Embrace the dirt. Staying clean while backpacking

Trail Hygiene – Apart from a towel and a very small dishcloth, this is all I use. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Okay, I’ll come clean from the get-go. Keeping clean while hiking or backpacking is an oxymoron in my book. Nature is all about dirt, and working up a sweat comes with the first steep hill you have to climb. With mud, sand, wet leaves, and creek crossings, keeping clean clothes and bodies isn’t going to happen unless you stick to blacktopped trails.

How do you keep clean?

The squeamish and easily frightened should probably stop reading at this point. Backpacking is perhaps not for you.

Photograph of a muddy and dirty foot after hiking the Sac River Trail in huaraches
Of course sometimes your feet get a little dirty…

Over the last ten years, I’ve learned that trying to keep clean while hiking or backpacking is a struggle of Sisyphusian proportions (an ancient Greek guy who was doomed to an endless cycle of pushing a massive boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down again). In short, it’s not worth the effort or additional pack weight. That doesn’t mean you have to become a smelly outcast, but it does mean realizing that a little honest dirt isn’t going to hurt you. Which does remind me, I’m due for another Tetanus jab this year. Do keep your shots up to date.

So here is what works for me. As usual, your mileage and experience may vary — please share your experiences and thoughts in the comment section below. I’m not telling you what to do. Work out an informed strategy that suits you and respects the leave no trace ethic we should all have when we venture out into the wilderness.


When camping out in the woods, the advice is not to use any form of fragrant deodorant and cleaning products to avoid unwanted attention from the wildlife (bears, raccoons, and squirrels, I’m looking at you). You are also advised to cook and eat well away from your campsite, so if the critters come looking for tasty morsels, they won’t have an unfortunate encounter with you.

We expect raccoons or even bears to try and get our food. We weren’t prepared for hungry squirrels.

Luckily, it seems that the wildlife in all the wildernesses I’ve visited are not socialized and acclimated to people, and so don’t look to us as a ready source of food. The same cannot be said for campgrounds where I’ve had running battles with squirrels and whole families of raccoons. Including the raccoon that stole a loaf of bread from a closed food box just a couple of feet from where I was sitting. Then there was the squirrel that chewed its way into our food box.


For many years I carried a 4oz bottle of environmentally-friendly liquid soap around with me. I think I used it twice. That’s not to say I don’t dunk myself in a creek or lake from time to time, or rinse out my trail clothes on extended, hotter trips. I do, but I don’t bother with soap anymore.

Aside, please don’t buy a spork, they are, in my opinion, a waste of time. All you need is a spoon and your camp knife. Tip, if you are eating dehydrated meals, buy a long-handled titanium spoon. You won’t regret it.


For cleaning dishes, I mainly use water (filtered) and my fingers. I do have a small half-a-J Cloth dishcloth. It’s primarily used for drying my cooking utensils. Most of my meals are dehydrated, so apart from my spoon, there’s no clean-up. I cook noodles in my cook- pot, and to clean up after them, I rinse and disperse the water away from any water sources. Disperse: spread it over a wide area to minimize the environmental impact.


Speaking of drying up, besides the dishcloth, I used to carry a large microfiber towel, but I’ve found that a much smaller 1’x2′ towel is adequate even after swimming. I wring it out regularly as I dry myself.

Baby wipes

Baby wipes are, in my opinion, a backpacker’s personal hygiene best friend. Planning a trip, I reckon on using one or two a day, plus a couple for luck. That’s all I need for a daily ‘baby wipe bath,’ which covers all the necessary dirty and sweaty spots, hands, pits, crotch, etc.

One word of warning for anyone like me, who isn’t always the brightest light in the box. Baby wipes freeze solid. I’ll just leave that thought there.


I have a small travel toothbrush, and a teeny tube of toothpaste that fits inside the toothbrush’s case. I used to have a standard full-sized toothbrush, cut in half. Cut in half to reduce the size so that it fitted inside my travel toiletries bag, and not to reduce its weight.

