13 Backpacking Hygiene Tips to Stay Clean and Not Stink

By Emma
backpacking hygiene tips

Here’s our ultimate list of backpacking hygiene tips.

Planning to live out of a backpack for the next few days?

Honestly, when you’re out in the wild and close to nature, cleanliness may not be the first priority. But it doesn’t mean you need to forgo personal hygiene completely while staying in the wild. Besides, you need to be cautious about the various germ sources that can make you sick.

We have compiled some of the most effective tips and tricks to help you stay cleaner and fresher in your next backpacking adventure.

Don’t Use a Deodorant

On the face of it, masking your body odor by using a deodorant might seem like a good idea. But the strong scent can attract a variety of bugs and bears. The same goes for perfumes. 

The truth is, there’s hardly a chance that any of your companions will notice how you smell. They will be smelling as bad as you anyways. Moreover, if you’re in bear country, you need to embrace your sweaty smell to stay safe.

Go to the Toilet Properly

This is one of the most important and often most confusing aspects of any backpacking trip. The thing is, you need to learn a few tricks about pooping and peeing while in the wild. 

Beyond that, waste management is a serious issue. Proper disposal of human waste is a must to prevent the spreading of diseases and avoid the pollution of freshwater sources. Actually, the set of minimum impact practices are a part of outdoor ethics.

It’s important to find a proper location for pooping. Ideally, it should be a less-traveled spot at least 200 feet away from the campsite, trail, and any water sources. If you‘re staying at the same camp spot for multiple nights, don’t go to the same spot twice. 

An elevated spot through which water doesn’t travel and that gets sunlight is a good choice. This reduces the chances of contamination, and the sunlight speeds up the breakdown of waste.

Besides, check whether there are any regulations on human waste in the area you’re visiting. In some sensitive or highly traveled zones, you may need to pack out solid human waste in sealable plastic bags. 

For example, you need to pack out all solid human waste and toilet paper while backpacking in Zion National Park. As per the rules, each camper should carry at least one human waste disposal bag for that purpose.

Here are some of the most important tips that you need to keep in mind.

  • One of the easiest and eco-friendly ways of pooping in the wilderness is by digging a cathole. You can dig an 8-inch deep hole with a lightweight aluminum trowel or a stick. Once used, you can cover the space with soil, rocks, lichen, or bark. 
  • If you’re backpacking in a desert region, the hole should be around 6 inches deep. This is because most biodegradation takes place closer to the surface in arid conditions.
  • It’s best to use white, non-perfumed biodegradable toilet paper and bury it in the cathole. Burning toilet paper can be a risky business and lead to wildfires. Using natural toilet materials like leaves, smooth rocks, or snow as toilet paper is also a good option.
  • Some backcountry campgrounds may have an outhouse with a waste compositor. Using it is a good option.
  • The best way to get into position is to drop your trousers and get into a low squat. You can hang on to a branch or your hiking stick for balance. Otherwise, you can build a set out of stone or socks or use a tree stump or a fallen log to sit on.

Human urine is less dangerous for the environment than fecal matter. However, some animals like deer can get attracted to the salts in urine and this can cause a nuisance. So keeping the right distance from campsites and water sources while peeing is equally important.

Take A Shower, but Get Creative

Washing frequently during a backpacking trip isn’t a practical option. But if you have the chance to take a swim in a lake or an easy-flowing stream, go for it. Make sure that you don’t use any soap or shampoo as that might upset the fragile ecosystem. 

But hang on a minute…

Some high alpine lakes contain organisms that have not been exposed to chemicals from sunscreens, beauty products, and even to the oils in human skin. Avoid using such lakes for bathing.

Another option is to take an occasional sponge bath to wash your face, underarms, groin area, and feet. This will keep the skin free from sweat, dirt and reduce bacterial growth. Carry a quick-dry towel for this purpose. Even if you are using biodegradable soap for this, stay clear of water sources. 

If you aren’t an ultralight hiker, carrying a camping shower can be a great choice. A simple hanging bag with a hose and showerhead operates by gravity and needs no power source. They are available in a variety of shapes and sizes, so pick one as per your requirements.

Fair enough, but what if there’s no freshwater supply?

