Even if you’ve never backpacked before, you can probably imagine that it’s pretty darn easy to be dirty, sweaty, and straight-up stinky when you’re outside for a day. Now imagine being outside for three, ten, or even thirty days straight without access to a modern shower and toilet – you’d be pretty smelly, huh?
While it’s certainly true that it’s easy to be and feel gross when you’re outside, that fact alone shouldn’t discourage you from getting outside, hiking and climbing new peaks, and having a rollicking good time. Here’s a little known truth: although being outside will certainly make you smelly and dirty, it’s 100% possible to stay healthy and happy and even clean while spending days, weeks, or months outside.
All it takes is a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of effort every day you’re on the trail.
That being said, there’s a whole lot of misinformation out there about how to care for yourself while backpacking, especially when it comes to menstrual hygiene and other topics that many people consider to be “taboo” or uncomfortable to talk about, even in the frontcountry.
Since appropriate self-care is even more important in the harshness of the backcountry than it is in the comfort of your own home, it’s important that you have the facts before you ever head out on the trail.
To help you feel more confident and comfortable on your next backpacking trip, we’ve put together this ultimate guide to female hygiene in the outdoors. We’ll talk about how to stay clean while backpacking and how to brush your teeth, shave, and care for your hair and feet in the woods.
We’ll discuss peeing, pooping, and menstruating in the outdoors, and even teach you how to do laundry on longer trips so you can feel squeaky clean in the backcountry. What could be better?
Plus, even though this article is about “female” hygiene while backpacking, this information is incredibly important and relevant to everyone, whether or not you menstruate or have to squat to pee.
Ninety percent of what we’ll cover in this article is relevant to any homo sapien, and, even if you don’t menstruate, knowing how to care for oneself during that time of the month is invaluable information that you can share with your friends and family members that do when they join you in the backcountry. Let’s get to it!
How to stay clean while backpacking
Okay, as we know, backpacking can be a dirty, smelly affair. When you go backpacking, you sweat profusely, get covered in dirt, and develop a… pungent stench that would garner lots of unwanted attention in a local coffee shop.
But, despite all of this, many of us love backpacking and, if you’re here because you’re concerned about staying clean on your first backpacking trip, we don’t want you to be so distracted by these concerns that you miss out on all of the amazing scenery around you.
It turns out, however, that staying clean while backpacking starts by planning ahead and being prepared from the get-go. Before you ever leave home, you should have a system in place for how you’re going to keep yourself clean, amidst all the dirt and sweat.
That’s where we come in. We’ll walk you through the ins and outs of staying clean in the backcountry so, at the end of this article, you should have a solid idea of what you’ll need to bring and do when you’re out on your next trip.
Before we get to the specifics, however, here are some of our top tips for general cleanliness on trail:
- Wear clothing that fits. Clothing that’s too small will rub and chafe your skin, causing painful sores and rashes that will be difficult to clear up in the backcountry. This might not matter on a short trip, but if you’re out for a couple of weeks or longer, you’ll really regret your clothing choices.
- Set aside time every day for self-care. Whether you hike one mile or twenty, you need to make sure you’re caring for yourself every single day. That might be as simple as washing your face and brushing your teeth and as complex as taking a backcountry shower and doing laundry. Whatever it is that you need to do to stay clean and happy outside, make sure it happens regularly.
- Wash your hands with soap and water all the time. No one likes being sick and walking around with dirty hands is a sure-fire way to catch a weird, gross gastrointestinal illness that will end your trip before it gets started.
- Understand the principles of Leave No Trace and how that guides personal hygiene. The Leave No Trace principles are all about minimizing our impact on the environments we love. Unfortunately, many things we do to take care of ourselves outside can have a negative impact on these beautiful places if not done properly. Never use soap or shampoo in a natural body of water, like a river or lake. Always bring water and biodegradable soap at least 200 feet from water before washing yourself or your clothes.
- Don’t forget the little things. Most people recognize that they should brush their teeth every day and maybe even wash their face, but we often forget to do the little things, like clipping our nails, that can have a big impact on our overall well being.
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Foot and hand care while backpacking
It turns out that one of the things that we neglect most while backpacking is our hand and foot care. Ironically, hand and foot issues can have a huge detrimental impact on your happiness while backpacking, so it’s certainly in your best interest to take care of your hands and feet to the best of your abilities.
