Backpacking Hygiene: How to Stay Clean When Hiking and Camping on Trail

backpacking hygiene
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Practicing good backpacking hygiene is vital to protect you from bacterial infections, diseases, gastrointestinal issues, and problems like chafing and blisters. This article will cover general backpacking hygiene tips and best practices, including washing and bathing, what kind of clothing to wear and how often to change it, washing laundry and dishes, bathroom hygiene, and feminine hygiene.

Most hikers and backpackers don’t mind being a little dirty. On longer backpacking trips and thru-hikes, stinking is almost inevitable at times. However, there’s a big difference between being a little grimy and coming down with an infection due to poor hygiene habits.

Before we get into the details, it’s important to cover the Leave No Trace Principles, which should guide all of your activities when backpacking and recreating outdoors.

What does it mean to Leave No Trace?

Leave No Trace is a set of guidelines to help people minimize their impacts on the environment when hiking, backpacking, and spending time outdoors. We’ve already covered the Leave No Trace principles in-depth in our Common Backpacking Questions article. Here is a quick recap.

The seven Leave No Trace principles are as follows:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare: Do your research ahead of time and plan your trip carefully. Pack appropriately and check the weather forecast, trail closures, advisories, local rules, and regulations.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Stick to designated campsites and trails whenever possible. When it’s not, use other durable surfaces like rocks, dry grasses, and snow.
  3. Dispose of waste properly: Take all trash with you, clean up after yourself, use only biodegradable soaps, know how to dispose of greywater from laundry and dishes, and make sure you’re familiar with best practices for managing human waste.
  4. Leave what you find: Do not alter the trail or campsite in any way or remove plant life from its natural place.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts: Cook your backpacking meals using a camp stove to limit effects on the environment.
  6. Respect wildlife: Do not feed, touch, or approach wild animals.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors: Follow proper trail etiquette, be mindful of noise levels, and control your pets if you have them with you.

Following these principles with your hygiene routines on the trail will help protect the area and allow others to experience the wilderness in all its natural splendor.

Washing, Bathing, and Freshening Up

Freshening up after a long day on the trail is an important part of backpacking hygiene and can boost a hiker’s mood and morale. Below, we’ll cover best practices for washing specific areas of your body. But first, here are a few essential guidelines for washing and bathing while backpacking:

  • Never wash directly in a body of water with any kind of soap products, even biodegradable ones. When washing and bathing, make sure you’re at least 200 feet (61 meters) away from water sources. Bring a collapsible bucket or camp shower for this purpose.
  • Rinse off with a wet bandana, buff, or multi towel before going for a dip in a lake or river. Wipe away sunscreen, insect repellent, oils from your body, and any other substances that could contaminate these bodies of water.
  • Use only biodegradable soaps, and opt for unscented products when possible.

Hand Washing and Sanitizing

Keeping your hands clean is an essential component of protecting yourself from illness and gastrointestinal upset on the trail. Make sure to wash your hands before handling any food and after using the toilet.

You can use a vegetable peeler to make single-use soap leaves from a bar of biodegradable soap or purchase a product with pre-made biodegradable soap leaves, like Coleman Camp Soap Sheets. Make sure to bring plenty of hand sanitizer to clean your hands in areas with limited water sources.

Avoid reaching into communal snack bags, even if your hands are clean. Instead, dump the snacks into your hand to help prevent contamination.

Washing Your Face and Body

When backpacking, you can spot clean your face and body with a reusable towel or bandana. Simply wet the fabric and wipe off the day’s sweat and grime. Biodegradable baby wipes also work for freshening up certain areas, including the genital region and armpits. You’ll have to pack out the used wipes, so use them sparingly.

On longer trips, you can take a quick shower using a bucket of water, a packable camp shower, or a shower attachment that screws onto a water bottle. Just make sure you are far away from water sources and do not jump into any lakes or streams with soap still on your body.

waterfalls in the backcountry

Washing Your Feet

Keeping your feet clean is a crucial part of preventing blisters on the trail. If you take a camp shower, make sure to wash your feet with soap as well as the rest of your body. If you decide to skip the shower, wipe down your feet with a wet cloth or baby wipe when you’re done hiking for the day, then put on a new pair of hiking socks.