Alcohol sanitizer

I use odorless alcohol-based hand sanitizer and dab it in all the important sweaty places where bacteria like to thrive (it’s not recommended, but it’s all I use in real life, too, as I’m allergic to the scents and chemicals used in hygiene products). I also use a liberal amount of hand sanitizer to clean up before I prepare or handle food. Since COVID, I give my hands a quick splash after signing in at a trailhead, no COVID cooties for me. I keep my bottle in the hip-belt pouch of my pack so it’s always to hand while I’m hiking.

Now for the part you’re really keen to find out about, pooping in the woods.

Do Gare-Bears1 poop in the woods?

1I know, sigh, but it’s what my youngest daughter and occasionally other family members call me. Beardy-weirdy is another moniker they use, but we won’t go there.

Titanium cathole trowel – I wrapped the handle with paracord just to have a handy place to keep some cord. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I’ve said before there are dozens of good YouTube videos detailing the many and various techniques for pooping in the woods, so I’m not going to waste my time here on the details. Go check out ‘Pooping in the woods.’ on YouTube.

However, I do highly recommend the Vargo Dig Dig Tool a titanium cathole trowel. It’s strong and rigid enough for the stony Ozarks ground and has a very aggressive set of teeth for dealing with surface roots.

TP — Wilderness Public Trash Enemy #1 and #2

If squeamish readers have made it this far, they might want to bail out at this point.

Backpacking bidet. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I don’t carry or use toilet paper: no TP, none, nada. And I haven’t done so for over a year. I wash. I have a 7oz squirty dishwashing liquid bottle. I fill it with water, put it in my pocket to warm it up (an essential step, not to be forgotten more than once), and use it to clean up. There’s no TP to pack out (don’t bury TP, it takes years to breakdown). Water is simple, effective, and much better than TP.

Consider this gem from my friend JKS, “If you get shit on your hands, you won’t just wipe it off with a scrap of tissue paper.” Dwell on that nugget of truth for a moment.

For the women

Ladies, either pack it out or invest in a pee rag.

Speaking of TP, one of the worst offenders for littering the wilderness I’ve seen apart from the beer-can swilling and tossing yahoos, is women hikers who leave little piles of TP blossoms wherever they pee. Ladies, either pack it out or invest in a pee rag. While we are about it, I also have it on good authority that menstrual cups are an excellent solution for periods on the trail.

Prevention and containment

Nothing is going to stop you from getting dirty hiking a muddy trail, period. Avoiding the mud by leaving the trail is frowned upon, damages the surrounding area, and can cause the trail to move. Just go with the flow and accept it.

New gear testing – Luna Sandals – I’ve had these several months, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to get out hiking in them. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.


For trash, I use a gallon Ziplock bag. A three or four-day trip can generate over ½lb of trash — well, it does for me. I carry a separate sack to hang my trash in — I don’t want it hanging in my food bag overnight. While I’m hiking I keep my trash bag in my pack’s copious external mesh back pocket.

I’m looking for a suitable mesh bag so I can be a good steward and clear up some of the trash I find along the trail. Seeing trash on the trail and leaving it makes me feel just as guilty as if I’d deliberately dropped it myself (I know, that’s my problem to deal with).


Tyvek ground sheet to minimize dirt and leaves in my bed! Camped near Joe’s Creek. Bell Mountain – Day Three. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I use a small Tyvek ground cloth to minimize the amount of debris and dirt I track into my hammock and get on my clothes while I’m getting changed. It helps. It also helps me see that I’m not about to step on some creepy crawly when I get out of the hammock. Not wearing shoes, I don’t have to worry about something poisonous taking up residence in my boots overnight.

Most of the above is closely related to the Leave No Trace ethic we should all embrace when we go out into the wilderness (and anywhere else come to that). If you’ve not heard of it, check out the Leave No Trace website here.

Got any good ideas and suggestions? Please leave them in the comments section below.


  • I forgot about my tiny toothbrush!
  • Corrected the size of my wash-bottle.
  • Added notes about cooking and eating where you sleep.

What do you think?

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