That being said, most hand and foot issues can fit into one of three categories:
Although not directly a hygiene issue, hand and foot blisters can quickly spiral into an infected wound if not cared for properly. Generally speaking, the best way to treat blisters is to avoid them. You can do so by:
- Breaking in your boots or shoes before you leave for a trip
- Ensuring your footwear fits properly with your socks and feet
- Stopping to put padding or moleskin on a hotspot before it turns into a blister
- Trying out different lacing systems to limit movement in your feet
If you do end up with a blister, there are two schools of thought on how you can proceed. You can either pad the blister and try to keep it from popping, or you can pop it with a clean needle, drain it, clean it, and keep it as clean as possible. Regardless of how you choose to proceed, be sure to keep those blisters clean and monitor for any sign of infection.
Ingrown nails are super painful and can lead to a whole host of problems down the road. Usually, ingrown nails are a result of poor nail trimming practices that spiral out of control. However, some people are more prone to ingrown nails than others, especially on the feet, so anything you can do to minimize your chance of developing one is great.
To prevent ingrown nails, try the following:
- Trim your nails straight across instead of curving them to match the shape of the toe
- Keep your nails at a medium length. Nails that are too long can get out of control while those that are too short can get pushed into your skin by the pressure of your feet
- Wear properly fitting shoes that don’t pinch your toes
- Check your feet regularly
If you suspect you have an ingrown nail, see a doctor, especially if the pain seems to be spreading.
Salt rash is a common, albeit fairly misunderstood, condition that plagues hikers with old boots. Generally, old boots trap the excessive amounts of salt that come off of our feet as we sweat, and then proceed to rub these sharp salt crystals into our skin. This can cause a very painful red rash on the feet that can take weeks to clear up, which will easily put a damper on your adventures. Once you get salt rash, it can be difficult to deal with effectively in the field, so it’s best to avoid it whenever possible.
To prevent salt rash, try the following:
- Keep a pair of socks with your sleeping bag that you only use in your tent. These are your sacred socks and they should never be worn around camp or in your boots. Keep them dry at all costs.
- Bring two pairs of hiking socks, so you can wash and dry one pair while wearing the other. Washing socks helps remove some of the salt crystals that are so damaging to our skin.
- Inspect your feet at the beginning and end of every hiking day. Taking the time to look at your feet will help you identify a problem before it gets worse.
- Wash your feet with soap and water every few days, or whenever they’re starting to get a little grimy.
If you do get salt rash, you can try to treat it in the field by doing the following:
- Wash your socks and let them dry
- Every morning, take half an hour to wash your feet properly with soap and water. Let your feet air dry.
- Moisturize your feet with whatever lotion you have and let them sit for a bit to soak in the moisturizer.
- Repeat this process every day until the salt rash heals. You might need to wash, dry, and moisturize your feet more than once a day.
Dental hygiene while backpacking
Funnily enough, your teeth are the easiest thing to keep clean while you’re outside. Brushing your teeth in the outdoors takes no special equipment and is pretty much the same as when you’re back at home, which is incredibly convenient. Here are some tips for keeping your teeth squeaky clean in the backcountry:
Brushing your teeth while backpacking
Before you leave home, be sure to pack a lightweight toothbrush and a small travel-sized bottle of toothpaste. When it’s time to brush your teeth in the morning or at the end of the day, grab your dental hygiene supplies and a water bottle.
All you’ll need to do is brush as you normally would, but, instead of spitting out the toothpaste, you’ll want to spray it to disperse the toothpaste over a wide area. This helps minimize our impact on the environment. Finally, rinse your mouth out with some water and you’re all set!
Flossing while backpacking
As your dentist has probably told you countless times, flossing is important as it helps remove plaque and bacteria in hard-to-reach places. Thus, you should continue flossing when you’re outside! Flossing outdoors is as simple as it is at home, just remember to pack out any floss that you use in your trash bag.
