September 10, 2021 10 min read

A foray into the woods often means you’ll get sweaty, grimy, and even straight-up smelly. But just because you’re in the wild doesn’t mean you have to ignore personal hygiene. After all, nobody enjoys going to bed sticky with sweat after a grueling hike. Simple backpacking hygiene like washing up and staying clean will help you feel fresh, happy, and more confident while also keeping illnesses away.

Without a constant water supply, backpackers must be a little more creative when it comes to staying clean. So, be ready to make some compromises. This article will cover how you can maintain your personal hygiene during overnight backpacking adventures and how you can do so without creating an environmental impact.

Here’s what we will discuss:

Backpacking Hygiene Essentials Checklist

When you are putting together your backpacking checklist, don’t forget these hygiene essentials:

  • Unscented alcohol-based hand sanitizer: This will be your most commonly used item, and it will help you avoid ingesting bacteria that can make you sick. You should sanitize before you eat, after meals, and after every bathroom break. Keep a small bottle on you for quick access.
  • Biodegradable soap: Reduce the number of bottles you’ll need to carry with you by bringing one product that does everything. Pack a multi-purpose biodegradable soap for washing your items and cleaning your body.
  • Extra water: If you plan to camp in a place that doesn’t have a nearby source of water, bring extra water. You’ll use it to wash underwear, socks, and bras and to clean yourself.
  • Dental products: Bring a folding or short-handled toothbrush and a travel-size toothpaste to cut weight and save space. Alternatively, carry some mouthwash.
  • Cotton bandana or washcloth: Get a cotton bandana or a quick-dry washcloth for giving yourself a quick wash if you don’t have the time or means to shower. 
  • Unscented moist towelettes or baby wipes: If you are backpacking in a dry region or where water is scarce, wet wipes will help you freshen up. Remember to pack them out even if they are labeled biodegradable. 
  • Toilet paper and a small plastic bag: Remove the cardboard of the toilet paper, pack a sizable roll depending on the days you’ll spend outdoors, and place it in a small plastic bag, such as a Ziploc.
  • Pee rag: Pack a pee rag to wipe yourself. Look for a rag that has an anti-microbial fabric or a cloth you can reuse multiple times a day without risking infection.
  • Camp trowel: This small shovel can be used to dig a cathole whenever you need to relieve yourself. (More on this later.)
  • A gallon-size plastic bag for laundry: If you plan to spend multiple days in the backcountry, bring along a gallon-size plastic bag for your dirty laundry.
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent: While these items aren’t exactly hygiene products, they will help you stay comfortable and even protect you from illnesses.
  • Change of clothes: Be sure to pack extra clothes for camp plus extra socks and underwear.
  • Sleeping bag liner: Packing a liner for your sleeping bag will keep it clean, free of smell, and also extend its life.

If you want to bring all your personal backpacking hygiene items without weighing down your backpack, invest in lightweight gear that packs small. An ultralight synthetic sleeping bag will provide sufficient warmth and comfort and pack to the smallest size possible. Throw in a quality inflatable sleeping pad and you won’t have to wake up with numb hips each time you sleep outdoors. 

Items to Leave at Home

  • Deodorant has a strong smell that will attract all sorts of wildlife, from insects to bears.
  • Perfume will attract wildlife and may irritate other campers.
  • Shampoo is not good for the environment, even if it’s all-natural.
  • Razors just aren't necessary. If you’re backpacking for just a few nights, shaving can wait.
  • Mirrors are clunky and can easily break and damage other items in your pack.
  • Non-degradable or disposable products pollute the environment, are bulky, and you’ll have to carry them out.

Keeping Your Hands Clean

Make sure you give your hands a good squirt of alcohol-based hand sanitizer after going to the bathroom, changing a sanitary product, cleaning yourself with a wet wipe, before cooking, and before eating. Also, remember that hand sanitizer is not as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

Most backpackers blame trail diseases on contaminated water, but often, hand-to-mouth infection is usually the cause. Wash your hands with soap and a little water after taking a poo and before having a meal. Also, fingernails can trap a lot of dirt and hide bacteria, so trim them before you head outdoors.

