Basic Backcountry Hygiene: Why do it!?

Note: Somewhat personal info and medical terminology for the squeamish. 🙂

When I was a lad of twelve, I went to Camp Yawgoog in Rhode Island. Yawgoog is one of the oldest Scout camps in the country. Frankly, I did not learn any outdoor skills I use today. 🙂 But I did pick up a case of conjunctivitis (pink eye)! A twelve-year-old away from home for a week and not showering is not a good combination. Even though there were gym-style showers!

You would think I would have learned my lesson a decade or so later when I started backpacking. Oh, I showered on my early thru-hikes when in town and after my weekend or so backpacks, of course. But I did not clean up on days when in the backcountry. A malady of ailments hit me: Blisters on desert hikes, jock itch, Athlete’s foot, chafing on the thighs and back, and cases of what is colloquially known as Monkey Butt or Swamp Ass.

I embraced the so-called Hiker Trash lifestyle. Why? Because I was stupid! As with many young men (and some older men surprisingly!), I equated being grungy as part of the outdoor lifestyle.

Showers and cleaning off? That’s for town time!

Around the time I hiked The Colorado Trail, and no coincidence about the time when I turned 30, I realized there is nothing particularly outdoorsy about neglecting basic hygiene. A simple sponge off with an actual sponge or a bandana with even just water in particular areas helps prevent helps prevent chafing, rashes, infections, and blisters. And some basic hygiene helps you be a good ambassador when in town.

On my Utah walk, I’d spend a part of the morning washing off, clean my feet, and wash my face. Sometimes in the afternoon, too. The difference versus those earlier walks was terrific. I covered lots of miles and hours per day hiking through some arduous terrain. And the blisters, chafing, and other ailments were non-existent.

On a hiking forum, I posted this seemingly basic advice. An experienced hiker called these ideas “Yuppie Bullsh**!”

This “advice” astounded me. Not only is this so-called advice contrary to what most experienced backcountry enthusiasts and medical professionals state, but the idea of cleaning up after sweating all day would also certainly please my decidedly non-Yuppie mother. 🙂

But I shouldn’t be surprised. A fair portion of male backcountry enthusiasts of all ages and experience levels dismiss the concept of spending 5 or 10 minutes sponging off, cleaning the feet, and washing the face a bit. And it is always men!

from Pinterest

So from that exchange, I thought I would post some practical ideas and techniques and why basic hygiene works.

The “Gear”: You don’t need anything fancy for some basic hygiene in the backcountry. An extra bandanna or, as my buddy Disco, advocates, a .fifty-cent dish sponge for the basic washing. Some hand sanitizer. Perhaps some Dr. Bonners or similar and maybe a small plastic bottle for a “Backcountry Bidet.” And being a modern sort of backpacker who also does trail maintenance, I suggest a potty trowel, too!

Some people advocate bringing baby wipes, but I find it makes just one more item to pack out with my garbage. I will make use of baby wipes when on extended car camping trips, however.

Remember to wash off and take bathroom breaks away from water sources esp in high use areas!

Now, rinsing off won’t get you completely clean and odor free (in particular with all the synthetic clothing and gear many of us use!). But even a little basic hygiene goes a long way to making you feel better, making the people in town more appreciative of you, makes the gear more effective, and helps prevents some easily avoid maladies in the long or even short term.