Washing Your Hair

For backpacking trips under five days or so, most people just skip washing their hair and embrace their new greasy look. You can bring some dry shampoo to freshen up until you get home and can wash it.

For longer backpacking trips, bring dry shampoo, shampoo leaves (we like Trek & Travel Conditioning Shampoo leaves), and/or biodegradable liquid shampoo. You can wash your hair during a camp shower or wait until you get to a trail town. If you have long hair, braiding it and wearing a hat, headband, buff, or bandana can help keep it from getting tangled and unruly between washes.

Brushing Your Teeth

When backpacking, brush your teeth normally as you do at home. Ideally, you should spit the toothpaste into your trash bag. Another option is to brush your teeth at least 200 feet (61 meters) away from your campsite and water sources and spit the toothpaste out in small amounts spread over a large area. Just make sure not to get a large amount in any single spot. An easy way to do this is to swish with water, then spray it out with a big exhale while rotating your body to disperse the spray.

Clothing

Knowing what to look for in backpacking attire and how to keep your clothes clean are important parts of backpacking hygiene. This section will cover what kind of clothing to bring on a backpacking trip and best practices for changing and washing your clothes.

What kind of clothing is best for staying clean, dry, and stink-free on the trail?

When packing for your backpacking trip, you should avoid cotton clothing and instead select items made from merino wool and synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon. These materials wick moisture away from the skin, help regulate body temperature, are breathable, and dry quickly.

Since moisture fosters the growth of odor-causing bacteria and can lead to issues like chafing and blisters, choosing breathable, fast-drying layers is a way to help combat odors on the trail. These items are also easier to wash and dry, making it simple to freshen them up when they become grimy.

It’s also a good idea to look for clothing with antibacterial or antimicrobial properties – especially hiking socks and undergarments. Silverlight hiking socks, for example, use silver yarns to kill bacteria and prevent stinky feet on the trail.

How Silver Can Prevent Odor

Although people have known about silver’s natural antibacterial properties for centuries, scientists are still working to understand the exact mechanisms by which silver kills bacteria. Research has shown that silver can penetrate the bacterial cell wall and enter the cell, which disrupts its metabolic pathways and inhibits cellular respiration.

Silver can also disrupt the bacteria’s DNA replication cycle. In 2020, researchers from the University of Arkansas discovered that at a molecular level, silver ions separate the bacteria’s paired DNA strands and weaken the bindings between DNA and protein.

In these ways, silver is able to kill bacteria cells. Thanks to this property, clothing and socks containing silver ions will naturally help prevent the build-up of odor-causing bacteria and are great choices when selecting backpacking clothing.

How Often to Change Your Clothes

Good backpacking hygiene requires a balance between packing light (see our ultralight backpacking article for tips) and having enough clothes to stay clean. Knowing when to change and wash your clothes can you help you find the sweet spot.

If your planned backpacking trip is longer than a couple of days, bring a few base layers, undergarments, and socks so that you can rotate between them and wash them as needed. You should also bring one set of clothes that you use only for sleeping.

Most people change their clothes when they arrive at camp, but you can wait until you go to bed if you prefer. If your clothes are wet from rain or sweat, it’s recommended to change as soon as you arrive at camp (weather permitting) to allow yourself to dry off and air out your damp items. This step is crucial if it’s cold out, as wet clothes significantly increase your risk of developing hypothermia.

Some hikers prefer to wait until they’ve had a chance to take a camp shower or wipe down their face, feet, and other areas of the body with a damp cloth. Either option is fine, but never go to sleep with dirty clothes. Doing so will get your sleeping bag dirty and increase your risk of developing rashes and other skin conditions.

For this reason, you should always keep a dry change of clothes and socks in your pack that are reserved for camp. If it’s raining, you can keep these in a dry sack or a trash bag to ensure they remain dry.

You should also make sure to allow time to air out sweaty areas and let your body breathe, if the weather conditions allow you to do so. This includes removing your socks and shoes and letting your feet air out in the sun, as well as removing undergarments for a couple of hours at camp.

How to Wash Your Clothes and Gear

Short backpacking trips may not require you to wash any of your clothes or gear, but you’ll likely need to do laundry on longer trips and take steps to keep gear like your sleep system clean.

