Before you step onto a trail or sleep in the woods overnight, one of the last things you are probably thinking about and prepping for is outdoor hygiene.
Instead of pondering hiker and camper hygiene, your priorities are most likely remembering to pack all of your 10 essentials, understanding trail navigation so that you don’t get lost, and learning wildlife safety to avoid dangerous animal encounters.
Maintaining hygiene outdoors on a backpacking or camping trip is equally as crucial as in your everyday life. Doing this doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy “getting dirty,” and it doesn’t mean that you’re not embracing the smelly hiker mentality. Doing this will keep you clean and comfortable, and help you avoid health issues like UTIs, yeast infections, and skin irritations. While the processes will look differently in the backcountry than they would in your bathroom, you still need to make sure you’re caring for yourself.
I admit that when I first started hiking and camping, I didn’t know anything about “leave no trace” or how to shower correctly outdoors, and I was terrified to pee outside, let alone poop! But with a little bit of learning and lots of practice, I have mastered, or at least successfully executed, outdoor hygiene so I will be sharing some tips and techniques with you!
This outdoor hygiene guide applies to not only backpackers but day hikers and campers. While day hikers can typically apply their regular hygiene routines before setting out on the trail and resume them upon their return, and avoid worrying about things like changing clothes or bathing, they might need to pee or poop outdoors, brush their teeth if they’re going to be gone from dawn to dusk, rinse off in a river after a particularly muddy section, or deal with feminine issues. Campers might not need to fret about packing the bare minimum since space isn’t an issue, and front-country campers could have access to running water, toilets, and maybe even showers, but they’ll still learn helpful tips on what to pack and how to stay clean outdoors.
While camping hygiene will look different on a weekend backpacking trip than on a weeklong adventure, these outdoor hygiene tips in this guide address some common concerns that new (and even seasoned!) backpackers, hikers, and campers might have and situations that they might face.
Outdoor Hygiene Tips for Hikers and Campers
Outdoor Hygiene Essentials: What to Bring and What to Leave at Home
Deciding what to bring and what to leave at home will vary depending on the length of your trip and how light you need to pack, but as a general rule of thumb, these are things that backpackers should prioritize and what things could be left at home.
Car campers, you probably have the luxury of bringing heavier things (and more things), so adjust the list according to your specific situation. Day hikers, you might not need many of these things, but if you’ll be gone the entire day, having some of these items stuffed inside your pack will come in handy!
What to Bring
- Unscented hand sanitizer
- Biodegradable soap
- Biodegradable wipes
- Toilet paper with a plastic bag for the used paper
- Feminine hygiene products, if necessary (with a plastic bag for the used products)
- Scrubba or plastic bag to wash clothes
What to Leave at Home
Hygiene Basics for Hikers and Campers
Brushing Your Teeth Outdoors
If I am day hiking, even if it’s for the majority of the day, I tend to leave my toothbrush and toothpaste at home. It’s not worth the hassle. I can brush my teeth before my hike and again when I get back home (or to the car).
But when it comes to camping and backpacking trips, I definitely bring my dental hygiene essentials along. It’s important to keep up on teeth brushing even in the woods when cleanliness might not be at the forefront of your mind.
Up until last year, I had no idea what the actual Leave No Trace rules were about brushing teeth outdoors. I thought I had to spit into a bag and pack it out as I do with my toilet paper and trash. Or at least dig a hole and bury my foamy rinse. But I was wrong.
The method according to LNT (Leave No Trace) is a fun technique (yes, I said fun), and while it might be surprising and you may laugh, this is exactly the technique you should follow when brushing your teeth outdoors.
How to Brush Your Teeth Outdoors: Step-By-Step “Eco Spray” Technique
- Walk at least 200 feet away from trails, campsites, and any water sources.
- Try to pick a spot where nothing is growing, like a wide-open dirt path. Note that this isn’t always possible.
- Squeeze a pea size amount of paste on your toothbrush.
- Brush your teeth as you normally would.
- When you go to spit, use as much force as possible to spray the paste all over the ground.
So why exactly do you need to spit your toothpaste using this technique? Well, according to Leave No Trace, spreading your toothpaste evenly over a large area will reduce the impact it will make on the environment. Spewing a light spray into the wilderness will most likely bring the concentration down to a level that will have virtually no effect on the environment.
