The minimalism and utilitarianism of camping are attractive to many outdoors enthusiasts. As a concept, the idea of taking only the essentials, and everything serving a purpose, can be very enticing. When we camp or go backpacking, there’s one common concern among those to whom personal hygiene is very important- how will I stay clean while camping?
The great outdoors is rather a dirt place- there’s no other way to put it. Hiking through forests and going on exciting excursions can leave a camper quite grimy by the end of the day. Without regular plumbing, without even a shower, campers must be a little more creative when it comes to staying clean.
For the benefit of those around you as well as your own, it’s best not to neglect your hygiene on camping trips. It can be tempting to forego some of your usual routines when camping, and this is a big part of natural breaks, but keeping yourself clean is still important.
This article will cover the basics of how to keep yourself clean during daily activities, as well as the rules and regulations which keep both campers and wildlife safe. There’s also a few camping hacks you may not have thought of which will really help you stay fresh on your upcoming camping trips.
Especially when backpacking, some compromises may have to be made when it comes to what you class as “clean”, but this article is full of tips and tricks on how to stay clean while camping, to keep you fresh and ready to take on another day.
Camping hygiene essentials
Camping and backpacking are usually synonymous with limited space. If you have room to bring all your usual toiletries from home then go ahead, but for most of us, what we bring needs to be narrowed down to the essentials.
You’ll probably want to bring along:
- Toothbrush and toothpaste: Oral hygiene goes a long way to helping you feel clean.
- Dental floss: this can also double as a string in a pinch.
- Hand sanitizer: Most people wash their hands at least 11 times a day, and there won’t always be a sink and soap available, so hand sanitizer is a definite must-have item.
- Wipes: Moist towelettes or baby wipes are vital for quick “showers” and using the bathroom
- Toilet supplies: If you’re primitive camping, or your campground doesn’t have a bathroom, then you’ll need to bring along such items as biodegradable toilet paper, wag bags, and a small shovel or trowel.
- Shampoo: Forego your usual detergent-based shampoo, it’s bad for the environment and not at all efficient. Instead use a product like Dr. Bronner’s, which is a really valuable multi-purpose item. As well as washing hair, it’ll wash your body, clothes, dishes, and can even be used as toothpaste. Another alternative is dry shampoo.
- Biodegradable soap: See Dr. Bronner’s as above.
- A washcloth: Cleaning your body while in the backcountry is much easier with some type of washcloth, a cotton bandana will work just fine.
- Suncream and lip balm: Not exactly hygiene products, but a decent SFP sunblock and lip balm are essential items to bring along.
- Feminine hygiene products: Try a menstrual cup, it’s much better for the environment and is easier to deal with when camping. Otherwise, make sure to bring along a few extra plastic bags for used products.
- Towel: A fast-drying microfibre towel is a great option for camping, and takes up less space than a regular towel.
- Clothesline: If you need to do some laundry, you’ll need a place to hang it to dry.
You don’t need to bother with:
- Shampoo: Traditional shampoo is terrible for the environment.
- Deodorant: The smell can attract wild animals.
- Razors: Camping’s all about going natural, embrace the beard, and let your legs go wild.
- Mirrors: Not space-efficient, and easily broken.
- Anything not bio-degradable: Be kind to Mother Nature.
- Disposable products: You’ll have to carry them around until you find a bin
Showering is the first task you’ll need to tackle while camping. After a sweaty day on the trail, most of us are in need of a good scrubbing. There are a few options for showering while camping, so let’s go through some of them now.
If you’re staying at a campsite, or on a better-equipped expedition, you may be able to use a camping shower. These come in all shapes and sizes, but our favorite type is the solar shower. Solar camping showers work by using the sun’s heat to warm up water over the course of a few hours. Then you can simply shower as you normally would. Another option is to build your own DIY camping shower.
