Trail Hygiene


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Peak to Peak Trail and Wilderness Links
Peak to Peak Trail and Wilderness Links


Like many pages on my site, they begin with someone asking me a question I just assumed that hikers either understood or picked up quickly. In over 25 years of hiking and living outdoors I have stopped even thinking about this, it just happens. But for a new hiker or backpacker, this may be an issue. So, after being asked about hygiene on the trail and other related issues, I answered many of them in an e-mail, and then decided to add the information to my site while adding some other information I thought about afterwards.

Where to "Go":

There is some debate from one hiker to another. Depending on where you go, the best place is to use privies at shelters if available, no matter how nasty they may seem. The workers at trail maintaining clubs do a good job of making sure the waste is composted correctly and doesn’t present a health hazard for others. Just don't throw your trash in privies. If a privy isn't available, you should ensure you urinate at least 100 feet (35 paces) from a water source, preferably downhill. Besides water sources, be considerate of places a hiker may camp, cook, eat, sleep, etc. The 100 foot rule is also a good idea when doing this – nothing is nastier than a camp that smells of urine and some inconsiderate hikers will whip it out right next to a shelter, the trail, or their own tent site.

Pooping (or "How to $hit in the Woods"):

You may find your body gets into a rhythm and it is easy to plan for – for me it usually happens right after breakfast, so it makes it easy to plan for in your day, try to be near a privy if you can. If that isn't possible, dig a hole about 6” deep. I do not recommend a trowel because it is a single use item. I recommend using a good size stick just lying around – forest ground is easy to dig in most of the time and a stick or hiking pole can do it. If you have problems digging with a stick or can't always finding a good one, another option is to include one flat metal tent peg in your tent or tarp bag for digging the hole – it works really well and has a second use. Plus it doesn’t advertise you as a greenhorn, a trowel really doesn’t always, but you rarely ever see a serious backpacker carrying one. Bury all waste, and put something like a rock or piece of deadfall over it if you can – that keeps animals from digging it up later.

Putting the paper in the hole with the poop it is the biggest dilemma for some hikers. Some bury it because paper does degrade over time, but can become an eyesore in many places where hikers don’t have good discipline and/or animals are also very active in digging. Some carry it out and throw it away, using a separate bag for the paper from every thing else in their pack. Some carry it and burn it in fires – but a lot of people and some places have limited their fire use. If you use wet wipes, burning can be a problem.

For wiping – use as little paper as possible, or no paper if you can. Leaves can be used, as well as rocks and sticks. I try to use alternatives whenever possible, but I carry toilet paper along as well – sometimes you really need it. If you use a lot of paper – you run out fast and make other problems (I’ll get to that), and if you just wipe without washing, sometimes you can miss stuff and make a rash later. If you don’t dry out the area after washing you can have the same problems. I wipe using a three part technique to ensure good cleanliness. Use a couple of sheets and then wash using another couple of other sheets, and then dry using a couple more. I have found that this is very important. The best way I found, although not light, was to wipe with paper, wipe with a wet wipe, and wipe with paper again. I would carry and throw away or burn the wet wipes, and bury the paper. I think burying paper isn’t a big problem if you do it right. You can burn wet wipes, but it isn't easy.

Honestly getting your butt cleaned right can make the difference between a good hiking day or a bad hiking day. Nothing sucks like a case of monkey butt.

After doing all that, make sure you wash your hands. Almost every source of data I can find on stomach illness in the backcountry attributes much of stomach illness to poor hand washing or pot cleaning as opposed to water sources. This means a lot if you consider that about 13% of hikers (figures from “Long Distance Hiking: Lessons Learned from the Appalachian Trail” by Roland Mueser) don’t even treat or filter their water and don’t suffer different illness rates than people who do filter or treat.

Cleaning Clothing:

Clothing selection is very personal, and what one person is happy with isn’t always what another will even settle for. Some will take just enough to stay warm while moving and use their bag as a last defense; while other hikers want extra camp clothing, enough clothing to stay warm while stopped in any conditions, and extra luxury clothing like sandals and stuff. I normally only carry an extra pair of spandex as my camp shorts. I don't need a camp shirt because even in cool weather I don’t wear more than a T-shirt while hiking, and in camp I go topless or put on a pullover from my spare warm clothing so I can change out of my hiking shorts and shirt to allow them to air out if possible. In sub freezing weather I just wear my walking clothing under my camp clothing to let my body heat dry them instead of letting them freeze – which is a regular problem for some hikers. It is important not to let your walking clothing freeze, and also to put on a layer before you get chilled. After you stop, wait a little while to cool off, but once your comfortable add a top and possibly pants. Once you catch a chill it is very very hard to beat it off.

