How to Stay Clean While Camping
Camping & Hiking expert Kate Wilson shares the ultimate guide to staying clean while camping, covering everything from personal hygiene to washing dishes.
Whether you’re a camping veteran or a newbie, each camping trip offers lessons that can greatly improve the next trip you take. Staying warm, well-fed, and rested are the main concerns in the great outdoors, but one we may not consider is how to stay clean while we’re out there. It feels great to let go for a few days, but it feels even better to stay relatively clean and climb into a tidy bed each night.
Being on the road for over a year has brought me and my travel partner closer to understanding the essentials for keeping your body, dishes, and even clothes tidy while camping. Following a few simple steps can make all the difference. Before sharing those though, I want to mention the Leave No Trace Seven Principles because they apply to this article’s topic and many people simply aren’t aware of them — myself included, until I started camping full-time.
Established in the 80s by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, the Seven Principles were built on research by the United States Forest Service, National Parks Service, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Seven Principles are listed on the National Park Service website as follows: 1. Plan Ahead and Prepare 2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces 3. Dispose of Waste Properly 4. Leave What You Find 5. Minimize Campfire Impacts 6. Respect Wildlife 7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Read about the purpose behind these principles here to understand the real threats our planet is facing and how following these steps really does make a difference. Below are my top tips for staying clean at camp, with the relevant principles from above in mind.
It Starts at Home
Extra time spent planning and putting a system into place from home will dramatically improve the quality of your trip from the first day. Here is a list of items I don’t leave behind on a typical camping trip; many of these items you already own!
Much of the dirt built up on the trail or at camp can simply be rinsed away with water. For those things that require more than elbow grease, biodegradable soap is key.
There are tons of options now, but I started with Dr. Bronner’s and never swayed. No big secret here, this magic stuff will handle your dishes, body, hair, laundry, and gear. One eight-ounce bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap in your camp gear will last ages, and if you’re backpacking, a mini size will be enough for several trips. It’s our only source of soap at camp since it’s made only with natural ingredients like coconut, olive, hemp and jojoba oils, and other plant extracts.
However, even the most environmentally-friendly products cause damage to natural water sources, critters, and aquatic animals. A little farther down, I’ll provide guidelines on how to drastically decrease those potentially negative effects.
Just a small bottle will do, but I find it essential both at camp and on the trail when water is scarce.
What started as an emergency run for toilet paper now has us bringing wet wipes on every single camping trip. Admittedly, they are our toilet paper alternative, but they also come in handy for removing makeup or when you need a quick face wipe in the morning. I recommend Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes because they are pH balanced, compostable, and are made with 100% viscose fiber, aloe vera, and vitamin E.
Ziploc Bags or Plastic Grocery Bags
From food waste to the wipes mentioned above, there is nothing handier than a bag you can toss potentially odorous items into and then seal up to pack out. These bags are irreplaceable for feminine hygiene products, too, if you are in the wilderness with no garbage cans.
Microfiber Quick-Dry Towel
I know, you already have tons of towels at home. But let me convince you that a microfiber towel is a far better choice to have at camp. First, your towels are probably a cotton blend, which means they are heavy, difficult to compress, and slow to dry. Remember how long it takes for a load of towels to finish in your dryer? The solution is microfiber because it is highly absorbable and lightweight.
In fact, the Packtowl Ultralight weighs under 5.1 ounces, which makes it perfect for backpackers too. It dries 80% faster than cotton towels and absorbs nearly four times its weight in water. With three sizes available, it’s a perfect solution for your body, dishes, and gear when you’re camping.
Personal Hygiene Essentials
In the initial stages of full-time camplife, I tried keeping up with the routines I had at home for personal care. I quickly realized that it’s okay to let some things go — like hair. A good wash will last me a week or more if I keep braids in from the beginning. A hat will add even more days, which is handy since I’m already bringing one for sun protection. The rest is simple:
Teeth: Bring a toothbrush, floss, and environmentally-friendly toothpaste.
Face and Body: A touch of Bronner’s is perfect for washing your face or having a quick sponge bath. I use Elemental Liniment balms for my face to keep moisturized. It’s nice to use on sunburns and chapped hands, too.
I rarely find that bringing a razor is necessary. In fact, shaving is one of the harder things to do out here when you’re trying to save water. That’s a good thing to let go of until you return home. There are a few other small essentials I always pack: nail clippers, tweezers, small bottles of alcohol and hydrogen peroxide for injuries or spot cleaning, and basic clotheslines and pins.
