Everyone gets dirty when they’re on a camping trip. You’re sweaty, you haven’t showered, you have dirt and soot and all other kinds of debris on your clothing. That’s part of the joy of camping! But there is a difference between being a bit dirty and practicing poor personal hygiene on a camping trip. Keeping yourself relatively clean will prevent bad bacteria growth, mysterious rashes and a whole host of other ailments. If you’re interested in learning how to stay clean while camping, I have some camping personal hygiene hacks for you!
Backpacking Hygiene Essentials
Before we dive into my camping hygiene hacks, I thought it’d be helpful to quickly go over what should and should not bring to the outdoors to stay clean.
What to bring for camping hygiene
Unscented, alcohol-based hand sanitizer: An absolute must!
Biodegradable soap: This can be used for cleaning dishes, doing laundry (the camping way), washing hands or ~potentially~ giving yourself a camp shower if really necessary. Ideally you want one product that is multi-purpose and kind to the skin. I like this one (you can also get it at Whole Foods). Camp Suds is a popular and cheaper choice, though I find it makes my hands feel really dry after washing dishes.
Toothbrush + Toothpaste + Floss: No, just because you’re camping doesn’t mean you can skip out on dental hygiene (thoughI’m guilty of not brushing before bed if the bugs are super bad). I’ll explain more about the spitting process below, but to prevent fluoride and other chemicals from harming the environment, I use all natural toothpaste by Tom’s.
Unscented baby wipes: Or face wipes work too. I like to bring a lot (two per day).
Quick-drying Microfiber towel: I like to think of a quick dry towel as a little piece of luxury on trip. (It also doubles as a mat for me to lay out all my gear on so pine needles / sand don’t get in everything). I use this one from PackTowel.
Toilet paper + trowel: I don’t actually bring toilet paper myself, and instead use a combination of leaves and, occassionally, a baby wipe. Also can someone please try the Kula Cloth (an anti-bacterial pee cloth for women) and tell me how it is? I’m intrigued. And bring a trowel! On my last trip I forgot it and had a miserable time digging a six inch hole with my hands.
What NOT to bring for camping hygiene
- Non-biodegradable products as these are harmful to the environment
- Deodorant and other scented products, which can attract animals (incl. racoons and bears)
- Unnecessary disposable products
12 Camping Hygiene Hacks: How to Stay Clean While Camping
1. Start your day with clean socks and underwear
Your feet and groin area do not like to be damp for a prolonged amount of time. Start your day off with a (relatively) clean pair of socks and underwear.
How many should you pack? I have the following formula for counting how many pairs of socks and underwear I need on a camping trip. Generally speaking, I do the number of days I’m out for divided by two. The minimum number of socks/underwear I will bring is three, and the maximum number of socks/underwear is six.
For example, when I went on seven day camping trip, I brought four pairs of socks. When I did a 24 day canoe trip, I brought six pairs of socks (plus two emergency pairs, but I don’t include those in my regular rotation). Same with underwear.
For underwear, I wear one pair on day one, and then wear them inside out on day two. If I’m on a long trip, I’ll wear one pair for two days straight before I flip them inside out. I do a similar thing for socks, but I have a whole system for clean & dry sock management on trip. (It starts with getting a high quality pair of wool socks. These ones are my favourite.)
2. Save some clean clothing for the halfway point
So you’re on a 10 day camping trip and you have brought two pairs of outdoor pants and two shirts. Should you alternate your clothing each day? NO! Wear one pair everyday for the first half of your trip. I can’t tell you how good it feels when you’re halfway through a trip and you get to change into fresh, clean clothing. I keep the clothing in a plastic bag so it stays extra fresh for me.
3. Use the Leave No Trace Method to brush your teeth
I have heard some people say they don’t brush their teeth while they’re camping because toothpaste is bad for the environment. They have clearly never heard of organic or natural toothpaste and the spray method.
There are two components to brushing your teeth in the woods: the toothpaste itself and your spitting technique. You can use one or the other, but for minimum environmental impact and maximum cleanliness I recommend you use both components in tandem.
- Choose an organic or natural toothpaste. I like Tom’s.
- Go to an area far from your tent and any lake/river/water source.
- Brush your teeth like normal, but don’t spit yet.
- When you are ready to spit, take a big gulp of water. Swoosh it around in your mouth. You do this to dilute the toothpaste.