Haircare while backpacking
For anyone with long hair or curly hair (or both!), hair care can be a huge concern while backpacking. Especially for people whose hair gets quite greasy very quickly or for those of us with tight curls, it can be difficult to keep your hair looking good after a few days or weeks on the trail.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tips and tricks for keeping your hair happy and healthy when you’re outside, so it’s really about figuring out what will work best for you. Especially for people with very curly hair who prefer to wear it in their natural style, it’s imperative that you find products or tools that work for you before you leave home. Here are some potential strategies that might work for your hair:
- It’s possible to wash your hair outside! Grab a water bottle or, better yet, an MSR Dromedary, and let it sit in the sun for a day while you’re at camp. Once the water is fairly warm, grab some shampoo or Dr. Bronner’s soap and find a secluded spot behind a tree to lather, rinse, and repeat. This can also be a great time to use some soap and water to rinse your body off, too!
- If you have very curly hair, consider wearing your hair in a protective style, like box braids, especially if you spend a lot of time outdoors. Bandanas and hair wraps can also be a lifesaver!
- Consider bringing some hair products, like almond oil or detanglers to help keep your hair manageable in the backcountry.
Skincare while backpacking
When you’re outside for extended periods of time, your skin can suffer. Whether it’s dry skin, cracked skin, or even a skin rash, skincare while backpacking is of the utmost importance. Here are some things you can do to take care of your skin while backpacking:
- Bathe regularly. If you’re around lakes and ponds with clean-looking water, take the time to jump in and rinse off. You shouldn’t bring soap with you into bodies of water in the backcountry because even biodegradable soap can have a negative impact on sensitive aquatic ecosystems. Thus, it’s best to take a drom shower at least 200 feet away from any major bodies of water. We recommend rinsing off every few days and going for a swim in a lake whenever you can!
- Wash your face every night. Especially if you’re prone to oily skin and facial acne, washing your face off every night is a great move. It’s helpful to bring a bandana with you that’s dedicated solely to washing your face, too.
- Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. We can’t overstate this point: your skin will likely get very dry while backpacking, especially if you’re out for more than a week in an arid environment. Bring moisturizer with you (it’s best to repackage it into a small container like this) and use it at least once a day, if not more. Another option is to use a concentrated hand cream like this one, which saves weight and space in your pack.
Shaving while backpacking
Although you might be used to shaving regularly in the frontcountry, when you’re outside, you’ll probably want to go without shaving until you get home. We all shave for a variety of reasons, whether that’s for aesthetics or comfort, but when we’re outside, shaving is, for the most part, a chore that doesn’t really fit into our daily routine.
Instead, we highly suggest letting your hair grow out until you’re back home. Shaving cream isn’t good for the environment, so we really don’t want to use it when we’re outside. Plus, if it’s buggy outside, you’re really not going to want to expose your legs for that long, anyway!
Thus, if you’re really keen to keep your body hair to an absolute minimum while backpacking, your best option is to wax before you head out. Otherwise, let it grow!
Thru-hiking and pubic hair
For those of us who shave below the belt, pubic hair can cause some problems if you’re in the backcountry for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, the more you remove coarse, curly hairs (like pubic hairs), the more likely it is that you’ll develop an ingrown hair, which can be painful, red, itchy, and swollen.
Although many ingrown pubic hairs do heal on their own, they can get infected if you don’t keep the area clean, something that’s unfortunately common while backpacking. Thus, the best thing to do is to avoid getting ingrown pubic hairs in the first place.
We recommend not shaving or waxing for a few days or even a week before heading out for an extended backpacking trip, to allow your pubic hairs to regrow through the skin before they get trapped in less-than-ideal conditions for an extended period of time. This can help you avoid the pain and discomfort associated with ingrown pubic hair as well as reduce your chances for a dangerous infection in the backcountry.
Peeing while backpacking
For those of us with “interior plumbing,” peeing in the woods can be a bit intimidating and perhaps even something we avoid. Unfortunately, dehydrating oneself so that you don’t have to pee during a day hike can make you feel woozy or lightheaded in the heat while doing so on a backpacking trip is downright dangerous.
Thus, instead of dehydrating ourselves to avoid peeing, we should make ourselves more comfortable with the idea of peeing in the backcountry so that we can adequately hydrate and perform to the best of our abilities. Here are some of our top tips for peeing while backpacking.