If you’re going a little more lightweight, especially if you’re backpacking, then you might need to shower a little more different than usual. Instead of thinking of it as a disadvantage, see these showers as a way to get back to nature, part of the camping experience. A great option to get clean at the end of the day is a dip in a lake or river.
Not only is a cool swim both fun and refreshing, but it also does a great job of helping to rid your body of dirt and sweat. Don’t use any soaps as these can harm wildlife in and around the water unless you have one specifically designed to be safe for wildlife. Be careful to swim away from any area where other campers might collect water or fish.
If there’s no rivers or lakes nearby to take a dip, try out a trail shower. Strip down and use a washcloth to clean your body with biodegradable soap and a few liters of water. Pay special attention to your face, underarms, groin, lower legs, and feet, to avoid fungus and chafing. You should take a trail shower at least 200 feet from any lakes, streams or rivers to avoid contaminating the water.
If it’s too cold or impractical for a trail shower, a sponge bath is the next best option. Simply strip off and use a bandanna, sponge, or other washcloth soaked in water and detergent to clean yourself. Moist towelettes or wet wipes work well for this too- however, they’re less of an efficient option.
Using the bathroom
When the moment strikes to go number two in the woods, some people harbor understandable trepidation. Campsites equipped with bathrooms can save you from this challenge, and another easy solution is to bring along a camping toilet. These can be used in RV’s, camper vans, even in tents, and are designed to be lightweight and portable.
However, if you’re backpacking or primitive camping, this isn’t going to be an option. When answering nature’s call, there are a few guidelines to follow:
- Pick a spot at least 200-feet from the trail, from any water source, or from any campsite. It should be above the high water mark and look for darker soil to dig in.
- Dig a hole at least 6-inches deep, and make sure to cover it over afterward.
- If rules and regulations require you not to leave anything behind, treat it as you would a dog’s poop and pick up with a plastic bag, including any used toilet paper or wet wipes.
- Position wise, you can opt for the classic squat, otherwise, hang your butt over the edge of a boulder or log, or instead hold onto a tree trunk and lean backward.
Make sure to thoroughly clean your hands using hand sanitizer afterward, this is the perfect way to make sure your hands stay clean while on the trail. Many hikers are quick to blame illness on contaminated water, but hand-to-mouth infection is just as frequent a culprit. Just drop a dime-sized blob of hand sanitizer on your palm, and massage it in until it dries.
Cleaning your clothes isn’t an issue for weekend campers, but for anyone on a longer trip, laundry has to be done at some point. Certain campsites offer laundry facilities, but most of the time you’ll have to find a way to keep your clothes smelling fresh yourself. If you’re without access to washing facilities, here are three methods you can use to do your laundry while camping:
1. You can wash your clothes by hand, the old fashioned way. Fill a plastic bucket or bowl with warm water. If your access to hot water is limited, read up on how to boil water while camping for a variety of options to heat water for your laundry. Add a little detergent to the water, bio-degradable is best, and toss in your dirty clothes. Scrub them with your hands, a great technique is to run the clothes against each other. Then, give them a quick rinse with clean water, and hang to dry. If you brought a clothesline it’ll come in handy at this point, otherwise, you could improvise one with some string or just hang your clothes from the trees.
2. The trash bag method is another option for doing your laundry while camping. Put all your dirty washing in a clean garbage bag, along with soap and warm water. Jostle the bag around as much as you feel like, the idea is to emulate a washing machine’s spin cycle. Then rinse with clean water and hang to dry. If you’re in a sunny area, laying your clothes over rocks in the sunlight can be an effective way to dry them.
3. If you’ve set up a base camp and have the resources, a portable laundry system is certainly the most effective way to wash your clothes while on a camping trip.
You should never use normal laundry detergent for camping laundry. Always opt for an alternative that won’t damage the environment, like Dr. Bronner’s. It’s not appropriate to wash your clothes in streams or lakes, even with an environmentally friendly detergent, as this can be seriously damaging to the life it holds. However, if you aren’t using any soap, it’s perfectly fine to rinse out your clothes in the water.
