Health and Hygiene


My health is my single most valuable possession, and thus it is essential to preserve it in good working order. No artificial knee will ever be as good as the real thing. No implanted tooth will ever be as good as our natural teeth. One of the best ways to preserve health is to avoid dangerous situations, such as solo rock-climbing, glissading, and walking upright down slippery rain-soaked trails instead of clinging to the sides of the mountain with both hands and working your way down slowly but surely. To keep the immune system strong, get plenty of sleep each night, avoid stress, eat wholesome food, fast occasionally to give the digestive system a chance to rest, supplement the diet with vitamin pills as needed (such as when eating only dry food). There are germs everywhere in this world, so if your immune system is weak, you will get sick regardless of whatever cleanliness precautions you take.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

It is easier to avoid getting dirty in the first place than to clean up outdoors, so that is normally what I try to do. Ordinary dirt will rinse off with water and so seldom presents a problem. Food is a problem only for certain types of food and if the food is spilled on the body, which can be easily avoided by exercising some care while preparing and eating the food. That leaves the underarms, pelvic area, and feet.

To keep the underarms from causing smells, either on the body or the clothes, wear loose fitting clothes, hold the arms slightly away the body, and carry the pack either using the one shoulder carry method or with a sternum strap that pulls the pack straps away from the underarms. Even with these precautions, the underarms may still develop smells, even with deodorants or anti-perspirants, neither of which I use. If necessary, the underarms can washed with soap before going into town. The trick is to use the minimum amount of soap possible, since rinsing the soap away is what requires large amounts of water.

To keep the pelvic area area clean, wear loose fitting pants, avoid underwear, and wash after defecating rather than merely wiping. Toilet paper has numerous disadvantages: (a) ineffective at cleaning the body; (b) another consumable to run out of; (c) must be protected in a waterproof container inside the pack; (d) causes a mess if used in the rain (the most serious disadvantage); (e) presents a disposal problem outdoors (though most people don't worry about this and just throw the toilet paper on the ground, where it takes months or years to biodegrade, depending on climate, and meanwhile is very unsightly). Wetwipes work better than toilet paper, especially in rain, but there is still the matter of yet another consumable to worry about, plus the disposal issue is worse, since wetwipes take much longer to biodegrade. Therefore, I wipe myself with natural objects, especially sticks which are either naturally smooth or which have been smoothed by rubbing against rocks. Smooth river rocks and broad leaves are other possibilities. After wiping, I splash water and rub with my middle finger to remove any remaining dirt, then wash my fingers with soap and water. The whole process typically takes about 150ml of water. 150ml of water weighs 150 grams, which is much heavier than a few sheets of toilet paper. However, washing with water results in a much cleaner body, which in turn keeps the clothes from getting dirty and also prevents itching between the buttocks due to poor hygiene in this area. These are important considerations when wild-camping and trying not to look and smell like a homeless person. Also, water is easy to replace, whereas toilet paper is not. Slightly more weight but one less consumable to manage is a worthwhile trade-off to me.

Perspiration salts don't smell, but they will cause salt burns if left on the skin too long. This is mainly an issue for the tender skin of the face. So in hot weather, splash some water on the face each evening to rinse salt deposits away.

In hot weather, some people get rashes on the inner thighs from constant chafing of moist skin against moist skin. Ray Jardine recommends wearing skin-tight nylon tights (like those worn by cyclists) to protect from such chafing. (For women, cutoff pantyhose is another possibility.) However, these tights cause an ostentatious display of the genitals, which is not socially appropriate in many areas. Another problem with these tights is that they restrict airflow against the skin and thus are hotter than the loose supplex shorts I prefer. A simpler solution is to roll up the waist of the pants so that the crotch of the pants is pulled close to the body, thus preventing the skin on the inner thighs from touching. Note that wet supplex nylon clings to the skin as tightly as nylon tights, and also becomes partially see-through unless a dark color (my pants are black). However, my shirt is long enough to partially cover the genital area when worn outside the pants, so this clinging is not normally a problem for me. If necessary, I can wear my shoulder purse hanging towards the front of my body to provide complete screening.

