I have been asked how I keep clean while backpacking. If you’re not already an experienced backpacker, you might not like my answer to this. Backpacking changes your standards for things like cleanliness and the quality of food. This change in your outlook on life is probably the biggest benefit of backpacking. Eventually you’ll come to appreciate being able to sit on the subway car no one else will ride in and you won’t mind so much when its leftovers night. You’ll marvel at the amount of time your more domesticated friends spend cleaning their homes. And you might not ever be asked to babysit.
How to Keep Clean While Backpacking
As with most aspects of backpacking, how to keep clean depends on the length of the trip, your destination, and the time of year. Your level of exertion, diet, and body chemistry may also come into play. The clothes you wear will also be a contributing factor in how much funk you build up on your body.
Weekend Trips and General Tips
I don’t do much to keep clean on weekend backpacking trips. We usually start hiking Friday evening or Saturday morning and we’re home by Sunday night. Sure I get dirty during that time, but its not a health problem and I’m really only around other stinky backpackers. During these short trips, there are 4 tips I can give you that help: a) Drink a lot of water, b) eat clean bro!, c) wear wool, d) air your feet at night.
Drink More Water
There is no part of health or life that doesn’t benefit from drinking more water. Water is how your body cleans itself. Most of the toxins developed in your cells while you work are picked up by the blood and deposited in your kidneys to be flushed out. Other waste products are flushed out though your skin as you sweat. The processes of urination and sweating both rely on copious amounts of water. The more you drink, the more you’ll dilute the pollution that your body is trying to expel. Drinking a lot of water will help you keep clean while backpacking.
Eat Clean Bro!
GIBO: Garbage In, Garbage Out! If you eat clean, you’ll be clean. If you eat a lot of pre-packaged foods with lots of preservatives and grossness, well… you should have seen it coming. Try to fill your diet with as much natural foods as you can. That may be difficult on the trail, but owning a dehydrator really helps. Pack lots of dried fruits, nuts and veggies, but avoid the store-bought stuff with added sugar and salt. The same goes with proteins: you can dry your own fish and chicken to make flavorful jerkies with no dextroflavitoxins. Eat clean bro!
Have you ever seen animals washing themselves down with soap? Nope. That’s because natural fibers are naturally anti-microbial. Not just that, but super fine merino wool helps to wick sweat away from your body and not holding it against your skin. I’ve replaced most of my base layers with naturally clean wool that helps me keep clean while backpacking.
Let the Dogs Out
Finally, do your feet a favor and air them out at night. They spend all day locked up in waterproof shoes or boots. Its how Cosmo Kramer describes taking a bath, “sitting there in a tepid pool of my own filth. All kinds of microscopic parasites and organisms having sex all around me.” It may add a few ounces to your back, but changing out of your socks and shoes and putting on a pair of airy sandals goes a long way toward keeping clean while backpacking.
On longer trips, it is nice to get a little cleaner every few days. It isn’t that hard to do. Plan a short hiking day (preferably a sunny one) and schedule in some time for a bath. If you’re not using soap, and local regulations allow, you can jump into the water and scrub yourself down. Take off your clothes, swish them around in the water, and hang them up to dry. You can spend the next few hours wearing your poncho or rain gear.
Don’t use camp soap in ponds and streams! Even biodegradable camp soap is bad for the environment. Namely, it forms a film on the surface of the water that prevents proper oxygen exchange. If you need to use soap, get yourself a collapsible bucket full of water and bath at least 150 feet from the source.
If you’re hiking on a popular long distance trail like the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, or Camino de Santiago, you can usually find a shower every few days. My experience along the AT is that you run into a trail town at least once every week. This is a great opportunity to head to a hostel or motel to take a real shower (with soap!) and get your clothes cleaned at a laundromat. There are also many state and local park facilities along these trails that have accommodations for hikers and day users. Take advantage of these facilities when they’re available. Town days are a particularly good day to get clean, since that’s the only time you’re going to run into anyone who cares anyway.