Dirt, grime, and sweat are some of the reasons why many people don’t care for spending time far from flush toilets, running water, and hot showers. After all, folks don’t usually enjoy having three layers of dry sweat on their skin or dirt crusted in every crevice of their body—all things that are often unavoidable when you’re camping far from civilization or spending any time outdoors.
But just because you can’t avoid mud droplets drying on your shins, or sweating in humid, 90-degree temperatures, doesn’t mean you can’t still stay clean and—relatively—stink-free while enjoying time in nature.
Start with your hands
After spending years recording her and her husband’s adventures through the Pacific Northwest in her blog, the number one tip writer and outdoorist Emily Mandagie offers for staying clean on camping and backpacking trips is to wash your hands often—preferably with soap and water. But as that’s not always feasible in the great outdoors, the next best thing is hand sanitizer.
Hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol is effective at killing germs that can live on your paws and make you sick when you touch your food, nose, mouth, or eyes. Use it often, especially after going to the bathroom and before eating.
Pro tip: if you’re camping in a group, make sure everyone has their own bottle so you’re not constantly asking where the hand sanitizer is.
Wipe it down
The easiest and most efficient way to get clean when spending time outdoors is to use wet wipes. You’ll need something with germ-killing capabilities that’s not too harsh on your skin, so you’re better off skipping hand-sanitizing wipes (which can be drying) and baby-butt-cleaning wipes (which don’t kill a lot of germs). Instead, look for products from brands like Ursa Major or Allez that are effective at obliterating microorganisms, but are also designed for the outdoors and feature natural ingredients and skin-soothing properties.
Remember that you’ll want to leave the outdoors exactly as you found it, so unless there are trash cans along your trail, you’ll also have to bring a zip-top bag to pack out any used wipes.
With these more compact models, you’ll have water come out of a nozzle that’s attached to a bag that generally holds between two and 24 liters of water. But even the smaller portable showers are bulky, so they’re better for excursions where size or weight aren’t an issue, like car camping.
Wash up or rinse off
You don’t have to have a portable shower to lather up. A water bottle and a little biodegradable soap are all you need to wash your hands and any other dirt-encrusted regions of your body. A squeeze bottle with a sports top will do the job nicely, but a bottle with a perforated lid offers a more shower-like stream.
Mandagie prefers something more immersive: a quick plunge in a cool lake. “It’s such a refreshing way to feel clean after a long, sweaty hike.” If you opt for a dip in nature’s bathtub you’ll need to make sure you’re wearing reef-safe sunscreen, and leave any soap out of the equation. This includes the biodegradable type, as it breaks down in soil, not water, so it will pollute natural waterways.
Rent a shower
If wet wipes just aren’t cutting it anymore and you’re not ready to spring for a full shower setup for the back of your SUV, you can often find an honest-to-God real shower no matter where you’re traveling. Just know that you may have to pay for it.
Taking an actual shower is what Mandagie calls a “hygienic reset” and involves scoping out local gyms or YMCAs that may offer inexpensive day-use or shower passes for weary travelers. Pay at the front desk and you’ll be squeaky clean in no time.
If they have them, campgrounds often allow folks to use their shower facilities for a fee. Check with locally owned operations to see if they’ll let visitors come in and clean up before heading on their way.
Keep your bathroom game tidy
When spending days, or even just hours, outdoors, chances are you’re going to have to relieve yourself at some point. When you do, comply with Leave No Trace principles: dig a hole six to eight inches deep and at least 100 feet from natural water sources; go in the hole, and cover it all up with dirt when you’re done.
Before your trip, check with the local park office to make sure you are allowed to also bury waste like used toilet paper. If they don’t, you’ll have to pack it out instead, so make sure you have opaque zip-top bags or dog waste bags ready. If you want to skip the toilet paper, consider biodegradable wet wipes. Just remember that most don’t biodegrade quickly in soil, so you’ll still need to pack them out.
Alternatively, whether you’re doing your business outdoors, in portable toilets, or campground bathrooms, you can snag a portable bidet. There are several brands that make purpose-built devices, but your typical sports water bottle with a squeeze lid will do the job just as well. Just make sure you label it so you don’t accidentally drink out of it after it’s been dangerously close to your caboose.
Clean your clothes
Aside from stopping at a laundromat, there aren’t a lot of options for doing laundry when spending time outside. But there are a few things you can do to get the stink out of your clothes in the meantime.
Bring along a spray bottle with one part rubbing alcohol and one part water. You can also add a few drops of your favorite essential oil, if you like. Spray the mix liberally on stinky clothes to get rid of the stench for a day or so—or until you get them sweaty again. Keep in mind that it won’t do anything about stains or mud, but it might make you less likely to reel at your own bodily musk if the laundromat is still a few days away.
[Related: How to do laundry the green way]
If you need a deeper clean, grab yourself a portable wash bag. These devices are water tight, ultra-compact, and textured on the inside to provide agitation. Simply add dirty clothes, water, and biodegradable soap, and shake until your clothes are clean. Rinse, wring, and hang to dry. Dump used water in a nearby sink if available, but if you’re using just a squeeze or two of biodegradable soap and no harsh chemicals, distributing dirty water over a wide area on the ground is typically acceptable, too.
Unless you’re planning on staying put to wait for clothes to dry, we recommend using this method only on sunny or windy days, and with quick-drying fabrics, like polyester.