- As you spit, try to spray the water-toothpaste mixture so it covers a wide area. I’m not good at this so I move my head from left to right as I spit, spreading the mixture.
4. End your day with a foot scrub
When my campers first learned that I do a foot scrub before bed almost every night, they thought I was crazy. But after trying it with me, many of them converted too!
Once camp is all packed up for the evening (dinner is done, equipment is secure for the night, etc.) and before I hop into my tent, I give myself a foot scrub in the lake. I sit on the shore and stick both my feet in the water. With my hands (and no soap) I scrub off any chunks of dirt stuck to my feet or an my ankles. For a few minutes I’ll sit with them soaking in the water, ensuring all the sweat is washed off. When I’m done, I either use a camping towel (this is the one I use) to dry them or I let them air dry before putting my Tevas back on.
The only time I don’t do a foot scrub is if it is raining or the bugs are excruciatingly terrible. One thing I love about the foot scrub (besides clean feet) is that it gives me a few minutes of reflection at the end of the day. While I sit there waiting for my feet to dry, I day dream or think about the day I’ve just had.
Take a Camping Shower
There are a few options for ‘showering’ while you’re camping. Personally, I just try to swim as much as I possibly can. But if it’s cold, like when I was canoeing the Coulonge in October, I’ll go for the baby wipe method to avoid getting undressed outside my tent.
Baby Wipe ‘Sponge Bath‘
- Bring a pack of unscented baby wipes and a large Ziplock bag on your camping trip.
- After taking off the camping clothing you wore for the day, wipe down your body with the baby wipe. Use one side of the baby wipe to do your face and neck. Then flip it over and do your arm pits and groin area.
- Put the baby wipe into the large Ziplock bag. Baby wipes are NOT biodegradable. You must pack these out with you.
Swimming in the Lake / River
Swimming is a great way to wash off the dirt and grime accumulated throughout the day and keep you clean. Please don’t use soap though – a good rinse in the lake is usually good enough to keep your body fresh, and even biodegradable soap can be harmful to water creatures.
6. Have a dedicated pair of sleep clothes
After you’ve given yourself a baby wipe shower, put your sleep clothing on. To keep your sleep clothing clean, it should never leave the tent (unless you’re going to pee in the middle of the night). Some people will cook over a fire or set up their tent in the same clothing they sleep in. *Shakes heads* Don’t do it.
Things like pollen and campfire smoke cling to clothing fibres and you don’t want these on your skin when you’re sleeping (or say hello to mysterious rashes). Also, if you are outside your tent and accidentally get your sleep clothing wet, what will you sleep in? Have an extra pair of pants/shorts and an extra t-shirt exclusively reserved for sleeping. (I almost always bring these pants and this shirt as my sleeping clothing.)
Read more: 10 Tips for Comfortably Sleeping in a Tent
As I put all these camping personal hygiene hacks in writing, it appears that I’m a clean freak on trip. That isn’t the case, but after four summers of canoe tripping and taking many trips longer than two weeks, I’ve worked out a system that keeps me clean and comfortable without compromising the outdoor experience or the environment.
7. Wash your hands regularly
Yes, even in the woods you should be washing your hands after you go to the bathroom and before you start cooking. After a long day of paddling and portaging, I like to give my hands a good rinse in the lake/river (to get all the dirt and grime off) and then use hand sanitizer to kill all the bacteria.
The last thing you want is to accidentally get some crap on your hands, get that in the food and have a sickness epidemic while you’re on your trip.
8. How to do your business in the wild
This may be the most important tip on this list. Keeping hygienic bathroom habits in the backcountry is important for preventing sickness and rashes, among other things. As mentioned above, ensure you are washing your hands after pooping and before cooking. Ensure you are completely wiping after you go to the bathroom. Maintain a clean and dry environment around your groin (by wearing clean, dry underwear and periodically wiping it down with baby wipes). Baby powder is a good substance for keeping your groin clean and dry during the day (and it prevents chaffing).
I would argue that the post important area to stay dry while camping is your groin.
Read more: A Camper’s Guide on How to Poop in the Woods
9. How to manage your period while camping
For those of us with periods, how do you keep yourself clean and hygienic on a camping trip? There are a few strategies.
