Dirt. Sweat. That fireside smoke that permeates anything and everything.
Camping and backpacking can be a messy business, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice cleanliness and good hygiene while roughing it.
And good camping hygiene is not the mark of a city-slicker or germ-a-phobe. In fact, maintaining cleanliness while camping is the best option to prevent the spread of germs and illness, especially when you’re in close quarters with other campers.
Whether you’re just out for a short car camping trip or roughing it for weeks in the backcountry, staying clean while camping is not only a wise practice but also possible with a little planning and effort.
Here are our top tips for staying clean while camping and backpacking.
Selecting the Best Clothing
First and foremost, what you wear on a camping trip or when backpacking must address function over fashion. This means that what you wear to impress your friends on a Friday night is most likely not going to be the best choice for a weekend in the woods.
Instead, focus on breathable, quick-drying fabrics that will wick away sweat and won’t hold onto odors. Avoid cotton fabrics like the plague as they will absorb sweat, breed odor-causing bacteria, and take forever to dry out.
When selecting clothing to wear when camping, look for material that is:
- a barrier against pesky insects such as mosquitoes and ticks
Synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, and merino wool are all great choices for camping clothing. These materials will help you stay dry and comfortable even when the weather is hot and humid.
If you’re car camping, you may not be as concerned with weight and packability, so feel free to bring a few changes of clothes to keep things fresh. But if you’re backpacking (especially on long trips), be mindful of the number of clothes you bring and only pack what you need.
1. Socks and Underwear
If any clothing bears the brunt of abuse when exploring the great outdoors it’s your socks and underwear. These items see a lot of action, so it’s important to choose wisely.
As with your other clothing, avoid cotton socks and underwear as they will absorb sweat and take forever to dry out. Instead, pick synthetic materials or wool that will wick away moisture and dry quickly.
For the guys, we recommend:
Smartwool Merino 150 Boxer Briefs
ExOfficio Give-N-Go Sport Mesh Boxer Briefs
Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Cushion Socks
Ladies, here are some tried-and-true suggestions:
Smartwool Merino 150 Bikini Underwear
Patagonia Barely Hipster Underwear
Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Cushion Socks
Depending on the weather and climate you’ll experience where you’re camping or backpacking, you may need to pack additional layers of clothing.
For cool weather, a wool or synthetic baselayer will help keep you warm while wicking away moisture. In hot weather, a lightweight baselayer can help keep you cool and protect your skin from the sun.
For mild weather camping, we recommend the Smartwool Classic All-Season Merino Base Layer for men and women.
3. Tops and Bottoms
Whether you’re packing long sleeves and pants for cold weather or donning short sleeves and shorts for balmy days, make sure your clothing is functional and can stand up to the elements.
As always, avoid cotton fabrics as they will absorb sweat and take forever to dry out. Instead, focus on quick-drying synthetics or wool that will wick away moisture.
If you’re camping or backpacking in an area with lots of mosquitoes or other biting insects, consider clothing with built-in insect repellent or treated with a permethrin spray. These will offer an extra layer of protection against these pesky critters.
4. Wearing the Right Shoes
The type of shoes you wear camping or hiking can make a big difference in your overall comfort and hygiene. First and foremost, your shoes should be comfortable and provide good support.
If you’re camping in a hot climate, opt for shoes that are light-colored and made of breathable materials to help keep your feet cool and dry.
Waterproof shoes or boots are only advisable if you are camping or hiking in locations where precipitation, water crossings, or moist environments are a real threat. Otherwise, waterproof footwear just traps moisture in as much as it keeps it out.
At the end of a long day of hiking, it’s critical to give your footwear some recuperation time. Place them in direct sunlight if at all possible or place them within a safe distance of your campfire.
The heat will help to dry them out and the wood smoke carries antimicrobial properties.
There’s a reason wood smoke is used to cure meat …
Doing the Laundry
While it may not be necessary on a short camping or backpacking trip, longer excursions into the wilderness can generate some exceptionally funky developments in your wardrobe. At some point, you’re going to have to break down and do some laundry.
If you’re car camping, you can simply wash your clothes in a sink or basin with some biodegradable soap. Rinse them in a second basin with fresh water and run a length of paracord between two trees as a dry line.
If you’re backpacking, you’ll need to be a bit more creative.
Wilderness Tip: Leave No Trace protocol compels backcountry campers to be mindful of using soaps and detergents in water sources such as lakes, rivers, and streams. Always do your laundry at least 200 feet from a water source.
For most articles of clothing, follow this easy way to create your own backpacking washing machine and keep things from getting too-far-funked:
- Pour water into a 1-gallon, sealable food storage bag (preferably, not the one you keep your snacks in).
- Add an article of clothing and a few drops of biodegradable soap.