Washing Clothes

To wash clothes on the trail, you’ll need a wash bag and biodegradable detergent. Liquid or powder detergent is fine, but many backpackers prefer powder since it’s lighter weight. You can use a large resealable plastic bag, a dry bag, or a designated wash bag like the Scrubba Portable Wash Bag.

Instructions:

  1. Fill your wash bag with some water, leaving enough space for your clothes. Warm water is best, but cold water works fine too.
  2. Add detergent and clothes, but leave space for them to move around inside the bag and rub against each other. Do not overfill the bag – you can do multiple rounds if needed.
  3. Shake the bag and rub its contents for about five minutes. The friction will help release the dirt and grime in the clothes.
  4. Dump out the dirty water at least 200 feet (61 meters) away from your campsite and from any water sources.
  5. Fill the wash bag with clean water and shake the contents for another couple of minutes.
  6. Dump the water and wring out your clothes.
  7. Hang the clothes to dry. It’s helpful to have a clothesline or utility cord and clothespins, but you can also hang your clothes over a tree branch or lay them out on a rock.

Washing Gear

Most gear can be spot cleaned with water and a cloth if something spills on it or if it gets muddy, but you’ll want to take extra care to keep your sleep system clean. Bring a machine washable sleeping bag liner to protect your bag from sweat and grime. The liner is possible to rinse out on the trail if needed, and it’s easy to throw the liner in a washing machine once you get home or to a trail town with laundry available.

How to Wash Your Dishes

Properly washing your dishes can help prevent contamination and food-related illness. Here are instructions to follow in the backcountry:

  1. Scrape any remaining food scraps into your trash bag to pack out.
  2. Heat filtered water and take it, along with dirty dishes, at least 200 feet (61 meters) away from your campsite and water sources.
  3. Wash the dishes with the hot water alone or with biodegradable soap, making sure to collect the greywater in a dish bucket or pot.
  4. If there is any food residue remaining in the greywater, strain it using a bandana and throw the residue in your trash bag.
  5. Dump the greywater into a cathole 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) deep, or scatter it evenly over a wide area.

Going to the Bathroom: How to Deal with Poop, Pee, and Toilet Paper

Figuring out how to deal with human waste is a common concern among new backpackers. Learning how to use the bathroom outdoors and properly dispose of waste is an important part of backpacking hygiene and is essential to avoid polluting water sources.

How to Poop while Backpacking

Before you leave for your backpacking trip, check to see if there are specific rules, regulations, or guidelines for human waste disposal. In certain areas, you may need to bring a waste collection bag (often called a WAG bag) to pack out all feces. This is common in areas with fragile ecosystems and is a good idea on trails with heavy traffic.

If the regulations do not require you to pack out solid waste, then you can poop in a cathole. To do this, find a place that’s at least 200 feet (61 meters) away from trails, campsites, and water sources. Dig a cathole about 4 inches wide (10 cm) and 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) deep. Poop in the hole and cover it when you’re finished.

You can wipe with natural materials, toilet paper, or baby wipes. Bury any natural materials you use in the cat hole when you’re done, and pack out any toilet paper or baby wipes in a plastic bag. If you want to hide the bag’s contents, use aluminum foil or duct tape. Whatever you choose to wipe yourself with after a bowel movement, make sure to clean the area well to prevent odors and chafing.

Some hikers bring a squirt water bottle to use as a makeshift bidet and wash their behinds after bowel movements. This can clean the area better than toilet paper alone and reduce the amount of toilet paper needed. Just make sure to dry the area thoroughly afterwards.

How to Pee while Backpacking

Peeing while backpacking is more straightforward but still requires care and consideration for the environment. Make sure to pee at least 200 feet away (61 meters) from water sources, and try to go on a rock if you’re in an alpine area. When it comes to wiping after urinating, women backpackers have several main options: toilet paper, pee rags, drip drying, and natural materials like leaves, rocks, or sticks.

Each method has its pros and cons. Toilet paper is a simple, hygienic solution but creates more waste to carry out with you. Drip drying is convenient and eco-friendly but can cause bacteria and odor build-up on underwear due to leftover urine. Natural materials are effective but can transfer dirt or other substances onto the skin and cause discomfort, a rash, or even an infection. Many women hikers find that pee rags are the best solution.

A bandana or small towel will work as a pee rag, but antimicrobial products like the silver-infused Kula Cloth are more hygienic. Simply wipe when you’re done, hang it on the outside of your pack, and wash the cloth as needed.

