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I love exploring the wilderness, whether it’s an intercoastal waterway in Florida, arid forests in Colorado, or the Tongass national rainforest in Alaska.
With little more than a full backpack on my back, I’ve spent a week in the woods and returned to civilization just fine. My friends hugged me, glad to see me back.
A friend of mine does the same thing, for the same amount of time.
However, when he returns, we held off on the hugs until he took a nice, long, shower.
He always smelled worse than Sasquatch!
I gave him some quick tips about camp hygiene and now he, too, is welcomed home with open arms rather than with a stuffed nose.
Want to know what he was doing wrong so you don’t make the same mistake? Would you like to feel clean and refreshed even without soap, shampoo, and a water heater?
I’ll cover camp hygiene, why it’s important, and what you can do to stay smelling great in the wild without lugging a shower shelf full of products with you.
Don’t forget to catch my secret weapon at the end, a type of bath you can take almost anywhere that doesn’t need water!
And these tips will help keep you safe from disease in case of an infrastructure failure, too.
Why Is It Important to Stay Hygienic When Camping?
It’s easy to neglect personal hygiene when you’re alone in the wild, whether it’s a camping trip or a survival situation.
No matter why you’re in nature, however, you want to stay as clean as possible.
Bacteria live everywhere. In the soil, on your skin, and in the gut of that deer you just shot and need to clean.
You’ll never be sterile in the woods but you can manage those bacterial populations and stay fresh in the process.
This will help you stay smelling nice, but that’s just a nice bonus.
Staying clean will help protect you from becoming sick and having to deal with diarrhea, a skin infection, or worse.
Keep in mind that an infection is a minor inconvenience when you can pop on down to the pharmacy to pick up an antibiotic.
But when you’re in the wild, even a small infection can rapidly turn fatal.
By staying clean, you stay healthier and will have a much better time in the woods!
Camp Hygiene 101: A Quick Rundown on What It Means to Be Clean
So, what do you need to do to stay clean?
This boils down to basically two goals:
- Remove physical contamination
- Manage bacterial population
Physical contamination refers to the dust, dirt, plant debris, and other bits that accumulate on you as you spend time out-of-doors.
It also includes sweat, skin oils, hair grease, and other excretions humans naturally produce just by existing.
We’re leaky, leaky creatures, after all.
Excessive dirt, especially stuff like dried mud, can cause skin irritation and inflammation.
That said, not all physical contamination is problematic by itself.
However, every little bit of dirt is an apartment complex for potentially pathogenic bacteria.
And your skin oils provide a feast for the type of bacteria that produce a massive stink that covers up your natural, attractive musk.
So, if you want to stay fresh, you need to cut down on the amount of stuff on your body that’s not clothing.
But some bacteria will flourish even if you’re naked and clear of any speck of dust.
Don’t worry. We know how to get rid of those, too.
Before You Go Inna Woods
But first, you can make taking care of your camp hygiene easier by making some changes while you’re still in civilization.
Basically, you want to cut down on your dependence on daily cleansing products.
A big thing, though it won’t work for everyone, is to swap to the “no poo” style of hair care1.
Basically, your body naturally replenishes lost oils. If you wash your hair every day, you’re stripping those away, so your scalp ramps up oil production to compensate.
By cutting down on how much you wash your hair you train your scalp to produce less grease.
I did this and, though I was extra greasy for a while, now my hair feels fine for several days before I have to wash it. Which is great for bushcrafting!
Another tip is to use a prebiotic/probiotic deodorant. I use Hume Supernatural but others may work better for you.
These work with the natural flora in your underbits to keep the neutral bacteria flourishing and out-competing the stinky bacteria.
Also, make sure you pack proper clothes, whether it’s in your camping backpack or in your go-bag.
Cotton is fine for wearing around town but it’s not always the best choice for the woods.
I’m a huge fan of Merino wool. It can be super lightweight, it wicks away sweat, doesn’t lose cushioning when wet, and retains less odor than other fabrics2.
