Backpacking Hygiene: 8 Tips to Stay Clean in the Wild

Backpacker cleaning her arm with a hygienic wet wipe
Backpacking Hygiene Tips to Stay Clean in the Backcountry

When you’re backpacking or thru-hiking, a few days of sweat, insect bites, dirt, and sunscreen all add up to one thing: hiker stink. Believe it or not, that stench is actually a badge of honor among the trail crowd — but there are many different ways to manage it.

Though staying clean in the wilderness may sound like an uphill battle, it’s not as tough as it seems. As a backpacker and AT thru-hiker, I’ve learned a number of creative methods to clean up and feel fresh, even if the next shower is days and dozens of miles away.

For anyone who’s still daunted by the very idea of hiker stink, this list of backpacking hygiene tips should help. We’ve even included a few women-specific tips for any aspiring granola girls out there.

Go for a swim

Swimming hole along a hiking trail
Need to freshen up? Hop in the water!

On warm hikes, simply hop in the nearest body of water for a full-body and clothing clean-up. More than just a shower, this can also be the highlight of any backpacking trip — I know I have great memories of swimming in lakes throughout Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness.

When you’re done splashing around and are ready to hike again, you and your clothes will often dry out in no time. If you’re hiking somewhere with few available bodies of water, hang any spare clothes on your pack to air out and hopefully dispel some of that hiker funk.

Take a wet wipe “shower”

You can take a pretty effective backcountry “shower” by giving yourself a once-over with a few wet wipes, which will eliminate significant amounts of dirt and sweat. Pack out your used wipes when you’re done, though — they won’t decompose in a cathole or privy.

Of course, this won’t get you totally clean, but it will help you feel fresh and avoid chafing. Plus, wet wipe showers preserve your clothes and gear. I always try to wipe away any excess sunscreen or bug spray that could rub off on items like my sleeping bag.

Wash with biodegradable soap

Wet wipes, ditty bag, microfiber towel, biodegradable soap
A simple backpacking hygiene kit with biodegradable soap will help keep you fresh

When wet wipes aren’t cutting it and you really need a wash, minimize environmental impact with biodegradable soap. Dr. Bronner’s is popular, as is Sea to Summit’s Wilderness Wash. Just don’t use it in any water sources — polluting everyone’s drinking water is a no-go.

Some serious ultralight backpackers even use their soap as toothpaste, which, speaking from experience, isn’t for everyone. But you can at least use biodegradable soap to regularly wash your hands, as it cleans better than hand sanitizer (more on that later).

Consider a Kula cloth

Kula cloths, or pee rags, are for anyone who squats to pee. After going #1, wipe up with a small piece of cloth and hang it on your pack. As you hike, the sun’s UV rays will dry and sanitize it. If you’re already a little grossed out by now, though, don’t write it off yet!

Using a Kula cloth is a personal preference, but since it’s waterproof on one side and antimicrobial, some say it’s more hygienic than TP (it’s certainly more environmentally friendly). If you do use a Kula cloth, make sure to wash it as well and as often as possible.

Buy unscented deodorant

Two backpackers hiking towards a remote lake in the mountains
Unscented deodorant helps stop chaffing and keeps pests away from camp

To use or not to use deodorant: that is the question. On one hand, it doesn’t really curb hiker stink. But on the other hand, it helps reduce chafing, and I carry some on every trip for that reason. Which brings me to my next point — if you do use deodorant, buy unscented.

Why? Nobody wants bears and rodents sniffing around their packs. However, if you’re thru-hiking, it can be tough to find unscented deodorant on trail and you may want to stockpile some ahead of time. Check out offerings from brands like Tom’s of Maine and Native.

Pack the kitchen sink

If you’re going to wash up in the woods, you’ll need somewhere to do so, and nearby streams and lakes aren’t the answer. A handy, collapsible sink can be used to clean both your hair and clothes, and most available options will only add a few ounces to your pack.

When you’ve finished washing, dispose of dirty water at least 200 feet from any water sources, ideally in a 6-inch-deep cathole. You can also use a Ziploc bag for showering or laundry, but saying you packed everything and the kitchen sink has a nice ring to it.

Be period prepared

Sunset over a pristine mountain lake
Managing a period in the backcountry doesn’t have to be tricky

Finally, we have some good news on period preparedness, ladies: Managing your period on trail isn’t as difficult as you may think. Leave No Trace recommends disposing of waste in catholes and washing reusable products thoroughly — in short, typical backcountry bathroom practices.

Most backpackers rely on a reusable “Diva cup.” Disposable items aren’t biodegradable and need to be packed out after use, which, obviously, can be unpleasant. Research your options before you hit the trail, as you know your body and what you’re most comfortable with.

Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer should be in everyone’s backpacking kit. You can use it after visiting a privy, gutting a fish, or accidentally grabbing someone else’s Kula cloth. Though not quite as effective as soap, it’s faster, easier, and still reduces nasty germs.

Even though you’re in the great outdoors, colds and viruses can spread much faster than you might think — just look at the norovirus outbreaks on the AT in 2024. Hand sanitizer will go a long way toward keeping you more hygienic and in good hiking health.

Stay fresh, fellow hikers

Male hiker washing off his face with water from a Nalgene
Freshen up your hygiene game for your next backpacking trip

If you’re worried about how to stay clean in the backcountry, these backpacking hygiene tips will help you tackle trails in the right state of mind. Whether you’re planning an overnighter or a thru-hike, even experienced backpackers can benefit from some of these ideas.

Lady hikers, meanwhile, might want to check out our specific tips for women. But no matter who you are or how you hike, chances are that once you get out there, you’ll be too busy enjoying your trip to pay much attention to staying clean (or not).

Though hygiene is important, you can quickly get used to wet wipe baths and unscented toiletries. And when you do get back to civilization, your first real shower to clean off that hiker stink will be your victory lap.

Last Updated on June 19, 2024

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Cu Fleshman

Cu Fleshman is a writer, editor, and hiker originally from the backwoods of South Carolina. She now resides in Southern California where she hikes, backpacks, and always has an eye out for her next adventure.

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