How to pee while backpacking
Peeing while backpacking is pretty similar to how you would go about these things at home, but, instead of a porcelain convenience, you have the great outdoors. If you’ve never peed outside before (or in a non-Western toilet), learning to squat to pee can be quite the experience.
First things first, you’ll want to find a generally private area away from other hikers and the trail. Usually, you can tuck behind a tree or a large rock for some privacy, but if you’re out in the open, facing toward your group is a much better option than facing away from your group (unless you’re really keen to moon everyone).
It’s also best if you can find a spot where you can pee directly onto soil, dead leaves, or rocks instead of on live plants. While this won’t always be possible, it is preferable as animals tend to be attracted to the salt in our pee, causing them to defoliate any plants that we might urinate on.
Once you’ve found the best pee spot around, go ahead and pull your pants down, squat, and do your thing. Take care to avoid the dreaded “splashback,” especially from peeing on rocks or in the wind. Sometimes, it’s helpful to lean on a rock or tree to help orient yourself in a better position to avoid splashback.
Then, when you’re done, wipe with your pee rag (more on that in the next section), pull up your pants, and you’re good to go!
Potential concerns with backcountry urination and hygiene
When it comes to urinating in the backcountry (for people with interior plumbing, in particular), there are some potentially hazardous medical conditions that are important to be aware of as they can result from improper backcountry hygiene.
Two of the most common hygiene issues that we see outside are urinary tract infections (UTI) and vaginal infections (yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis), both of which can have long-term consequences if not treated properly.
While vaginal infections usually result in abnormal discharge, itchiness, soreness, and overall discomfort, a UTI can cause immense pain on urination, as well as the other signs and symptoms usually associated with infections.
UTIs can happen to anyone, but are more likely to happen to people with interior plumbing as the urethra (the opening of the urinary tract) is much shorter in women than in men, so it’s easier for bacteria to get inside and make their way into the urinary system. Plus, for people with vaginas, the urethra is much closer to the rectum than it is for a when the urethral opening is at the head of a penis, thereby putting potentially harmful bacteria much closer to your bladder than you’d really want. Thus interior plumbing = higher risk for UTIs. Alas.
The real concern with a UTI, however, is that, if not properly treated, it could spread from the bladder into your kidneys. If bacteria are allowed to attack your kidneys, it could result in permanently reduced kidney function or even kidney failure. Not good.
How to prevent UTIs
Since we’ve now thoroughly scared you with talk of vaginal infections, UTIs and kidney failure, let’s talk about how to try to avoid all of that. The simple answer? Proper hygiene. While there are some people who seem to be more prone to UTIs than others, good hygiene habits never hurt, so here are some things you can do:
- Use a pee rag. Okay, this might sound gross, but a pee rag (basically just an old bandana) is a great thing to wipe with in the backcountry because it produces no trash. Simply wipe with the middle of the bandana after you pee, tie the bandana onto your pack with the ends of the bandana, and let it sit in the sun to dry and kill off any bacteria. If you’re properly hydrated, your pee shouldn’t really smell and, regardless, you can wash your pee rag with soap and water every few days. Using a pee rag helps wipe off any excess pee after you urinate, thus reducing your risk for developing a UTI. You can also purchase a purpose-built anti-microbial pee rag from Kula Cloth if you want to get fancy. What could be better?
- Wipe from front to back. The last thing you want is to move dangerous bacteria from your anus to your urethra, so wipe from front to back and you avoid that problem.
- Wash with soap and water every few days. Every few days, take some time to freshen up by giving yourself a little sponge bath down below the belt. Simply grab a dromedary full of water and some soap and head off to a private place. Wash, rinse, and you’re all good to go! This is also a convenient thing to do after pooping (more on that soon).
- Wash your underwear. It’s good to bring a second pair of underwear so you can set up a washing/wearing rotation for maximum cleanliness on the trail.
Female urination devices and the backcountry
In recent years, a number of “female urination devices” (FUD) have become semi-popular among outdoor enthusiasts. Two in particular, the Shewee and the Go Girl, have dedicated followers that wouldn’t dream of going without them. These devices allow you to stand up and pee, thus eliminating the need to pull your pants down and squat multiple times a day.
But, is a Shewee or Go Girl worth it? Do you actually need to stand to pee?