Brushing Your Hair Outdoors
Natural elements like wind, precipitation, and humidity cause tangly and frizzy hair. To reduce the chance of tangles, style your hair in a braid or ponytail. If your hair isn’t long enough to throw up or twist, try wearing a hat to contain the unruliness. You can also bring a small foldable brush to aid with the tangles.
Peeing, unlike pooping, is allowed almost anywhere outdoors. (Okay, not anywhere. There are laws against public urination, but you know what I mean. I’m talking trails here). This is also one of those things that novice hikers are the most scared, concerned, or worried about doing. We’re used to porcelain toilets with plumbing and doors and walls for privacy, so of course, peeing in the middle of the woods is going to be intimidating at first. But rest assured, once you’ve done it a handful of times, you’ll get more comfortable. Soon, it’ll seem as normal as using the restroom in your own home! Okay, nothing will be quite as comfortable. How about as normal and comfortable as using a public restroom…or maybe a pit toilet?
So how do you pee outdoors? First, keep in mind that you need to follow Leave No Trace. Keep the ground as clean or cleaner than you found it. This can seem impossible when you’re urinating on the ground, so I’m going to go over everything you need to do to properly pee outside!
Men, you have it easy. Women, these tips are for you.
Peeing Outdoors Basics
- Move to a spot that is at least 200 feet from trails, campsites, and water sources.
- Choose whether you want to squat or use a pee funnel.
- Choose your method of wiping.
- Pack out any wipes or toilet paper that you use. Never leave it outside, even in a hole.
- Follow Leave No Trace.
Methods of Peeing Outdoors
- For squatting, find a soft spot of earth that absorbs quickly (like pine needles) so that you don’t get splashed. Keep a wide stance so that you stay balanced and don’t spray your shoes.
- Pee funnels allow you to pee standing up. Before using a pee funnel, practice at home.
Methods of Wiping Outdoors
- Use toilet paper, stuff the used paper in a separate plastic bag, and pack it out.
- Use a pee rag or bandana. Kula Cloths are popular in the backpacking community. Kula Cloths, pee cloths made for women, are designed with an antibacterial fabric that is absorbent on one side and waterproof on the other. These cloths don’t get smelly and they can easily clip to the outside of your pack to air dry and reuse later. (Don’t use these for #2)
- Use snow, leaves, or whatever you can find lying around you. Make sure you don’t accidentally use poison ivy. Ouch.
- Use biodegradable wipes, stuff the used wipes in a separate plastic bag, and pack it out. These are heavier than toilet paper sheets.
- You can shake dry, which is essentially letting yourself dry naturally, but you run the risk of getting a UTI.
Tips for Peeing Outdoors
- If you’re on a rafting or paddling trip where you’re camping along a wide river, Leave No Trace recommends peeing directly into the water. The river volume will dilute it, and your camping area won’t get over-saturated in urine.
- If you’re in mountain goat territory in high alpine regions, try to pee on rocks. Since mountain goats are attracted to the salt in your urine, they will dig up fragile vegetation if you pee on plants.
- If you’re peeing on a hill, pee uphill so it runs away from you.
- Search for a private spot behind tall trees, wide plants, or big boulders. If you can’t find privacy near you, wrap a towel (or another piece of clothing) around your waist or have a partner be on the “lookout.” But hey, if someone spots you (or vice-versa), it’s not the end of the world. Hikers and campers are usually pretty respectful. They’ll probably apologize, quickly avert their eyes, and walk away.
- If you have to pee in the middle of the night, and especially if it’s cold and you’re cozy, you could use a disposable bottle and pee funnel so that you don’t have to leave your tent. Close the lid and leave it outside your tent. In the morning, dump out the contents 200 feet away from your campsite, the trails, and any water sources.
Pooping outdoors is a bit trickier than peeing. Not only because it’s physically more difficult but because rules about this action vary from place to place. It’s important to do your research on the place you’ll be hiking, camping, and/or backpacking because some parks declare that it’s okay to poop outdoors as long as you dig a cathole while others say that you must pack out all human waste. Also, it can sometimes be difficult to find soft ground to dig a hole, like in the desert, so you’re left with no choice but to pack it out.
