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Rainmaker's Suggestions For Hygiene
& Sanitation On The Trail

These methods work for me, however, what works for one person may not work for another. If you wish to try any of the techniques or methods mentioned here, understand that you do so at your own risk.

There is no reason for long distance hikers to smell like smelly long distance hikers in camp in the evenings or when they go into town. When Brawny and I go into trail towns, we often hear things like "you folks don't smell like you've been out on the trail for a week". By using just a few simple and quick techniques, we can substantially reduce body odor after we reach camp each day and before we go into town.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not contending that we always smell great and everyone else doesn't. When I'm hiking during the day with my wet, smelly clothes, I smell as bad or worse than everyone else. However, we do what we can to deodorize and clean up in the evenings in camp and before we venture into civilization.

This is important not only to reduce body odor, but to promote good health practices on the trail as well. I believe there are many instances when hikers get various digestive disorders on the trail and blame it on bad water. Actually, the illness was most likely due to poor hygiene and sanitation.

I'm also including sections concerning water purification and my first aid kit. When accidents occur, it is important to have the right items needed to clean and treat minor (and perhaps not so minor) wounds. I was reminded of this in the summer of 2002 on Vermont's Long Trail. I slipped on some wet rocks and received not only some bad scrapes, but a jagged 3 inch cut on my forearm. Having the right items in my first aid kit allowed me to clean and treat the wounds and resume my hike. Basically, my first aid kit saved me a trip to the emergency room, and allowed me to keep the wounds from becoming infected. Also, the days of being able to drink directly out of creeks and springs are long gone. All water used on the trail should be purified.

This page has been divided into 5 articles. To see the articles, make a selection below or scroll down.

(Since this page was posted, I've received several inquiries concerning the plastic bottles I use for alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, bleach, etc. To see a photo and a description of the bottles I use click here, then use the "Back" button on your browser to return to this page.)

  • Personal Hygiene
  • Oral Hygiene
  • Sanitation
  • My First Aid Kit
  • Water Purification

    Personal Hygiene:

    I carry a container cut from a 1-gallon milk jug when I hike. The container is about 5 inches high and weighs about an ounce. I use it and a small bandana (along with a few ounces of water) to get a sponge bath in the evenings. It is truly amazing how much trail dirt can be removed with just a few ounces of plain water and a bit of effort. My Wal-Mart Grease Pot (used as a cooking pot) fits neatly inside this container, so it doesn't take up any room in my pack.

    I also carry a 2-ounce bottle of Isopropyl alcohol and some cotton balls. When I finish with my "bath" in the evenings, I apply some alcohol to a couple of cotton balls and clean and deodorize the "obvious" areas of my body (underarms, groin area, area between my buttocks and my feet).

    Not only does this reduce body odor, but I've found that the daily application of alcohol to the groin area prevents chafing from getting started. Occasionally, the alcohol will cause some mild burning, which tells me that I had the beginnings of chafing, but that the alcohol is doing its job.

    I normally recycle the cotton balls by burning them next to a Hexamine fuel tablet when I cook supper using my soda can stove. I pack out the burned ash from the cotton balls.

    Also, I usually carry a small container of some kind of body lotion or muscle rub (Flexall is my favorite) and use it on my feet. Not only does this help deodorize my feet, but it really makes them feel good. After my "bath", I change into my sleeping / lounging clothes. I usually hang up my hiking clothes overnight on a nylon line put up between 2 trees. This seems to help a bit to cut down on odor.

    Just before I go into civilization, I usually stop and use the alcohol and cotton balls, and change into my sleeping / lounging clothes. Using these methods, it is usually possible to go into civilization smelling almost as good as the folks in town.

    Oral Hygiene:

    I carry dental floss (minus the plastic case), travel toothbrush (the kind that comes apart and the brush fits into the hollow handle), small tube of toothpaste, metal travel-pic and a very small plastic bottle (1/8 fl. oz.) of concentrated breath drops (2 bottles for 88 cents at Wal-Mart or Dollar Stores). All these items weigh a total of an ounce or so.

    I use the dental floss once per day, and brush my teeth twice per day. I also place a few drops of the breath drops on my tongue, take a very small sip of water and then use the water and breath drops as a mouthwash and gargle. I use the metal tooth-pic as needed. This is effective for oral hygiene, and it is about as good as can be done while hiking.


    I carry a trowel, toilet paper, small bottle of Isopropyl alcohol and a handful of cotton balls in my "toilet kit". (When I'm out only for a day or so, one 2-ounce bottle of alcohol and cotton balls do double-duty for both my first aid and toilet kits; when I'm on a long hike, I carry separate 2-ounce bottles and a handful of cotton balls in each kit.)

