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Making Scents in the Outdoors: Hygiene Tips

By Hazel Stark

When we spend extended time outdoors, we get stinky, especially if we’re doing high intensity activities like backpacking. Getting clean outdoors not only keeps us more comfortable and helps us sleep better, but also can be critical for good health. As with all things outdoors, we need to be thoughtful about the products we use and where to use them on our quest for hygiene outdoors.

Outdoor Scents

When helping a friend make sense of his packing list for a backpacking trip, I noticed that he had carefully included his deodorant among his other possessions. I strongly encouraged him to leave it at home because a) every ounce counts when you’re carrying all your possessions on your back for several days, and b) nature doesn’t care if you smell sweaty out in the fresh air.

Additionally, scented toiletry items, like lotions, deodorants, or perfumes can actually attract the critters you probably want to avoid. Biting or stinging insects might become curious about a unique floral scent or other strong smell and seek you out. Even storing these toiletries safely away from your tent can attract unwanted attention from critters that have an incredible sense of smell, like bears. (For information about how to set up a bear hang to keep your food and other scented items out of their reach, check out our Camping 101 video). 

So it’s always best practice to use unscented products outdoors.

Staying Clean

Women washing herself with a bandana

Washing with a bandana

Even though the smell of your own sweat is much less of a problem than using scented body products outdoors, staying salty and sticky can be. For instance, having sticky skin can cause chafing if you’re moving around a lot as it increases friction between your legs or arms and torso.

Also, salt has that unique quality of absorbing the moisture around it. This is why we put dry rice in our salt shakers when it’s humid–so the rice absorbs the moisture instead of the salt absorbing the moisture and getting clumpy. When you’re exercising and get really hot, that salty sweat helps cool you off. But when you’re done exercising, that lingering salt on your skin continues to do its job: attracting the moisture around you to your skin, continuing to keep you cool and damp. This might not be a problem if you’re sleeping outside in warm weather, but in the winter, it can pose a big problem by keeping you chilled all night long.

Getting that salt off you before tucking into tentville is always a good idea. If you can’t go for a swim in freshwater, you can always soak a bandana in freshwater and wipe yourself down with that (warm up the water in cold weather for a treat!).

If you’re out for a multi-day trip and have the ability to have a more thorough bathing experience, you will probably want to use soap to get more than just the salt off.

Using Soap Outdoors

We use soap because it combats oil build-up and kills the little microbes that could cause illness. However, standard soap is not a good thing to put in the environment as the diversity of microbes that exist out there is what helps maintain healthy ecosystems. But I do encourage people, especially females, to use soap regularly on multi-day trips to get really clean. At the very least, regular hand washing, especially after using that fine cathole you made, is important in any setting to avoid introducing unfriendly microbes into your digestive or respiratory systems when you eat or touch your face. If you’re also managing your period outdoors, keeping things clean down there is also important for reducing the potential of any cross-contamination.

Dirty Feet

Dirty Feet after a long day hiking!

So if it’s good to clean with soap outside but we shouldn’t let soap hurt the environment, what should we do? Here are a few strategies to reduce your impact when staying clean outdoors:

  1. Only use biodegradable soaps.
  2. Avoid using soap, even biodegradable or stream-safe soap, directly in lakes, ponds, or streams. You can get wet in the lake, soap up on land, and then rinse off using a pot or bucket that you fill with freshwater in advance. Leave No Trace principles recommend scattering soapy water at least 200 feet away from any freshwater source (see the Wastewater section in this article). You could also use a solar shower away from a freshwater source.
  3. If you’re outdoors in a place with limited freshwater access, you can reduce your freshwater usage by employing something like a backcountry bidet (you can easily create your own with the right waterbottle) to just focus on the essentials.

Endeavoring to Leave No Trace when you’re outdoors helps all of us. Hiking trails and camping areas concentrate human impact, reducing how much forest is trampled down by our outdoor activity—that’s a good thing. But this concentration of human impact on trails and campsites also concentrates the impact of our waste if we do not pack it out or dispose of it properly. Leaving behind toilet paper, leftover food, or wastewater can not only attract a higher number of critters to the area that could interfere with the safety of your outdoor experience in those places, but also reduce the pleasantness of the human experience outdoors. When I see toilet paper crumpled up by a trail on an otherwise beautiful hike, it takes some of the beauty and wonder away from my experience. Sure, one wad of toilet paper left off trail will decompose eventually, and maybe no one will see it, but if we all made decisions based on that rationale, the outdoors would be a much smellier, uglier, and possibly more dangerous place..

The more we can do to reduce our impacts while staying clean, healthy, and comfortable, the better.