When I tell people I’m going backpacking for several days at a time, the top questions or comments I get typical revolve around hygiene… or the lack there of (people don’t usually ask about bears…it’s puzzling really):
How to you not shower for that long? … “not a problem!”
Don’t you stink ? … “sometimes! But so does everyone else too”.
How to you carry all your gear AND clothing for that many days? … “I don’t, I usually wear the same thing everyday.”
Needless to say, I don’t convince many new people to join me on these types of trips based on these answers alone. Most people who are new to camping and backpacking are generally turned off by the lack of comfort amenities in the great outdoors. Truthfully, it does take some getting used to, but over time you realize that smelling a bit…natural… is better than lugging your stick of deodorant and shampoo across 3 mountain passes. So, over time you decide to leave it all home and enjoy the lighter load, and the decreased burden of giving a crap about how you smell or what you look when you hike.
I’m certainly not telling you to throw personal hygiene out the door. Staying and feeling clean is a vital part of being healthy on the trail; mentally and physically. But contrary to popular belief, you don’t NEED to haul your entire toiletries kit on a trek or worry about a little odor from a hard days hike. Here are few tricks I’ve learned over the years that help keep me feeling fresh and clean on the trail:
- “Washing up”- the camping equivalent of a shower: Generally, the first thing I do once I reach camp and get setup, is a little personal hygiene. I find a small quiet place to wet my facecloth, strip off and scrub up. The main point of washing up is to get the day’s dirt, sunscreen and sweat off your body, not necessarily so you smell better. As part of LNT ethics, avoid using soap and wash 200ft from all water sources. My favorite cloth for this is the Lunatec self cleaning washcloth. It’s a bit rough (like a loofah) so scrub gently, but it works like magic at getting off grime from my skin and exfoliates while I scrub. It will rinse clean, dry in about 5 mins and never stink… ever. Plus its super lightweight.
- Wet Wipes. I have tried very hard to not bring these on my trips because I hate packing out extra trash, but I have never been able to give them up. I pack 1-2 per day and use them in the evening to do a quick wash up if the weather is bad or I’m too tired for my usual wash up. These make for a quick way to feel like a human again. I consider these a luxury item. Just be sure you get them unscented and pack them out. These will stay damp in a sealed ziploc bag so you can ditch the heavier packaging. https://www.walgreens.com/store/c/huggies-natural-care-baby-wipes-soft-pack-fragrance-free/ID=prod6108348-product
- Comb your hair: I have a lot of hair, and after a day of sweating and hiking, it becomes more like a nest. While I’m fine without washing my hair, I do find it helpful to comb my hair every night to keep the nest at bay. A light weight comb is perfect, like the ones they give you at a hotel. Wearing a Bandana or a hat is the best way to cover up dirty hair and forget about it. Bonus if you can throw in a nice braid or pony tail to keep your less than clean hair out of your face and off your mind.
- Wash your undies and your socks regularly: I’m a firm believer and user of merino wool undies. They breathe well, feel comfortable and unlike synthetics, are odor resistant. I pack 2-3 pair/trip of any length. While I’m wearing one pair, the other is being washed and dried. A dab of Dr Bronners in a ziplock makes a great washing machine. Dispose of your soapy water away from water sources. Merino dries SUPER quickly and are as good as new for the next day. My favorites are Icebreaker.
- Clean Sleeping Clothes– I may hike in the same dirty clothing everyday, but I always keep one clean pair of sleeping clothes in my sleeping bag so I can put these on after I wash up for the day. Dry, clean clothes help me from getting chilled at night and I all around just feel and sleep better.
- Brush your teeth – not only to prevent tooth decay, but because nothing makes you feel more fresh than having a clean mouth. I usually brush my teeth right after dinner before I hang my bear bag so I won’t forget or hassle with it later in the evening.
- Take a dip – This seems like a no brainer. Sometimes a little mid afternoon swim on a hot day goes a long way to boost morale and get the days grime off your body. Remember if you are slathered in sunscreen or bug spray, wipe off as much as possible to avoid polluting the water where you are swimming, and never use soap in water sources.
- Develop a routine . Getting lazy on the trail is an easy habit to acquire when you are tired after a long day. Make the effort for your own well-being. If you do it on short trips, those same habits will translate to the longer trips where hygiene becomes even more critical. Even if you are knackered at the end of a day; make time to clean up, change your clothes and brush your teeth. Waking up feeling better and refreshed in the morning will be the best thing for your health and comfort on the trail
Dry it out – Rain may be an inevitable part of any adventure, but be sure to do your best to keep important items dry; clothes to sleep in, a dry pair of socks and sleeping bag being the most critical. Line your pack with a heavy duty trash bag or use dry sacks for your important stuff. Most importantly, use any opportunity when you get a break in the weather to stop and air out or dry your gear. It’s amazing what a nice breeze or a bit of sun will do for your gear. This will keep things cleaner, dryer and more fresh; making you feel better too.
- Most importantly, learn to embrace a “natural state” in the outdoors, and tell your friends to do the same. Nobody on the trail is going to care if you smell or look a bit ragged, because everyone does out here. One of my favorite quotes seems relevant here:
“A man who works hard stinks only to the ones that have nothing to do but smell” – Laura Ingalls Wilder