Wool blends retain these advantages down to about 20% wool, so you don’t have to spend a lot of money on pure wool socks.
(However, in my experience, the wool/polyester blend socks don’t last nearly as long as pure wool socks. I have some that are a decade old and still in good shape!)
Finally, don’t forget to shower right before your trip if you can.
It’s easier to stay clean when you start as clean as possible!
How to Keep Clean When Camping
Alright, it’s time.
You’re in the woods, wearing good clothes and freshly showered.
How do you stay feeling fresh?
Here is how I prioritize hygiene:
Let’s look at those in order.
A note, first. In this section, I’m describing what you need to do to stay hygienic.
You can use store-bought products or make DIY natural cleaning supplies from stuff you can find in the wild.
I’ll explain how to find and make your own hygienic tools in just a little while!
Keeping Your Skin Fresh
Generally, you want to remove dirt and such from your skin as soon as possible.
Sure, a dirty knee isn’t as immediately dangerous as a dirty hand because you’re not touching your face with your knee very often.
However, one slip and you can gash your knee open on a rock, get some of that dirt in it, and, well, now you have an infected wound.
At least brush off the crap that clings to you whenever you can. It’s a good idea to keep a washcloth with you for this, as it’ll be more effective than your hand.
You can also use a bandana, washcloth, or small towel to wipe away sweat. This goes a long way toward feeling good on those hot days.
If you’ve been exerting yourself then make sure to take a wet washcloth and clean your bits occasionally: Face, underarms, and groin.
Don’t forget to wash your hands before you touch any food or your face.
And wash your feet once you make camp!
Nothing stinks up a tent like foot odor.
Having a Clean Mouth
It’s easy to forget dental hygiene but a tooth infection will put you down just as fast as an infected wound.
I clean my mouth and teeth after I wake up, after every meal, and before bed.
Having fresh breath really keeps the Sasquatchness down if you meet someone in the woods.
What to Do With Your Hair
Hair is easier to manage in the woods so long as you take steps to keep it away from your sweaty neck.
If you have short hair then you don’t have to do much with it. Just wash it when it needs to be washed, not on a set schedule.
Long hair should only be washed when it’s dirty, but it’s a great idea to wear your hair up, at least in a ponytail.
A bun is better. Braids are also great.
You can extend the time between hair washes by brushing your hair with a wood or natural-bristle brush. This distributes the oil so it doesn’t gunk up your scalp and removes dirt and debris.
Dealing With Smelly Clothes in the Wild
A big contributor to your Bigfoot-like body odor is your clothing.
Even high-quality wool clothes will start to stink after a while.
What can you do to slow this down or even clean your clothes when the nearest laundry machine is a hundred miles away?
Socks – Your Worst Enemy
The number one thing you can do to keep your clothes smelling alright is to keep your socks away from them at all costs.
I keep a dedicated dry bag for used socks in my backpack if I’m not able to wash my socks every night.
The used pair goes into that stuff sack, it gets rolled up, and they do not contaminate the rest of my clothes.
Otherwise, their stink would spread to the rest of my gear, and I’d smell like Bigfoot. A real stinky Bigfoot.
If you’re able to then clean your socks every day and hang them to dry so they’re good to wear tomorrow.
It’s not a bad idea to have an extra pair of socks so you can change them out at mid-day, though this isn’t always feasible.
Dry Bag Washing (Woods Laundry!)
I’ve washed clothes by hand in a river and it is tough work.
Thankfully, there’s an easier way:
Grab a heavy-duty dry bag (or buy a dedicated laundry washing sack like the Scrubba Wash Bag), put a day’s worth of clothes inside, add some laundry balls (or smooth rocks) add a little soap, add just enough water to cover the clothes, seal the bag…
…then beat those clothes up!
Squish it, shake it, punch it, toss it in the air and catch it.
Agitate those clothes until your forearms are exhausted then open the bag and pour out the sudsy water.
