Hygiene and Sanitation in the Backcountry
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:
Keep Hands and Fingernails Clean
Much (and probably most) intestinal illness experienced during or after an extended outdoor adventure is due to poor hygiene, particularly unwashed hands. Solution:
- Carry a hand sanitizer (available as a gel or as wipes; always pack out wipes). Use them after bowel movements and before handling food. Very handy for use when you're on the move or water is not nearby.
- Soap and water are considered by some experts to be a more thorough hand-cleansing option because the act physically rubs and rinses away everything from dirt to unseen microorganisms. But the rubbing action involved with sanitizers may accomplish the same result.
- Important: Never use soap directly in a water source.
- Clostridium difficile, a spore-forming bacterium sometimes found in fecal matter, is resistant to sanitizers and requires hand washing for removal.
Keep Soap Far from Lakes and Streams
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:
- Bring a lightweight portable sink and carry bathing water far (at least 200 feet, preferably more) from a water source. (Search for "sinks" on REI.com.)
- Sanitizers (gels or wipes) offer an alternative to soap. (Again, always pack out wipes.)
- If you prefer soap, use a mild, basic or biodegradable style.
- NEVER lather up directly in a lake or stream.
- Pour gray water on dirt; soap residue can potentially interfere with lichen growth on rocks. Microorganisms in soil, meanwhile, effectively combat soap residue.
- Going swimming? Wash off first (as is routinely required before entering swimming pools), removing sunscreen and repellents from skin.
- Consider carrying a lightweight, fast-drying, made-for-the-trail pack towel.
Soap Versus Sanitizers
Scrubbing with soap and water is your best choice for cleanliness. When speed and convenience are vital, sanitizers offer a handy option.
- The mechanical action of scrubbing with soap and water, including rinsing, flushes material off your skin.
- Sanitizers (disinfectants) kill microorganisms on skin, though they don't necessarily rinse them off skin. Their effectiveness as a disinfectant may be tied to the quantity used or a length of contact time. Follow instructions on individual products.
- As stated previously, dispose of soapy water on soil or lichen-free rock far from any lake, river or stream, at least 200 feet away, preferably more.
Evaluate Water Sources
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:
- Water (particularly lower-elevation water) near meadows or pastures where animals have grazed.
- Evidence of pack animal traffic or other domesticated animal activity.
- Signs of sloppy human behavior or a prolonged human visit.
Dispose of Human Waste in Accordance with Local Guidelines
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:
- Move 200 feet (at least) from a trail, campsite or water source.
- Find a patch of organic soil (darker soil where plants and trees flourish); use a stick, rock or lightweight plastic trowel to dig a hole 4 to 6 inches wide and 6 to 8 inches deep.
- Pack out toilet paper in a sealable plastic bag if required. Even if it's not required, it's still the best practice for lowering your impact on the land.
- Burning used toilet paper was once a standard practice. Many land managers discourage (or disallow) the burning of TP due to wildfire hazards.
- Wilderness educators point out that natural substitutes for TP exist, including conifer cones (preferably the softer varieties!), large twigs and pebbles. Leaves are another option, though they often shred easily. Using such alternatives could irritate skin. Consider carrying a lotion or wipes.
- If burning TP is permitted, do so carefully. Vigilantly avoid letting any burning embers float away. If soap and water are available, wash hands directly over the hole to ensure all burned materials are extinguished by the rinse water.
- Cover the feces with dirt and refill the hole. Place a rock or large branches atop the space to discourage critters from digging it up.
- Some high-elevation or heavily traveled areas require people to pack out solid human waste. Often people are instructed to use sealed, double-layer containers known as WAGbags to transport waste. (Search for "WAGbags" at REI.com.) Always check with rangers or land managers for local regulations regarding waste disposal in areas you explore.
- How to properly urinate? Standard advice suggests aiming for bare rock and avoiding vegetation, keeping plants free of urine's salt content (which appeals to marmots and other animals). Other opinions point out that urine is sterile, and that fauna indiscriminately urinate on backcountry vegetation. Thus, other than going well away from a trail or campsite, urine merits no special treatment. But it is not appropriate to urinate into a stream, lake or landlocked body of water.
Maintain a Clean Camp
Ideally, a campsite should be a previously impacted area with the following attributes:
- The sleeping surface should be on mineral (inorganic) soil 200 feet (or more) from a water source.
- Human waste and wastewater should be deposited at least 200 feet from the campsite (preferably in different locations) and even farther from the water source.
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.