Written By: Sarah Dailey
To stay clean while camping is challenging. When you head off for a weekend in the woods, the idea of not being able to shower or bathe can feel gross. We often take for granted this simple hygiene task. Most backpackers will tell you that after a few days, you just embrace a little stink. It's natural, and it's good for the environment.
Practicing Leave No Trace (LNT) principles means leaving the environment as we found it (or better). Therefore, don't leave behind soaps, perfumes, and chemicals that can cause harm to our delicate ecosystem.
There are a few easy ways to stay clean while camping (or cleaner at least) . Maybe you're one of those people who "feel better" to be clean before you crawl into your sleeping bag at night. Perhaps you've been in the backcountry for a week already with dried sweat and caked-on dirt that can eventually lead to irritation and chafing.
Here are a few of the most popular options for getting rid of your dirt, grime and stink while you're out in nature.
Side note: While a few days of greasy hair or smelly armpits won't kill you - the one exception is washing your hands. Dirty hands can spread germs that make people sick. Wash your hands after using the outhouse, before preparing food and before interacting with others. Hand sanitizer offers great germ-killing convenience, but shouldn't be a replacement for washing your hands with soap when you can.
1. Bathing in Lakes & Streams
If you're lucky enough to be hiking or camping near a lake, river, or stream, you may have a unique opportunity for a quick backcountry bath. It is a dream to be able to bathe in a refreshing mountain lake surrounded by nature to stay clean while camping. But, you'll need to use some common sense and proper etiquette.
I'm using the term "bathing," but what I mean here is "getting wet." Never use soap, even "biodegradable" soap, directly in a water source like a stream or lake. The ingredients in soaps can harm the ecosystem in the water source. Get in, splash around, scrub your arms and legs, or dunk your hair.
Remember, don't use soap or other products directly in the water source as they also contaminate the water for other hikers using that lake or stream as their drinking water source.
If bathing, move away from trail crossings or heavily trafficked areas. Think about where you are and who might be around you. Some areas might be ok to strip down and jump in, but other places you'll need to keep your clothes on.
Bonus tip - keeping your clothes on means they're getting washed at the same time!
Helpful tips for bathing in lakes and streams:
- Remember the Leave No Trace principles and try to access the water only via durable surfaces. Look for rocky or pebbled areas instead of grassy or muddy banks.
- Only bathe in bigger lakes and free-flowing streams/rivers. You can have too much impact on small ponds and tiny streams. But also be wary of currents and dangers of deep water. Better to stay dirty than get into a dangerous situation.
- Make sure you're sunscreen-free and bug spray free. Sunscreen and bug repellents contain a lot of harmful chemicals that can affect fragile water ecosystems. If you plan on bathing in natural water sources, consider wearing SPF-rated clothing for sun protection instead. Or move 200 feet away, sponge bath off the sunscreen and bug spray (see number 3 below), then jump in for a refreshing dip!
- Lakes and streams in alpine areas can be cold. Keep time in the water to a minimum to avoid hypothermia and have a towel or clothes ready to put on afterward.
- Wear shoes - submerged rocks and debris can cut unprotected feet.
2. Portable Outdoor Showers
There are a few different types of portable outdoor showers available to help you stay clean while camping. They're all pretty much the same principle. Fill a reservoir with water, attach a tube or hose, and add a small shower head/nozzle. These are generally used for car camping as they're a bit bulky.
Gravity Showers are generally a large sack made from durable PVC plastic with an opening near the top to fill water. A plastic hose comes out from the bottom with a small shower head that you can twist to control the flow of water. Hang the shower from a tree or a post as high as you can, and gravity does the rest!
Tip: Need a shower in a pinch? Turn your hydration bladder into an outdoor shower! Hang it above your head and remove or squeeze the bite valve when you're ready.
Pressure Pump Camp Shower
Nemo's Helio Pressure Shower is also a fan favorite. Pressure showers are the way to go when you're camping in an area without a lot of trees to hang a gravity system. They offer increased water pressure for washing long hair or cleaning off your muddy dog. Fill with water then pressurize with a handy foot pump before spraying. Nemo's 2.9-gallon tank lasts about 5-7 minutes with continuous spray.
Vehicle Mounted Showers
If you're super serious about staying clean while camping, Yakima and a few other brands make roof rack-mounted solar showers with up to 10-gallon capacity. They're pressurized and heated by the sun, and you can fill it up with any garden hose. They're a luxury item for sure, but perfect for those more into "glamping" than roughing it.
Helpful tips for portable outdoor showers:
- Most outdoor showers are made of dark materials to attract sunlight and warm your shower water. If you're patient and have a sunny day, you will end up with a shower hotter than your own home. Always test the water temp before jumping under it!
- When showering in campgrounds or near other groups, wear a swimsuit or invest in a popup privacy tent. These work best with a pressure pump shower since they may not handle the weight of a gravity 5-gallon bag of water above your head.
- It may be tempting to shower right next to where you fill up with water. We get it - lugging gallons of water is tiring. But make sure you move at least 200 feet from water sources if you plan on using any soaps or if you're wearing sunscreen, bug spray, or other products.
To learn more about camping showers and how to choose the best one for you, check out Best Camping Showers: Buying Guide & Reviews.
