5 Wilderness Hygiene Tips for Feeling Fresh in the Backcountry

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When you’re out for multiple days on the trail, it can be hard to stay clean. Your body, your clothes and your gear will have to contend with the elements, and that can mean getting a bit dirty.

As the strong outdoorsperson that you are, this may not seem like a big deal and you could be tempted to just tough it out. But ultimately, feeling grimy for days or weeks on the trail can negatively affect your sense of well-being, your hygiene and your health. Not keeping your private parts clean, for example, can cause yeast infections in women, and urinary tract infections in both sexes.

Fortunately, you can both enjoy your time in the wilderness and stay clean—to a point. Here are some simple wilderness hygiene tips to help you stay as fresh and healthy on the trail as possible:

1. Multiday trip? Bring multiple pairs of underwear.

If you’re out for a week and like to travel light, you might not be able to bring a pair of underwear per day. But you should at least change every 2-3 days, and never wear damp underwear for hours or days at a time. Avoid cotton underwear, which is slow to dry when damp, and go for synthetic or wool. Regular underwear changes will be your first line of defense against yeast and urinary tract infections.

And yes, guys should change their underwear too, or risk urinary tract infections, itchiness and chafing.

Learn more on how to choose underwear.

2. Multiweek trip? Try washing and drying your clothes.

If you’re traveling in conditions warm enough for your clothes to air dry, you may want to take a crack at washing and drying your clothes, especially underwear, socks or sports bras. If there’s a river or a good-size lake nearby, you could rinse clothes by dipping them in the water. To really wash your clothes, however, collect water with a cooking pot and carry it 70 paces away from the water source to lather up (and just use a tiny bit of soap that’s biodegradable). Place your clothes on rocks or hang them from branches to dry. If it’s windy, you can pin your clothes down to dry by placing small rocks on them.

3. Wash your private parts.

If you collect water to wash your clothes, take the opportunity to wash your private parts. Use water, biodegradable soap and a handkerchief (again, at least 70 paces from a water source). If you’re in an alpine environment without access to running water, you can melt snow and wash yourself with warm water from a pot.

Never wash your body or your clothes with soap (even if it’s biodegradable) in a creek or lake. Follow Leave No Trace principles and don’t even dip in a shallow water source, such as a waterhole in the desert, as your body germs and sunscreen will pollute it.

4. Wash your hair.

This is more of a “feel good” issue than one of health, but if you’re going to wash your private parts, why not rinse your hair with warm water and run a comb through it first? Midway through a Denali trip a few years ago, I melted snow to do this and instantly felt so much better.

5. Use hand sanitizer after going to the bathroom and before eating.

After a long day on the trail, it can be easy to let things like hand-washing slide. But you should pack enough hand sanitizer to use throughout your trip. Be sure to use it after going to the bathroom and before preparing or eating a meal. This will go a long way toward preventing disease transmission.

Check out more hygiene and sanitation tips from the experts at REI.

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