Staying Clean on an Adventure: Trail Hygiene 101

If you love to hike, you probably don’t mind getting a little dirty. Muddy feet, sweaty shirts, and grime under your fingernails are all part of the trail experience. But there are a few good reasons to practice good hygiene while out in the woods. Poor habits like not washing your hands can spread diseases, and excessive dirt can cause bacterial infections in even small wounds like cuts and scrapes. Not to mention, not filtering your water can cause serious gastrointestinal problems. Not to mention, on longer backpacking trips, keeping good hygiene just makes you feel more comfortable and keeps you happy. A clean hiker is a healthy hiker, and a healthy hiker will enjoy many more miles on the trail.

Hikers should brush their teeth 2 to 3 times per day, just as they would at home. | Credit: Karen Miller
Hikers should brush their teeth 2 to 3 times per day, just as they would at home.
| Credit: Karen Miller

Clean Your Teeth

Hikers have a tendency to eat sugary snacks on the trail, so brush your teeth 2 times a day, just as you would at home. Pack a tiny toothbrush and a roll of floss, or carry a titanium toothpick instead of floss. Did you know you don’t need toothpaste to clean your teeth? A good brushing with clean water does the trick. If you prefer to use toothpaste, try an all-natural brand like Tom’s or Dr. Bronner’s, or take along a tiny container of baking soda. Swallow or spray your foam to prevent large globs from sitting on the forest floor. If you use floss, be sure to pack it out!

Above the Waist

To keep your hair clean, wear a buff or bandana. If your hair is very long, braid it tightly. Give your hair a good brushing before bed to remove debris that may have collected on the trail. For general above-the-waist hygiene, use a damp bandana to wipe down your body. Bathroom wipes are okay, but be sure to pack them out. Even if the package says they’re flushable, they are not biodegradable. Scented deodorant and soap attracts animals, so leave these items behind if you can.

A bandana, biodegradable toilet paper, reusable bathroom wipes, and hand sanitizer will keep you clean and healthy on the trail.  | Credit: Karen Miller
A bandana, biodegradable toilet paper, reusable bathroom wipes, and hand sanitizer will keep you clean and healthy on the trail.
| Credit: Karen Miller

Below the Waist

Carry only biodegradable toilet paper and use it sparingly. If you have to poop on the trail and there’s no privy available, choose a site that’s at least 200 feet off the trail, away from any water sources. Dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep, and 4 to 5 inches wide. (Follow local guidelines if they are more rigid or specific.) It’s always preferable to carry out used toilet paper. If you choose not to do so, bury it. For feminine hygiene products, always pack them out in an odor-proof bag.

Take Care of Your Feet

Your feet are your greatest asset when you’re hiking, so give them the treatment they deserve. When it comes to feet, a bandana is your best friend! Dip a clean bandana in water and use it to wipe your feet, especially before you go to sleep at night. This practice will keep your sleeping bag cleaner, too. Try a pair of toe sock liners which keep your feet cleaner than socks alone—they also help prevent blisters. If you come across a brook or stream, take off your boots and socks and give your feet a good, cold soak. If you don’t have access to water or have a limited water supply, use bathroom wipes to clean your feet. You can also make your own reusable wipes, and wash them out when you return home. Boil two cups of water with a tablespoon of coconut oil and a teaspoon of vinegar. Cut bandanas into wipe-size squares and soak in the liquid. Let cool and squeeze out excess liquid. Place in ziploc bags. Use separate bags for above-the-waist and below-the-waist cleaning. Used wipes can go into an odor bag to be washed when you return home.

Mud season is especially challenging when trying to practice good hygiene on the trail. | Courtesy: Joe King
Mud season is especially challenging when trying to practice good hygiene on the trail. | Courtesy: Joe King

What About Soap?

Do you need soap on the trail? Not really. You can wash your hands and face with plain water, and use a squirt of hand sanitizer on your hands and fingers. Trim your fingernails as short as possible before your hike and your nails will stay cleaner. But if you’re a soap person, only use a biodegradable brand, and never use soap in a stream or lake. Your choice of cleaning products helps maintain a “clean” trail, so think twice about what cleaning products you carry and whether you really need them.

Should You Wear a Mask on the Trail?

Evidence has shown that the virus is much more difficult to transmit outside, but social distancing and mask-wearing should still be big parts of your outdoor activities. While you probably don’t need to wear a mask when no one else is around, wear a Buff or bandana around your neck and quickly pull it up over your mouth and nose when you pass others, especially if the trail is too narrow to maintain 6 feet of distance. Although lots of hikers prefer to stay in shelters, this may not be the best time to do that. Carry a tent, pitch it away from other hikers, and be respectful of your fellow campers.