3. The Sponge Bath
9 times out of 10, you're going to have pretty limited access to water to clean up in the backcountry. Depending on the location or what time of year it is, the "sponge bath method" maybe your best option to stay clean while camping. Your "sponge" in this case may be a washcloth, bandana, small quick-dry towel, or honestly even a clean sock in a pinch.
If you have a water source like a tiny stream, water faucet, spring, etc. fill a water bottle or small collapsible bucket with water. Again, make sure you are at least 200 feet away from the trail, campsites, streams, rivers, lakes, or other water sources.
Start with your face, then work your way to the dirtiest parts of your body, rinsing your sponge or cloth as you go. Try to use as little biodegradable soap as possible. It will be easier to rinse off using less water, plus these soaps are generally pretty concentrated, so a little goes a long way.
Helpful tips for bathing with limited water:
- If the water you're using is not potable, make sure you do not drink out of the same bottle you used to gather the bathwater. When backpacking, I use the bottle I attach my water filter to for this, but be very careful not to touch your dirty rag onto the mouth of the container or get any soap into your water bottle.
- Use unscented, biodegradable soap when possible. Unscented is less likely to attract animals and better for the environment.
- Dry off with a quick-dry towel. Hang your washcloth and towel on the outside of your pack. The UV from the sun will dry and sanitize them as you hike.
4. Clean Clothes
Sometimes all it takes to feel cleaner while camping is a fresh change of clothes.
If you're front country camping where you have access to your vehicle or basecamp, bring an extra set of clothes for the evenings. At the end of your hike, peel off those sweaty clothes and hang them up to dry. Don't forget to change everything - socks and underwear included.
It may not be as easy to carry multiple fresh sets of clothes when backpacking. Many backpackers carry a sleeping outfit. This is something you only put on at night before crawling into your sleeping bag. It helps you feel cleaner when sleeping and keeps your sleeping bag clean.
Washing clothing while backpacking or camping doesn't need to be a daunting task. Bring an extra gallon ziplock bag. Fill partially with water and drop in one clothing item at a time with a tiny amount of biodegradable soap. Dr. Bronner's Pure-Castile soap is super popular among backpackers. It's biodegradable and uses all-natural ingredients that won't harm the environment. It's also concentrated, so you get more cleaning power out of a small amount.
Shake, shake, shake! Agitate the clothing around in the bag to pull out any dirt, debris, and salt from your sweat. Depending on how dirty your clothing was, you can probably put a few items through this process before you need more clean water and soap. Then, ring out clothing, pour some fresh water into the bag, and start rinsing. Repeat until everything is nice and clean. Always remember to pour out soapy water at least 200 feet from a water source.
Helpful tips for clean clothing when camping:
- Wear materials that wick away sweat and dry quickly. Odors are caused by bacteria that love to live in warm, damp places. Choose quick-drying, athletic fabrics like polyester or nylon instead of cotton.
- Materials made of merino wool, linen, and bamboo are naturally antibacterial. ExOfficio's Give-N-Go underwear is hugely popular among hikers because of the odor-reducing antimicrobial treatment and breathable mesh fabric.
- Feeling fancy? Check out the Scrubba Wash Bag. It folds up into the palm of your hand and has a built-in flexible scrubbing washboard!
5. Wipes & Hand Sanitizer
When water is at a premium - like when you're hiking across the desert, and every ounce needs to go in your body, not on it - wet wipes are your best bet for cleaning up at the end of the day.
There are a ton of brands of wet wipes available. You'll want to do some research and choose a wipe that works for your skin type and budget. Sea to Summit Trek comes in a pack of 8 extra thick wipes in a resealable package. Venture Wipes are 12x12 inch wipes, big enough to wipe down your entire body. They come individually wrapped, which is great for trips where you'll only need 1 or 2, so the whole package doesn't dry out.
Even when I'm not wearing makeup while hiking, I love the Neutrogena Makeup Remover Cleansing Towelette Singles. They're individually packaged and gentle for cleaning my face each evening.
Even though many wipes say they are biodegradable, help keep our wilderness clean. Pack out all packaging, toilet paper, and wipes instead of burying them.
Keeping your hands clean is critical to your health while camping and backpacking. Always carry hand sanitizer with you for cleaning your hands after using an outhouse, using that cathole you dug, before eating, etc. A small 1-ounce container goes a long way and is super easy to stick in your pocket or hip-belt for quick access.
Now that you know how to stay clean, check out our other articles to help you prepare for the rest of your trip:
Hiking and camping can be a dirty business. Your favorite hikes are going to leave you sweaty and grimy. Whether you're car camping, set up on the side of an alpine lake, or huddled in the shade of your dusty tent, there are plenty of ways to stay clean while camping.
Don't let the fear of not having a shower keep you from the adventure of a lifetime. Get out there and get dirty!
About the Author
Sarah Dailey is a freelance writer and web designer living in Phoenix, Arizona. She loves hiking in the southwest desert heat almost as much as she enjoys traveling. She's on a mission to visit every National Park, having hiked in 23 parks and counting. When Sarah's not backpacking or trail running, you'll generally find her sipping craft beer at a local brewery and researching her next trip.
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