Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hygiene for the Lightweight Backpacker

One important topic to me, and anyone that I need to share breathing space with, is hygiene. To me, I have real difficulty sleeping when I’m nasty and being clean by the time I get to bed is high on my priority list. Truth be told, I wish it were high on others list too. I also find it important to maintain a certain standard or human connection to the civilized world though routines such as nightly wash-ups, brushing my teeth twice a day, flossing, etc. Other than the obvious personal benefit, the reality is that good hygiene will significantly improve the performance of your clothing, sleep system, etc., as your sweat and body oils do nothing but clog breathability and damage fabrics. Although practicing good hygiene is made a little more difficult in the backcountry, it is achievable.

First and foremost, you don’t need a lot to be clean. My backcountry wash kit consists of something to hold or throw water (water bottle, SilNylon bag or stuff sack, plastic bag….cupped hands), something to dry and scrub myself (bandana, unused clothing, packable towel), and some environmentally-free soap (Dr. Bronner). To give you some links I’ll send you to the Anti Gravity Gear folks ( which have quite a few good options on their website such as a 1 gallon water SylNylon water bag, a fingertip toothbrush, and Dr. Bronner’s soap which you’ll need to repackage Obviously this kind of gear can be found in a lot of places and your preference will obviously guide you. For example, I don’t like the fingertip toothbrush because I don’t like putting my hands in my mouth even if they are clean. I also don’t use a baby toothbrush because they are too small. For me, I simply picked up a regular-sized toothbrush, chopped off the handle to a functional length, and that was it.

Many of you have no doubt heard of backpacking legend Ray Jardine. Jardine coined the term “Dundo Method” in his latest book “Trail Days” to more simply identify the bathing method most of us likely use instead of needing to explain the whole activity. This method was named by Jardine and his wife following their thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. At one point just outside of Skyline Drive, the couple stopped at the “Dundo Picnic Area” to clean up and the name was born. The Dundo Method involves pouring water on yourself while hastily rubbing in a bit of soap, rinsing, and toweling off. To me, this is pretty much just basic bathing outside of a shower with the key being the need to actually rub yourself, with soap, and to rinse it all off as simply dumping water over you won’t solve the greater problem. This method can be accomplished dressed, undressed, or partially dressed, and generally with minimal water and other implements which is the beauty of it. I recommend this type of cleansing on a daily basis.

So what else should you do? Well, keep up with your daily habits is my suggestion. Floss daily, brush your teeth twice per day, wash up at least nightly, and otherwise try to keep yourself clean. Consider wearing merino wool (or Smartwool) to keep the smell down and air out your feet, socks, and any wet clothing often. Truthfully, getting some sun-time on bare skin is almost always a good thing, just be careful of how much skin you show and your audience (i.e. don’t unintentionally cause your 5-minutes of fame to be an ill-advised YouTube moment for the rest of us). Air out your sleep system, tent, and allow it to get some sun time too as frequently as you can. Wash off the back panel and hip belt of your pack to help keep things clean and functional. Wash your clothing when you can, especially your underwear if you never remove them otherwise. Take care of your feet which will require you to change your socks often, give your feet some sun-time, and keep them dry. Ensure you don’t use untreated water on anything which touches any orifice or anything that goes in your mouth. For example, don’t merely dip your tooth brush or yourself in a running stream as water nasties could very well get in your system through methods you never even considered. Your ears and open cuts are prime examples in which water parasites could get into your system. Worth mentioning is the fact that you really shouldn’t bathe yourself, your feet, or your stuff in any body of water in the wilderness. Simply put some water in a container and move at least 100’ away from any water source as otherwise you’ll pollute the water for everyone else. Yes it may be cooling and cleansing to jump in, but if it is a drinkable water source, the rest of us would appreciate not needing to drink your funk…or your pee.

The last topic worth mentioning is, well, how to use the bathroom in the woods. And if you’re wondering, yes there is a formal reference for this topic which includes a book by Kathleen Meyer called “How to Shit in the Woods” ( Essentially, the key is to respect the environment while keeping you and everyone else far from your recycled food intake. In soil which can be dug, dig down at least 6-8” and make your deposit. How do you dig the hole? Well, you can use a stick, your hands, a tent stake, or believe it or not, there are several options on the market which look like spoons or trowels which handle the job just fine. ULA-Equipment even has a miniature ice axe which they lovingly refer to as a Potty Trowel which can do the job too if you really want to go overkill. Once you make your deposit, stir it up a bit to loosen it, and then put soil back on top. Again, stay far away from any water sources. If the soil is rocky, consider the “smear” method which requires you to smear your output on a south facing rock so the sun can beat it up sufficiently. Some very environmentally conscious people actually carry out their poo, including toilet paper, and this is actually a requirement in some parks. Regarding wiping, some choose to use natural objects such as smooth stones or soft ground duff or leaves while others choose to use biodegradable toilet paper if they don’t plan on packing anything out. For those who do need to pack it out, I know several people who use plastic bags or surgical gloves and simply turn them inside out with the contents inside safety stored once the deed is done. Whatever option you use, just make sure you deal with it properly so animals and folks like me don’t have to see it or deal with it. Also make sure you wash your hands and having an alcohol-based soap for quick clean up is always encouraged. Consider the human condition the next time you attempt to be friendly with another hiker by extending your hand to greet them. Hand-shaking is generally discouraged in the backcountry simply because of the spread of funk. Instead, share your mind and your food, but keep your germs to yourself.

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