Chapter 18: Hiking Light – Ultralight Trail Hygiene

Ultralight trail hygiene is pretty simple, and the necessary gear can be very light. A little experience will help you figure out the important principles.

We all enjoy the freedom of the outdoors. We come to expect and be comfortable with a certain amount of trail grime. But a reasonable amount personal hygiene will help us enjoy ourselves more by being refreshed. Good hygiene shows a respect for others and the environment, too.

Here’s the most important information first. Most of the gastrointestinal problems hikers have while in the outdoors are not caused by giardia, but by not cleaning their hands after defecating or not cleaning their cookware properly. If you take care of those two potential problems, you’ll increase your odds of a happier hike.

When you need to defecate in the woods, use a privy where available. If a privy isn’t available, find a place at least 200 feet from water sources and the trail. Dig a hole with a stick. You don’t need to carry a trowel. It’s extra weight and could become unsanitary. Make the hole about 6 inches deep. The top layer of soil is best for decomposition. If you use toilet paper instead of natural materials, make sure you use white, unscented paper. It’s more biodegradable. When you’re finished, place the paper in the hole, too. Cover with soil, and if possible, place a rock or bark over the area to discourage animals from digging.

If you use wet wipes, and it’s legal to build a fire, you can burn the wipes thoroughly in a hot fire. If you can’t have a fire or don’t want one, you’ll have to carry out the wet wipes. In some areas, you may have to carry out your excrement. Be prepared with a lightweight double-bag system.

Wash your hands with just a few drops of biodegradable soap. There are several popular brands that can be used for hands, face, body, hair, clothing, dishes, or anything washable. You can transfer some of the soap to a ¼ or ½-ounce container and have plenty, even if you’re hiking long distances between resupply points. Some hikers also like to use an antibacterial hand sanitizer, or a soap that is both biodegradable and antibacterial. There are studies that indicate antibacterial products are not as helpful as advertised and that washing only with soap is as effective as using an antibacterial soap.

When you urinate try to stay 200 feet away from water, trail, and campsites.

When you need to clean your body, fill a water bottle and take it away from streams and lakes. This keeps your body dirt, oils, sweat, sunscreen, and insect repellent from contaminating water sources. With a small amount of water, you can do a great deal of cleaning. Put a little water on your towel and a drop or two of soap. You can use a very small camper’s towel. Use one small towel for bathing and one for kitchen use. Wipe the dirt from your body, and then rinse the towel. Repeat the process until you’re finished. If you’re not alone, you can do a great deal of cleanup while wiping with the towel under your clothing. You can get quite clean using very little water inside your tent. This is a very helpful technique when dry camping and water sources are far apart.

Cleaning your feet helps avoid blisters and athlete’s foot infection. The dark, moist, warm area inside your shoes is the perfect environment for athlete’s foot problems. It’s nice to clean your feet at the end of the day and wear the next day’s clean socks to bed.

You can wash your hair using very little water and soap, too. Short hair is the easiest to clean and maintain. Consider a haircut before any long hike.

Brushing your teeth when you’re camping can be ultralight and easy. To save a little weight, you can cut your toothbrush down a little in size. To drive your hiking partners crazy and have a little fun, you can drill holes in the handle and act like it’s a huge weight savings.

Instead of toothpaste, consider using tooth powder. It’s lighter and more environmentally friendly. Tooth powder is still available in more stores than you might imagine. You can find more natural brands in health food stores. If you google “tooth powder” you’ll find recipes to make your own. They can be as simple as 3 parts baking soda and 1 part salt. Any powder can clog the sealing portion of ziplock bags, so keep your toothpowder in the smallest, lightest plastic container you can find. Some hikers brush without toothpaste, citing studies and experts that say brushing your teeth is important, but toothpaste isn’t.

Remember you need to use clean water to brush your teeth, and clean water to rinse your toothbrush. If you rinse your toothbrush in water that’s contaminated with giardia, it’s still contaminated when it’s dry. It’s a good practice to rinse your toothbrush in very hot water when you get home.

It helps to maintain good oral care by flossing your teeth when you’re backpacking. You can keep the floss ultralight by taking enough individual pieces for your hike and keeping them in a very small ziplock bag. The floss can also serve as backup string for repairs.

Cleaning your cookware is important when you’re backpacking. Always wash your dishes far from water sources. Just as you use very little soap when bathing, you should use very little when washing your cooking gear. If you leave too much soap residue on your dishes, it can lead to diarrhea.

You can reduce your cooking gear weight and cleaning time by using only one kettle for cooking and eating. Cleaning your kettle is easier if you scrape as much food as possible from the kettle as you finish eating. Many meals leave a thin layer of grease on your cookware. Rather than using a lot of water to remove the food and grease, it’s usually easier to use natural materials such as leaves, needles, or sand to clean your kettle. When it’s nearly clean, you might want to finish with one or two squares of toilet paper. Of course, the toilet paper should be burned or carried out with your trash. Save weight by leaving the scouring pad at home. They get dirty quickly and hold bacteria. Boiling the water for your next meal will disinfect the kettle. If you have cold cereal such as granola for breakfast, it’s best to eat it right from the bag so you are never using a potentially dirty kettle.

Of course, when you get home you should clean your cooking gear. That’s a good time to remember to clean, or replace, your water bottle, too.

Cleaning your clothing, especially your socks, is important on long hikes. When the weather is warm, you can put on the rain gear and clean your shorts, pants, and shirts. Long-distance hikers should experiment with their clothing before their hike to see which gear dries more quickly. If you like several types of socks about the same, you might as well use the ones that dry fastest while hanging on the back of your pack.

Most hygiene in the outdoors is common sense. Concentrate on keeping your hands and dishes clean. Practice the standards that will help you feel refreshed. You can do these things while packing ultralight.