In areas where you don’t have access to running water, use hygiene wipes or moist towelettes to clean yourself at the end of the day. These wipes contain antibacterial elements and also remove the grime from the skin. Store the used wipes in a ziplock trash bag for disposal at a later date.

Handle Periods Properly

This is an important aspect for the ladies in terms of hygiene. However, this isn’t a deal-breaker or something you need to be stressed about while backpacking. With the right level of preparation and organizing your supplies, you can easily enjoy the trip without worrying about your periods.

To start with, carry sufficient amounts of all the items you need. Picking them up from a store isn’t an option in the wild. 

If you’re using tampons and pads, make sure to pack them out in a resealable waste bag. Burying them isn’t an option as animals can dig them up. To control the odor, you can add some dried tea leaves, ground coffee, or a small amount of baking soda to the bag.

The other option is to use a menstrual cup that’s made from silicone and is reusable. You need to dig a hole daily to dump the contents and wash the cup with some soap. You can also use pre-moistened wipes for cleaning up. 

Warning: make sure that you have tried and practiced the method at home before using it in the wild for the first time. 

Keep in mind that high altitudes may result in alterations in the periods due to hormonal changes. Take proper precautions before heading into such terrains.

Carry a Hand Sanitizer

The pandemic has made hand sanitizers an integral part of our lives. Fact is, it’s a great way of keeping your hands clean and preventing any infectious bacterial diseases. To minimize the risks, use hand sanitizer before preparing food or eating and after going to the toilet.

Since it’s compact and lightweight, carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket is no issue at all. 

An alcohol-based gel sanitizer that’s unscented is the best choice. Moreover, since they don’t require rinsing, hand sanitizers are perfect when you are on dry trails with limited access to water.

Maintain Dental Hygiene

Your dentist will gladly tell you that maintaining dental hygiene while backpacking is one of the easiest things to do. A folding toothbrush and travel-sized toothpaste are good enough to get the job done.

Also, carry some dental floss to remove any traces of food from between your teeth. It’s best to follow a routine of brushing your teeth after every meal. 

We also recommend using biodegradable toothpaste to minimize environmental impact. Remember to spit away from freshwater sources and some distance away from the campsite. You don’t want the aroma to attract critters or larger animals.

Use Biodegradable Soaps

Just because you’re carrying hand sanitizers, don’t forget to pack some biodegradable soap

As per CDC, using hand sanitizers isn’t so effective when your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. So washing your hands with soap and water is by far the best option whenever you get the chance.

Make sure you don’t use the soap carelessly. Don’t rinse directly in a source of water. The best way is to fill a water bottle and walk around 200 feet away from any river or creek before rinsing.

One more thing…

Trim your nails before starting on a backpacking trip. This will ensure that dirt and germs don’t pile up on them.

Pack the Right Clothes

Underwears are clothes that stay closest to your skin for the longest hours. Carry multiple pairs to ensure that you use a fresh pair every day.  Use materials that are breathable and allow the sweat to evaporate

If you wash your underwear while backpacking, dry it completely before use.

To stay clean and comfortable during the night, use a set of “sleeping” clothes.  Since your hiking clothes can get sweaty and dirty during the day, using a separate set of clothes for sleeping is a good idea. 

However, don’t go overboard with your “sleeping” clothes and keep them light and simple. The other thing is, change into your sleeping clothes only when all your other tasks are over and you are ready to move into the sleeping bag.

Other than that, you can think of picking a sleeping bag liner. Apart from adding to the warmth, it also helps in keeping the bag clean.

Keep Your Feet Clean

Remember, cleaning your feet daily is a must while backpacking. With your feet stuck in the socks and a pair of heavy backpacking boots all through the day, there isn’t much space for the skin to breathe. 

The accumulation of sweat and dirt can not only make them smelly but also lead to a nasty fungal infection.

Allow your feet some breathing space by taking your shoes off after a long day. You can also soak them in a running stream to improve circulation and feel fresh. It will also prevent any hot spots from turning into blisters. Clean your feet whenever possible with water or wipes.

Also, you need to change your socks regularly to prevent the growth of bacteria. In addition, allow your shoes to air out. In case they are wet, dry them out before wearing them.

