Hygiene Basics for Backwoods Campers

If you are camping or hiking backwoods trails, “clean” is a relative term. Without the comforts of home (like hot water, electricity, and your favorite hair dryer), you need to compromise on your usual level of hygiene.

However, you don’t need to throw basic rules of cleanliness completely out the window while you’re on the trail. Camping hygiene may not look exactly like your regular routine, but it’s still necessary to make you feel comfortable (and to keep you on good terms with fellow campers).

Spending days (or even weeks) without a designated restroom or a proper shower will take a toll on your level of personal cleanliness. Add in hours of afternoon hiking and nights spent around a blazing campfire, and you’re going to smell pretty bad by the end of your backwoods stay. 

The Importance of Off-Grid Hygiene

Maintaining at least a basic level of hygiene while camping is important. It will help you feel more relaxed and invigorated, plus your fellow campers will appreciate the gesture. 

However, proper hygiene is also important for overall health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) appropriate personal hygiene is essential for preventing the spread of certain hygiene-related diseases.

As fun as it is to go camping, there is always the risk of getting sick. This risk increases if you ignore basic hygiene. 

This article is designed to help you prepare for your next camping or hiking trip. With a little knowledge and preparation, you can enjoy your outdoor adventures without stressing about proper sanitation and hygiene. 

Camping Hygiene Essentials

Space comes at a premium when you’re camping (This is even truer when you are backpacking), so bringing every item from your at-home hygiene routine just isn’t practical.

Unless you are a true minimalist, you probably have several washing products like shampoo, conditioner, body wash, etc. You probably also use shaving cream, razors, toothbrush, mouthwash, dental floss, lotion, and deodorant as part of your personal care regimen. 

Lugging all that around in a backpack sounds like torture. Unless you like having back problems, you’re going to need to simplify your routine. 

Here are the absolute essentials of camping hygiene:

Hand Sanitizer

Compact, lightweight, and a germ’s worst nightmare, hand sanitizer is camping gold. Washing your hands with soap and hot water is almost impossible when you’re out in the woods, so a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer could literally save your life.

According to the CDC, several uncomfortable and dangerous illnesses can be prevented by simply washing your hands. These illnesses include Travelers’ Diarrhea, Norovirus, and Hand, Foot, and Mouth DIsease.

While a good hand-washing with soap and water is the best way to prevent these diseases, a dollop of hand sanitizer will do when there is no other option. 

Use hand sanitizer every time you go to the bathroom. It can also be used to sanitize your eating utensils.

Biodegradable Soap

When you wash your hands, dishes, or laundry at home, the bubbles from your soap and detergent get washed down the drain. From there, they typically travel to a wastewater treatment center where, through a complicated process, most of the harmful chemicals are removed before the water reaches the local ecosystem. 

When you are camping, however, every substance you rinse away enters the environment unfiltered. The fancy soaps and detergents you would typically use at home contain harmful chemicals that can pollute your campsite, the environment, and especially nearby water sources. 

One of the most dangerous chemicals in household soap products are phosphates. These chemicals produce the suds and bubbles you typically associate with soap. 

Although phosphates have a low toxicity, they have a negative impact on the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, phosphates cause nutrient overloads in water sources which can trigger dangerous algae blooms. These algae blooms prevent necessary light and water from entering the water. Algae blooms spawned by phosphates cause major imbalances in delicate ecosystems, killing off entire species within those systems. 

Instead of standard soap, choose a biodegradable option like Dr. Bronner’s or Campsuds . These soaps are made without dangerous phosphates. 

Biodegradable soaps are also multi-purpose, so you have less to pack. You can use one soap product for just about everything, including your body, hair, dishes, and laundry. 

Baby Wipes

Baby wipes are another camping godsend. When all else fails, a few wet wipes can clean up a myriad of messes. In a pinch, you can use wipes to wash your hands or get your body “camp clean.” Focusing on the stinky parts, use a few wipes to “wash” your armpits, feet, and privates after a long hot day on the trail. Your fellow campers will thank you.

When possible, choose unscented, biodegradable wipes for your outdoor adventures. Fragrances can attract bugs and bears. (Oh, my!) And if your wipes aren’t biodegradable, you’ll have to tote your used ones out to follow the Leave No Trace guidelines. 

Dental Care

A toothbrush and biodegradable toothpaste are also essential for camping hygiene. Not only is it important to follow good dental hygiene, brushing your teeth can do wonders for raising camping morale.

