Stay fresh with less
Backpacker's advice for ultralight hygiene is short, succinct, and somewhat wide of the mark. While they begin with the level-headed advice to "Ditch the deodorant and comb", they soon take a rapid nosedive, suggesting we "[c]arry a travel size tube of toothpaste and toothbrush, and pack hand sanitizer along with your TP and trowel" – a sentence that manages to get almost everything wrong. However, they do rescue themselves with the final recommendation that you "don't stow it all in a heavy ditty bag that weighs more than the contents."
That's it. Backcountry health and hygiene in three sentences. Let's see if we can come up with a few more.
Backpacking North says...
Oh, where to begin? Hygiene is an important issue, but Backpacker's advice seems once again to be given with a complete unawareness of real-world ultralight methods and techniques.
There's nothing inherently wrong with the advice to "ditch the deodorant". A better way of putting it would be to adopt the mantra "it's okay to stink". On short weekender trips, it's unlikely that you'll generate such a offensive aroma that wildlife will give up and die as you pass by. If you do happen to have a more aromatic body type, don't worry; you are far, far away from the kinds of people who care about that type of thing. You can happily go a few days with a bit of a healthy stink about you. I'd say it's even a good thing, once in a while.
If really becomes necessary to de-skank, a wash would be a far better way to cleanse yourself than piling on the deo. Some suggest deodorants might even be dangerous in bear country (although I suspect bears are a little smarter than that, and can tell the difference between synthetic chemicals and food). But why carry them when a quick splash down is all that's needed?
As for carrying a comb… well, that's no worry for us card-carrying members of the bald brotherhood. For those plagued with a lush bouffant of hair, you can probably manage a couple of days living a simpler, carefree lifestyle. If you really must get rid of the tangles and knots, then let's be honest, a comb isn't going to weigh very heavily in your pack. Indeed, compared to some of the other "ultralight" items Backpacker has been recommending, a comb is the last thing you should worry about. So if you really want to take a comb, I promise I won't tell anyone. Any cheap plastic one will do – I don't think the market for ultralight titanium combs exists quite yet. If you want to be really cutting edge, you could cut it in half.
Talking of cutting things in half...
Many Brits of a certain age will no doubt remember being poetically indoctrinated in the importance of tooth care, and this is equally valid in the backcountry (well, not the bad poetry part). After a day spent stuffing gorp into your mouth with gay abandon – not to mention high-sugar protein bars, stringy jerky, and a host of other delicious morsels you wouldn't normally touch – it's important to take care of your toothsies.
While it is possible to "brush" your teeth using only a finger and some baking soda, a toothbrush does a much better job of getting between the cracks and into the gums. It's the act of scrubbing that cleanses more than the application of toothpaste.
As many will know, sawing off the handle of your toothbrush is often seen as the passport to the kingdom of ultralight. But in reality, don't worry; you won't be dragged down into hell by hordes of ultra heavy backpackers if you don't. And in fact, there are plenty of better alternatives.
Small, travel toothbrushes are widely available, such as the Liberty Mountain Compact, which includes a bristle cover. You could also use just the head of a Toob, or any small children's brush. Incidentally, you don't really need a bristle cover if you keep the brush in a mini ziploc. It does the same job and weighs next to nothing.
Another alternative is a fingertip toothbrush – they're cheap, weigh around 3 grams, and do a more than adequate job.
As for what you put on your brush, Backpacker's suggestion of a travel sized tube of toothpaste is a good start. You could also keep your eyes peeled for sampler tubes given out at the supermarket; these are often smaller, lighter, and hold enough for a few days away. Plus, they're free, and free is always good.
But what if you could eliminate the tube, as well as any excess toothpaste you won't be needing? You, sir or madam, should try making your own toothpaste dots.
