Backcountry Hygiene 101: You Don't Have to Smell Bad to Smell Better

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, backpacker Teresa Hagerty shares her tips on how to stay fresh(ish) on long trips into the backcountry.
Teresa Hagerty Teresa Hagerty
Foothills Backpacking Committee
May 16, 2020

Hello gorgeous! You - yes, you! With the messy hair, dirty legs, and that certain wilderness glow about you. You look fabulous!

You can absolutely look and smell great in the backcountry. The amenities of your million-star hotel can include everything you need for clean skin, sparkling teeth, and mostly inoffensive aromas. These are the tips you need to maintain good hygiene in the backcountry. Learn how to stay fresh(ish) with the right combination of tools, know-how, and Leave No Trace practices.

BODY ODOR PREVENTIONS

Clothing

The best offense is a good defense. Minimizing body odor and
bacterial growth begins with your clothes. I rely on wool or
wool blend base layers for all multi-day trips. This includes all
base layer shirts, socks, and underwear. Wool and wool blends
have a natural resistance to bacteria, including the body odor-causing staphylococcus hominis, are naturally quick-drying,
and retain their warmth when wet. Fellow adventurers on a
month-long trek in Nepal recently put this to the test, wearing
nothing but the same wool base layer shirt every day. I can attest that they were amongst the least offensive trekkers
around the dinner table. Wool works!

Bathing

It goes without saying that most backcountry adventurers
don’t have regular access to showers. But that doesn’t
mean you can’t bathe, you gorgeous filthy animal. My daily
backcountry hygiene routine starts as soon as I arrive at camp.
My first priority is drying my feet to reduce odors, minimize
the risk of athlete’s foot, and reduce the chance of blisters.
I then change into dry socks and breathable camp shoes (I
prefer lightweight, close-toed Crocs). I also wipe my face and
hands with a rehydrated unscented wet wipe (ex. Wysi Wipes).

A warm day and early arrival to camp may also allow for a
full backcountry bath. A backcountry bath requires a spot a
minimum of 200 feet away from natural water sources, a pack
towel or bandana, water, and biodegradable, unscented soap
(scented soap not only has the potential to attract animals, but
can damage the environment). A few drops of Dr. Bronner’s
soap and a splash of water on a pack towel or rehydrated wipe
is all it takes to get started. I recommend moving from your
face to your hands, then torso, legs, and underarms before
wiping down your bathing suit area. Finally, rinse your pack towel and wash your feet. Complete with a full-body rinse (not in a stream or river!) or by wiping down with a fully-rinsed
pack towel.

A great substitute for a full backcountry bath is some quality
wet wipe time in your tent. I schedule these right before
bedtime. This alternative doesn’t use soap (it could introduce
odors into your tent), but you can still make a big difference
with only a wipe and water. The same top-down order applies.
I use one rehydrated wipe for my face and hands, a second
for my body, a third for the sensitive bits, and a fourth for my
feet. The tent bath is immediately followed by changing into
dry socks, dry underwear, and sleep clothes. It’s important to
sleep in dry socks and underwear to minimize the growth of
humidity-loving bacteria. Excess bacteria can quickly lead to
increased body odor, fungal growth, yeast and UTI infections,
and other unpleasant things. Control what you can – dry
clothes are a great proactive move.

Backcountry laundry

On long-distance treks you may reach the clothing breaking point. You can only stretch the same shirt, underwear, and socks for so many days before backcountry laundry must be done (this is four days for me, since we’re sharing). It’s relatively easy to do with a gallon-sized bag, a few drops of biodegradable soap, and water. Add a few items of clothing into the bag with a few drops of soap and about two cups of water. Agitate the dirty clothing for a couple of minutes and disperse the wastewater at least 200 feet away from natural water sources. Clean laundry items may be dried on a paracord laundry line or clipped to your backpack with safety pins or carabiners.