Here we will share a few tips and tricks to make your time spent in the backcountry a little easier, and to help you stay clean and fresh on your excursions:
- Using a sleeping bag liner is a must, especially for longer-term camping. A liner will catch the dirt and oil from your body, which will not only extend the life of your sleeping bag but keep you clean as well. You can air out the liner during the day, so it’s a little fresher when you go to bed at night.
- Any form of wipe will help you stay clean in the woods, from head to toe. They can serve as a water-less shower and are a more hygienic way to clean up after using the bathroom. As always, a biodegradable wipe is a preferred choice.
- Synthetic clothing will help save on packing space, especially for backpackers. Unlike materials such as cotton, synthetic clothing will wick away sweat from your body and limit bacteria, going a long way towards keeping you feeling fresh.
- Everyone on the trail or at your campsite is probably going to be a bit stinky- that’s the way it is in the outdoors. Leave your deodorant behind on camping trips, it takes up unnecessary space and can attract wild animals, we’re talking bears here. It’s something you probably don’t want to risk.
Backpacking on your period is no big deal, people do it all the time. All you have to do is be a little more prepared, and your camping trip will go off without a hitch. A menstrual cup will save on weight and space when packing, so for lightweight backpackers, it’s a preferable choice.
However, a lack of soap and hot water could cause problems for cleaning. If you use tampons or sanitary towels at home, you can use them on the trail, it all comes down to what you’re comfortable with. This option does produce more waste, so just make sure to carry a plastic bag for disposable items, and bin it once you reach an appropriate site.
Rules and regulations
There are a few rules and regulations in place with regards to camping hygiene, in order to ensure nature is kept safe for everyone to enjoy. It’s all about respecting the wilderness and adhering always to leave no trace guidelines. The most important rules are listed below, but you should also check with local park rangers to ensure you aren’t putting any wildlife at risk. Following these regulations will also help avoid potentially dangerous animal encounters, so follow them to keep yourself and all the other campers and trekkers safe too.
- Always properly dispose of solid human waste. It should be packed out or buried every single time- just think of the people coming down the trail behind you.
- Any time you go to the bathroom in nature, you should be at least 200 feet from any water source. Again, check with the local authorities, as some areas require you to pack out all solid waste for environmental protection reasons.
- Any time you use a disposable product or a detergent, it must be biodegradable. Otherwise, you must pack it out. Bio-degradable soap is a must, as regular detergents can be extremely damaging to wildlife.
- Scented hygiene products, of any kind, can attract wild animals. This includes mosquitos, rodents, and even bears. Always keep this in mind before dousing yourself in Axe body spray.
- If you do need to take scented toiletry items, it’s paramount that they are properly stored. This goes for even your toothpaste and is especially important if you’re camping in bear country.
Staying clean when camping seems like an impossible task, but with a little know-how and some basic preparation, you’ll have no problem at all staying fresh and clean on your trip.
All it takes is a little planning ahead, but this can be slotted in with all your other camping preparation as well, as we all know any serious camping excursion requires some research and a proper plan of action.
Our hygiene tips have explained how to use the bathroom, how to shower, and how to do your laundry amongst many other tips and tricks. There’s so much fun to be had in the great outdoors. We can learn so much from our planet’s natural environment, and camping is a great way to get back to nature. Because of this, we should also all work together to look after our environment, and each camper needs to do their part.
Just remember your hygiene kit, and the leave no trace guidelines, and you won’t have any problems. Enjoy your next foray into the great outdoors, the backcountry is an amazing place with many enriching experiences to offer, and now you know how to stay clean while camping, so there’s no excuse not to get out there and have some fun!
Bonus tip: If you’re looking for some creative ways to make your dirty work in the woods not so dirty, check out these tips for making a backcountry bidet!