How to Poop Outdoors (When You’re in an Area That Doesn’t Require Human Waste to Be Packed Out)
- Move to a place that is at least 200 feet away from trails, campsites, and water sources.
- Dig a hole with a trowel (or stick or rock that you might find) that is about 6-8 inches deep.
- Poop in the hole.
- Pack out your toilet paper in a plastic sealable bag.
- Fill the hole back in. Place a rock on the hole if possible so that animals don’t try to dig it up.
- Use hand sanitizer to clean your hands.
How to Poop Outdoors (When You’re in an Area That Requires Human Waste to Be Packed Out)
- Go directly in a biodegradable poop bag.
- Pack it out.
- Use hand sanitizer to clean your hands.
Dealing With Menstrual Period and Cramps Outdoors
Women, sometimes when you’re outdoors you might have to deal with yet another uncomfortable issue…periods. If you have the flexibility, try to plan your trip around your time of the month. This might not always be possible with your schedule or with unpredictable periods, so you might just need to learn to manage it on the trail. I’m here to help you with that!
Ways to Manage Periods Outdoors
- Menstrual Cups. This is the most eco-friendly method of managing your period outdoors. The cups don’t produce waste and you don’t have to change them as often as pads and tampons. However, you will need to empty the cups out using the cathole method just as you would dispose of human waste. Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and bury the contents at least 200 feet away from trails, campsites, and waterways.
- Pads and Tampons. This method is probably most similar to what you do off the trail, so it might seem easiest to transition to this method outdoors. Keep in mind that you will need to change them more often, the products are heavier after being used, and you will have to pack out all the used products.
- Cramp Aids. As for cramps, you’ll deal with them in the same way that you would at home. Everyone’s body reacts to periods differently. For some, you might experience heightened pain, bloating, fatigue, cramping, and headaches. For others, the exercise associated with hiking might relax your muscles and reduce your cramps. But if you do undergo cramps on the trail, try popping OTC medication like Advil or Tylenol, reducing your sodium intake to prevent bloating, staying hydrated, and applying on-the-go heating patches.
Bathing outdoors is extremely refreshing! A nice dip in a natural water source could cleanse your pores, soothe your aching muscles, and wash all that dirt off your skin. But sometimes, all you might need is a quick wipe down, so here are some tips to follow when cleaning your body outdoors.
Bathing Outdoors With Soap
- Use a backpacking solar shower if you have it! Fill the bag with water, let it sit in the sun to warm up (if you can), hang it on a branch, and you’ll get a short shower! Use a universal eco-friendly soap to wash your body and/or your hair. Make sure you are at least 200 feet away from trails, campsites, and bodies of water.
- If you don’t have a solar shower, fill a bladder or jug with water, move to a spot at least 200 feet away from trails, campsites, and bodies of water, and shower using eco-friendly soap.
Bathing Outdoors Without Soap
Take a dip in any body of water! I find flowing rivers and alpine lakes to be the most refreshing. Rivers, with their cold moving water, and alpine lakes, with their frigid temperatures, will leave you feeling refreshed without the need for soaps.
Skip the Shower and Use Wipes Instead
For those who won’t be out in the backcountry for very long and either don’t feel the need to shower or just wants to wipe off quickly, use biodegradable wipes to clean up instead. Wipes like these are great for every inch of your body. Even though they say biodegradable on the package, you must pack them out. Animals can dig them up and concoct a mess.
Taking care of your skin is important even in the backcountry. While you don’t necessarily have to worry about full makeup routines (some of you might, and that’s perfectly fine!), I’m mostly talking about face cleansing and letting the feet breathe.
It’s okay to stick to your normal routines, just try to make it as lightweight and compact as possible. Instead of bringing entire bottles of cleanser, full packages of wipes, or an entire bottle of moisturizer or lotion, divide out what you need in small baggies or containers to carry with you in your backpack (or your tent or car, if you’re front-country camping).
First, face cleansing. If you’re prone to acne or you don’t want to stray too far from your normal skincare routine in fear that you’ll break out or dry out, bring along your skincare essentials into smaller bottles and containers.