Clean Your Clothes

If you’re on the trail for long durations, the pile of unwashed clothes will start accumulating. The only way to stay trail fresh is to give your filthy clothes a quick wash. 

That said, doing loads of laundry in the wilderness isn’t an option. One pair of outer garments or a pair of underwear is the best you can do in a day.

Most importantly, you need to pack clothing that will dry up quickly. Try to choose special quick-dry materials that are lightweight. While cotton is a breathable material, it takes a longer time to dry and can develop an odor quickly.

One of the easiest ways of washing your clothes is to jump into a lake or a stream with your clothes on and then dry them in the sun. However, this isn’t a good option in fragile environments, where even the nanoparticles of synthetic clothing can harm aquatic organisms.

The other method is to use a zip-up bag and some biodegradable cleaner. Put the clothes and some cleaner in the bag, add some water to fully immerse them and shake the bag thoroughly. 

Once the cleaning is done, empty the dirty water in a hole dug on the ground at least 200 feet away from the water source. Refill the bag with water and wash the clothes until they are soap-free.

If there’s no way to wash your clothes, try airing them out to reduce odors. Hang them in a windy place under direct sunlight to reduce bacterial growth.

Keep The Pots and Pans Clean

Keeping the dishes and cooking pots clean is an important step in your backpacking hygiene routine. This also prevents the growth of bacteria and reduces the chances of infection. Unclean dishes will also attract bugs and mice.

So what can you do about it?

The first step is to reduce the amount of leftover food on your plate. Next, pour some warm water to dislodge the sticky particles. Scrape with the spoon if needed. 

Next, you can use some soap and boiling hot water to clean the pots and plates. Once the cleaning is done, put the greywater in a cathole away from the campsite.

Reduce Chances of Infections

One crucial aspect of staying healthy during backpacking is to manage your drinking water. Make no mistake about it, this is one area where you can’t afford any slips.

Firstly, it’s best to collect water from moving sources and not stagnant ones. Also visually inspect the water source for any signs of contamination before collecting water.

Next, we come to water purification.

The first step is to remove the suspended impurities from the water. You can use a clean piece of cloth for filtration. The other simple method is to allow the water to stand in a pot. The heavier impurities settle down at the bottom in some time.

The most vital part is removing the harmful microorganisms from water.

One simple method of purification is by boiling. You should fully boil it for at least a minute. But if you don’t have enough fuel, it’s best to carry a chemical purifier or a UV water purifier. However, these methods won’t remove any dissolved chemical impurities from water.

Another effective way of drinking water is using straw filters. They can remove suspended particles as well as microorganisms from water. 

Anything else?

To prevent the spread of infections, avoid sharing food and leftovers with other backpackers. Since there’s a general lack of hand hygiene among many people, sharing trail mix from a common bag isn’t the best idea either.

Care for your Skin

Your skin is one organ that is affected a lot by backpacking. Think about heavy sweating, damage from UV radiation, embedded dirt, and chafing and rubbing from the backpack straps.

Here are a few tips you can use to take care of your skin while hiking.

  • To prevent sweat from trickling into your face, use a headband or a bandanna. Choose clothes that are made from absorbent and fast-drying materials.
  • Wipe down the sweaty skin in the chafe-prone areas of your body as much as possible. 
  • Choose sun protective clothing and select the right category of sunscreen. The SPF30 or SPF50 grades are the best options. Apply sunscreen at regular intervals.
  • When you can’t get a bath, clean your skin with wipes to remove the dirt and grime.
  • For ladies with long hair, braiding is the best way to keep your hair clean from dust. Use a wide-brimmed hat for further protection.
  • Wear thick, comfortable socks and choose shoes that fit well to prevent hotspots and blisters in your feet.

These are some practical tips to help you stay clean and fresh during your next backpacking trip. We hope these will help in making your trips more enjoyable.

First-time adventurers might need some time to find out what works best for them. But once you have it figured, you can enjoy your trip despite getting dirty on a trail.

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My name is Emma, and I’m a city dweller who jumps on every opportunity to get out and enjoy nature! I’ve gone on a number of car camping and backpacking trips over the past few years. I created this site to inspire others to get outside and to make the process easier for you.