How many outfits do I bring? What about layering, don’t I need several options? The biggest lesson I’ve learned out here is you need less than you think! For a five-day trip, I bring one base layer for warmth and/or sleeping, two shirts, two pairs of pants/shorts, and three pairs of socks and underwear. Unless you’re doing strenuous activities that have soiled the day’s outfit, you can wear the same clothes two or even three days in a row. Then on day three or four, you’ve got a nice, clean outfit to put on for the remainder of the trip. If you did get sweaty and dirty on day one, take a sponge bath, put on your fresh clothes the next morning, wash the previous day’s outfit, and hang it out to dry before you leave for your activities that day.
The key is to bring apparel that is meant for the outdoors. Synthetic materials like nylon and polyester are fast-drying and durable, while moisture-wick clothes made of wool and bamboo keep you cool and comfortable in the elements. My top choice is Smartwool; their socks are perfect for hiking or staying warm at camp and they’re durable, too. The first base layer top I ever purchased was from Smartwool and it’s still going strong. Highly recommend.
Pants made for hiking and other outdoor activities can be pricey — a fact I didn’t accept for the longest time. I did end up buying a pair this year because my leggings weren’t cutting it anymore, since our hikes were getting more rugged. Turns out they are worth the money. Hiking pants in general are incredibly comfortable, designed with handy zip pockets and adjustable pant lengths. They are also made of breathable and lightweight materials that are easy to launder. Of course, you should also bring items that are weather- and activity-appropriate, like swimwear, rain gear, or a warmer jacket.
- Bandana: The multi-tool of fabrics, a bandana comes in handy for excess sweat, is an excellent napkin or toilet paper alternative, keeps flies off your food, and can even serve as a bandage in an emergency. Well worth the $3!
- Sleeping bag liner: Truly a game changer for a comfortable night’s rest. Think of all the dirt, skin, and debris that gets in your bag from your body each night. Now think about how much that builds up over time. The Sea to Summit Expander is the perfect solution — it slips right out of your bag and into the laundry with no special care required. It’s seamless, soft, and stretchy, with moisture-wicking fabric and an antimicrobial treatment.
- Mini broom and dustpan
- Small shovel
- Slip-on shoes: Like Birkenstocks!
- Two collapsible buckets
- Two-sided kitchen sponge
- Large multi-purpose sponge
- Sturdy plastic bins and lids of various sizes
Also, you’ll want to consider the area you’ll be camping in. Is there a natural water source? Remember to bring a water filter to eliminate bacteria, viruses, and parasites. If there is no water nearby, you’ll need to bring clean water with you. We use a 20-liter jug that lasts two to three days for two people.
At the Campground
Start off strong: if you didn’t shake your tent out well from the last trip, do it now. After setting up, take the items you’ll be using in the tent inside and place them in the pockets or gear loft. Earplugs or a book are good examples.
Next, add your hanging lantern, open the vents, and sweep out the corners and floor of your tent before tossing in your sleeping gear: pad, bag, liner, and pillow. Kick off your slip-on shoes before climbing back in to set everything up. I like to spray a blend of essential oil and water on the bag and pillow before I leave. Having your bed clean and ready sets you up for a relaxing evening instead of scrambling around in the dark trying to find everything last minute.
We’ve got a nice system for washing dishes that uses minimal water. I do this when I’ve driven to a campsite and can bring more gear than if I was backpacking, but I’ll offer a tip on that below.
First, prepare your table or flat surface with two collapsible buckets. This area should be at least 200 feet away from campsites and natural water sources like lakes, streams, and rivers. Fill one bucket about an inch deep with water. Add six to eight drops of Bronner’s soap and swish for suds. Add about two inches of water to the second bucket.
Next, scrape excess food into one of your Ziploc bags and wipe your plate with a small, damp microfiber cloth or wet wipe. Dip your kitchen sponge in the first bucket with the soapy water and finish cleaning the dish, then dip it in the second bucket of rinse water and dry the dish with a dry microfiber towel.
This system works wonders... until you burn something in a pan or have buttery residue on your plates. The most effective way to clean oil or butter is to boil water and pour a tiny amount on the plate after scraping the food off. Have a side bowl to pour that water into and wipe the dish with a wet wipe or microfiber towel as stated above, then follow the remaining steps. For a burned pan, boil water in it to loosen the residue and scrub as usual. Expert tip: don’t burn the pan!