First, squirt a few lines of toothpaste onto a plate lined with baking paper/aluminium foil. You should use the "original" style toothpastes – not gels or the ones with little sparkly bits in. Leave it to dry for a few days (or use a dehydrator if you're impatient, or live in a humid climate). When it's hard, cut it in to segments about 1cm long (1/3 inch) and leave for a few more days. After that you can pack one dot per brushing in a mini ziploc, and sprinkle a little baking soda in to prevent them sticking.
In the field, just chew one with a little water before brushing. You won't save a ton of weight doing this, but it's a fun little experiment. There are a few sites and blogs with more info: check out Jermm's Oustide, and, of course, dehydrator extraordinare, hrxxlight.
Or you can just buy toothpaste tablets and skip the satisfaction of watching your toothpaste dry.
Other alternatives to toothpaste include brushing with baking soda (although as it's more abrasive than toothpaste, regular use could damage tooth enamel), tooth powder, or, for the true ultralighter, brushing with a little Dr. Bronners peppermint soap – personally, washing my mouth out with soap brings back horrifying nightmares of my grandmother, but you'd be in the excellent company of Andrew Skurka and Ryan Jordan, who both use Dr. Bronners as a multi-use item.
As for flossing? Well, why not make your dentist happy? It works double duty as excellent emergency thread (being far stronger than ordinary cotton), weighs very little when repackaged, and will ensure a good, clean orifice.
Moving onwards and downwards, it's time to get potty mouthed and talk about...
Much has been written on the subject of disposing human waste and the arguable need for toilet paper. When it comes down to it, it's a personal choice. If you take toilet paper (TP), you need to dispose of it appropriately – and that means either carrying it out, disposing of it in a handy wilderness hut toilet (if you are lucky, as we are in Scandinavia), or burning it (which can be more difficult than it sounds). You should avoid burying TP – I know the intention is good, but wildlife has a habit of digging up the deed and dispersing the paper around; a very unpleasant sight to come across.
So what are the alternatives to paper? There is no better primer on the subject than Mike Clelland's treatise on going Toilet Paper Free. The info has been largely repeated with some additional details in his excellent bookUltralight Backpackin' Tips. Another source of knowledge is How to Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer.
If you're not planning (or not required) to pack it out, the basic cat hole rules apply: dig a hole approximately 10-20cm deep and a good distance (100m / 300ft) away from water sources, into which you make your deposit. You do not need a toilet trowel (plastic, folding titanium or otherwise) to dig this hole. It can easily be achieved using your heel, a stick, or a tent stake.
Without wanting to get too scatological, some of Clelland's suggestions for TP alternatives include Douglas Fir cones, leaves, smooth rocks and/or sticks, beard lichen, grass, or carefully sculpted snowballs (the ideal form of which can be found at the above link). Where possible, you should make every attempt to use dead (or at least inanimate) materials.
After the cleansing process is complete, the wiping materials go into the hole, and you should then grab another stick and swirl it all around a bit. This helps with the decomposition of waste. Cover it up and away you go to wash your hands.
But wait… what if there's no topsoil?
This is a problem faced above tree line, which (unfortunately for me) means most of the best bits of Lapland. Although there is such a thing as the smear technique (advocated in Backpacking Light's book, I was surprised to see), it's pretty disgusting if you happen to come across evidence of somebody who's used this method. I'm not going to elaborate (I think you can use your imagination) as this is not a method I'd recommend. If you can't keep it in until you find a better spot (or a wilderness hut), the best practice is to pack it out. Bag it, bag it again, and then triple bag it for good measure and an odour-free trip. Oh, and one last thing, if you do use toilet paper, bio-degradable is the way to go.
With the business out of the way...
Wash your hands
The main point to remember when cleaning up is this: hand sanitizer is not soap.
In recent years, it's become almost the norm to grab a gel or pump spray hand sanitizer when travelling in lieu of soap. It seems so convenient – a quick spray, a rub, and bye-bye bacteria. Unfortunately, hand sanitizer alone is rarely sufficient, and in worse cases can be detrimental to hygiene.
