Let’s talk about that not-so-fresh feeling you get a few days into a backpacking trip.
You know the one—where your scent could probably ward off wildlife better than any bear bell.
We’ve all experienced it: you’re having the time of your life embracing the great outdoors, but you’re starting to smell like the inside of a hiking boot.
I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve that’ll keep you feeling (and smelling) like you’ve just stepped out of a mountain spa—okay, maybe not quite that fresh, but close enough.
The importance of personal hygiene while backpacking
Personal hygiene is the simplest way to prevent the spread of bacteria and infections.
Without regular showers, you’re more likely to develop skin irritations and fungal infections.
Staying clean reduces your chances of getting sick on the trail.
Good hygiene habits also help minimize impact on the natural environment.
Using products like biodegradable soap can be kinder to the ecosystems you explore.
You can minimize odour by wearing moisture-wicking fabrics.
Toothbrushing is as important in the woods as at home to prevent dental issues.
Remember, your comfort on the journey is important.
Taking care of your body boosts your morale and energy levels.
Lastly, your companions will thank you for not bringing any unwanted smells into the tent.
Essential hygiene practices for backpackers
You’ll want to keep your hands clean to prevent the spread of germs, especially before eating.
Carry hand sanitizer and use it frequently, especially if soap and water aren’t available.
If you have access to water, use biodegradable soap to minimize environmental impact.
Our favourite is Campsuds—a concentrated all-purpose soap that’s perfect for camping.
Don’t forget to brush your teeth at least twice a day. Pack a travel-sized toothbrush, toothpaste, and dental floss.
You can clean your teeth with as little water as possible and then use the “Eco Spray” technique, which involves spitting out the paste in a dispersed manner to lessen your environmental footprint.
Body odour management
Staying fresh while on the trail is a challenge, but using unscented deodorants helps.
Wear moisture-wicking fabrics that keep sweat away from your body.
Whenever possible, take a quick dip in a natural water source or use unscented wet wipes to wipe down and manage body odour.
Water purification and usage
When you’re backpacking, you’ll need to treat water to make it safe for drinking and personal hygiene.
This can prevent waterborne illnesses.
Choosing water purification methods
There are several ways you can treat water while backpacking.
Boiling is straightforward: just bring water to a rolling boil for 1 minute, or 3 minutes if you’re above 6,500 feet. But boiling isn’t always convenient, especially if you’re conserving fuel.
There are lightweight options too.
You can use a portable filter but check that it can remove parasites, bacteria, or viruses.
Chemical treatments with iodine or chlorine can be effective but may leave an aftertaste.
Ultraviolet light pens are also popular but depend on battery power.
Conserving water for hygiene purposes
Using water wisely is key. For personal hygiene, you don’t always need a full shower.
Consider wipe-downs with a wet cloth.
For washing up, use biodegradable soap and wash your clothes in a stream or lake sparingly. Also, never contaminate your water sources by using them directly for washing, always collect water and move away from the source to avoid polluting it.
Eco-friendly products and techniques
When backpacking, using eco-friendly products helps protect the natural environment you’re enjoying.
Biodegradable soap selection
You’ll want to choose biodegradable soap for cleaning yourself, your clothes, and dishes.
These soaps break down naturally in the environment and leave no harmful residues.
Just a reminder—we highly recommend Campsuds.
Remember to use them at least 200 feet away from water sources to avoid contamination.
Natural alternatives to common products
Look for natural items you can use instead of processed products.
For example, you can swap out traditional toothpaste for baking soda, which is effective yet gentle on the environment.
Also, consider using leaves, snow, and smooth stones for toilet paper if you’re comfortable with that — it’s a very direct way to reduce waste.
Hygiene kits for backpacking
Assembling your hygiene kit
You’ll want to pack the essentials without overloading your backpack.
Start with travel-sized unscented soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and dental floss, which doubles as utility string.
Include alcohol-based gel hand sanitizer and unscented moist towelettes for quick cleaning.
Cotton bandanas or quick-dry towels are versatile for hygiene and cooling down. Pack your toilet paper in a plastic bag, or if you’re up for it, consider natural alternatives like leaves or snow.
Weight and space considerations
Your kit should be lightweight and compact as every ounce counts on the trail.
Purchase small, lightweight containers that won’t leak and fill them with your products to save space.
Go for multipurpose items like biodegradable soap, which can be used for body, hair, and even dishwashing.
Choose items specifically designed for backpacking—they’re formulated to be environmentally friendly and are usually more concentrated, so you can pack less.
Dealing with waste while backpacking
Human waste disposal
You’re deep in the woods, miles from a restroom—what do you do? First off, always pack a trowel.
Dig a cathole at least 6-8 inches deep and 200 feet away from water sources, trails, and campsites.
Use the trowel to cover your business with the soil you dug up.
In areas where catholes are not permitted, you’ll need to pack out your waste using waste bags.
These bags are specially designed to contain odour and bacteria until you can dispose of them properly.