Taking Care of Your Feet

Washing your feet and giving them the chance to breathe will help them stay fresh and ready to take on long treks. It also keeps them from getting itchy or growing fungus. Use these tips:

  • Always have two or three pairs of sockstwo for hiking and one for sleeping or relaxing at camp. Switch your hiking socks every day, wash the dirty pair, and let them dry on the back of your backpack.
  • When you get to the campsite, take off your shoes, wash your feet, and let them dry completely before putting on sandals or fresh camp socks.
  • When taking longer resting breaks along the trail, take your shoes off for a few minutes to give your feet a chance to breathe. If possible, dunk them in a cold stream or lake.
  • Treat hotspots immediately. Decrease friction to the area by tightening your shoelaces or using a piece of tape to cover the area. If the blister skin breaks, use alcohol wipes and antibiotic ointment to treat the affected area and dress it with a non-adherent bandage. Make sure your first aid kit has these items.

How to Shower When Backpacking

Taking a shower isn’t always straightforward when you decide to camp in the wild. But after a sweaty and grimy day on the trail, you still need some proper scrubbing to get your body ready for the next day's challenge. There are several options for showering while camping, such as:

Taking a Sponge Bath  

Sponge bathing is one of the most common showering methods when camping outdoors. It saves water and time, and it protects the natural environment.

  • First, find a discrete location at least 70 steps away from any lakes, streams, or rivers.
  • Warm some water using your camp stove, use it to wet your quick-dry washcloth, and apply a small amount of soap.
  • Strip down and start washing a section of your body at a time, starting with your face going downwards.
  • After each body section, rinse the cloth, then wet and soap it again. Do this until you wash all body parts.
  • To avoid chafing and fungus, pay special attention to your face, armpits, groin area, behind your knees, and feet.
  • When you’re done, be sure to dispose of any leftover soapy water away from lakes and streams.

Getting in a Lake or River

If you're camping near or have access to a river, stream, or lake, take a cool swim in it. On hot and sunny days, this is a great and refreshing option for maintaining your hygiene while backpacking. It will rid your body of sweat and dirt. 

However, do not lather up with soap and shampoo, then jump in the water to clean off. Any soap will contaminate the water. Remember that other campers may also want to use that water for drinking or fishing. Also, don't dip yourself in small streams or low-volume bodies of water, as you can harm delicate plants and animals.

Using a Portable Shower

This method will make you feel like you're taking a regular shower. But the downside is it's gear-intensive, and it’s only practical when you’re camping near a water source. You need a backpacking shower device, which is essentially a large but compact bag that you fill with water. 

Use the bag to collect water from a river, locate a good branch at least 200 feet away from the water source, and hang the device overhead. Gravity will create the water pressure you need. However, the flow rate is pretty low, and the bag can’t hold a lot of water, so be quick!

Whichever bathing method you choose, dry yourself with a small quick-dry towel, put on fresh underwear, and wash the dirty one. If you’re hiking in an area where water is scarce, you can turn your undies inside out and wear them the following day.

How to Go to the Bathroom in the Woods

It’s common to hear backpackers going as long as a week without pooping because of being uncomfortable with the process. Some women hikers also try to avoid peeing in the woods by dehydrating themselves. But be warned: ignoring or postponing the call of nature can have some nasty consequences. 

Holding your urine can cause urinary tract infections and involuntary leakage. On the other hand, delaying a bowel movement can cause extreme discomfort, chronic constipation, and vomiting, things you wouldn’t want to experience on the trail.

Here's how to make relieving yourself easy, clean, and environmentally friendly.

Peeing in the Backcountry 

First, locate a generally private area away from other hikers. Preferably behind a tree or large rock and at least 200 feet away from water sources. If you’re a guy, just go about the business in the usual standup way.

Women have several options. You can squat it out and use a pee rag to wipe your nether regions. Remember that just a few drops of pee in your undies can leave you smelly, so take your time to wipe carefully. And make sure you clean your rag in the evening.

Alternatively, you can pee while standing using a pee funnel. This female urination device comes in handy if you’re using a trail with no trees or huge rocks that offer privacy. You also don't have to deal with splashback, squatting with a heavy backpack, or worry about exposing yourself to the elements.

When choosing a pee funnel, look for a device that has a good seal, a large funnel space, and is easy to clean. After doing your business, give yourself a quick wipe and rinse the funnel with a small amount of water. This technique takes practice, so learn how to use the funnel at home before your trip.

