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Hygiene on the trail - Tips for staying clean when backpacking

Hygiene on the trail - Tips for staying clean when backpacking

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Here's something that you don't read about often: personal hygiene in the backcountry. Trail life can be a shock when you’re accustomed to the comforts of modern hygiene. Backpacking doesn’t mean that you need to skip your daily bath. Learn tips and techniques to stay clean and fresh, and maintain healthy skin when on the trail.

Sponge bath techniques

Learning the art of the sponge bath is key to both good hygiene and minimizing your impact on the trail. With as little as a liter or two of water, you can get squeaky clean. It doesn't take much fuel or time in the sun to heat just a few liters of water, and a warm bath can be a huge luxury at the end of a long day.

  • Use a collapsible water basin, water bladder or solar shower. Take your bath at least 200 feet from any water source. I like to find a large smooth boulder or a downed log to stand or sit on so I can avoid muddy feet.
  • Use baking soda instead of soap for the bulk of your bath. Baking soda is a good abrasive plus it binds to oil on your skin. It can even do a decent job as a shampoo. It takes very little water to wash baking soda from the skin, and you’ll find that it can be just as effective as soap.
  • Besides being friendlier to the environment, baking soda can be easier on the skin than soap. In the field you may not be able to rinse as well as normal, and leftover soap residue can irritate the skin.
  • If you need soap, vegetable oil based castile soaps (like Dr. Bronner’s) rinse faster than conventional, and are usually biodegradable. It is also mild enough to use as shampoo.
  • Use a small washcloth or sponge to scrub any area of skin with baking soda or soap. Wash off until clean with the washcloth, rinsing it frequently.

Once you get the technique of a sponge bath down, you’ll realize there’s little reason to smell bad on the trail.

Should you bathe in the morning or night?

If you bathe in the evening, get the benefit of be able to keep your sleeping bag and bedclothes fresher. I also find I’m a bit more welcome on my wife’s side of the tent when I stick to this schedule.

Wet wipes

Disposable baby wipes can also work wonders for keeping "critical areas" clean. The one downside is that this is added weight since you’ll need to carry them out of the backcountry.

Skin care

For folks with sensitive skin, skin health can become a nightmarish problem on a longer backpacking trip. Here are some tips to keep your skin healthier and happier in the backcountry.

Keep it clean -- wash with water frequently, and avoid soaps that may take more water than is convenient to rinse off. Soap residue can cause skin irritation for a lot of people.

If you have dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis, you can get away with using a tiny dab of shampoo by spreading it thin and leaving it on for five or ten minutes. This makes it possible to rinse with much less water, and easier to frequently wash your scalp and face.

Minimize sun and wind exposure by wearing long sleeves, a collar, pants and a sun hat during the day. This will lower your sunblock usage, making bathing easier. It’s easier to prevent dry and chapped skin by keeping it covered.

Wear sport sunblock on exposed skin throughout the day. If you’re used to staying indoors for most of the day, even overcast weather can be a shock to sensitive skin when backpacking. Every few hours or more, apply another layer.

Apply lip balm religiously.

Use facial moisturizers overnight. This can work wonders in keeping your skin in good shape.

Laundry in the backcountry

When backpacking, I only use synthetic or wool-synthetic blend fabrics since these dry quickly and also provide some insulation, even when wet. I like to wash everything each night, as this helps to keep outer layers of clothing fresher for longer periods.

Every evening I’ll take a sponge bath and change out of my underclothes.

Certain clothes like your hiking pants and long-sleeved shirt can typically go several days without a wash, as long as you take a sponge bath and change underclothes daily.

I pack a lightweight collapsible basin both for bathing and washing dishes and clothes.

Before bed, I’ll wash my dirty underclothes by hand in the basin using baking soda. If things are especially stinky, I’ll spot-treat with castile soap.

Once you rinse, it’s time to play spin cycle. Get as much water out of the fabric. Shake it back and forth in the air, crack it like a whip or beat it against the side of a large, smooth boulder. The more water you get out, the greater the chance it will be dry in the morning.

Hang clothes overnight on a line of parachute cord. If it’s not quite dry in the morning, you can hang articles of clothing from your pack as you hike.


Once you get a system down for personal hygiene and laundry when backpacking, you’ll find that it’s not that hard to stay clean and fresh. Backpacking is way more fun when you’re comfortable, and for many of us, maintaining good hygiene is an essential to comfort.