- Seal the bag and agitate well for a few minutes
- Pour out the used water 200 feet from any water source. Wring out the clothing well.
- Return your clothes to the bag with some fresh water. Seal and agitate once more.
- Remove clothing, wring out, and hang to dry.
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Washing Your Body Good in the Woods
What’s the point in doing your laundry if you’re just going to let your body get all funky? Besides, nothing beats a hot shower after a day of wilderness exploring.
While it’s not exactly easy to take a shower in the wilderness, there are some things you can do to practice good personal hygiene.
If you’re car camping, using the campground shower facilities or taking along a portable camping shower, and applying some biodegradable camp soap is an easy fix. The Base Camp Camping Hygiene Kit from Dead Down Wind is also a great all-in-one kit to take along on your next trip.
Also, taking a wet wipe bath on those less-funky days will save having to bathe formally every day. Of course, wet wipes don’t do much for greasy hair. For that, we recommend a good dry shampoo followed by a thorough combing.
If you’re backpacking, rinsing off (without soap) in a freshwater source such as a large lake, stream, or river is ideal. If you’re fortunate enough to be near one, a waterfall makes a perfect outdoor shower.
However, if your level of accumulated sweat and grime justifies the use of soap, you’ll need to collect the water and suds up 200 feet from the water source.
Wilderness Tip: Washing with warm water is always more effective at removing oils and grime. Pre-heat your water at the fireside or use your backpacking stove before washing up! Better yet, solar showers or a portable camp shower will save you the fuel and still provide the luxury of warm, clean water to bathe with.
Between showers, the following tips will help keep you cleaner longer:
- Use biodegradable wipes or a quick-drying microfiber towel to take a sponge bath
- Wash your hands as often as possible and use hand sanitizer before preparing your meals
- Take a container of 91% isopropyl-alcohol to douse your feet at the end of the day
Not only will light hygiene maintenance and occasional bathing keep your clothes cleaner longer, but it will also keep you feeling refreshed and promote better sleep.
Practice Good Dental Hygiene
Have you ever seen Harry and the Hendersons? It’s hard evidence that even Big Foot practices exquisite dental hygiene.
While it’s perfectly fine to pack your everyday toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste in a sandwich bag, having a dedicated camping or backpacking toothbrush with a refillable toothpaste tube means you always have one in your gear ready to go.
We recommend the Aurelle Toob Brush. It’s compact, self-contained, and refillable. Perfect.
When Nature Calls
Everybody does it and nobody likes to talk about it.
But, we’re going to anyway!
Because part of enjoying the wilderness is understanding how and where to do your business without turning an idyllic stream-side campsite into a human waste repository.
While most developed campgrounds, state parks, and national parks and forests provide either flushable or composting toilets, it’s still a good idea to take along what we like to call a “Number Two Kit.”
To make your own, you’ll need the following:
- A designated zip-up bag (toiletry bag) to hold the following items for quick grab-and-go
- A small hand trowel for digging cat holes (more on this later)
- A sufficient supply of toilet paper (varies depending on the length of your trip)
- Small disposable sacks for packing out used toilet paper
- A W.A.G Bag (see video below)
- Small container of hand sanitizer
If you’re backpacking or you discover that the campground facilities are out of order, follow these Leave No Trace principles when going to the bathroom:
- Always relieve yourself 200 feet (about 80 steps) away from any water, campsite, and trails
- Dig a cathole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches wide. Aim for the cathole.
- Bury your contribution with soil. Pack out used toilet paper in a sealed bag.
- Disguise your cathole with twigs, rocks, and leaves.
- Unleash a primitive howl with your hands on your hips in pride at your accomplishment.
Wilderness Tip: If you suffer from “Fear of Packing Out” used toilet tissue, cover a sealable food storage bag in duct tape to reinforce the bag and so that you don’t have to look at it. Then, hide it in someone else’s backpack.
A Lady’s Guide to Peeing Outside
Although the playing field for pooping is relatively level between the genders, the same can’t be said for going Number One.
That’s why, ladies, we’ve included some tips and resources to help you avoid wet clothing, chafing, and a general feeling of ickiness when Mother Nature calls.
- Find the Right Location: Obviously, scout a spot 200 feet from water, trails, and camp. But, also look for a relatively flat spot (squatting on a slope is hazardous) that’s clear of rocks and leaves (which can shoot it right back at you like peeing on a spoon).
- Assume a Stable Squat: Falling over mid-spritz is the worst. If you can score a spot that allows you to wall-sit against a boulder or tree, the less your thighs will burn and the less likely you’ll topple under a stiff breeze.
- Secure Clothing in the Splash Zone: Pants and underwear in the line of fire should be held out of the way with a free hand. Make sure your hand is out of the way, too.