The problem is twofold. First, we tend not to use enough hand sanitizer to effectively kill bacteria (one quick spray is not enough). Second, adequate use of hand sanitizer (by which I mean using plenty, and regularly) can result in skin dehydration, which in turn can lead to cracked, bleeding skin, and if that happens, you've created the perfoect conditions for bacteria to thrive. This dry skin issue is casued by the alcohol content of most hand sanitizers.
But don't just take my word for it. There's an excellent article on Backpacking Light, "Hand sanitizers: My Journey Towards Discovering Best Practices for WIlderness Hygiene." One comment from Kathy Hoffman on the post offers an excellent second opinion:
"I fell prey to the whole "hand sanitizers kill every germ known to man" fallacy. I used to use it routinely, until I ended up with a horrific rash, cracks, bleeding, and peeling skin that looked like leprosy. The doctor took one look at my hands and without me saying a word, exclaimed, "Use a lot of hand sanitizer, huh?" He then gave me the sage advice that only a seasoned medical professional could give. "Stop doing that.""
So what should we be using? In a word: soap.
Vigorous hand washing with concentrated soap is an effective, simple, and hygienic solution. There's no harm in using a hand sanitizer occasionally (after defecating, for example) in addition to soap and water. You don't need to get surgically clean, but its also good to disinfect your hands after, for example, filtering water, and to keep your eyes, nose, cuts and scrapes clean. The point is not to rely on sanitizer alone, but to use it in combination with a good, old fashioned wash'n'scrub.
Soap comes in many forms, but fortunately if we stick to concentrated versions, we don't need to carry much. Dr. Bronners is popular in the US, but any concentrated liquid soap will perform the same function. I've used Campsuds with no issues. Repackaging in a small plastic vial or pot is the key to ultralight cleanliness.
Soap leaves are also a popular choice, but I find they are not always the best option. The packaging often weighs more than the soap, and if you touch the packaged leaves with wet hands, they turn into a big gooey mess. Of course, you can repackage them, but the wet hands issue remains. They also have a tendency to blow away in the slightest breeze.
Another alternative is to break out the mini bars of soap you stole the last time you stayed in a hotel. A half (or quarter) bar will provide more than enough soap for a few days away. However, I find that some of these soaps leave my hands feeling… a bit weird; both dry and slimey at the same time.
As for viable sanitizers that won't dry out your hands, Adventure Medical Kits make a good alcohol-free one. Although it is a little on the large size for a short trip, you could probably, with care, do a little repackaging.
Remember, when washing, to use filtered water on any areas with broken skin, or around eyes, nose, mouth or other orifices. There's little point taking all that care to filter water if you then go splashing unfiltered water in your eyes.
Bear in mind that rain water makes an excellent source of clean water: if you have to wipe down your shelter before heading off, you might as well make use of all that lovely clean water trapped in the sponge or towel.
Speaking of towels, I typically wash using just my hands (see Mike Clelland's post again for instructions of effective self-cleaning techniques), but a small, cut section of towel is usually sufficient for removing any stubborn grime. Microfiber towels are handy items for wiping down tents/shelters, washing, and drying. You could also use a bandana, but the microfiber material absorbs water brilliantly, and is easy to wring out and dry. I've read that some poeple use disposable kitchen towels (the thin material kind), but I've found them to be very non-absorbant, slow to dry, and quick to smell.
Women might find taking moist towelettes useful for quick hygienic cleansing purposes as many have an anti-bacterial content – just remember to repackage and take just the amount you need (it's unlikely you'll need 100 wipes in a weekend). (See also the links section at the end of this article for additional info.)
Incidentally, if you let your used wipes dry out in the sun, they make excellent firestarters (as does sanitizer containing alcohol). For more tips of feminine hygiene, check out the comments for the previous edition of Ultralight Makeover on the matter of clothing.
Last but not least, remember to look for unscented soaps, sanitizer, and wipes should you be hiking in bear country and want to avoid attracting the wrong kind of attention to your newly cleansed body.
What about washing clothes?