If you’re going somewhere with regulations about human waste, you’ll likely need to carry out your waste, so be ready with a portable waste containment system such as WAG bags or other human waste bags.
Remember, toilet paper has to be packed out too, so bring a sealable plastic bag for that.
Or, better yet, use natural alternatives like leaves, snow, or smooth stones—just be sure they’re not from a sensitive or harmful species.
Managing your period while backpacking can be a worry, but with the right preparation, it’s just another part of the trip.
Pack out all your menstrual products in a discreet, opaque plastic bag.
Consider using a menstrual cup for a more eco-friendly and less bulky option.
Just make sure to rinse it at least 200 feet from any water source.
For longer trips, bring extra supplies and double-bag them to prevent animals from being attracted to any scents.
For cleanup, unscented baby wipes are a good choice, and always pack them out.
Check out the tips from The Mandagies on staying hygienic during your days on the trail.
Personal hygiene in different climates
Hot and humid conditions
In hot and humid weather, you’ll sweat more, which can lead to body odour.
Stick to lightweight, breathable clothing to help moisture evaporate. It’s vital to have a good biodegradable soap to stay fresh. Keep your feet dry to prevent fungal infections; change socks often.
For cleaning your hands, alcohol-based gel hand sanitizer is your best friend. Pack plenty of unscented moist towelettes or baby wipes for a quick body clean-up when you can’t shower.
Don’t forget to dry off to avoid chafing.
Cold weather challenges
When you’re dealing with cold climates, layering is key. You want clothes that wick moisture away from your skin.
Sweat can freeze and make you colder, so change out of damp clothes as soon as you can.
Your face and hands are exposed more in cold weather, so keep them clean to prevent chapping.
Use a small, quick-drying towel when water is scarce, and make sure you dry your skin properly.
Remember, water can freeze, so pack enough hand sanitizer to clean your hands without it.
Foot care on the trail
Pick the right boots: Your boots are your best friends on the trail.
Make sure they fit well and give your toes enough room to wiggle.
Break in your boots: Wear your boots before the hike to soften them up.
This will help prevent blisters and discomfort.
Keep your feet dry: Wet feet are prone to blisters.
Use moisture-wicking socks and change them if they get wet.
Use a gentle scrub: Remove rough patches on your heels with a scrub to prevent friction.
Lace your boots properly: Adjust your laces for comfort.
Try different lacing methods if you feel pressure points.
Moisturize your feet: After a day’s hike, moisturizing your feet will help them recover and keep them soft.
Take breaks and elevate your feet: Taking breaks during your hike reduces swelling and fatigue.
Carry a repair kit: Include blister plasters and tape in your kit just in case you need them.
Remember, happy feet make for a happy hiker.
Take care of them, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go on the trail.
Staying clean without a shower
Rotate your clothes. When you’re backpacking, it’s smart to wear the same clothes for more than one day.
Instead, rotate them to avoid building up too much dirt and odour.
Use wet wipes. Handy and easy to pack, unscented moist towelettes or baby wipes are great for a quick body clean up.
Choose biodegradable soap. If you find water, a small amount of biodegradable soap can help you wash up, just remember to do so at least 200 feet from any water source.
Bring a bandana. A cotton bandana can serve as a washcloth to help scrub away the grime.
Practice dry dusting. Without water, you can use a small towel or bandana to dust off loose dirt from your skin.
Brush your teeth regularly. Maintain dental hygiene by brushing your teeth with toothpaste and a toothbrush, and don’t forget to floss.
Go for a swim in a lake or river. If it’s warm enough and safe, rinsing yourself off in a large body of water can go a long way.
Personal hygiene and wildlife safety
When you’re backpacking, be mindful of how personal hygiene can attract wildlife.
Don’t store your scented hygiene products in your tent.
Instead, keep them in a bear-proof container away from your sleeping area.
Biodegradable soap is a good choice but still needs to be used 200 feet away from any water sources.
- If you need to wash yourself or your clothes, carry water 200 feet from streams or lakes to minimize impact and avoid contamination.
- After washing, scatter the used water so it filters through the soil, which helps break down soap and bacteria.
Animals have a strong sense of smell and can be drawn to odours from products like lotion, deodorant, and toothpaste.
You should know how to hang a bear bag or use a bear canister to store items with a scent.
Remember, even if you’re using unscented products, rinse cloths or wipes well away from your campsite.
Disposing of waste properly is also key to minimizing animal attractions.
Use established latrines or dig a cathole that’s 6 to 8 inches deep for human waste.
Always pack out toilet paper and hygiene products to leave no trace and keep wildlife safe.
Lastly, if you’re washing your clothes, choose environmentally safe detergents and avoid introducing foreign substances to the natural water source.
It’s not just about keeping yourself clean—it’s also about preserving the natural environment and keeping wildlife undisturbed.
More about backpacking:
- How to pack your backpack for a trip
- How to deodorize your backpack without washing it
- How to make your hiking boots more comfortable
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).