Well, the answer is, no, generally speaking, you can live a nice, happy life in the backcountry without one of these devices, but there are a few instances where they really come in handy. First and foremost, whenever you’re in a tick-infested place with plenty of Lyme Disease, a FUD does drastically reduce the number of times you have to expose your butt to those blood-sucking demons, which is pretty awesome.
A FUD can also be useful if you’re backpacking in a place with few trees to hide behind, such as in the tundra, the desert, or the alpine. Additionally, FUDs can be a total game-changer when taking part in water based activities where you might be wearing a drysuit that’s a total pain to take on and off, just to pee.
Ultimately, however, it all comes down to personal preference and if you find that a FUD works for you, all the power to you.
“If you’re interested in trying one, we highly recommend practicing first in the shower and then in your own toilet for a few weeks before ever trying it outside. You’ll thank us later.”
Pooping while backpacking
Pooping in the woods is a cause of major anxiety for many new backpackers. For those of us who have never pooped anywhere except in the comfort of a western-style toilet, the thought of pooping outside can be pretty scary. We’ll walk through the basics of pooping outside and staying clean so you can feel more comfortable and confident when nature calls.
Leave No Trace and pooping in the backcountry
One of the main problems we can run into with pooping in the backcountry is that human poop can have a huge impact on the environment when not done properly as poop is not only unsightly, but it transmits diseases. In order to minimize our impact on the environment while pooping, here are a few things to consider:
- Always poop at least 200 feet from roads, trails, lakes, and streams. Doing so not only reduces the chances that another visitor will accidentally dig up your poop, but also helps reduce the likelihood of harmful bacteria making its way into our drinking water.
- Dig yourself a “cathole” that’s at least 6 inches deep to bury your poop. Burying our poop not only keeps it out of sight but helps keep it from washing into nearby bodies of water.
- Pack it in, pack it out. If you choose to bring toilet paper, make sure you pack it out. While some people will say that it’s acceptable to bury toilet paper, doing so makes it very likely that an animal will dig up the poop and toilet paper and disperse it around in the woods. If you don’t want to carry around your toilet paper, read on for info about alternative wiping materials.
Wiping materials for pooping
When pooping in the backcountry, you may be concerned about what you’ll wipe with when you’re finished doing your business. Here are some potential wiping materials that you can use when pooping in the woods:
- Toilet paper. Toilet paper is convenient and comfortable but does add weight to your pack. Plus, you’ll need to pack out your used toilet paper (we recommend a Ziploc bag covered with duct tape for extra durability), which can feel semi-gross and add weight to your pack.
- Natural materials. Rocks, sticks, leaves, and the like can all be good wiping materials when used appropriately. If you plan on using natural materials, be sure to do some gathering before you do your business to avoid being in a difficult spot with your pants around your ankles. Smooth rocks and soft leaves can be great, just make sure you’re not pulling leaves off of live trees. Oh, and make sure that whatever you’re wiping with isn’t poisonous. You don’t want to end up with poison oak in the wrong spot…
- Water. Water is probably your best option for staying clean out in the backcountry. Although it may sound gross at first, all you need to do is pour some water in your hand (hanging a drom from a tree is a great option) and wipe until your butt is clean. Since you’re going to wash your hands anyway, you should have squeaky clean hands at the end of your pooping adventure. Using water keeps your buns nice and clean and helps reduce uncomfortable chafing and itching that’s often associated with natural materials. Plus, you can take the time to wash with soap and water every once in a while for a super clean behind.
How to poop while backpacking
Although it’s not necessarily difficult, pooping while backpacking takes a bit more pre-planning and effort than walking over to the bathroom in your home. To poop in the backcountry, follow these steps:
- Be prepared with soap, water, a trowel, and any other wiping materials you might need. You may also want to bring bear spray with you while pooping if you’re in bear territory.
- When the time comes and you feel the urge to go, walk 200 feet (about 70-75 adult paces) from camp, water, and the trail and find yourself a good digging spot.
- Once you find a good spot to dig, get your trowel out and dig a hole that’s at least 6 inches wide and 6 inches deep.
- Set up your handwashing station by opening up your soap bottle, hanging your drom from a tree or rock, or opening up your water bottle and placing it on a flat piece of ground.
