Hygiene is a clinical-sounding word, but it can have profound consequences on your health and well-being during a backcountry jaunt.
How does California-based water expert Dr. Howard Backer define the importance of hygiene? "Hygiene is direct preventive action taken to prevent or reduce enteric (intestinal) illness," he says.
Traditionally, backpackers have thought that just means carrying and using a water filter. A bigger concern, Backer says, is what medical types such as him call "fecal-oral transmission." Ew, gross. But it happens. Happens a lot, in fact—and research indicates it causes many more cases of intestinal distress than does ingesting Giardia.
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this, advice you probably heard many times years ago from your mom: "Wash your hands!"
Some tips for staying healthy outdoors:
Much (and probably most) intestinal illness experienced during or after an extended outdoor adventure is due to poor hygiene, particularly unwashed hands. Solution:
Soap residue contains nutriments that can spur algae growth in otherwise pristine water, and algae can spawn populations of disease-causing microorganisms. It's a problem that's on the increase, according to backcountry water researcher Robert Derlet (read our Backcountry Water Quality Q&A article). Some solutions:
Scrubbing with soap and water is your best choice for cleanliness. When speed and convenience are vital, sanitizers offer a handy option.
Waterborne pathogens such as Giardia are not as widespread in backcountry water sources as once believed. A number of researchers and medical experts believe that much water in the wilderness (particularly in remote, high alpine settings) is drinkable without treatment. (See our companion article Water: In the Wilderness.) Yet any adventurer should always be equipped with a treatment method for any situation where water is viewed with suspicion. Some danger signs:
It's not a popular chore, but after one run-through most people find that it's a manageable task. Here's the typical process:
Ideally, a campsite should be a previously impacted area with the following attributes:
REI offers several worthwhile books that further explain the topics of wilderness health, sanitation, hygiene, even emergency response (not discussed in this article). Group leaders should know this information.
Some healthy reads typically available at REI:
Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (The Mountaineers)
Wilderness 911 (by Eric Weiss)
A Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness and Travel Medicine (by Eric Weiss)
Making Camp (by Dennis Coello, et al.)
Medicine for the Outdoors (by Paul Auerbach)
Wilderness Medicine: Beyond First Aid (by William Forgey)
How to Shit in the Woods (by Kathleen Mayer)
Walking Softly in the Wilderness (by John Hart)
Medicine for Mountaineering (James Wilkerson, editor)
National Outdoor Leadership School: Wilderness Medicine (by Tod Schimelpfenig)
Don't Get Sick: The Hidden Dangers of Camping and Hiking (by Buck Tilton and Rick Bennett)
A note on book availability: REI's book selection varies from time to time. Any of these titles could drop out of our product assortment at any time. Sometimes a particular book REI stocks may be temporarily unavailable due to product issues with individual publishers. And new books may be added before we have a chance to update this article. We apologize if any of these circumstances occur.
By T.D. Wood
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Last updated: 02/18/2014
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