Personal Hygiene on the Trail—Backpacking with Dr. Bronner’s

I have always worked hard to maintain my reputation as a ‘dirtbagger’—a term used reverentially in the climbing community to describe someone who rejects societal norms for shelter and cleanliness, someone who scrounges for scraps and sleeps in the dirt—all so they can climb as much as possible. Truth is, I’ve never been willing to completely sacrifice personal hygiene while climbing or backpacking. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid of what would happen if I went full animal—would I suddenly become overpowered by the scent of my own 5-day trail musk, and run off howling and yelping to join the bears and coyotes? Or maybe I’m a  slight bit vain. Point is, I like to stay relatively hygienic out there—and hopefully admitting this won’t cost me my hard-earned dirtbagger cred.

Of course, some adjustment is required—I mean you are living outdoors, with no shower or toilet in sight. A dirtbagger sleeps in the dirt much of the time, by definition. But dirt isn’t what makes me feel dirty—it’s really my own sweat and bodily secretions, and the bacterial communities they foster, that I care about keeping under control. This is why a travel-sized (2 oz) bottle of Dr. Bronner’s is an indispensable backpacking tool—as essential and useful as a multi-tool.

Ultralight Hygiene

I wouldn’t call myself an ultralight backpacker—I’m willing to put a six-pack of beers or several pounds of fresh vegetables in my pack for shorter trips. And often, when I have done the ultralight thing, it’s been more out of gonzo recklessness than some philosophical devotion to carrying less weight—like the time I hiked Yosemite’s entire southern rim with just a bottle of wine. But I do appreciate the motivation for carrying less. The lighter your pack, the farther you can go, and the farther you go, the more likely you are to find yourself in a deeply secluded and rarely visited wilderness.

So if you’re trying to reduce weight, a travel-sized bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap will handle just about all your hygiene needs. Let’s review everything you can do with this soap out on the trail:

  • Wash your body, face and hair
  • Brush your teeth
  • Clean your clothes

I’ll go over in detail how I use my bottle of Dr. Bronner’s to accomplish each of these tasks. I’ll also explain why it can be super-helpful to have a few other small Dr. Bronner’s items in your pack—including our travel-sized All-One Toothpaste, our Organic Hand Sanitizer, and our Organic Magic Balm.

Leaving No Trace

Dr. Bronner’s soap is highly biodegradable—probably the safest, simplest soap that you can use out in the wilderness. That said, you should always avoid rinsing off in lakes or rivers. Even a small amount of soap can change the pH of the water and disrupt habitat for the zillions of creatures that call those waterways home. If you do want to jump in the lake or river to get clean (always recommended), then just do a soapless wash—water by itself is very effective at removing dirt.

Often times there is no lake to swim in, or it’s too cold for a dip, and washing with Dr. Bronner’s soap is the best option. First, find a location at least 200ft away from any lake, stream or ravine. My favorite method on the trail is to start with a wet camp towel or bandana. Squirt a few drops of soap onto the towel or bandana and scrub down. This was Emanuel Bronner’s preferred method of washing up, and it works very well for the trail. Pay special attention to your armpits, groin and anywhere that your clothes fit tightly against your body—washing off the sweat (and salt) collected in these harder to reach areas will help prevent chafing and microbial growth. Once you have fully scrubbed yourself down, rinse off the soap—you can either rinse the bandana/towel and use that or give yourself a full shower with a squirt bottle, if you have one. Dry off and you’re good as new!

If you’re doing a hike in cold weather, you may find that the soap gets cloudy and a little more solidified. The soap still works perfectly well, but may be a bit tougher to get out of the bottle. In this situation, I usually just unscrew the cap and scoop out the soap I need with my finger. If you are really wanting the soap to reliquefy then you can leave it sitting in some warm water for a few minutes until it turns more liquid—but personally I find this to be unnecessary.

Brushing Your Teeth on the Trail

Let’s be honest here, carrying a tube of our 1 oz. travel-size Peppermint All-One Toothpaste is not going to weigh you down significantly. And it tastes much better than soap. Though it contains all natural ingredients, it still leaves a “trace” if you just spit it out onto the ground. To leave no trace, your best options are to spray it or bury it. The spray, or broadcast method, simply ensures that the toothpaste is dispersed in a wide area rather than in a concentrated glob—it still has a smell, so do it away from camp if you’re in bear country. As for swallowing Dr. Bronner’s Toothpaste, our legal department told me that I’m not allowed to recommend it, but I’ll just say that I personally have done it a few times and experienced no ill effects (the colors did look super-vibrant once after swallowing my toothpaste, but I’m going to assume that had everything to do with the mushrooms I had consumed shortly before).

But if you prefer to go the minimalist route, and don’t mind the taste of soap in your mouth too much, here is how to effectively brush your teeth with Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap. First off, I recommend using a more food-like scent, such as peppermint or citrus. Next, dampen your toothbrush with water. Finally, add one drop of soap to the toothbrush. That’s right, one drop is all you need—any more than that and you could be sudsing at the mouth. Brush, rinse and spit. Spraying or burying is still a good idea.