Leave the Deodorant at Home

Most serious campers and backpackers claim you don’t need deodorant. Not only does it take up precious pack space, the scent of most commercial deodorants attracts unwanted camp visitors like bugs and other wildlife (including bears!). Most deodorants and antiperspirants don’t prevent smelly human odor anyway. They just use chemical fragrances to cover it up.

Some people don’t mind the natural human smell that develops after a few days away from civilization. However, if you can’t handle the funk, choose a product designed for hunters. These specialized personal care products pride themselves in being undetectable by the sharp noses of wildlife. 

Keeping Your Body Clean When Camping

Even though you won’t have access to modern plumbing, that’s no excuse for being dirty. There are several great ways to keep your body clean while enjoying camping in the great outdoors.

Go for a Swim

A cool refreshing dip in a pond, lake, or river is a quick and enjoyable way to wash away sweat and dirt. Leave the soap at camp and choose a swimming spot away from where you collect water (preferably downstream). Standing water can harbor harmful bacteria, so when possible choose running water for your splash. 

Take a Trail Shower

You might think a nice warm shower is just a fantasy when far away from hot water and modern plumbing. However, taking a shower while you’re camping is a lot easier than you might think.

Shower systems designed specifically for camping come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Your options range from basic cold shower systems to solar showers that produce warm water. There are even portable hot water heater showers for serious camping luxury!

You can even make your own portable camp shower like shown in this helpful video from Hackables.

The Sponge Bath

If it’s too cold for showering or skinny dipping, you can always take a good old-fashioned sponge bath. Heat some water on your camp stove and use biodegradable soap and a cloth to wash up the important parts. 

There’s no need to get completely naked. You can actually wash your body in stages. This method is perfect for freezing weather. It is also a great option for campers who feel uncomfortable completely stripping down near other campers. 

You can also use your baby wipes for a quick sponge bath. 

Pro Camper Tip: Let your baby wipes dry before your camping trip. Then, rehydrate them on the trail. Backpackers will particularly appreciate this hack, because it saves a significant amount of pack weight. 

Tips for Keeping Yourself Clean

Because daily showers aren’t always practical when you’re camping away from the standard bathroom, here are a few things you can do to keep yourself, clean, healthy, and happy between showers or sponge baths.

Change Your Underwear

I don’t care how much pack space you think it will save, always have an extra pair of underwear. Clean underwear is the best way to prevent chafing and uncomfortable yeast infections. When you have at least two pairs, you can wash and dry one pair while you wear the other.

Be sure to change your underwear each day. If you’re in a bind and need clean undies, you can always flip your underwear and put them on inside out. Just don’t make this a habit.

Take Care of Your Feet

It is especially important to take care of your feet when you are backpacking. You’re going to be on those things all day, so you need to treat them nicely. 

Foot fungus is a sure-fire way to ruin a good hiking trip. And since athlete’s foot thrives in warm, moist environments, your hiking boots are prime fungal real estate. 

To prevent athlete’s foot or other itchy foot problems, be sure to:

  • Change your socks often. A clean pair before bed is highly recommended.
  • Wash your feet regularly with soap and water. 
  • Let your feet breathe. Take off your shoes and socks to let your feet get some fresh air. 
To prevent foot fungus, let your hiking boots breathe.

Change Your Clothes

Even though hygiene compromises are necessary when you’re camping, it doesn’t mean you should make too many. You might be tempted to wear the same clothes for days on end, but it isn’t healthy and it can make you feel miserable. 

Knowing when to change into clean clothes will not only keep you in good spirits, it will also help keep your camping gear clean. You should at least have clean clothes for sleeping. You don’t want the sweat and dirt you’ve accumulated through the day to end up in your sleeping bag. Not only is it uncomfortable to sleep with the dust and stench, wearing dirty clothes to bed creates the perfect conditions for developing an itchy rash.  

For longer camping trips, rotate your clothing just like your socks. Wear one set of clothing while you wash and dry the other. If you’re hiking, you can tie the wet clothes to the top of your backpack to dry while you’re hiking. Then you’ll have fresh clean clothes to change into when you set up camp that evening. 

Doing the Camp Laundry

Most people in the modern world have never washed clothes without a washer and dryer. Although not a concern for weekend campers, if you’re hiking, or camping for more than a couple of days, you’ll probably need to do the laundry. 

Fortunately, there are several options for washing clothes while camping.

Washing Clothes By Hand

To wash your clothes by hand, simply fill a container with water you’ve heated by the fire or on your camp stove. Add some biodegradable soap and your dirty laundry. Agitate the water with your hands and rub the clothing together under the water. 