Once the dishes are done, pour the rinse water into the soap bucket. If you used a small bowl to collect that boiling water, pour that in too. Take this bucket at least 200 feet away from campsites, trails, or water sources before scattering it broadly. This minimizes negative effects on the environment and lessens the chance of rodents or bears coming close to camp.
If you’re backpacking, boiled water is key. Again, you don’t need much of it at all, and sometimes I don’t even use soap. A tiny bit of hot water and a microfiber towel wipes those plates off nicely without the added weight of sponges or buckets.
A warm, sunny day and a clear lake or river offer nature’s answer to a shower. No soap necessary, jump in and rinse off the day’s sweat and grime. You’ll be amazed at just how much cleaner you feel. A recent dip in an Oregon lake left my hair feeling softer than it had in ages!
No river or lake nearby? Those collapsible buckets come in handy for more than dishes! Grab one and fill it with two to three inches of water and another six to eight drops of Bronner’s soap. Remember that sponge from the must-haves list above? Find a secluded spot and get those sweet spots handled. Dispose of the water the same way you would after doing the dishes.
There are luxurious options to stay clean, too. The Nemo Helio Pressure Shower is amazing for rinsing off excessive sweat from mountain biking or climbing. It provides enough water to wash your hair and properly shower with its 2.9-gallon tank. The pressurizing foot pump offers five to seven minutes of strong, continuous spray. You can even heat the water slightly by placing the black tank in the sun in the morning so it can warm up throughout the day.
As a final touch, I use a bottle of my essential oil/water/alcohol mixture to freshen up throughout the day. Lemon, eucalyptus, and geranium are some scents that leave me feeling rejuvenated, and Mellow Mix by Aura Cacia is musky and sweet, perfect for evenings.
About 200 feet from camp, brush and floss, as usual, using the environmentally-friendly toothpaste that you brought. Rinse with water and spray your spit away from the wind over a vast area, again to minimize impact to plants and critters. Remember to pack out your floss!
Eventually, there will be soiled clothes you may need to wash during your trip. Grab your (you guessed it) collapsible buckets! First, wash the lightly soiled items in a bucket filled with two to three inches of water and very little soap (five or six drops). Trust me, suds are hard to rinse out, so less is better.
Rinse items in your second bucket with three to five inches of water, wring them out, and hang them up to dry on your clothesline. I like to spray the clothes with my essential oil blend while they are on the line for a fresh, clean scent.
Biodegradable detergents that are free of phosphates are preferred, and choosing clothing with the fabrics I mentioned above (nylon and polyester) will make the whole process so much easier. If you have very heavily soiled or smelly clothes, more water and soap may be necessary, but start with less — you can always add more.
When Nature Calls
Okay, let’s talk about this and keep it simple. It’s a fact of life that doesn’t have to make your camping trip less enjoyable, embarrassing, or unsanitary. In fact, I’ve pooped in the forest many more times than anywhere else in the last 18 months; it’s like second nature now!
If there are no facilities near your campsite, you will need to know the guidelines to follow for going outside, according to the website for Leave No Trace. Here are a few tips:
Find a spot at least 200 feet from trails, water, and campsites. Dig a “cathole,” a hole that’s six to eight inches deep (four to six inches in the desert) and four to six inches in diameter. If you can find a secluded spot that gets maximum sunlight, that is the best option as it will help your waste decompose faster. Also, be sure that you’re not on a slope that will run into any natural water source. When finished, the site should be covered with the original dirt you dug up and disguised with surrounding native materials like leaves or pine needles.
We use wet wipes over toilet paper because it just feels so much cleaner so it’s worth the extra cost. They are compostable but we do pack ‘em out, folded up in one of those Ziploc bags. The same goes for feminine hygiene products like tampons or menstrual cups, by the way.
If you don’t have wipes, your bandana will work, but obviously, you’ll be cleaning and drying that several times a day, which is not ideal if water is scarce. As a last resort, a large leaf or two will work and those can be buried with your waste. It’s helpful to know about the area’s native plants to avoid rashes or painful reactions.
Organize your small camping items into plastic bins so you can just grab and go next time; we have ours nested inside two large utility bins for easy access. Hang your sleeping bag out to dry while you’re tearing everything down. Sweep the tent and shake off debris, wipe down sleeping pads, and eliminate dampness before packing up.
Well, that covers it — you now know my secrets for staying clean and organized at the campsite. I’d love to hear your tips; share them with me right here on Curated and let’s chat about your upcoming trips, too! If you have any questions or want free, personalized gear recommendations, reach out to me or another Camping & Hiking expert here on Curated!