Anyway what I'm getting to is this: try and have some cleaner camp clothing and some hiking clothing. It isn’t always possible to have a whole extra set because you don’t want extra unnecessary weight. How you build your system is your own choice.

OK, so where I’m going with this is the first defense is to limit what clothing gets dirty in the first place. That way you can rinse out your hiking clothing whenever possible. A little water away from your camp and water sources are a good idea (see where to go). If you have a little camp soap, you can use it, but make sure you rinse thoroughly. I like to carry about 2 - 3 ounces of Dr. Bronner's Mint Soap in case I need a good washing. It works for the body, pots, and clothing if necessary. To wash on the trail, either wait until you camp and wash your walking clothing then rinse.

Or you can (I don’t anymore) put your clothing in a bag with some water and soap and hike with it. The walking motion does the agitation like a washing machine. Then at lunch, rinse, and then walk with it some more like a rinse cycle. But the very best way in my experience is to do a stop about every 5 days and use a laundry mat while you sit in your rain clothes.

Washing Your body:

I like to do this whenever possible. In the Army we call it a whore bath. A little water, some soap and a rag. Do it away from everything (see where to go) and as often and as well as you can stand it even in cold weather. It is considered a very bad idea to ever bathe in a water source. But, I have decided to go ahead and bathe in a creek a couple of times using biodegradable soap, and only in high use swimming and wading areas so I wasn’t doing anything that wasn’t already a very regular occurrence. It probably wasn't the most considerate thing to do but it seemed good at the time. For a towel I used to use a full sized camp towel, but found it was way more than I needed and cut it down to a 1.5 ounce towel – this is a perfect hiker size. The best way to clean up is to try and hit a hot shower at hostels, hotels, truck stops, public camp sites and whenever else you can.


Never use that antibacterial soap. It is starting to cause more health problems for the world than it solves. References to this are out there in the web, but basically this is why we now have resistant bacteria out there from the over use of antibacterial cleansers. References: When the antibiotics quit working...; The Antibacterial Fad: A New Threat; and Are antibacterial soaps creating bacterial resistance?

Use a bar hand soap, liquid hand soap, biodegradable soap, or liquid dish washing soap. I had a chemist tell me all these are basically the same stuff and are mostly harmless for the environment in most cases. The bad stuff was the phosphate detergents and their ilk which are still causing us problems in the environment. Just use them away from water sources. Another thing to consider is their scents. A scented soap may draw animals – especially scents like food. The only good scent I have found is mint like Dr Bronner's. Mint is a natural plant (actually a weed) to many forest animals and they don’t consider the scent food or associate it with food. And mint soap feels cool!


Hair and beard is a very personal issue for men, I don't intend to be the Guru of personal hair and beard standards, I'm just giving you the way that is easiest to maintain your personal hygiene. Honestly I plan to get regular hair cuts on my Thru-hike after retirement, but I also want to grow a beard.

I know many of you like the image of being or becoming a long haired hiker, but to be honest, a short haired hiker is the way to go. Short hair is easy to clean, easy to keep clean, never tangles, doesn't get greasy, doesn't need brushing or combing, and is cooler on your head. Use your hat to regulate temp, not your hair. I used to have a nice thick head of hair back in the day, and once looked forward to when I could grow it back. But now I prefer it short - no fuss, no mess. I have even run into female hikers that got a GI Jane haircut because of this. But, if you prefer long hair, clean it using the same method as the whore bath.

Another part of grooming is shaving. Like hair, the shorter the easier. I don't shave every day on the trail. Who wants to carry a mirror, razor, and try to lather camping soap? But shaving whenever possible by including a razor in your bounce box will make it easier to stay clean and healthy.

Brushing Your Teeth:

Brush your teeth; they will love you for it! I can't wake up right in the morning without a good tooth brushing. I recommend a small travel tube of toothpaste - real toothpaste and not the gel which doesn't clean your teeth as well. I use a child's toothbrush and also cut my handle - but make sure you leave it long enough to reach your back teeth. Brush your teeth and spit into the woods. After I do that I stomp on the spit and rub it into the ground. You can rinse, but normally I just suck the bristles clean. No sense wasting water.