from Life Feed

On to the ideas…

  • The Agony of Da Feet: Grit in your shoes and around your feet means blisters. Feet that do not air out with filthy socks also is a direct cause of Athlete’s Foot. When I first started backpacking with my buddy Tim, not long after his boot camp days, he always quoted his Drill Instructor: “Clean feet equals happy feet!” It took me many miles of hiking to appreciate this sound advice. Best way to apply this advice? Simply clean your feet off with a sponge or spare bandanna. Rinse off your socks. Let the feet dry out. Place your wet socks on a “dry cycle” attached to the back of your pack and swap in your clean(ish) socks.
  • Prevent chafing: Salts and sweat on the body mean chafing especially after many cumulative hours of hiking. Rubbing between the thighs or where your equipment is rubbing; mainly on your back where ventilation tends to the poorest. I find using my extra bandana on those areas at least once a day gets rid of the salts that is the cause of these issues. In extreme cases in particular with hot or humid environments, you help avoid boils, too.
  • Clean the upper body, and you’ll feel better: Here’s a no-brainer that’s easy. Rinse your face, pits, and hair (for those not bald like me. :D). Migitage those oils and bacteria that cause the armpits to smell. Getting rid of the salts and oils on your face always makes me feel so much better and helps prevent acne. And who wants greasy hair? Even if you are bald as I am, cleaning the scalp feels so much better, too.
  • Stop Monkey Butt! : There are many techniques for doing #2 in the backcountry. Hell, there is even a book written about it. 🙂 But keeping a clean backside is going prevent a case of an inflamed rectum..aka Monkey Butt. An itchy, nasty rash where you don’t want it. Rinse off after doing #2 and during your daily cleaning. Just wiping with TP or other materials seldom does the trick completely. A very well-known backpacker relayed a story to me how when he was in his twenties and after his AT thru-hike, that he had a nasty a case of boils on his backside. I sense a theme here about young and cocky *male* thru-hikers. 🙂
  • Jock Itch: Sweat down under, salts and lack of basic hygiene means a very bad-smelling crotch due to bacteria growth. And, itching “down under.” Get rid of those salts, rinse off the undershorts (away from water!) if you wear them, or (and I find this technique best with baggy shorts) forgo underwear altogether. Some people bring Gold Bond powder or similar. I find a good rinse does the trick for me. YMMV.
  • And basic hygiene helps keep your gear and clothing cleaner and longer lasting! All those sweats, oils, and salt noticeably impact your sleeping bag the most. The insulation will be less effective the more sweat, oils, and salt it collects.

These techniques aren’t just for thru-hikers, either. On a multi-day backpack or even a weekend backpack, I’ll clean off to some extent. And I definitely prefer to clean off at the trailhead before going into town for that burger craving!

From the Mr. Clean Twitter account. Even when sponging off, I will never look this clean-cut, however. 🙂

And last, and certainly not least, using these techniques makes you more presentable in town and even to fellow outdoor users.

I’ll quote friends from the outdoor world who have some anecdotes that explain it well:

From Audra:

I once had the extremely unfortunate experience of sharing a hut with an anti sponge man. The stench was so strong you couldn’t eat next to him for the pungent malodor. The bad part was that this hut actually had running water and a tub…..ewwww! I fully support the sponge method!

From Mike:

I met a guy at Standing Bear a few years back that bragged that he hadn’t bathed since Springer Mountain.
He slept alone that night

From Ken:

Yeah, a nightly cleanup with a bandana, some water, and maybe a little trail soap makes me feel a lot better. Not to mention it also keeps my sleeping/town clothes cleaner, my sleeping bag cleaner, and my hiking partner/spouse happier.

So please do yourself a favor and perform some basic hygiene in the backcountry. Your body will like it, your fellow outdoor users will appreciate it, the people in town will be more amenable to you, and your gear will be more effective.

It ain’t just for yuppies. It is for everyone!

Or, as my friend David Vitti stated:

Replacing weekly hotel stays with a $0.30 dish sponge doesn’t sound very yuppie.


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Ex BPL guy
Ex BPL guy
6 years ago

In SoCal we rarely ever have water. Gotta haul in every drop. So water for hygiene is DELUXE luxury.

Another Kevin
6 years ago

To your list, I add a 150-gram nylon bucket. How else do you avoid bathing too close to the water source?

The piece of Tyvek that I use so that I’m not sleeping in the mouse poo on shelter floors or as a doormat in my tent vestibule is a great way to make sure that I’m not making mud underfoot when rinsing off.

Desert hiking may be a different set of tradeoffs. As often as not, I’m hiking in beaver swamp.

Another Kevin
6 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Yeah. I use both. Wash in the cookpot, rinse in the bucket. The bucket is also a water hauler, settling tank if the water is turbid, and fire extinguisher (whenever I have a fire going, even my stove, I feel better with a half bucket of water at hand). Elf suggests that it would come in handy for dumping over the head of a fellow hiker, but I’m neither enough of a runner nor a fighter to deal with the consequences.

6 years ago

I also bring a light sylnylon bucket. When water is available, I’ll scoop up 2L and head into the woods. Take clothes off and wet down with my “dirty” microfiber towel, then scrub with camp soap, and use the rest of the water to rinse. Dry off with the clean towel. It improves my attitude tremendously on top of smelling and feeling better. The bucket is also useful for washing day clothes before letting them dry overnight

6 years ago

Always picking up tidbits of great info. Thanks all!

6 years ago

great article! Keep it up PMags, miss your personality on The Trail Show.