Last edited 9 August 2005
Last edited 9 August 2005
One of the most often overlooked aspects of trail hiking, which can also be one of the most important, is hygiene. The reason it is so often overlooked is because in everyday life it is so easy to keep clean, so much so that you don’t even think about it when you are doing it. But on the trail, it’s not very often that you come across a sink with some soap or a shower for that matter.
So why is hygiene important? Well, first and foremost, good hygiene keeps you from getting sick. Your skin is your largest organ of your body and it is a great defender against bacteria getting inside your body, the problem is when it leaves your skin to find another transport into your body. Ask yourself this question: When you sit down to eat dinner at home, do you just start eating and not wash your hands? If the answer is no (which it should be), then why would you do anything different while hiking on the trail? Especially with the presence on your hands of suntan lotion or DEET, it is imperative that you wash your hands before touching food you will ingest. Also be careful when sharing food/waterbottles/cooking facilities, as the person whom you are sharing with may not have been as careful as you. There are a few easy ways to keep your hands clean before eating your meals, one of which is to take a little bit of alcohol and rub it between your hands, doing your best to cover all of your hands before it evaporates. There are other soap less hand washes like Germ-X, and they are excellent choices as well. I had a small one ounce bottle that I used before every meal and it lasted about a month worth of time on the trail. If you choose to use a biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronners, remember that washing your hands in a stream with it is not the appropriate use of the soap. Make sure you take some water and pour it over your hands with the soap at least 100 feet from the stream or water source. In a worst case scenario when you don’t have any sort of hand cleaning agent, use copious amounts of water.
So where are you most likely to come into lots of bacteria? Contrary to popular belief, dirt is not your most fearful foe. The biggest risk is after going to the bathroom. Always, always make sure that your hands are clean before coming anywhere near your eyes, nose, or mouth. E-coli bacteria (found in your lower intestine) will make your hike very un-enjoyable should you ingest any, so don’t even let it become a possibility. Also included in this is how to correctly dispose of excrement in the wilderness environment. There were many times that I know of hikers just walking off into the trees and coming back, but they had no shovel! A cathole shovel is something that is not in most hiker’s gear lists, but it really should be. The correct way to take care of your waste is to first dig a hole about a 8 inches deep, do your business, then cover it back over with the dirt you removed from the ground, always making sure you are at least 200 feet from any water source. Contrary to what you may think, it takes a lot longer for the toilet paper you use to break down, than your waste itself, so proper disposal techniques require you to pack out your paper. If you store it in aluminum foil, the smell will be almost completely reduced, especially if you store it further into a ziplock. For women, feminine products should be packed out as well.
Sweat is actually a very good conductor of bacteria. Remember back at home when you don’t wash your face after a long day outside and went to bed? You get pimples which are the result of a bacterial infection. The same goes for life on the trail. Although there are no showers at (most) shelters, it is relatively easy to keep yourself reasonably clean. A handkerchief is really all you need for a washcloth and with nice cool water, it makes a great shower. Just soak the handkerchief and wash the key areas. You’ll feel like a million bucks afterwards. Bathing in streams, though not normally condoned, will give you a good cleaning too, just do not use any soap. A major concern raised by many hikers is bathing in water sources for shelters or campsites. Just ask yourself the question of how you would feel if you saw that going on and knew you had to drink the water some dirty hiker was bathing in! The main reason for saying that stream bathing is not a good idea is just think about the substances you slather onto your body on a semi-normal day. DEET, Permethrin (on clothing), sun tan lotion, foot powder, baby powder or body-glide, etc. all are not good for stream eco-balance, especially fish or other stream dwellers and, as mentioned before, hiker digestive systems
So what do you do with so called “grey water” or water that you have used to clean yourself, your dishes, or your clothing? Pouring it out behind a shelter or nearby a campsite is a no-no strictly because your grey water attracts animals and other organisms that you really don’t want to meet late at night when they thrive. I learned out in New Mexico with the Boy Scouts at Philmont Scout Ranch that there is such a thing as the “Bearmuda Triangle.” Just like a boat does not want to wander into the real Bermuda Triangle, so do you not want to sleep within the “Bearmuda Triangle.” Quite simply, your campfire circle or cooking area, wherever you keep your food, and where you dispose of your waste water and your bathroom facility (privy, cathole, etc.) form a triangular area wherein animals (especially bears) will wander following the smells you have left behind in your use of the area. Correct practice says that grey water should be disposed of a distance from your campsite and should be scattered in as much of a range of area as one can put it. If you pour it all in one place, animals will dig at it and disrupt the eco-system of the area. As an addendum, washing cooking utensils and pots/pans should be a priority whenever it is possible for you to do so with some soap. Towns are a good place to do this. The same goes for drinking bottles, especially if you use drink mixes. Wash them, or if you use disposable bottles (like Gatorade bottles) switch them out.
Although foot care is a whole other topic of discussion, some parts of foot care do apply to hygiene. Keeping your feet clean and dry will guarantee a more pleasant hiking experience and will avoid spreading anything one has on to others. There are some nasty foot funguses that love the shoe environment AT hikers put their feet into every day. In 2003, most hikers will remember that it rained for almost an entire month straight, so keeping feet dry was extremely difficult. This is probably why a lot of people turned up with athletes’ foot and other afflictions. A tip that I was given before my hike was a wonderful relief after each day. First, wash the old feet down with alcohol, and then put on some gold bond medicated foot powder. You will be surprised how good it feels and also what it does to keep your feet more healthy. Whenever you use a shower at a hostel or other frequently used showering facility, make sure you wear sandals or some other form of foot covering. This will prevent you from picking up anything that might be on the shower floor surface.
Your eyes are another focus area of good hygiene. If you use contacts that you take out each evening, consider an alternative in night and day contacts available now. The lower number of times you have to touch your eyes, the less likely you are to get an eye infection that could sideline your hike, and with extended wear contacts, you can lower that to once per month! These new contacts are extremely comfortable, and just a simple blink and clean eye drop in each eye per morning keeps you going all day.
Probably the most neglected area of hygiene is tooth care. Brushing teeth just like you do at home, although time consuming and messy, will keep your chompers healthy. The same goes with flossing. The cutting down the size of the toothbrush handle trick will reduce the weight of your brush (however insignificant it may be), and small travel toothpastes and floss work well. If you don’t want to carry the brush, just rubbing toothpaste on your teeth will substitute, but won’t get all of the gunk off of your teeth.
One final area that I think falls partly at least under hygiene is keeping open wounds clean. Open sores like blisters and other cuts and scrapes can easily get infected without proper care, so always make sure to cover them with a bandaid or other bandage and add some anti-bacterial cream like Neosporin. I won’t go into much detail about these issues because it falls a little more closely under first aid.
Hygiene is a very important part of a long distance hike, but can also be very simple if one just gets into good habits. So to review, what are the main points of this article:
1.) Always clean your hands, especially after going to the bathroom and correctly bury your solid waste while packing out paper or feminine products.
2.) Correctly dispose of grey water by scattering it a distance from camp
3.) Wear foot coverings when showering
4.) Wash your body down with a handkerchief to minimize crud buildup
5.) Try extended wear contacts if you use vision correction
6.) Brush your teeth and floss
7.) Prevent infection in open sores and cuts by keep them covered and clean
Well, I hope this article was helpful to you in some way shape or form and it was my pleasure to write it. Enjoy your hiking experiences wherever they might take you and if you ever do get a chance, go on a thru-hike. It is a life-changing experience!!