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Camping Hygiene: How to Stay Clean When Camping

September 30 2019

On the surface, camping seems like the enemy of cleanliness. Whether you’re backpacking and sweating furiously or car camping deep in the woods, camping hygiene still applies and can even feel refreshing.

While you can’t bring your whole bathroom let alone the comfort of your own hot shower, you can come close with the products in contemporary camping. Use these simple hygiene tips and tricks to maintain some dignity on the trail.

pile of clean clothes

Bring Ample Clean Clothes

Some backpacking purists only bring two changes of clothes: one for the trail and the other for the site (and no, reversible clothes don’t count as double). While there is merit and prudence to the amount of space conserved, there is certainly a sweat build-up factor if you’re out for a more than a few days.

For me personally, a huge part of my personal hygiene is foot comfort and care. I bring a pair of socks for almost every day. I also double up on longer trips, using dry-fit ankle socks inside my wool ones for a semblance of cleanliness and to better avoid athlete’s foot.

Bring a pair of underpants and socks solely designated for camp. Put these on post-shower and to sleep in, making sure they’re the least filthy pair you have. 

Cotton Kills

This is a cliché that my scoutmasters used to say, and friends still say to this day. Cotton holds reservoirs of sweat, leading to beds of bacteria, oils, dirt, etc. Furthermore, moisture in cotton can keep you cold in unfavorable conditions.

Go synthetic on the trail. Synthetic materials tend to be water-wicking, meaning they soak up water intentionally and dry quickly. Wool is next best, even keeping you warm when wet. 

Have a Laundry Day

If you’re hiking for several months or really need to clean some essential clothing items, use a biodegradable soap and a water source, ideally a river. Be sure your water source isn’t stagnant.

While it’s convenient dampen, lather, and rinse, washing like this can damage natural habitats that the rivers and other water sources house. Be sure to do any cleaning 200 feet from a water source (dishes and brushing teeth).

Use a Scrubba Wash Bag to wash your clothes and dump the gray water away from the water. If you’re looking to save money, a simple Ziploc bag is a perfect substitute, as seen in the video below.




Biodegradable Soap

Typical shower soaps, dish soaps, and clothing detergents will destroy natural ecosystems. Fortunately, there many soaps that biodegrade and come in travel sizes to optimize space in your pack or car.

The most well-known brand is Dr. Bronner’s. You can find this in your nearest grocery store or outdoor store. Dr. Bronner’s is organic and biodegradable, but also multi-use: laundry, dishes, hair, and skin. You can also buy this camping soap in various sizes. Just remember to use sparingly, for waste conservation and to put less into the environment.

A close second is Campsuds, only because it is not organic. It does the same for trail hygiene but is only available in outdoor stores.

alpine bath at waterfall

Take an Alpine Bath

As a kid, my dad would force my brother and me into chilly alpine rivers. We would soap and shampoo as he told us to get behind the ears and neck before running into towels my mom held up. It was plain torture, but there was a clear method to their planning:

Plan your trip around alpine lakes, rivers, and other water sources. Not only will this give you water for your site, but you can shower/bathe in the lakes, washing off sweat, body oils, and dirt.

If it’s not deep enough to swim into, have a river sponge bath to clean your essential areas. Again, make sure you’re not pulling from a stagnant source. Camping near water, while obvious, might be the most vital tip; water is the catalyst of cleanliness.

An extra hack is to use a microfiber towel to dry off. You can get some pretty small ones to conserve space and, when they get too damp, you can wring them out to keep drying.

Bring a Camping Shower

If you’re feeling the need to be a little cleaner and get some privacy, a camp shower is the way to go. However, this is an area where you can get lost with all your options. Surprisingly there are many kinds and dozens of brands.

Probably the most efficient and takes up little space is the solar shower. It’s really as simple as it sounds: fill it up with water and let it sit in the sun to give you warm water. (If you need an extra heat kick, boil some water!) Then hang this camping shower on a strong branch to clean up.

If you’re looking for privacy, set up a wall of towels or blankets. But if you’re car camping, I’ve even seen people bring a shower curtain from home!

Easy & Quick Cleaning - Use Camping Wipes

Deep in the woods (or desert) away from a water source? You don’t have to forego cleanliness altogether. Baby wipes present a good alternative to showers. Bring a pack of these to clean your essential areas. A good idea is to get wipes that do not have alcohol, as they kill the good bacteria on your body.

If you’re going for bonus brownie points, get biodegradable wipes that are even friendlier for the environment. You can get these on Amazon, but we recommend, as always, checking out your nearest outdoor store.

dirty dog

Don't Forget to Care for Your Dogs

Some people have great luck with their feet, but I am not one of them. Foot powder is always in my bag, whether it’s Gold Bond or Lotrimin to ward off athlete’s foot fungus. Keeping your feet dry and moisture-free with Gold Bond is also a good idea to prevent blisters.

After a day of hiking, I put on sandals for my camp shoes. This allows my feet to breathe naturally and get the moisture out of them. 

Ditch the Stick

Scent isn’t really something you should worry about, even if you’re glamping. You should most likely ditch your sticks and sprays, as they attract bugs. It may seem less sanitary, but it’s really just scent that doesn’t smell as sweet.

The World Is Your Bathroom

This one should seem pretty obvious, but always bring a roll of toilet paper, even if you’re car camping. Some people use wipes for this and some women I know bring pee rags to clean up further down there.

Hand Sanitizer

Following right after the bathroom section, hand sanitizer is your best substitute for a bathroom sink after you respond to nature’s call. There are now many options in travel sizes, including organic hand sanitizers from Dr. Bronner’s. 

woman looking at mountain view

Female Hygiene on the Trail

This is not my area of expertise, so please check out Bearfoot Theory’s Female Hygiene Tips. She covers everything from menstrual cups to pee rags even to hair and foot care.

If you’re looking for something a little more comprehensive about backpacking on your period, REI covers many pros & cons of several self-care methods.

Other Camping Hygiene Hacks

If you’re going car camping, you can set up something of a home in your campsite. While it’s common knowledge to put a tarp under your tent, but make sure you have extra tarp for a “porch.” Here you can take your shoes off and shake off excess dirt without bringing it into your tent.

Additionally, leave the shoes outside the tent. Besides mud and dirt, dust can accumulate in all the wrong places in a tent.

To keep your bag clean on the trail or in a site, get a sleeping bag liner. It’s essentially a sleeping bag in a sleeping bag used for extra warmth, but it’ll take more dirt and you can wash it easier back in the city.

 Finally, for sanitation and tent care, don’t pack up your tent first thing in the morning. Move everything out of the tent and place the tent in the sun. Strip the rain fly and let it dry separately. When these two things are completely dry, pack it up. Packing a dry tent significantly decreases the amount of mold that can build up from moisture (and mold can turn into a pungent presence in your tent). While this less for your person, this is still hygiene for your gear.

Don’t Forget Your Basics

Dental care is always important. Bring a toothbrush and toothpaste (not to mention floss…). If you are camping in bear country, you’ll need to put these two in a bear canister with your food. 

clothes next to river

To Clean or Not to Clean

Ultimately, cleanliness is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has their methods, but moreover specific preoccupations for personal hygiene in the wilderness. While I bring extra socks, my sandals, and foot powders, other people need to focus on other areas.

Still, we should all strive for a little health in the woods. Oils, dirt, and bad bacteria can build up, so figure out what works best for you. Try some of our tips and watch the video below for another personal perspective on camping hygiene.