Washing Your Clothes in the Backcountry

Washing clothes only really becomes necessary if you’re in the wilderness for a week or more. Most of the time, if you’re out for just a few days, having an extra pair of socks and underwear will mean you stay “wilderness” fresh. Still this is a handy trick to have up your sleeve if you feel you need to wash your clothes for any reason. Make sure you pack a 1 gallon size zip lock bag for this (a couple of these are super-handy to have on any trip). Put the clothes you want to clean inside the bag with a few drops of Pure-Castile Soap and a little bit of water. Zip up the bag and agitate it around for five or ten minutes. This recreates the wash cycle in your machine. Remember to dump any soapy water at least 200 ft. away from water. So when you’re done agitating, dig a small hole and dump the soapy water in the hole, then put fresh water in the bag to rinse the clothes. Dump the rinse water in the same hole and hang your clothes or lay them on a sunny rock to dry. Don’t forget to throw dirt in the hole and bury your soapy water.

Photo from freecairn.com

Keeping Things Clean with Dr. Bronner’s Organic Hand Sanitizer

Even if you’re worried about keeping your pack light I would recommend packing a couple more Dr. Bronner’s essentials for comfort and cleanliness. They don’t weigh much, so I always bring:

Our Organic Hand Sanitizer is a goddess-send on the trail, perfect for sanitizing hands right before eating or right after answering the call of nature. Made with just organic ethyl alcohol, organic glycerin, water and organic essential oils, it’s a completely organic product that can also serve to wipe glasses or clean a camera lens. This small, multiuse item can really help make your trek more comfortable.

How to Combat Chafing and Irritation

The Unscented Organic Magic Balm is great to have around for one big reason: it helps with chafing. Chafing can be the bane of your outdoor adventure, causing irritation and pain for the duration of your trip. Chafing tends to happen in places where your clothes rub against your skin or skin rubs against itself. The weight of your pack and the various straps that go right up against your body can start to rub your skin as well. It can sneak up on you and become a real problem on a hike because of the salt from your sweat. The salt crystals not only further irritate your skin, but they also foster salt-loving bacteria that cause your skin to deploy an autoimmune response. We’re talking heat rashes, prickly skin, inflammation—it goes by different names, but the result is the same: irritated, itchy skin that is painful to the touch.

The first order of business once you notice that you have a chafing problem is to try to wipe the affected area clean with soap and water. Using Dr. Bronner’s soap this way will make sure that any salt-loving bacteria are eliminated and wiped of your body, along with the salt that they feed on. After you’ve cleaned the area well, you will want to apply the Organic Magic Balm. In my experience, it helps me feel better almost immediately. The balm helps to rehydrate and heal the irritated skin, while providing a smooth, waxy coating that prevents it from chafing again.

Our Organic Magic Balm works perfectly well on chapped lips too. I tend to carry an SPF lip balm for daytime use, and then use the Organic Magic Balm if my lips are still needing care after the sun goes down. And for climbers, the Organic Magic Balm is an excellent salve to repair hands and feet after they’ve been thrashed by the rocks.

Making Your Own Wet Wipes with Dr. Bronner’s

Some backpackers I know find great comfort in having a pack of wet wipes with them on the trail. I understand the appeal—you can wipe off all the accumulated sunscreen and dirt at the end of the day, then get right into your bag feeling clean and refreshed without having to do a more involved trail shower or scrub. My main issue has always been with the wipes themselves, which usually have unpronounceable chemicals in them and an off-putting scent.

Fortunately, Lisa Bronner posted a great video recently that shows how to make your own wet wipes using Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap, Dr. Bronner’s Organic Coconut Oil, and essential oils of your choice. You can either use cloth for a reusable version or paper towels for the disposable kind. If you pack disposable wipes into the wilderness, make sure to pack them out!

Get Out There!

Most people who are new to the backpacking experience share common concerns—many wonder if it’s possible to still feel human after three days without a shower! If you’ve never done a backpacking trip before and are wondering how you will manage to feel clean out there, then hopefully this post has given you the confidence and tools to do it. Personally I find the wilderness to be much cleaner feeling than the grit and grime of city life—and if worst comes to worst, you’ll qualify to become part of the proud brotherhood and sisterhood of dirtbaggers.

Author Profile
Darwin Westich

Darwin is a world-class cyclist and avid climber, snowboarder, surfer and wilderness enthusiast. When he's not cultivating "stokedness" in the mountains or the ocean, he can be found leading Brand Engagement efforts at Dr. Bronner's.

See all stories by Darwin Westich
  • Tony Baws

    Makes me want to get out there right away, down ‘n’ dirty. Planning to wild up next year to celebrate my 80th. Any tips for false teeth?