Keeping Clean

May 13, 2021

Hiking and biking have a way of making you filthy. It’s not important to look your Sunday best on the trail, nor to smell like a rose, but keeping yourself clean is important for a few big reasons:

  • General health and hygiene
  • Prevent chafing
  • When you feel good, you hike/bike good
  • You’re more likely to be invited to stay at someone’s house, or to a meal

In this article, we’re only focusing on keeping yourself and your clothes clean. Cleaning other gear, especially a bike, is a large enough topic for another article.


Washing Yourself

Showers, especially with hot water, can be hard to come by, depending on where you’re going. Without leaving the trail, a thru-hike on the AT, PCT, or CDT might result in an amount of showers you could count on one hand, and none of them would be hot. Obviously, getting a hotel room or staying at a hostel solves this problem, but we’re going to focus instead on what to do when showers aren’t an option.

Rather than carrying bar soap, body wash, and/or shampoo, your best option is camp soap. Camp soap is an all-purpose liquid soap that can be used to wash yourself, your hair, clothes, dishes, and can even be used as toothpaste if necessary. As a result, you only need to carry one bottle for cleaning literally anything, and since it’s concentrated, the bottle can be rather small. 100 mL (3-4 oz) can last over a month.

Most camp soaps are non-toxic and biodegradable, so you don’t have to worry about swallowing a small amount, nor spilling it on the ground. Some camp soaps are scented, which sounds nice, but it’s best to get an unscented soap in the interest of not attracting any animals. An odor-free camp is a critter-free camp.

Along with camp soap, the other thing you’ll want to bring is a loofah. It might sound like a foppish thing to bring, but a loofah works well for scrubbing off grit and dead skin, works equally well for scrubbing your bowl or scraping residue off your gear, weighs almost nothing, and takes up virtually no space when compressed. And they’re cheap.

Once you’ve got a loofah and some soap, all you need is some water and perhaps some privacy. Whether you’re using a sink, a hose, or a creek, the process is essentially the same: Strip down as much as you’re comfortable, get your loofah wet, put a few drops of soap on it, and start scrubbing!

If you’re lucky enough to find a source of water that’s calm and deep enough for a swim, taking a dip will work just as well. Also, if you don’t feel like going to the trouble of getting out a loofah and some soap, a simple rinse-off will do most of the job.

While you might be tempted to wait until the end of the day’s hike/ride to get clean, it’s often better to wash up in mid-afternoon, at the hottest time of day. Obviously, you’ll get a little dirty again by the time you set up camp in the evening, but the goal is only to have you clean enough at the end of the day, not to get you ready for a date. In mid-afternoon, not only will the water feel great (or at least not-as-bad if the water’s cold), but you’ll dry off quicker. Speaking of which, it’s a good idea to wash your clothes at the same time, which leads to…



As rare as showers are, opportunities to use a washing machine are even more sparse.

Much like bathing, laundry is best done mid-afternoon, mostly for the same reasons - your clothes will dry off faster, and if you’re putting the same clothes back on, you won’t mind the fact that they’re damp. In hot areas, putting on a wet shirt in mid-afternoon is a good way to beat the heat!

You don’t necessarily need to “wash” your clothes to get them clean - a simple rinse ‘n wring goes a long way, and it’s something you can (and should) do on a daily basis. To go the extra mile, put a few drops of camp soap on your clothes once you’ve gotten them wet, vigorously rub them against each other, then rinse out the soap and wring them dry.

It’s a good idea to change clothes when you do your laundry. For example, if you have two pairs of socks and underwear, switch to the pairs you weren’t wearing after you clean the pairs you were wearing. Hang the old pairs from the straps on the outside of your pack/panniers, and they’ll be dry by the time you set up camp in the evening. Then save them for later and you’ll have clean, dry clothes to put on after you do laundry again tomorrow.


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