Lastly, if you are menstruating, be sure to pack feminine products in a sealable plastic bag to carry it out.

toilet paper

Pooping in the Backcountry

Going number two in the woods is a cause of major anxiety for many backpackers. However, once you get used to it, it's no longer intimidating. You’ll need to bring a camp trowel and a small plastic bag. Locate a private spot at least 200 feet away from a water source and make sure it’s in an area where other backpackers are unlikely to walk or camp. 

Use your trowel (or if you don't have one, you can use a stick) to dig a cathole that’s at least 6-8 inches deep and 6 inches wide. Once do your business, backfill the hole with the soil you dug out, then place a rock on top to disguise the spot. Burying your poop will ensure no hiker will come across it accidentally and it prevents it from washing into nearby water bodies and transmitting diseases to humans and animals. 

You can pack out the used tissue paper in the plastic bag. After finishing, wash your hands thoroughly and sanitize.

Caring for Your Clothes While Backpacking

Washing your hiking clothes isn’t an issue for those camping for a few nights. You can just keep your dirty clothing in a trash bag and then clean them when you return home. But for anyone on a longer sojourn in the backcountry, laundry has to be done at some point. Sleeping in dirty gear not only soils your sleeping bag, but it can also cause rashes on your body. Here's some clothing tips for the trail:

How to Wash Your Clothes on the Trail

To keep your clothes clean and smelling fresh when you have no access to washing facilities, use the following steps:

  • Place your dirty clothes in the gallon-size plastic bag, and add water and soap.
  • This cleaning process uses friction, so make sure you leave enough space for the clothes to move around in the bag. 
  • Seal the bag and shake it vigorously for five to 10 minutes.
  • Dump out the water at least 200 feet away from any water body.
  • Refill the bag with clean water, seal it, shake it up, and pour out the water. 
  • For quick drying, wring your clothes and then hang them to dry overnight.
  • If they aren’t dry by morning, tie them to the top of your pack if you’re still hiking.
  • If you’ll be on the trail for an extended period and you need to wash your dirty hiking boots, check out this guide on cleaning outdoor footwear.

Pro tip: Make a habit of changing and washing your underwear and socks every night. That way, they’ll have time to dry and be ready for the next day.

camping clothesline

Cooking Hygiene When Backpacking

Using a dirty bowl or pot is not only gross but can also expose you to illnesses. Here are some essential camp kitchen hygiene tips:

  • After a meal, remove any leftovers in the bowl and cooking pot.
  • Pour hot water into the bowl or pot and scrub to break up any food particles.
  • Rinse the dishes and lay them out to dry.
  • Alternatively, you can use sand or river pebbles to get the same effect as rubbing steel wool, then rinse with clean water.
  • To dispose the wastewater, dig a hole away from the campsite and any water sources, being careful to prevent any food particles from falling into the hole. Then bury the dishwater.
  • Pack food waste in a leakproof bag and dump it when you get home.

Important Dental Hygiene

Bad breath and tooth decay don’t stop just because you’re camping in nature. Yet, many people tend to ignore dental hygiene when they go for a short backpacking trip. Bringing a small toothpaste and a short-handled toothbrush on a long hike is worth the negligible weight. 

Clean your teeth before going to bed and in the morning before you head out. Preferably use an organic toothpaste that won’t harm the environment or attract animals.

How to Keep Your Sleep Areas Clean and Smelling Fresh

Use these tips to keep your sleeping bag and tent clean in the backcountry:

  • Always wash your feet, wear clean socks, and change your dirty clothes to avoid soiling the inside of your sleeping bag.
  • Use a washable sleeping bag liner to protect the inside of your sleeping bag when you have to sleep in wet or dirty clothes due to bad weather.
  • Bring a separate set of sleeping clothes as they'll allow you to rest clean without sitting in your own smell and bacteria all night long.
  • If the weather allows, leave your dirty shoes outside under the rainfly. 

A Clean Backpacker is a Happy and Healthy Backpacker

Anytime you want to spend time outdoors, use the above backpacking hygiene tips to make your trip more comfortable and safe. And as you strive to stay clean in the wild, remember to also protect the environment by following the leave no trace principles.

What items do you include in your go-to backpacking hygiene checklist? Do you have any helpful products or ideas that we’ve left out? Feel free to leave a comment below with your best tips for staying fresh on the trails!

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