One of the great things about getting out into the wilderness is the freedom to create your own hygiene standards. You choose where to draw the line between “trail dirt” + “whoa, that’s gross”. I’ll admit, it takes quite a bit to cross that line in my world [yet, I’ll wear mascara every day on the trail, go figure]. My trail hair is epic, my socks tend to stand up on their own + the only clothes I pack are the ones needed to layer up in the cold. I’m cool with dirt.
But…I also understand the importance of keeping smelly things out of your tent in bear country + being just presentable enough to walk into a gas station for snacks without freaking everyone out.
At the end of the day, you have to figure out how to stay somewhat clean when you’re on the move + far away from the conveniences of “real life”. I’m not expert but here’s a few tactics I’ve picked up over the years…
Get the Important Bits
First, what do you consider important? In my mind, there are two categories — the bits that make you feel like a new person [teeth, face, hands] + the bits that manage to sweat on even the coldest days [armpits, feet, special bits]. If you want your trail buddies to stop ditching you in the wilderness, pay attention to both
[a busy camping area…where sticking to the baby wipe bath is acceptable, even expected!]
It’s easy, especially if you have the $0.99 to throw at a travel pack or two of baby wipes. Technically wet wipes work, but I prefer baby wipes because they leave less residue + come extra soft because they’re made for baby bums! I use them to “spot clean” my body, de-dirt my hands, scrub body lube off my feet + even brush my teeth. The teeth “brushing” part is NOT recommended but if you’re borderline lose-my-mind-fuzzy in the oral department without a toothbrush it just might be worth it!
Wannabe Pro Tip: If you’re packing baby wipes, pack more than you think you’ll need for your body. They are also amazing for wiping down dishes/utensils or cleaning up kitchen mishaps. Heck, I have a mini stash in just hanging out in every pack because they are so great at handling “well, that could chafe” bio breaks on day trips! Pack them. They come in handy! Plus…they can easily be re-hydrated or extra hydrated at any time. Just pack them!
Some people are cool with the baby wipe method, but if I’m out in the boonies without a river to dip in for more than a handful of days I start fantasizing about showers in ways that are not healthy. Sometimes you just really, really need some running water to get all the salt, sunscreen + grime off your body. This is where the creativity really kicks in + you get comfortable with being naked around your trail friends…with or without warning.
[a solo site with a stray guard dog…perfect for legitimate backcountry bathing!]
Grab the biggest pot you have with you — don’t worry, even the lil’ 2 cuppers work fine. Fill it with water + set it on whatever fire source you have to heat it up. Toss in a little soap then grab your cleanest buff/neck gaiter/sock [get creative, y’all!] to start your sponge bath. There’s no shame in keeping it all PG-13 but…you’re in the wilderness, you smell terrible + you’ve already spent days bonding with your trail buddies. Plus, completely ditching your stinky layers is a very important part of this backcountry bathing! Just commit…or send the rest of the crew off into the woods for a short walkabout in exchange for doing dinner dishes later. Get naked in nature, it’s worth it!
Don’t Be That Guy Tip: If you’re going to use actual soap, make sure it is 100% biodegradable. Spend a few bucks on something like CampSuds or Wilderness Wash — both come in 3oz bottles [you’re welcome, TSA], are multi-purpose [shampoo, dishes, laundry] + are considered “low sud” [aka, less rinsing]. When you’re disposing of any water in the backcountry used the “broadcast” or “dispersed” method by tossing it out in a wide arc at least 200 feet from any natural water source. [get the LNT water disposal deets here >> https://lnt.org/learn/7-principles]
Stanky Socks + Shorts
So, you’ve committed to a bout of backcountry bathing…don’t your stanky clothes back on! Use the last bit of that bath water to do some laundry! I’m not talking a full, massive cleaning but what about your socks, the armpits of your shirt + the mesh lining of your shorts? Remember when we talked about getting the important bits with spot cleaning? Do the same with your laundry. Sure, your entire shirt might be a bit dirty but it is the pits that smell so just wash them! You won’t lose any trail dirt cred + you won’t immediately be making your creative bathing obsolete.
[for what it’s worth, all of these tips work fantastically in a backcountry hut as well!]
If you’ve set up camp for a few days there is very little strategy behind a bit of campsite laundry. However, if you’re on the go you need to get creative. With warm, dry weather, just hang your clothes on nearby trees until bedtime then pull them into the tent with you. In cooler weather, shove your slightly damp clothes into your sleeping bag before bed so your body heat can help dry them. If it’s raining…why even bother with the shower + laundry, Mother Nature is doing all the work for you!
City Living Tip: Doing laundry by hand doesn’t have to be left in the wilderness! If you’re traveling in cities but don’t have access to a washing machine you can spot clean [or fully hand wash] your clothes using your backcountry soap. Even better, toss your sweaty running clothes into the shower with you. Let them hang out on the floor of the shower until you’re clean then add some soap for a solid hand washing. It’s technically better for your sportswear + it is crazy gratifying to see just how much dirt you manage to get out of a pair of socks!
These are a few creative ways I’ve managed to keep myself just clean enough to make new friends while traveling the past few months — both in the wilderness + in massive cities. It works, for me. What works for you? Seriously, if you have secrets, please share them!