To Stink or Not To Stink . . . . that is the question
by Faith Casale-Mauk
Even in the back country you can be clean, smell clean, keep the environment clean and avoid gastrointestinal issues. Let me be clear, you won't stink and you can avoid diarrhea. Personal hygiene is important to your health but it does pose a conflict with Leave-No-Trace practices. It takes some maneuvering, privacy and a bit of water to get clean in the back country, but it can be done.
Whether you are hiking, or just hanging out at camp, you should always practice good hand washing habits each time you use the restroom (in this case the woods), particularly after a bowel movement. Other than contaminated water, contact with feces is the main culprit for the spread of germs and viruses. For a quick wash up carry pre-moistened unscented cleansing wipes and/or anti-bacterial sanitizing gel; both can be purchased at any grocery store. Another method for spot cleaning is to carry a small 6-oz squirt bottle that you can refill throughout the day. You can use this to squirt your hands after visiting the woods, or wash your face, clean out a cut and it's great for cleaning your toothbrush when you have finished brushing. Always use treated water for anything that may come in contact with your mouth. Giardia is the last thing you want on the trail…believe me. I have first hand knowledge of this creature called Giardia Lamblia.
When you are ready for the big clean up at the end of the day, be sure to have dry clothing to put on for bed. You may think those socks that you wore all day are dry but chances are good that they are damp…and they stink. If water is limited then you can use wipes to clean your entire body in the privacy of your tent. If water is plentiful then the most pleasant way to clean up is by taking a mini shower in the woods. Heat a liter of water hotter than you-d like then pour it back into your water container (you can add cold when you are ready). Find a secluded place in the woods where you can take off your hiking clothes. I like to strip right down so that I can pour the warm water over me. I start at the top and work my way down. Pour some water over your head and chest just enough to get you wet. Use a minimal amount of biodegradable soap to clean the top half of your body, then rinse. The use of soap is where personal hygiene and the leave no trace theory conflict. Biodegradable soap is not zero impact but it will eventually break down in the soil. Dress your top half and repeat for the bottom half of your body. Clean your feet last and really scrub them so that bacteria won't grow where it's moist all day. You will feel like a million bucks and you'll smell so much nicer.
Never wash your dishes directly in the water source. In between the usual licking of bowl and spoon, a real cleaning is recommended on occasion, especially if you are on an extended multi-night trip. When cleaning your dishes always rinse them in hot water to get all the soap off. Soap residue can cause a bad case of diarrhea. When you are boiling water for a hot drink sterilize your spoon by dipping it in the boiling water a few times.
If you need to wash your clothes, thoroughly rinse and wring using just water - no soap. Then let them hang in the sun to dry. It is difficult to get all the soap out of clothing, even in a stream. Don't wash your clothes directly in the water source if your clothes are contaminated with insect repellent and sunscreen.
Toilet paper, tampons and pads should always be packed out. For women menstruating while in the backcountry here is a tip: to minimize odor crush aspirin over tampons/pads and wrap it in foil. This is particularly important in bear country. Store in Ziploc bags along with your other trash and discard when you are back in civilization.
Although water purification is not a direct hygiene issue, purifying your water correctly keeps your insides clean from parasites they can make you very sick. When using water from a stream, lake, reservoir or any other non potable water source you must either boil, filter, or use chemical purification. For the boil method, bring water to a rapid boil. Boiling will kill all microorganisms but it doesn't help with the taste. For the filter method: choose a filter device that best suits your needs and follow the directions completely. Filtering can help with the taste but there is some work involved. Last, and my preferred method, is chemical purification; it-s easy and safe. Your choices are chlorine dioxide or iodine. Iodine is an easy two step process but the iodine can leave an undesirable taste behind and it doesn't kill everything that can make you sick. Chlorine dioxide tabs are an easy, quick, one step choice for water purification. They are mostly tasteless; however, you can smell chlorine on occasion if the water is used immediately. Follow all directions.
I hope this helps you while you are enjoying our great outdoors. Practicing good hygiene will make it safer and more fun every time you are out in the wilderness.