Add more water, repeat the process, then pour that out. Add water a third time and, by the time you pour it out, your clothes should be rinsed clean.
Then hang them to dry!
I recommend washing socks separate from other clothes when using this method because, if you don’t destroy the stink with the first wash, the rest of your clothes will smell like feet.
Ask me how I know…
Refreshing with DIY Natural Methods
Now it’s time to get into the knowledge that will take you above other people trying to stay clean in the woods:
DIY hygiene items you can scavenge or make using only stuff you can find in nature!
Chewing Sticks, the Ancient Toothbrush
A chewing stick, also called a datun, miswak, or teeth-cleaning twig, is a natural and disposable toothbrush that will help keep your teeth and gums clean without using toothpaste.
Basically, you take a twig, strip off the bark from one end, and chew that end until it looks like a bunch of bristles.
Then you scrub your teeth and gums!
Chewing sticks are potentially more effective than toothbrushes and, if you gather your own twigs, they are absolutely free3.
Almost any tree can be used to make a chewing stick, except for ones with toxic wood such as manchineel and sandbox trees.
Softer woods are better because hard bristles can irritate your gums.
You can use dense hardwood twigs to make a chewing stick. Just scrub more gently!
Here are my top 5 tree species for making chewing sticks:
Apple, birch, sassafras, walnut, and willow.
They either taste better than other woods or contain compounds that are good for knocking down dental bacteria.
Pine Needle Rinse
Don’t want to carry a bunch of soap and shampoo into the wilderness?
Did an emergency happen and you found yourself without any cleaning supplies?
Thankfully, nature has all you need.
If you steep certain plants in water, you will extract their antibacterial water-soluble compounds and create a cleansing rinse that also smells nice.
My favorite example is to use pine needles4.
If you can, heat a bunch of pine needles in water. You don’t want to boil it, though accidentally boiling the water isn’t a big problem.
Crush them up, first.
If you don’t have a source of heat then give them a lot of time in the water instead. You won’t create as powerful a rinse but it’ll be better than mere water.
You can use this pine needle rinse to cleanse yourself, wash your clothes, and clean camp kitchen tools. (Not all at the same time!)
You don’t have to use drinking water to make a pine needle rinse so long as you don’t consume any of it.
It’ll help you remove dirt, manage bacterial populations on your skin, and smells refreshing!
(Just don’t touch any pine sap as you’re collecting the needles!)
With this simple recipe, you now know how to stay fresher than the majority of outdoorsfolk.
But what if pine doesn’t grow where you are?
Thankfully, other plants can replace pine in this recipe.
Many culinary plants, such as mint, thyme, and burdock, both are commonly found in North America and have antibacterial properties5.
DIY Dry Shampoo
Hair grease builds up and eventually causes dandruff while giving odor-causing bacteria plenty of food to feast upon.
If you don’t have any shampoo, and a pine needle rinse combined with a bunch of brushing isn’t solving the problem, you can make a dry shampoo.
There are many DIY dry shampoo recipes but I bet you won’t be able to source bentonite clay and cocoa powder while living in a lean-to.
Instead, you can get close enough with dust, dried clay, and even sand.
Any of those three, applied to your hair, will absorb extra grease. You won’t have luscious locks afterward but they’ll be dry locks.
Apply the powdery substance to your scalp and the greasiest parts of your hair. Then shake out as much as you can and rinse or brush out the rest.
This will likely change the color of your hair until you can take a real shower but it’s better to have dry hair than greasy hair!
If you can, sanitize the substance first, especially sand. You can do this by boiling the sand in water then letting it dry.
Or, you can smoke the powder with campfire smoke.
Which brings us to…
Your Secret Weapon: Campfire Smoke Baths
Here’s the secret weapon I’ve been alluding to.
The most effective way to eliminate all stinkiness from the day’s hike is also the easiest, provided you’re already making a campfire for the night:
Take a smoke bath!
Smoke kills bacteria, though it isn’t strong enough to completely sanitize you.
