Hygiene and Sanitation in the Backcountry

Hygiene and Sanitation in the Backcountry Hygiene is a clinical-sounding word, but it can have profound consequences on your health and well-being during a backcountry jaunt.

Hygiene is a clinical-sounding word, but it can have profound consequences on your health and well-being during a backcountry jaunt.

Some tips for staying healthy outdoors:

Keep Hands and Fingernails Clean

Much (and probably most) intestinal illness experienced during or after an extended outdoor adventure is due to poor hygiene, particularly unwashed hands. Solution:

  • Carry a hand sanitizer (available as a gel or as wipes; always pack out wipes). Use them after bowel movements and before handling food. Very handy for use when you're on the move or water is not nearby.
  • Soap and water are considered by some experts to be a more thorough hand-cleansing option because the act physically rubs and rinses away everything from dirt to unseen microorganisms. But the rubbing action involved with sanitizers may accomplish the same result.
  • Important: Never use soap directly in a water source.
  • Clostridium difficile, a spore-forming bacterium sometimes found in fecal matter, is resistant to sanitizers and requires hand washing for removal.

Keep Soap Far from Lakes and Streams

Soap residue contains nutriments that can spur algae growth in otherwise pristine water, and algae can spawn populations of disease-causing microorganisms. It's a problem that's on the increase, according to backcountry water researcher Robert Derlet (read our Backcountry Water Quality Q&A article). Some solutions:

  • Bring a lightweight portable sink and carry bathing water far (at least 200 feet, preferably more) from a water source.
  • Sanitizers (gels or wipes) offer an alternative to soap. (Again, always pack out wipes.)
  • If you prefer soap, use a mild, basic or biodegradable style.
  • NEVER lather up directly in a lake or stream.
  • Pour gray water on dirt; soap residue can potentially interfere with lichen growth on rocks. Microorganisms in soil, meanwhile, effectively combat soap residue.
  • Going swimming? Wash off first (as is routinely required before entering swimming pools), removing sunscreen and repellents from skin.
  • Consider carrying a lightweight, fast-drying, made-for-the-trail pack towel.

Soap Versus Sanitizers

Scrubbing with soap and water is your best choice for cleanliness. When speed and convenience are vital, sanitizers offer a handy option.

  • The mechanical action of scrubbing with soap and water, including rinsing, flushes material off your skin.
  • Sanitizers (disinfectants) kill microorganisms on skin, though they don't necessarily rinse them off skin. Their effectiveness as a disinfectant may be tied to the quantity used or a length of contact time. Follow instructions on individual products.
  • As stated previously, dispose of soapy water on soil or lichen-free rock far from any lake, river or stream, at least 200 feet away, preferably more.

Evaluate Water Sources

Waterborne pathogens such as Giardia are not as widespread in backcountry water sources as once believed. A number of researchers and medical experts believe that much water in the wilderness (particularly in remote, high alpine settings) is drinkable without treatment. Yet any adventurer should always be equipped with a treatment method for any situation where water is viewed with suspicion. Some danger signs:
  • Water (particularly lower-elevation water) near meadows or pastures where animals have grazed.
  • Evidence of pack animal traffic or other domesticated animal activity.
  • Signs of sloppy human behavior or a prolonged human visit.

ispose of Human Waste in Accordance with Local Guidelines

It's not a popular chore, but after one run-through most people find that it's a manageable task. Here's the typical process:

  • Move 200 feet (at least) from a trail, campsite or water source.
  • Find a patch of organic soil (darker soil where plants and trees flourish); use a stick, rock or lightweight plastic trowel to dig a hole 4 to 6 inches wide and 6 to 8 inches deep.
  • Pack out toilet paper in a sealable plastic bag if required. Even if it's not required, it's still the best practice for lowering your impact on the land.
  • Burning used toilet paper was once a standard practice. Many land managers discourage (or disallow) the burning of TP due to wildfire hazards.
  • Wilderness educators point out that natural substitutes for TP exist, including conifer cones (preferably the softer varieties!), large twigs and pebbles. Leaves are another option, though they often shred easily. Using such alternatives could irritate skin. Consider carrying a lotion or wipes.
  • If burning TP is permitted, do so carefully. Vigilantly avoid letting any burning embers float away. If soap and water are available, wash hands directly over the hole to ensure all burned materials are extinguished by the rinse water.
  • Cover the feces with dirt and refill the hole. Place a rock or large branches atop the space to discourage critters from digging it up.
  • How to properly urinate? Standard advice suggests aiming for bare rock and avoiding vegetation, keeping plants free of urine's salt content (which appeals to marmots and other animals). Other opinions point out that urine is sterile, and that fauna indiscriminately urinate on backcountry vegetation. Thus, other than going well away from a trail or campsite, urine merits no special treatment. But it is not appropriate to urinate into a stream, lake or landlocked body of water.

Maintain a Clean Camp

Ideally, a campsite should be a previously impacted area with the following attributes:

  • The sleeping surface should be on mineral (inorganic) soil 200 feet (or more) from a water source.
  • Human waste and wastewater should be deposited at least 200 feet from the campsite (preferably in different locations) and even farther from the water source.
Sourced By T.D. Wood