Don’t be surprised if your laundry water doesn’t create a bunch of bubbles. Unlike standard laundry detergent, biodegradable soap doesn’t contain phosphates. Even though you won’t see loads of suds, it doesn’t mean the soap isn’t cleaning your clothes.

After you’ve scrubbed your clothing, rinse with clean water and wring as much excess water from the fabric as possible. Then hang until dry.

The Trash Bag Method

If you don’t want to scrub your clothes by hand, you can try this handy camper’s trick.

Put your clothes, some warm water, and biodegradable soap in a clean, heavy-duty trash bag. Tie off the trash bag, and jostle the bag around to simulate the wash cycle of a modern washing machine. 

After you drain your washing water, rinse your clean clothes with fresh water, and hang to dry.

Portable Camping Washing Machines

If hard labor isn’t really your thing, there are several portable laundry systems perfect for campers. 

Although you won’t be lugging one of these machines across mountain trails, they are convenient for car and campground camping. Some camping washing machines run on batteries or with a power socket adapter for your car’s cigarette lighter. However, most require human propulsion with a simple hand crank. 

Avoid Lakes and Streams

Even with biodegradable soap, you never want to wash your laundry in a lake or stream. The soap can have detrimental effects on the tiniest organisms living there. However, if the weather is warm and the water looks nice, there’s no reason not to jump in with your clothes on for a quick swim. Just leave the soap back at camp.

How to Go to the Bathroom While Camping

Even though you won’t find an actual bathroom in remote outdoor areas, you’ll still need to answer nature’s call from time to time. 

“How do you go to the bathroom in the woods?”

I get this question a lot from my non-camping friends. It seems like it should be a no-brainer. I mean, people have been peeing and pooping for millennia. Much longer than we’ve had actual bathrooms. 

For the uninitiated, taking care of bodily functions without the convenience of modern facilities can be scary.

But it doesn’t have to be. 

How to Pee in the Woods

Here are some basic tips and guidelines for peeing in the woods:

  • If you’re going to spend several days at a campsite, designate an area for “bathroom” purposes.
  • Avoid peeing in small bodies of water. Large rivers are fine because there is enough water to dilute the urine.
  • Try to pee in soft dirt as it will quickly absorb your urine, keeping it from running onto your shoes.
  • If you must squat to pee, take a good wide stance. Lean against a tree or squat over a log if it helps you keep your balance. 
  • Ladies may want to try a GoGirl pee funnel to help them pee standing up. This is especially helpful in cold weather or places with little privacy, because you won’t have to completely pull down your pants. Using a pee funnel takes a little practice, but isn’t hard to master. Be sure to wash your pee funnel frequently to avoid breeding bacteria. 

How to Poop in the Woods

Does a bear poop in the woods? You bet! And so do campers. Here are some quick tips for taking care of number two while you’re camping:

  • Don’t forget the hand sanitizer and biodegradable toilet paper. Use as little paper as possible. You can also use leaves to clean your bottom. The fresh kind are easier on your nether region.
  • Find an appropriate spot at least 70 steps from any trails, water sources, or your campsite.
  • Find some loose soil and dig a small hole at least 6-8 inches deep. A camp trowel will help.
  • After you do your duty in the hole you’ve dug, completely fill the hole with the dirt you dug up. 
  • Put a stick in the dirt or place a rock over the spot to prevent anyone else from digging a potty hole there. 

Carrying Out Your Waste

Some areas, especially those at high elevations or a great deal of hiking traffic, require you to pack out all solid human waste. Although unpleasant, it isn’t difficult if you know what you’re doing. 

Be sure to use leak-proof bags that can contain human waste. There are specific options for campers, including sealable, double-layer bags that contain a special gel for absorption. 

You will have to place these bags in your pack, so it’s a good idea to double bag, even if the bags are sealable. 

If you are camping near a vehicle, a five gallon bucket lined with an inserted waste bag makes an inexpensive and convenient toilet perfect for number two.

Final Thoughts

The call of the great outdoors is hard to ignore. Although dirt and sweat are a natural part of any good outdoor adventure, they can also make you uncomfortable and even potentially make you sick.

Although it may take more effort than it would at home, staying clean while camping isn’t impossible. With some basic planning and a little know-how, taking care of your personal hygiene while camping is actually pretty easy.

If you follow the basic camping hygiene tips laid out here, you can stay clean and healthy while experiencing the freedom, peace, and serenity that comes with venturing off the well-beaten path. 


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