    After I'm all done in the privy or with the hole I dug in the woods, I use one alcohol saturated cotton ball and clean my groin area and the area between my buttocks. When I'm done with that, I use another alcohol soaked cotton ball to thoroughly clean my hands. The used cotton balls are either recycled next to my Hexamine cooking tablet when I fire my stove, or they are placed directly into my trash bag.

    Brawny and I are both very careful about any food items we get out of hiker boxes. The food is put there with the best of intentions, however, for an item that has already been opened and used (for example, trail mix in a zip-loc bag), there could be all manner of germs or bacteria lurking inside. A good many hands could have been inside the bag before we got to it. Therefore, we take only sealed and unused items from hiker boxes. We feel this is an important step concerning staying healthy on the trail.

    Also, when we get showers in hostels we wear sandals. We've both heard of instances where hikers got fungal infections on their feet from unsanitary shower stalls.

    We also keep our water bottles, dishes and utensils as clean as possible. We wash them after each use and de-bug them regularly with bleach and water. When we get to town, we wash them thoroughly with soap and hot water.

    My First-Aid Kit:

    My first aid kit consists of a small plastic bottle of Hydrogen Peroxide, cotton balls, plastic bottle of Iodine, tube of antibiotic cream, anti-diahrrea pills, Benadryl capsules, Ibuprofen caplets, Zantac antacid capsules, a couple of needles and a few band-aids.

    For open wounds and scrapes, I irrigate the wound with clean drinking water. After drying it, I clean the wound with Hydrogen Peroxide and a cotton ball. I then apply Iodine and antibiotic cream.

    If I need to stop bleeding with direct pressure, I clean my hand with alcohol and a cotton ball before using the hand to apply direct pressure to the wound. Each day, I check the wound for infection, and apply more iodine and antibiotic cream twice per day.

    For anything more severe than cuts, scrapes, blisters, minor burns and bee stings, I feel it is best to get off the trail and seek professional medical care. Taking a Wilderness First-Aid Course is also highly recommended.

    Water Purification:

    Boiling raw water is probably the most effective method of making it safe to drink. However, not all hikers have the fuel and the time to do this.

    The next best method (in my opinion) is using a high quality water filter that has a new or nearly new filter element. However, water filters are heavy, expensive and problematic. They cost anywhere from $40 to $250 and can weigh over a pound. Some common problems include clogged filter elements, broken pump handles and leaking joints and gaskets. Some filters are effective only against live organisms (like Giardia) and others are also effective against pollutants like herbicides, pesticides and agricultural fertilizers. If you are going to use a filter, I'd suggest finding out exactly what it will (and won't) filter out of the water. I became disillusioned with water filters during my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1992 and haven't used them since.

    Chemicals (iodine and bleach) can also be used. If iodine is used, be sure and read the fine print. It works only when water is in a particular temperature range. Bleach has been approved by the EPA as an emergency water disinfectant. When I use bleach, I add 4 drops per liter of water, shake it well and let it sit for 30 minutes. Many hikers don't like the taste of water after it has been treated with chemicals, and many don't trust them to work, either. A crushed Vitamin C tablet can be added to the treated water, and powdered drink mixes are also effective. However, when using chemicals to purify water, nothing should be added to the treated water until the chemicals have had time to work. For bleach, this is 30 minutes. For iodine products, check the label on the bottle. Also, after the water has been treated and the chemicals have had time to do their work, opening the bottles for a while and subjecting the water to sunlight seems to dissipate the chemical taste and smell.

    Bleach seems to lose its effectiveness after a while. Therefore, we normally don't carry more than a couple of week's worth (3/4 - 1 ounce) at a time. It is very easy to find bleach in trail towns. It is available in just about every grocery store in America, and motels often have it. Motel owners will usually allow their hiker-customers to fill their eye-dropper bottles free of charge.

    The following wording is from the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) web site. It is from the section that discusses disaster supplies kits that can be made and kept at home:

    You can use household liquid bleach to kill microorganisms. Use only regular household liquid bleach that contains 5.25 percent sodium hypochlorite. Do not use scented bleaches, color-safe bleaches, or bleaches with added cleaners. Add 16 drops of bleach per gallon of water, stir, and let stand for 30 minutes. If the water does not have a slight bleach odor, repeat the dosage and let stand another 15 minutes. If it still does not smell of chlorine, discard it and find another source of water. Other chemicals, such as iodine or water treatment products sold in camping or surplus stores that do not contain 5.25 percent hypochlorite as the only active ingredient, are not recommended and should not be used.

    If you'd like to see the FEMA Web site, it is located here: