You are your own biggest health-hazard in the backcountry. If you get sick in the backcountry, you probably did it to yourself through poor hygiene. Keeping clean is critical to a successful thru-hike, and in this section we discuss pooping, washing, and laundry.
Clean water is of course important to sanitation, and we have devoted an entire page to water treatment in our gear section.
Great Smokey Mountains NP
Digging a cathole correctly is important to prevent water pollution, stop the spread of disease, maximize the rate of decomposition, and avoid the bad trail karma of having another hiker find your poop. Here's how to do it:
1) Pick a Spot
2) Dig a Hole
3) Bombs Away
7) Naturalize the Site
8) Sterilize Hands
The active ingredient in Purell and other hand sanitizers is ethyl alcohol (ethanol). These products are essentially just ethyl alcohol combined with lotion so the alcohol does not dry out your skin. Every brand works equally well, so go with a generic to save money. A 2oz bottle is most convenient for backpacking.
The process outlined above is pretty simple, so why do we still find tufts of white TP within sight of the Trail? Or worse, a semi-circular minefield of unburied poop and TP surrounding campsites?
Because it's an Emergency
If someone is uncomfortable pooping in a hole in the woods, they put it off as long as possible until it becomes an emergency. When the urge is finally irresistible, a mad dash into the woods doesn't leave much time to find an appropriate spot or dig a hole correctly. To avoid mad dashes, we recommend having a regular schedule — go at the same time every day, regardless of whether you feel an immediate urge. It can be in the morning, midday, or evening, whatever works for you.
Deuce of Spades
Sea to Summit
Never wash dishes in streams or ponds. Not only does it pollute them, but no matter how clean and clear the water appears, you don’t know if fecal coliform bacteria, giardia, et cetera is floating around in it. You are potentially contaminating your dishes and making them less clean.
We also do not recommend washing pots and utensils with drinking water and soap. Doing so creates greywater waste that must be poured out onto the ground and left in the environment. Even biodegradable soaps are still pollutants. Leaving them in the ground or in waterways is bad trail karma.
The best way to wash your cook pot is to pour drinking water into it, swirl it around, maybe use your finger to rub anything sticking to the sides, and then drink the water! There's no wasted drinking water and food particles don't go into the environment. For some people there is an ick factor to this, but that "dirty" water is what you were eating before, but watered down. Try it and you'll get used to it.
Dirty Clothes Bag
It is important to carry a small dry bag for dirty clothes. Sweaty, smelly underwear in particular will contaminate your clean clothes if stored in the same bag. Think of your used underwear as a contamination source and sanitation issue.
There are half a dozen different brands that sell the same concentrated "biodegradable" green soap in the exact same bottle — Coghlan's, Sea to Summit, Campsuds, Outdoorx, et cetera. The bottles are everywhere and are so common we don't second guess them. When people think of "camp soap" they think of a little green bottle. Well, we'd like to change opinions about that. There are serious problems with the little green bottles.
1. They are incredibly expensive. A three to four ounce bottle costs between three and five dollars. That's a dollar an ounce — yikes!
2. We don't know what's in them. Invariably, the containers say the soap is biodegradable, but they do not list the ingredients. Just because something can be broken down by microorganisms doesn't mean it should be released into the environment. Soap is a pollutant — it does not exist in nature. And so we have to think about our use of soap in the backcountry as a form of pollution and take steps to minimize the consequences of that pollution.
Common household soaps are out of the question for backcountry use. Dishsoaps (like Dawn) and detergents are petroleum-based and contain phosphorus, which fuels algae blooms in our waterways and kills plants and animals. We would like to know whether the generic green campsoap is petroleum-derived or contains phosphorus, but the packaging keeps consumers in the dark.
3. They're certainly not organic. Whatever they are, these soaps are not all-natural plant derivatives. They have the look and feel of industrially produced soaps.
4. They Require Rinsing.
There is expensive no-rinse soap on the market that boaters and campers call "astronaut soap" because the bottle claims astronauts use it to bathe in space. However, Dr. Bronner's famous castille soap can also be used as a no-rinse soap and it's a lot cheaper. Dilute a small amount in water, spread that water on your body, and then wipe it away — no need to rinse.
Dr. Bronners makes an unscented version of its Castille soap, which we think is best for use in the backcountry since it attracts fewer critters during the night.
Never put soap in a waterway. It is unethical and illegal in many places.