- Aim and Push: With a little backward canter of the pelvis, you’re less likely to sprinkle your shoes and the back of your ankles.
- Follow-Up Push and Wipe: For a truly dry finish, give a final little tuck and squeeze. Follow up with TP or a reusable pee rag (one that gets laundered regularly).
- Arise, Woman of the Wilderness: Gird thy loins and return to camp. You go, girl.
If you’re looking for something in the way of equipment modification, we recommend adding a FUD (Female Urination Device) to your backpacking gear.
The GoGirl or the SheWee make it possible to avoid the whole drop-’em-and squat exercise and can make things much more pleasant in cold, windy, or rainy weather.
Consider also the rather revolutionary women’s outdoor bottom designs at SheFly Apparel.
No, ladies, Flow won’t attract bears. Just wanted to make that clear.
Ladies are presented with an added challenge when venturing into the great outdoors: addressing a period in the backcountry.
There are a few different approaches, but the most popular (and least messy) is to use a menstrual cup or period-proof underwear.
Both menstrual cups and period-proof underwear not only reduce waste but reduce the amount of stuff you have to pack in and pack out.
If you go the disposable route, be sure to pack out your used feminine hygiene products in a WAG bag or something reuseable like a designated (and well-labeled) Nalgene or water bottle.
And, because you’ll want to change them more frequently than you would at home, consider packing more than you think you’ll need.
For more detailed information by those more authoritative than me (a well-meaning dude just trying to be helpful), check out the video below.
Cleaning up after meal preparation and eating can be a real drag. It’s tempting to just let everything air dry and hope for the best.
But, that’s not really an option when food residue makes dishes unsanitary or, even more serious, can attract wildlife.
The best way to avoid doing dishes is to choose foods that don’t require cooking or can be eaten raw. This isn’t always possible (or desirable), so the next best thing is to cook one-pot meals and eat straight out of the pot or pan.
When washing dishes is unavoidable, there are a few things you can do to make the process less painful:
- Find a location at least 200 feet away from camp, water sources, and trails.
- Scrape off as much food as possible before washing. This will save you time and water.
- Use a biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronner’s or Campsuds.
- Collect fresh water from a nearby resource to prevent wasting extra water and boil it using a camp stove or campfire.
- Carefully, pour the hot water over and into your dishes to sterilize them. Using a portable shower can make this easier.
- Once the water has cooled a little, follow up with soapy water to remove any oils or grease.
- Rinse with warm water.
Wilderness Tip: It is never a good idea to wash your dishes near your campsite. While small critters like squirrels and raccoons present a menace, larger beasts like bears can detect food particles from a mile away.
Keeping the Tent and Sleeping Bag Dirt-Free
Nothing kills a good night’s sleep like a gritty sleeping bag. To ensure a comfortable night, keep your sleeping area clean and avoid tracking dirt and debris into the tent.
If possible, pitch your tent so that the entrance is positioned over grass, gravel, leaves, or pine needles (watch for sap) rather than dust or dirt.
Before entering the tent, take off your shoes and any dirty clothes. If your tent is equipped with a vestibule, store them there rather than taking them into the tent.
Give yourself a quick wipe down with a wet cloth or baby wipes if you chose to forego showering or washing for the night.
Consider adding a sleeping bag liner to your bedroll. These act like bed sheets that are easier to wash than the whole sleeping bag and are a great way to provide a little more insulation in cooler weather.
On multi-day backpacking trips, take the time to shake out your tent before packing it up so that it’s nice a clean when you pitch it the next night.
Keeping the Campsite Tidy
A clean campsite is a happy campsite. It’s also a safe one.
The best way to avoid having to do a lot of cleaning is to prevent messes in the first place. Here are a few tips:
- Set up your camp kitchen away from your sleeping area. This will help keep food smells away from your tent and help prevent attracting wildlife. Don’t leave food or drinks out in the open. Store them in bear-resistant canisters or hang them from a tree using a bear bag system.
- Keep a clean cooking area by wiping up spills immediately and washing dishes as soon as you’re done eating.
- Keep your sleeping area clean and tidy. Make your bed every day and put away any clothing or gear that’s not being used.
- Don’t leave trash lying around.
Be Free. Be Wild. Be Clean.
Being wild and free doesn’t mean you have to be dirty. With a little planning and effort, you can enjoy the wilderness while still maintaining a high standard of cleanliness.
Don’t let the dirt deter you from enjoying all that nature has to offer on your next camping trip. Get out there and start exploring!
Now, get out there!
Joshua DavisBeing outdoors is freedom! Being outdoors with my wife and two boys is LIVING! Whether in my backyard or getting lost in a National Park, there’s nothing I’d rather do than explore, discover, and experience the paradise that surrounds us. Give me my family, a backpack, and a trail and my life is full!
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