(It’s the smoke plus heat and dehydration that sanitizes smoked meat. Let’s keep you hydrated and uncooked, alright?)
The best results come from a careful selection of medicinal woods and plants6.
However, even smoke from a plain wood is capable of knocking your stink away and replacing it with that wondrous odor of a good campfire.
Add some pine needles, mint leaves, or other nice-smelling nontoxic plants to the fire to make it more effective if you’d like.
How to Take a Smoke Bath
Here’s how to take a smoke bath:
First, you need to build a campfire.
Then, you close your eyes and mouth and cover your eyes with your hand.
Finally, you step close to the fire and let the smoke envelope you!
You want to expose as much of your body to a heavy dose of smoke as possible while breathing in none of it because wood smoke is toxic7.
Smoke baths are easy, use a tool you’re already likely using, and will de-stinkify both you and your clothes.
And when you finally head back to civilization, everyone else will smell the campfire, not sweat and bad body odor!
What Not to Bring to the Woods: Leave These Personal Care Products at Home
There are a few hygiene products which seem like a great idea when you’re in the store.
However, once you’ve spent days in the woods, these items can be an annoyance or even an active detriment to your experience.
Products in Plastic Bottles
Liquid soap, shampoo, and conditioner can all make long forays into the forest feel better.
However, no matter how much you use, a plastic bottle will always stay the same volume.
And, because one should always practice leave-no-trace principals, they just turn into trash you have to pack out!
Instead, I recommend swapping to the bar form of the above products. They last longer, are more eco friendly, and take up much less space in your pack.
If you need to bring liquids with you then you can store them in something that squishes way down, such as a waterproof zip bag.
Leave anything at home that has a strong fragrance, especially if it smells like food.
Animals can be attracted to colognes, perfumes, scented shampoos, and similar personal care products.
This can cause havoc in your camp or even lead to an animal attack!
Products that use natural plant scents can be okay, though.
Anything you bring into the nature either has to rapidly degrade or leave with you.
Packing a bunch of trash for a week is nobody’s idea of a good time.
So, leave anything at home if you’re not positive that it will easily biodegrade.
Okay, this one I’m iffy about.
Wet wipes, such as baby wipes, are great for giving yourself a sponge bath to stay fresh.
However most wipes are actually made of plastic and cannot biodegrade.
And a bunch of the natural fiber ones only barely degrade!
So, even if you have “flushable” wipes (they’re never actually flushable), you have to pack them for the entirety of your trip, taking up precious space.
That said, wipes are so good at improving your camp hygiene that I will often bring them with me, with the conviction that I’ll hike out with each one I brought with me.
Just make sure they’re fragrance-free!
Bonus: Used wet wipes, if they’re not visibly soiled, can be reused as rags and tissues.
Sasquatch is one stinky fella.
However, you can stay clean and avoid smelling like Bigfoot with surprisingly little effort.
By building a campfire you’re constructing a powerful hygiene tool will kill odor-causing bacteria and replace existing stink with a natural smokey scent.
You can also scavenge bits from trees and herbs to create your own toothbrush and cleaning rinse, keeping you smelling and feeling nice no matter how long you’ve been living in the wilderness!
What Do You Wipe with When Camping?
Because none of us want to leave unnecessary waste in the woods, you can wipe with leaves or moss after doing your business.
Choose wide, soft leaves and make triple sure they aren’t something that causes contact dermatitis like poison ivy or devil’s club!
How Do You Stay Clean When Sleeping in a Tent?
You can stay clean when sleeping in a tent by removing as much physical contamination as possible while outside the tent.
Clean your skin, mouth, and hair before you lay down for the night.
Also, try to be as dry as possible.
How Do You Smell Good When Camping?
You can stay fresh smelling when camping by cleaning off dirt and sweat as soon and often as possible.
You can also use biodegradable soap or natural plant rinses, such as pine needle tea, to clean yourself and smell nice.