks. By laying the articles on your pack the sun’s UV rays will dry and sanitize your items.
- Wear wool socks. Not only does wool stop blisters it is a natural antibacterial material.
- As much as you can try to change your clothes right before bed. I know this is difficult since on cold camp nights you may want to wear all your clothing. Having base layers just for sleep helps you feel less grungy and get a better night’s rest.
- When picking your soap options go with unscented. In fact avoid all perfumes to make sure you are not attracting furry trail mates to say hi.
Honestly, you will never feel super clean when backpacking. Wet wipe baths, quarter showers, and all the baby powder galore can not get you that scrubbed clean feeling. But embracing the dirt is really part of the fun of camping. No grime – No fun!
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.