THE BACKCOUNTRY BATHROOM

Welcome to the awkward part of the conversation: the
backcountry bathroom. Let’s get into it.

Peeing

Let’s start with the easiest to address: peeing. This topic gives
me occasional envy of the menfolk in my life for whom peeing
in the woods can be as simple as finding a semi-private spot.
Yeah, I’m jealous.

Peeing in the woods is a bit more complicated for women. It’s
important for women to wipe or dab away excess moisture to
reduce the chance of bacteria growth in a vulnerable location.
Dry yourself with either toilet paper or a reusable pee cloth.
I’m a huge fan of the reusable and antibacterial Kula Cloth,
which also reduces the volume of used toilet paper to pack
out. Pee funnels are a good alternative too. Follow the same
Leave No Trace principles as the menfolk.

Pooping

Dealing with solid waste in the backcountry is a more
complicated proposition. All solid waste – human or canine –
must be disposed of appropriately. This means depositing solid
waste in an established backcountry privy, burying it in an
appropriately-dug cathole, or carrying it out in a blue bag. All
toilet paper must also be packed out. Please visit the Leave No
Trace informational page or our low impact recreation videos
on Mountaineers.org for more information on this topic.

Maintain hygienic and responsible practices by always packing
out your toilet paper, employing a backcountry bidet, and using
hand sanitizer. A backcountry bidet is a game-changer, and you
can hack a reliable one with a lightweight 4 oz. Nalgene flip-top
squeeze bottle. Use it by manually squirting water onto yourself and repeating as needed. The backcountry bidet  reduces odor-causing residue, the risk of UTI infections, and the dreaded monkey butt. It’s worth its weight in gold.

All solid waste-related events should be followed by hand
washing, and if possible using hand sanitizer as well. As a dear
friend and physician says, do not close the fecal-to-food loop. Ever.

Periods

Ladies, promise me, pinky swear, right now that you will always pack it out. Used feminine products may not be disposed of in backcountry privies or pit toilets (unless you want some poor ranger to fish it out). Luckily, a few items make packing out used feminine products less traumatic. I recommend either a double-layer Ziploc system, with used feminine products placed in an inner bag inside of a duct tape-covered outer bag, or an inner bag inside of an odor-proof OpSak. Menstrual cups are also a good option. Follow the same disposal methods for solid human waste. Keep in mind that menstrual cups must be rinsed each time, and washing with soap or boiling it is recommended at least every several uses to keep bacteria levels low to avoid infection. Rinse it thoroughly to make sure soap is always kept outside of our bodies. 

GO FORTH AND BE CLEAN

Real talk: I may or may not bother with a backcountry bath,
laundry, or clean underwear during a short 2-3 day outdoor
adventure, but I am religious about the unscented wet wipe
bedtime routine. There is a fine balance between maintaining
hygiene standards and embracing the true freedom of the
hills, and that balance is highly personal. For me, this freedom
includes the liberty to be dirty, go to bed with pine needles
in my hair, and wake up smelling like earth. Now go forth and
embrace your own version of backcountry fabulous.

Backcountry Hygiene Tool Kit

Maintain effective backcountry hygiene on every adventure with these items:

  • Liquid hand sanitizer
  • Dehydrated wet wipes (ex. Wysi Wipes)
  • Pack towel – ultralite, face sized
  • Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap – unscented, 2 oz.
  • Mini toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Bathroom kit: toilet paper, Ziploc one-quart trash bag, trowel (ex. Duece of Spades)
  • Backcountry bidet – 4 oz. Nalgene flip-top bottle
  • Pee cloth (ex. Kula Cloth) or pee funnel (ex. Freshette)*
  • Feminine hygiene products (ex. tampons, pads, or menstrual cup) *
    * Women-specific items

MAIN IMAGE OF Erin Sweatland taking her Kula Cloth for a ski tour on the Inter Glacier. Photo by Kristen Connolly.


This article originally appeared in our Spring 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.


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