April Showers: Hygiene in the Wilderness

April 1, 2018
By Jessica Duke, MD

Wilderness hygiene isn’t just about getting rid of your stink – it’s crucial for your health and well-being, as well as that of your fellow hikers. Poor hygiene can lead to urinary tract infections, nasty rashes, GI illnesses, dental infections, and a number of other preventable diseases. It can be difficult to stay clean in the wilderness, but being dirty in the wilderness is a choice.  For the sake of your health (and those of us who have to smell you), here are a few hygiene tips to help you stay as healthy and fresh in the wilderness as possible:


Let’s start with “number one” and “number two”. Using the bathroom in the wilderness can sometimes be uncomfortable, but not doing so can create worse problems.  Holding your stool causes constipation, which can lead to abdominal pain, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and bowel obstructions. Holding your urine creates a breeding ground for bacteria, which can result in urinary tract infections.


Now that you are ready to use the bathroom in the wilderness, there are some standard hygiene practices that should be followed. To decrease the risk of spreading pathogens, the US Forest Service recommends disposing of human waste 200 feet away from water sources and campsites. To protect vegetation, try to urinate on rocks or non-vegetated areas whenever possible. Your surrounding environment will dictate how to dispose of your stool. If you are in a high use area with bacteria rich soils, bury your stool and biodegradable toilet paper in a 6-inch deep hole. In remote settings with nutrient poor soils, surface disposal is an alternate technique that is effective at reducing fecal mass and organisms by direct exposure to UV light. Toilet paper must be packed out if this method is used. In environmentally sensitive, snow-covered, and high traffic areas, everything must be packed out. Use one bag like a mitt to pick up your stool, then place that bag in a larger, sealable bag for transport, and dispose of the plastic bags in the appropriate receptacles back at the trailhead. 


After using the bathroom and before cooking or eating, make sure to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal issues. Hand sanitizers are highly effective and easy to use, but if your hands are covered in dirt, rinse them with water before using the sanitizer or else you’ll just spread the dirt around. Cooking tools and equipment should also be washed with soap and water or diluted bleach (1 tablespoon of bleach in 1 gallon of water) immediately after use. 


Washing your hands and cookware in the wilderness is relatively straightforward; getting your whole body clean is a bit more challenging, but just as important. The combination of sweat, oil, and dead skin cells leads to clogged hair follicles, inflammation, and even an overgrowth of yeast. Feeling grimy can also negatively affect your sense of well-being. Therefore, you should try to clean your body at least every other day. While lakes and rivers may seem like ideal spots for a bath, sunscreen, insect repellant, and even biodegradable soaps can contaminate the water. Just like your bathroom site, your washing site should be at least 200 feet away from water sources and campsites. When washing, pay particular attention to your armpits, crotch, feet, hair, and hands, as these are prime areas for infections.  Women should clean themselves daily, washing from front to back to keep fecal bacteria from entering the vagina or urethra. If you don’t have a collapsible shower bag or large cooking pot, simply give yourself a wipe down with wet wipes. 


It’s also refreshing to change your clothes before going to bed. If you’re backpacking or need to travel light, you probably won’t have a new change of clothes for each day of the trip. However, it is prudent to pack extra underwear and socks. Regular underwear changes are your first line defense against yeast and urinary tract infections. Sweaty, wet socks increase your chance of blisters and foot infections so it’s important to switch to a dry pair as soon as they start getting sweaty or wet. If you’re traveling in conditions warm enough for your clothes to air dry, you may want to consider washing your clothes, especially underwear, socks, and sports bras. Again, wash with biodegradable soap 200 feet from water sources and campsites. Just make sure that you have one dry pair for the morning, as sometimes they won’t dry out completely at night. Tie any wet clothes to the outside of your pack to finish drying the next day.


Lastly, remember to keep up with dental hygiene. Brush and floss your teeth regularly to prevent your gums from becoming inflamed. A toothbrush, dental floss, and toothpaste can help prevent tooth problems and leave you feeling refreshed.