The first is to use a Diva Cup. This is a silicone cup you insert into your vagina which collects blood. You regularly dump and clean it. I’ve never used one, so check out the website for more info.
If you prefer pads and tampons, that is completely okay. Where you will run into difficulties is what do you do with the products after they have been used? My answer to this is The Party Bag! The Party Bag is a large Ziplock bag covered in Duct Tape (so you cannot see what is inside). When you go into the forest to change your pad/tampon, you put the used on in the Party Bag. You can also put the pad/tampon into a small plastic bag, tie it up and then put it in the Party Bag. This will prevent bad odours emerging when you open the Party Bag.
Finally, instead of using pads/tampons, you can use Thinx period-proof underwear. I only recently started doing this and it’s awesome. A pair of underwear holds up to two tampons worth and eliminates all waste. The used underwear can be kept inside a Party Bag, or you can rinse it in the lake, dry it in the sun and put it in another bag.
Read More: A Camper’s Guide to Camping on Your Period
10. How to wash dishes while camping
Even in the wild, you should be washing your dishes. This is to prevent bacteria growth or mould (especially important on a long camping trip).
- After you finish your meal, fill a large pot or dish bin with water. (On a short, personal trip I use the pot. On longer trips I use a collapsible dish bin.)
- Place a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of biodegradable soap in it. Using steel wool, scrub any food remains off your dishes.
- Once the dishes are clean, lay them out on a camping towel or on rocks to dry.
- In the meantime, grab a trowel and venture into the woods (at least 200 feet from the tents and any water) to dump out the water. This is especially important as the water will smell like food and could attract animals.
- Next, use the trowel to dig a hole (like you’re pooping) and carefully pour the dishwater into the hole. Use a pot lid or strainer to prevent food chunks from falling into the hole. These food chunks go in your garbage bag.
- Finally, fill the hole with dirt. You have no buried your dishwater, minimizing the chances on animal will smell it and come searching for food.
Note: If your campsite has a thunderbox, you can dump the water there instead of digging a hole.
And there you have it! An easy way to do dishes on a camping trip.
11. How to wash clothes while camping
WHAT? Laundry on a camping trip? How is that possible? Let me tell you.
If you are going on a camping trip longer than 10 days, you may benefit from doing a load of laundry. I only recommend you do this for socks and underwear, as they are small clothing items and the most important to have clean. Tip: Don’t wash all your socks and underwear at the same time. Have at least one or two pairs dry at all times.
- Only attempt this on a warm and sunny day. You are intentionally getting your socks and underwear wet, so you will need to dry them in the sun. If it looks like clouds are on their way, abort mission.
- Empty out a 30 L or 60 L barrel and fill it with ~15 L worth of water. Also, fill a large pot or dish bin with water. You will need this later. (If you’re hiking and don’t have a barrel, you can just use a large pot.)
- Add a tiny bit of biodegradable camp soap to the water and stir. You should see little bubbles form when you agitate the water, but it should not be soapy.
- Put your socks and underwear in the barrel and give them a scrub. Now you’re doing laundry!
- When you think they’re clean, squeeze out as much water as you can into the barrel.
- Now, give the clothing a rinse in the clean water inside the large pot or dish bin. This will get out any residual soap.
- Lay out the clothing on the rocks or on a clothesline to dry. Ensure they are in direct sunlight for speedy drying.
- To dispose of the slightly soapy water, dump the rinsing water into the barrel and take the barrel into the forest (at least 200 feet away from the water and camp). Because you only put a tiny, tiny bit of biodegradable soap in, we can dump this water in the forest without violating Leave No Trace. Don’t dump it all in one place. Distribute the slightly soapy water so there the concentration of soap is extremely tiny in any one spot.
The most important things about doing laundry on a camping trip is to 1) use a really small amount of soap, and 2) don’t get all your socks and underwear wet at the same time.
12. Keep your hair back and secure
My final tip is dedicated to anyone with long (and sometimes unruly) hair. Since I was a teenager, I have always camped with two tight French braids. (I’ve gone a full two weeks without taking the braids out). I find that if I don’t keep my hair in two manageable braids it gets super tangled any time I swim, and somehow every pine needle in the forest finds it way into my hair. Also during the day, I usually have a headband or buff on.
Do you have any additional tips for staying clean while camping? Let me know in the comments below!