Keeping clean and hygienic while camping is not so different from what you would do at home—but you have to keep Leave No Trace principles in mind and minimize what you pack. Leave No Trace principles are a simple set of guidelines that help conserve wildlife and preserve wilderness for others to enjoy. These principles, along with some simple hacks, can make your life easier and keep your campsite and body clean while you’re enjoying the outdoors.
1. Plan to Leave No Trace
The first principle of Leaving No Trace is that you have to plan ahead and prepare to do it! The best way to reduce waste is to create less of it when at your camp or on the trail.
- Plan for one-pot meals to lighten loads and decrease garbage.
- Plan meals that avoid generating messy, smelly garbage.
- Most food can be removed from its commercial packaging and put in resealable bags that can be reused when you get home—this will help reduce waste.
- Plan to use a camp stove instead of a campfire to cook your meals, as a stove leaves no trace.
- Bring the right gear to you wash dishes, clothes and body without leaving a trace—more on that below.
Make a commitment and a plan to Leave No Trace before you embark on your journey!
2. Pack a hygiene kit
This is crucial for a backpacking trip—for which you should pack travel-sized versions—and also keeps things organized when you’re planning a car camping trip. Here are some items you should be sure to include in your hygiene kit:
- Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap
- Dr. Bronner’s All-One Toothpaste (you can use a drop of Dr. Bronner’s soap if you’re a true minimalist), toothbrush and floss
- Dr. Bronner’s Organic Hand Sanitizer
- Toilet paper (put some in zip-lock bag if backpacking)
- Unscented baby wipes or moist towelettes
- Feminine hygiene products
- Camp towel and washcloth/bandana
Baby wipes are a lifesaver when you’re camping, as you can use them to keep yourself clean when water is unavailable or impractical. I’m a big fan of Essential Wipes, but you can also make your own wipes with Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap using Lisa Bronner’s recipe (use unscented soap so you don’t attract critters)!
Dr. Bronner’s Organic Hand Sanitizer will be your best friend on the trail or in the campground. Always use sanitizer after going to the bathroom and before handling food if washing with soap and water is not an option.
3. Use soap at least 200 feet away from any body of water
Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap is a must-bring versatile tool for any camping or backpacking trip.
That said, you should always avoid using the soap near lakes or rivers. Even a small amount of soap can change the pH of the water and disrupt habitat for the millions 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. Other tips for washing dishes and clothes are detailed below, but both should be done away from waterways.
4. Use a sink system to wash dishes
I use a two-sink (or two-bin) system to wash dishes when at the campground. Collapsible camping sinks are super handy for this, but I’ve also used nestling plastic bins. The plastic bins are great because you can use them to pack supplies then convert them to sinks once you get to the campground.
Into your first bin/sink put warm water (if possible) plus a squirt of Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap. Your second bin/sink will be just water for rinsing. Some folks use a three-sink system, with bleach or another sanitizing agent in the last sink. For me, this is generally overkill as soap will get rid of germs and I prefer not to deal with bleach—but if you’re camping with a large group or cutting raw meat (plan to avoid this!), then a sanitizing station might make sense.
One key to making the sink system work is to clean your dishes as much as possible before even washing them—which means making only as much as you think you’ll eat, and licking your plates clean! Gauge everyone’s hunger level before you cook to get a sense of how much to make. If there are any food scraps on your plate and you’re car camping, then scrape off any food into your garbage bag before washing.
I tend to change the water in the sinks daily, or you can change them whenever they seem really dirty. Do not dump your dirty water straight on the ground. Bring a large strainer and pour the water from your soap sink into your rinse sink through the strainer so that you are able to remove any food scraps. These food scraps could attract wildlife if they end up on the ground.
If you’re at a campsite with drainage facilities you can now pour your gray water into the drain. If you have no drain to pour water into, then it’s best to broadcast your gray water over a large area so that you minimize impact. Remember to do it at least 200 feet away from any body of water!
5. Dispose of waste properly
If you’re on the trail or camping in a spot with no facilities when nature calls, then you have to dig a cat hole for your poop and bury it. The only other option, often required in high-impact areas like National Parks, is to carry out your own waste in bags (there are sturdy bags and deodorizing desiccant powders that can be used).
Pooping in a hole may sound daunting if you’ve never done it before, but most people quickly get used to it. Should you doubt the importance of this practice—the negative impacts of improper disposal of human waste can include:
- pollution of water sources
- infection of native fauna, spread of disease
- ruining an otherwise beautiful piece of pristine wilderness
- leaving a mess for others to find
So what is the right way of using a cat hole? Here are the basics:
- Pick a spot 200 feet away from your campsite or any source of water.
- Dig a hole about 6–8 inches deep and 4–6 inches wide.
- Pack out your toilet paper (single ply) in a plastic bag or bury it in the hole (toilet paper takes a long time to decompose).
- Cover the hole with dirt, mark it with a stick or rock.
Here are a few more “nice-to-haves” to make the experience more comfortable and less impactful:
- Pick a sunny spot—fewer mosquitos and faster decomposition.
- Pick an elevated spot—protects streams and offers a view!
- If you choose to pack everything out, spruce your experience up with a collapsible toilet seat!
For all other forms of trash, I like to keep three trash bags (landfill, recycling, compost) and pack everything out when we leave the campsite.
6. Use a plastic bag, pot, or bucket to wash clothes
I try not to wash clothes when camping, but if you packed light and are on a longer trip it may be necessary to at least wash socks and underwear.
Here are my tips for washing clothes while camping:
- Only wash clothes if it looks to be a hot, dry day—there won’t be much point if you can’t get your clothes dry.
- Put your clothes in a plastic bag, pot or bucket.
- Add some water and a squirt of Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap.
- Vigorously agitate your clothes in the soapy water.
- Pour out the dirty soapy water and broadcast it on the ground (200 feet away from water or campsite).
- Add clean water to your bag or bucket to rinse clothes.
- Wring your clothes dry as much as possible then put them on a hot rock to dry—or if you have trees and a clothesline, hang them up.
7. Scan your campsite before you leave
It’s time to strike camp and head home—here’s your chance to make sure that you’ve left no trace! Do a sweep of your campsite and make sure that no little scraps of waste have been left behind. Bonus points if you pick up trash that others left behind before you—leave it better than you found it!