- Pull down your pants, squat (or lean against a tree) and do your business.
- Wipe with your material of choice.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. NOTE: hand sanitizer is great, but make sure you wash with soap and water to remove any poop residue from your hands that will make you and your tent mates sick. You can use hand sanitizer for a second layer of protection from harmful pathogens, but don’t rely on it completely.
- Pull up your pants and use a stick to cover up your hole with dirt. Make sure your hole is as camouflaged as possible.
- Gather your things and head back to camp!
Menstrual hygiene while backpacking
For those of us who menstruate, that time of the month can be annoying and painful. Having a period when outside, however, can be terribly inconvenient, in addition to being annoying and painful. That being said, if you spend enough time outside, it might not be possible to plan your trips around your cycle, so it’s best to come up with a system that works for you to manage it effectively.
Here are some things to know about menstruating while backpacking:
Is it safe to hike while menstruating?
There’s a common myth that it’s dangerous to hike while menstruating because the smell of period blood can attract bears. All of this stems from one bear attack in 1967, where two women were attacked and killed by grizzly bears within Glacier National Park. After this incident, many speculated that women were more prone to bear attacks because of the smell of menstrual blood.
According to the National Park Service, however, there is no evidence to suggest that grizzly bears and black bears are attracted to the smell of menstrual blood. Rather, bears are much more attracted to the smell of human food, so there’s really no reason to avoid backpacking while menstruating. Rather, we should be more concerned with bear attacks caused by the improper storage of food while in camp.
Tips for menstrual hygiene in the backcountry
If you’re going to have your period while backpacking, it’s imperative that you have a system for staying hygienic during your cycle. If you use tampons or pads, you can continue to use them while outside, just make sure you pack out all of your trash. A duct-taped Ziploc bag is a great option for creating a more durable, leak-proof garbage bag for this trash.
Another option is to use a menstrual cup, like a Diva Cup, which is a reusable system for dealing with period blood. Menstrual cups sit low in the vaginal canal and catch the blood before it leaves your body. When using a menstrual cup in the backcountry, you’ll just want to make sure that you dig a cathole for disposing of your blood, just as you would do with poop.
Also, regardless of what system you choose to use for menstruating outside, make sure you wash your hands before and after changing tampons, pads, or menstrual cups to help avoid a UTI!
If you do choose to use a menstrual cup, however, we HIGHLY recommend using your menstrual cup for a few months in the comfort of your own home before using it outside. Some brands of menstrual cups work better for some people than for others, so sometimes you need to do some experimentation to find the brand that’s right for you.
Plus, menstrual cups take some getting used to, so some practice rounds at home can help ensure a better overall experience.
Laundry while backpacking
Doing laundry while backpacking is a great way to feel clean and refreshed, even when you’re covered with dirt and grime. To do laundry outside, you’ll want to get a clean plastic bag, some water, and some soap (Dr. Bronner’s works just fine), and walk 200 feet from any bodies of water.
Place your dirty clothes in the plastic bag (you may have to do multiple washes), add water and soap and then scrub for a few minutes until clean. Rinse with clean water and then hang your clothes up to dry. Just be sure to storm-proof your clothes or they might fly away!
While you probably don’t need to wash your shirt and pants unless you’re out for a few weeks or longer, it’s good to get in the habit of washing your underwear and socks every few days to prevent UTIs and salt rashes. That’s why we recommend bringing at least two pairs of socks, underwear, and bras, so you can wear one while you wash and dry the other.
Your go-to backcountry hygiene kit
Now that you’re an expert in backcountry hygiene, it’s time to put together your backcountry hygiene kit. Here are some things you’ll want to bring with you:
- Dr. Bronner’s (or other biodegradable) soap
- Unscented, alcohol-based gel hand sanitizer
- Toothpaste (travel size)
- Dental floss
- Cotton bandana or Kula cloth
- Menstrual cup or enough pads and tampons for your trip
- Duct-taped Ziploc bag for trash
- Plastic bag for laundry
- MSR Dromedary 2L
So, gather your gear, get out, and enjoy the great outdoors. You might be smelly and covered with dirt, but you can still stay hygienic and comfortable, wherever your adventures take you!