You know, on a short weekender, you really shouldn't need to do any laundry. However, for the sake of being complete, should such a crisis arise that you absolutely need to wash something, that spare ziploc bag you've been carrying comes in very handy. Put the offending item in the bag. Add some water. Sqish it around a few times. Rince and repeat as necessary. No soap is needed, and doing it in a bag away from water sources is far better than washing in a stream. Wring it out and leave it in the sun to dry (because, of course, it's going to be a lovely sunny day when you're hiking). With any luck it'll be dry before you get home.
If, like me, you are blighted by occasional bouts of athlete's foot, you'll probably want to take great care of your feet. Even if you are footloose and mushroom free, you should still respect your feet; all day long they serve your whims, taking you to all the places you want to go. They deserve a little pampering.
Whenever possible, I like to take off my shoes and socks, give my feet some breathing room, and if possible a dunk them in a cooling, refreshing stream. Even if I don't get the chance to do this during the day, it's absolutely essential to give feet some air at the end of the day – especially if you've been walking in wet trail runners for hours. I always give my feet some extended exposure to fresh air before putting on my fluffy, dry night socks.
I've read various techniques that different people swear by for foot protection, ranging from applying anti-perspirants regularly on the days preceding a hike, and again once a day while hiking, to applying Hydropel or Body Glide to your feet to avoid pruning and blisters. While Hydropel is espoused by the Jordans and Clellands of the world, theGreens believe that Body Glide performs just as well for half the price.
I've found that – since switching to breathable, non-waterproof inov-8 trail shoes, and hiking in thin socks (with wet feet as necessary) – I've not had a single blister, and have never needed ointments or unguents. However, your foot requirements and milage may vary.
As with washing clothes in general, it's unlikely that on a short trip you'll need to wash your socks, but if you find, at the end of the day, that your socks are beginning to resemble cardboard, a nighttime wash might be worth it.
Someone asked me the other day about taking their cosmetics with them while hiking. I joked about repackaging them, but I think you know what I'm going to say now: you don't need them in the wilderness. You're beautiful just the way you are. We all are. Warts and all.
Is that all? Well, just about. There remains the matter of where to put all this stuff...
A little ditty
Backpacker correctly points out that the thing you carry all these little essentials in shouldn't weigh more than all of them combined. I'd go further and say that it shouldn't weigh more than one of them alone (with the possible exception of a toothpaste dot).
A medium-sized ziploc bag is perfect for containing all the little odds and ends you need while away. Sure, you can use a nice cuben fiber stuff sack if you want, but the ziploc has one very special advantage: it's transparent. You'd be amazed what a timesaver this can be when you're trying to hunt for that ibuprofen tablet you know is in there somewhere.
The ditty bag (for that is its name) contains everything mentioned above, and a host of other miscellaneous items. It's up to you to decide what you may (or may not) need on any given trip.
Such items might include (but absolutely not be limited to):
- lip balm
- sun block
- sportsick (handy for blisters, chafing, athlete's foot, jock itch)
- talc (I occasionally use Gold Bond Menthol for many of the same reasons that Sportslick addresses)
- bug repellant
- first aid kit (which we'll be looking at more in the next installment)
- multi knife
- emergency matches / lighter
- super glue (for fixing things, but also for first aid properties)
- spare batteries
- spare cord
The ditty bag has quite a cult following, and it can be of enormous geek interest to take a peek into the contents of another hiker's bag. Take, for example, Stick's video and reappraisal one year on, or take a peek into Mike Clelland's to compare and contrast.
The aim, of course, is to take only what you need, without jeopardising your safety and enjoyment.
So, to summarize, all you need to carry your small essentials is a simple ziploc bag.
I mean seriously, what kind of idiot would want to carry a heavy, dedicated bag with an integrated mirror?
What does Backpacking North use?
I began by carrying a heavy, dedicated bag with an integrated mirror. At the time I thought I was being very clever as the bag was a lot smaller than the giant washbag I usually took on holiday. This one even had a metal hook, and folded away very ingeniously to become no larger than a chihuahua. It had more compartments inside than most of my current backpacks. Even though I never shave while backpacking, it never occurred to me to remove the mirror. You can only imagine the junk I used to put inside it.