For more details about the correct way to do your business outdoors, please see our Common Backpacking Questions article.

Feminine Backpacking Hygiene: Managing Your Period on the Trail

For those with a menstrual cycle, it’s important to know how to handle having your period when backpacking. There are three main options: 1) menstrual cups, 2) absorbent, period-proof underwear, and 3) sanitary products. Each method has its benefits and disadvantages, and ultimately it’s a matter of personal preference.

Menstrual cups are a great, eco-friendly way to deal with your period on the trail. The cups come in many different shapes and sizes and only need to be emptied and rinsed out twice a day.

To empty your cup, dig a cathole and empty the cup’s contents into it. Wash the cup with biodegradable soap and water and empty the soapy water into the cathole as well. Give the cup a rinse with clean water and then fill in the cathole. Make sure to clean your hands before and after removing the cup.

Absorbent underwear designed for menstruation is also a good option on the trail, although a bit more complicated than a menstrual cup when it comes to cleaning. Various brands make underwear that is very absorbent, wicks sweat, and reduces odors thanks to an antimicrobial treatment. Bring a few pairs and wash them as needed. Just make sure to dump the wash water into a cathole.

Sanitary products like pads and tampons are harder to deal with in the backcountry since they take up more space in your pack, produce more waste, and need to be changed more frequently. If you prefer using sanitary products, make sure to pack out all waste in a trash bag and consider using tampons without an applicator. These are better for the environment and will save you space in your backpack.

Products: What to Bring and What to Avoid

When it comes to hygiene products, there are some general guidelines to follow that will help you leave no trace, reduce your risk of attracting animals and insects, and minimize your impact on the places you visit. Below are basic dos and don’ts to consider when purchasing and packing products to help you stay clean on the trail. For a full multi-day hike packing list, please see our Backpacking Checklist article.

Do Bring:

  • Biodegradable soaps, shampoos, detergents, etc. Make sure all your toiletries and detergents are biodegradable to minimize your impact on the environment.
  • Unscented items. Ideally, all your products should be unscented when possible to minimize your risk of attracting insects and animals. Scented products also usually have additional ingredients compared to unscented ones, which increases their impact on the environment.
  • Reusable multi towels. Having a few color-coded multi towels can help you keep track of which towel you use for what purposes.
  • Dental floss. Flossing is a good part of dental hygiene, can remove food that’s stuck in your teeth, and works as string if needed.
  • Sleeping bag liner. Although you should always have a pair of clothes reserved only for sleeping, it’s a good idea to use a liner. This can be washed much more easily than a sleeping bag and will help protect your bag from body soils.
  • Washcloth or bandana. These are useful for wiping down when washing and bathing.
  • Pee rag. Using a cloth to wipe after peeing is more hygienic than drip-drying and more eco-friendly than using toilet paper.
  • Biodegradable toilet paper and baby wipes. Although these are considered single-use items, they can go a long way in improving comfort on the trail. As long as you use them sparingly and pack everything out with you, it’s fine to use these products while backpacking.
  • Concentrated products. Avoid full-size toiletries and instead opt for travel-sized bottles and concentrated soaps. Check out our hiking hacks and ultralight backpacking articles for more space-saving tips.

backpacking tents

Do NOT Bring:

  • Scented items. Leave scented items at home and consider skipping deodorant as well. If you must bring deodorant with you, make sure it’s odorless to avoid attracting bugs and animals.
  • Non-biodegradable soaps, shampoos, detergents, etc. Products that contain phosphates and synthetic materials are harmful to the environment and should be avoided when backpacking.
  • Single-use, disposable items. These all take up space in your pack and create waste that you’ll need to carry out with you. Opt for reusable items whenever possible.
  • Razors. Most people avoid shaving on backpacking trips, so leave the razors at home. Skipping shaving will save space in your pack and reduce your risk of uncomfortable issues like chafing, razor burn, and skin infections.

Conclusion

Now that you know the basics of backpacking hygiene, you should be well prepared to stay clean and healthy on your next multi-day hike. With the right knowledge and careful preparation, you don’t have to choose between feeling fresh and packing light on a backpacking trip. By following the tips in this article, you can remain comfortable on the trail, practice good hygiene, and limit your impact on the environment – all without overpacking.


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