Next, let your feet breathe! After your feet are trapped inside boots all day on the trail, they’ll appreciate being “let out” and air-dried. To prevent blisters, wear waterproof boots and wool socks on the trail, and switch to camp shoes like sandals or Crocs when you get to camp. Have dry socks to slip into at night.
Whether you want to go au natural or glamorous in the backcountry, you have the freedom. Different hikers might choose to bring different products that make them feel good, and that’s completely fine. We all have those luxury items that we don’t mind the extra weight they have! Do what makes you feel good and happy. Just make sure you’re following Leave No Trace principles! Skincare, even ones that say they’re biodegradable or eco-friendly, could cause harm to the waterways and fragile aquatic life.
Laundry and Changing Clothes Outdoors
First, wear the right clothes on the trail. Fabrics like synthetics, wools, nylons, and spandex are acceptable. Synthetics and wools are the best; synthetics are quick-drying and wools are insulating, quick-drying, and odor-free.
Doing Laundry Outdoors
Unless you’re going to be out backpacking longer than a weekend, you might not need to do laundry on the trail. A simple rinse of your clothes in the river and a hang-dry on a clothesline could be all that’s needed.
But if you want to use soap to really rid the smell, stains, and/or layer of filth on your clothes, consider a lightweight laundry solution like a Scrubba. Scrubbas are portable washing machines that are perfect for trails and campsites. The bag is lightweight and folds into a very small triangle when not in use. When opened up, it performs as a camp washing machine. Simply dump your clothes, soap, and some water into the bag, and the wash bag and inner washboard will clean your clothes in just minutes. Pitch the dirty water, replace it with clean to rinse, and you’ll have fresh clothes. Make sure to dump the water at least 200 feet from any water source. Your soap, even eco-friendly, could contaminate the waterways.
Scrubbas are terrific for backpackers, campers, and van-lifers who don’t have access to washing machines!
Changing Clothes Outdoors
Depending on how long you’re going to be backpacking, you will probably need to bring changes of clothes. Most backpackers bring at least one change of clothes to switch into at night. You don’t want to wear your trail clothes to bed. Bringing an extra pair of socks and underwear will allow you to wash and hang dry the other pairs overnight.
How to Pack Your Hygiene Essentials
Pack your hygiene products in a way that makes sense to you. If you’re not sure how to start, use my method and tweak it to your personal preference once you head outdoors!
First, I bring a “bathroom bag,” which is a small zippered pouch with toilet paper, a resealable plastic bag for used paper, a trowel, and hand sanitizer, at the top of my bag. That way, when I’m hiking and need to go, I can easily retrieve it.
As for my other toiletries, I keep them zipped up in another pouch that is near the bottom of my bag since I won’t need them until I reach camp. This will usually have my travel toothpaste, compact toothbrush, floss, a baggie of wipes, and a small bar or tube of biodegradable soap. Having these in a separate pouch is not only convenient for organization and makes it easier to grab, but I can also simply toss it in my bear canister if I’m in bear country.
Leave No Trace
Though I’ve tried to make it very clear throughout the blog post that Leave No Trace is important, I will summarize many of the ways you can make sure you’re practicing these methods in regard to your outdoor hygiene:
- Stay at least 200 feet away from trails, campsites, and water sources for all sudsy bathing, laundry, teeth brushing, peeing, and pooping.
- Use the “Eco Spray” Technique when brushing your teeth. Post-brush, spray your foamy rinse all over the ground.
- Dig a hole that is 6-8 inches deep for all human waste.
- Dispose of your waste properly by packing out all toilet paper, trash, wipes, feminine hygiene products, bottles, bags, etc.
- Try to buy and use eco-friendly products.
Eco-Friendly Outdoor Hygiene Products
- Kula cloth
- Saalt Menstrual Cup
- Bamboo toothbrush
- Biodegradable Wilderness Wipes
- Biodegradable poop bags
There’s nothing wrong with dirt. Dirt-caked skin and clothes indicate a true hiker who has done some serious exploring. However, you need to make sure you’re caring for yourself even in the middle of the woods so that all you return with are good memories, not an infection.
Practice good hygiene and always leave no trace!