After a few iterations of ultralight refinement, I'm somewhere near the examples I've set out in writing above – but I'm not going to lie, there are areas here where I could still improve, and other areas in which I show a flagrant disregard for ultralight principles.
I carry everything in a clear ziploc. I have a several first aid kits from which I select the most appropriate for the length of trip I'm planning. I tend to agree with Andrew Skurka that there is no point taking first aid equipment if you don't know how to use it, so I generally leave the defibrillator at home and stick to band aids and an assortment of smaller emergency nicknacks for short trips.
I carry repackaged Campsuds soap, but rarely sanitizer. For a toothbrush, I take a complete Toob toothbrush with integrated toothpaste tube. Why? Laziness basically. I've ran out of toothpaste drops, and not got around to making more. The Toob toothpaste tube can be easily refilled, and it holds about enough for 8 days hiking. It weighs 41g, which is a lot more than the 5 or 6 grams of a fingertip toothbrush, and in all honesty it's really not ideal. It's hard to clean the tube, and it gets pretty gunky after a while.
I don't carry floss, for no other reason than I am extremely lax in using it. Don't follow my example, kids. You probably wouldn't want my English teeth.
I generally carry toilet paper, typically rolling some around my hand a few times, guesstimating how much I might need, and keeping it in a separate ziploc in the front pocket of my pack. I'm not averse to using nature's fine produce to clean my nether regions, but if possible I like to take advantage of Finland's fine wilderness cabin toilets (after all, I pay high taxes for the privy privilege), or burn the paper, leaving packing out as a last resort. In winter I'm happy to use snow, but for much of the time the snow is too dry, and I'm loathe to start sculpting perfec cone-shaped snow wipes -20ºC.
I generally don't worry too much about getting dirty, but I always have my bandana and/or a small piece of microfiber towel should I need it.
As mentioned, if it's hot I often carry a small amount of Gold Bond talc for awkward and annoying itches (because nothing spoils a hike faster than sore toes or a sweaty, itchy crotch).
I rarely use lip balm, but often carry it (Cat Crap or Burt's Bees). I tend to use it more in winter (Burt's Bees Lifeguard's Choice). I find most of the time I don't need it, but I know that sometimes my lips dry out when spending 24 hours a day outdoors. It would probably be wiser of me to protect my lips form the elements by applying more often, but I'm a lazy so-and-so.
Lastly, I don't use any Hydropel or equivalents on my feet, which might explain the rough skin.
So, there you have it. I suspect we all follow advice and health recommendations to varying degrees of adherence, at least until the recommendations become doctor's orders. Oddly enough, you don't see many posts on blogs dealing with health and hygiene – perhaps because it doesn't make for great or entertaining reading; perhaps because nobody wants to admit to secretly burying their toilet paper or discussing their bowel movements. Either way, that is the reason for the absence of a "what do other people do" section. Instead, I have integrated as many links as possible into the main body of the post, and there are some addtional links listed below for further reading.
I'm sure there are areas that I've not covered, or not thought of – and once again, please, feminine hygienists, bring it on in the comments. Indeed, if there is anything you'd like to add to the subject, please feel free to comment.
Jolly Green Giant on Hygiene for the Ultralight Backpacker
Traispace article on Backcountry Waste Disposal - includes section on feminine hygiene
Feminine hygiene in the wilderness (Helium.com)
Mike Clelland's Toilet Paper Free article
REI on hygiene and sanitation
Foot Care Supplies for Sandal-packing
Foot care for Diabetic Hikers
Necessity vs. Importance: Considering Ultralight Essentials
Backcountry Hygiene for Ulralight and Long-Distance Hikers
This article contains affiliate links to products. Our journalism is independent and is never written to promote these products although we may earn a small commission if a reader makes a purchase.