Hygiene while backpacking

Personnal hygiene while backpacking : how to stay clean ?

When I went backpacking for the first time with friends, I remember that the question of showers and toilets confused me.
If, like me, you’re part of the raccoon team, after some pleasant experiences and some more unpleasant ones, I can give you a few tips on hygiene while backpacking !

Let’s start with a basic kit for hygiene while backpacking

If you’re going to be bivouacking or have limited space in your bag/luggage, you can make an inventory of what you use every day and at least once a week (depending on the length of your trip).
Personally, I keep the fuss to a minimum, but if I know there’s something that makes me feel good or is part of a routine that reassures me, I manage to make miniature rations and take them with me! My aim is to try and maximise the possible usefulness of the objects.
Here’s what’s in my toilet ziplock:

  • Solid soap gentle enough to use on the face
  • Solid shampoo, if necessary, for sensitive skulls
  • A hairbrush
  • Toothbrush + toothpaste
  • Sun cream (yes, it’s far from superfluous!). I have one that I also use as a moisturiser when I go swimming in waters that dry out my skin)
  • A small jar of Vaseline (for chapping, frostbite, rubbing against bags and other little niggles, but also to protect against the aggressive cold and wind! Protection = less chapping afterwards)
  • Dental floss (this can also be used as a line to dry clothes if the coating isn’t too greasy, or to tie up small objects).
  • I always take a small jar of Tiger Balm, in case of migraine or muscle pain. It doesn’t help the smell, but it’s worth it.
  • Among my useless trifles, I have a mini lip balm that doubles as a lipstick. Because sometimes, even when I’m lost in the countryside with no one around, I like to feel pretty and I don’t need to use this to remove my make-up.

I also always take a microfibre towel that dries very quickly and dries my hair faster.
This is just a personal list, so put in your bag what you think is right for you! I have sensitive skin, so I try to pamper it beforehand and forget about it afterwards.

If you’re travelling and staying in ‘hard’ accommodation, in a house, you can obviously add whatever you feel like, as you’ll be less limited by space!

But without water, how can I manage hygiene while backpacking ?

If you’re staying in a house or hotel, the question doesn’t arise so much.
If you’re bivouacking, then hygiene while backpacking is a real issue!

If you’re in a town, you can use the local swimming pool for a shower (beware, depending on the country, the showers may be communal! If you’re prudish, this may not be for you). For the price of admission to the pool, you’ll have access not only to the toilets but also to a quick dip! In some countries (Iceland springs to mind), municipal swimming pools are equipped with hot tubs (between 38° and 42° C), and sometimes even saunas and jacuzzis!

On campsites, in exchange for a fee that’s generally much lower than a night’s stay, you can also have access to their showers and toilets.

A free solution: many towns also offer public showers.
If you’re travelling in Europe, Wanderermap has a map of public showers available to backpackers 🙂

Alternatively, if the idea of spending a day without soaping up in a shower is a pain, don’t hesitate to plan your stay so that you know which city you’ll be in each day. This way, you can scour forums and Google in advance to plan ahead. If you follow people on social networks who have also bivouacked in the places you’re visiting, don’t hesitate to send them a nice message to ask them the question!

If you’re planning to visit as few cities as possible, there are other solutions!

First of all, it all depends on whether or not you’re sweating a lot.

To allow as much perspiration as possible to escape and not remain on the skin, opt for natural fibres such as merino, or even technical t-shirts for hiking!
However, if the climate in the country you are going to is very hot, choose natural fibres, as they will retain the smell of perspiration less.
Don’t hesitate to use the onion technique to allow your body heat to regulate itself correctly.

If you’re not in too cold a climate, you can make yourself a little cat toilet for the “critical” areas in just a few minutes. Not so long ago, that’s how everyone used to wash themselves, and it worked really well!

If all that’s OK but you still feel dirty, natural watering holes can be your friend and help you manage your hygiene while backpacking!

However, there are some important rules to bear in mind before bathing in the great outdoors:

  • Water quality: if you’re going to bathe in any type of water source, first check that the water is clean. Some waters may be polluted or contain algae that are dangerous to humans. Check that there are no signs nearby and on Google maps that the water is safe for you. In certain contexts, Google reviews of a place have sometimes helped me a lot!
  • What the law says: certain areas may be off-limits to bathers for environmental or safety reasons.
  • Don’t tempt the devil: stay away from currents, deep water and anything else that might be lurking beneath the surface. A quick check on the internet and before you go swimming is always useful!
  • If you can: avoid soap. In most cases, especially if you already have good hygiene and wear suitable clothing, and change your underwear and socks every day, rinsing and rubbing with your hand or a piece of towel can be enough to overcome the discomfort of odours and other sebum.
    If you really can’t take it any more, avoid conventional soap altogether, even in bar form. A biodegradable soap that doesn’t release pollutants that affect the life of the little inhabitants of water is easy to find in organic grocery shops or on the internet for just a few euros. It’ll last you a long time and you can bathe with a clear conscience! But don’t use it in every waterhole you come across – it’s really only an absolute last resort.
  • The laws: being naked in nature may be forbidden in some countries, and it’s always better to know beforehand! First of all, make sure you’re alone and safe for a while. If you’re not sure, go into the water in your swimming costume, take it off when you get in and keep your towel close by.
    Swimming without a swimming costume may be prohibited in certain areas. If this is the case, move on and, if you’re not sure, you’ll find what you’re looking for a little further down the road 🙂

For those of you who are planning to bivouac in the middle of your period, I’d like to refer you to this article (we’ll put the link up) which discusses the subject in greater depth 🙂

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