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Personal Hygiene

Keeping Clean on the Trail


Probably the best cleanliness invention for backpackers has been waterless hand sanitizers like Purell. These are alcohol-based liquids with moisturizers. Pour a small amount on your hands and rub your hands together until it evaporates. The alcohol kills up to 99 percent of bacteria so your hands will actually be cleaner than washing with soap. The ease of use means that you can easily clean your hands in just a few seconds after that quick jog off the trail instead of trying to set up a soap-and-water handwashing station. They also save water, which in some situations may be in short supply. Keep your hand sanitizer in with your toilet kit so that when someone heads off to go she can wash up immediately afterward.

The one disadvantage to waterless hand sanitizers is that, since there is no “rinsing action” as with soap and water, not much dirt actually leaves your hands (it just moves it around). If your hands are really covered with dirt that you want to remove, do a quick rinse with water before using a hand sanitizer. Note that alcohol-based products like Purell do not contain antibacterial agents as do some other cleaning products and therefore do not contribute to making more resistant bacteria. In fact, these products are so effective that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using them instead of antibacterial soap. Foil-pack alcohol towelettes or unscented baby wipes are other alternatives. The disadvantage is that you have to pack out the used towelettes as trash.

Soap and Water

Soap and water can also be used for cleaning, but soap can be a problem for Leave No Trace camping. Most commercial soaps contain phosphates, which, when released into water supplies, stimulate the growth of algae. These algae blooms quickly use up significant amounts of oxygen in the water. When the algae die off, the lowered oxygen content often kills other microorganisms, plants, and even fish. For this reason, never use soap directly in any water source (stream, river, or lake). If you are going to use soap, you should only use soaps that are phosphate-free and biodegradable, like Campsuds or Dr. Bronner’s Soap. Keep in mind that “biodegradable” means that the soap will eventually break down in the soil, not that it has zero impact. This is why all washing with soap should be done at least 200 feet (61 meters) from any water source. The soapy water filters through the ground slowly and breaks down before it reaches the groundwater. Because biodegradable soap has some, albeit small, impact, whenever possible, it’s good to avoid using soap if you don’t need it (for example, if just a good water rinse will do). However, there are situations when soap or other cleaners are essential to maintaining good health.

Personal Bathing

Getting the whole body clean is a bit more of a challenge in the backcountry. Collapsible water bags with shower attachments (shower bags), such as the MSR Dromedary Bag or a SunShower, make this process much easier. You can also use a large cooking pot. Make sure you have an adequate water supply available and ready at your washing site before you start (so you don’t run screaming around camp with soap in your eyes, looking for water). Again, your washing site should be at least 200 feet (61 meters) from any water source and on a resilient spot that won’t turn into a soapy mudpit as you wash. Here’s the procedure:

1. Rinse yourself off. Use a shower bag, large water container, or cooking pot. If the only thing you have on you is dirt, you can rinse off in a stream. If you have “contaminants” on your skin (excessive body salt, sunscreen, insect repellent), avoid rinsing directly in a water source since these chemicals can contaminate a small water source (see “Tricks of the Trail,” below). The rinse might be the end of your washing if you don’t plan to use soap.

2. Lather up, using the least amount of biodegradable soap possible; you don’t need a lot to get clean.

3. Rinse yourself off with the shower bag or pots of water. The help of a friend always makes this easier. The soapy water will soak into the ground and be filtered by the soil.

Women's Hygiene Issues

Both women and men need to be comfortable talking about menstruation in the wilderness. For women who have not been in the backcountry before, the physical exertion of the trip can cause their period to start early or not to occur at all. Neither of these is uncommon or dangerous, but for a woman who is used to being very regular, it may be cause for concern. Proper hygiene is important in minimizing the possibility of infections. Women should clean themselves daily, washing from front to back to keep fecal bacteria from entering the vagina or urethra. Wash your hands thoroughly before and after cleaning yourself. Purell hand sanitizer (provided by OA) or premoistened, unscented cleaning towelettes can be a good way of preventing contamination from dirty hands.

Tampons vs. Pads

Some women have a definite preference for one form of protection. There are also some considerations for the backcountry. Tampons take up less space and may be more comfortable for strenuous hiking. To avoid infections, use tampons with applicators; tampons without applicators require scrupulously clean hands for insertion and are not recommended in the backcountry unless you can ensure that your hands are clean. Make sure you have sufficient supplies for the trip, even if you are not expecting your period. For some women, the increase in physical activity can bring on an early menstruation.

Disposing of Tampons, Pads, Towlettes

These should be packed out. Bring a colored plastic bag with you. Invert the bag over your hand and pick up the used tampon or pad. Fold the bag back over the tampon or pad. A crushed aspirin or a wet tea bag will minimize the odor from soiled tampons and pads. If you use hand towlettes you can put this in with the pad to control odor. Another method is to use a small piece of aluminum foil that can be wrapped around the tampon or pad and sealed. Don’t try to burn tampons or pads in a fire. It takes an extremely hot fire to burn them completely.