Sun bathing is good for both health and cleanliness, since strong sunlight provides a natural source of vitamin D, kills bacteria on the surface of the skin which might otherwise cause the body to smell, and burns off skin oils (especially on the upper back and neck) which would otherwise contaminate clothing.

Sun bathing is also a good way to control skin fungus on the soles of the feet. Another way to keep the feet clean is walk barefoot around camp, since ordinary dirt tends to absorb the oils on the feet that hold smell. If the feet do develop strong smells from bacteria or fungus, sprinkle some anti-fungicidal powder in the boots. I have found Desenex powder (2% Miconazole Nitrate is the active ingredient) to be very effective at killing fungus on my feet and in my boots. When unable to find Desenex while hiking in Europe, I tried a mixture of boric acid, talc and some sort of aluminum-based perspiration inhibitor, which also worked well. However, I don't like the idea of stopping perspiration on my feet, since I want perspiration in hot weather to keep my feet cool and moisturized.

In very dry weather, if wearing sandals, the skin on the feet has a tendency to dry out and crack. To prevent this, rinse the feet free of dirt at the end of the day, since dirt tends to absorb oils from the skin (dry dirt is a very effective cleansing agent, in other words). With practice, you can learn to rinse the feet with just 50ml of water. Using such a small amount of water is important when dry camping. Then apply some moisturizer cream to the feet. I find Nivea brand cream, which contains petrolatum as the major ingredient other than water, to be particularly effective. Give the cream about 10 minutes to soak into the skin before climbing into your sleeping bag, to avoid soiling the foot area of the sleeping bag with the cream. Readers familiar with leather will note that my recommendations for foot care are similar to typical recommendations for caring for leather boots. This is not surprising, since human skin is simply living leather, and leather is simply skin from an animal that is no longer living.

Equipment hygiene

Even quick-drying towels tend to mildew, so the best approach is to avoid using towels altogether. Instead, shake the body after bathing to remove surface water, then put clothes back on and use body heat to burn off any remaining moisture.

The entire shelter system (guylines for tarp, pull-cords for stakes, stake stuff sack, bug-bivy) is likely to develop mildew. I don't worry too much about this. Sunlight helps keep the mildew under control, but be careful with exposing lightweight nylon (such as the tarp or bottom of the bug-bivy) to intense sunlight for long periods of time, since ultraviolet light destroys nylon. If the mildew becomes a problem, Mirazyme by McNett should get rid of it.

Chemicals given off by the underarms can be very difficult to remove, especially from packstraps but also sometimes from clothing. Again, Mirazyme by McNett may work when other methods (such as soaking in bleach) don't. Anti-perspirants reduce the production of underarm chemicals, but don't entirely prevent them, especially when the shoulders are being worked hard. Also, anti-perspirants cause the pores to clog. A better solution is to keep the packstraps and clothing away from the underarms by using a sternum strap on the pack.

For washing insulated gear (sleeping bags/quilts, down jacket, insulated pullover), Sport-wash (available at REI) rinses out easier than regular detergents. Rinsing is the difficult part of washing insulated gear with tightly-woven shells. Even with Sport-wash, use only half as much as recommended on the bottle and use an extra-large front-loading commercial washer for washing insulated gear, especially sleeping bags/quilts.

Preparing for the worst

Suppose you slip while descending a steep trail in cold rain, fall into a puddle and thus get wet, and break your wrist (or arm, or leg, or all three). Because you have gotten wet, and it is cold and windy, and you are probably tired and going into shock from the injury, there is the danger of hypothermia. So now you have to make camp immediately using only one hand and possibly with a broken leg as well. Can you set up a shelter under these conditions? What if you can't set up the tarp due to lack of room. Will your remaining gear allow you to survive? My tarp is fairly simple to setup with one hand, other than in very windy or other challenging conditions. If I can't setup the tarp, for whatever reason, I can easily shelter myself inside the poncho, which has no arm holes and thus provides complete protection for my upper body (though condensation will be severe). The foam pad provides fail-safe insulation underneath and finally I can wrap myself in my synthetic quilt to insulate my torso. My boots can also be removed and put back on with just one hand. Finally, my food requires no preparation and can be easily eaten with just one hand.

The scenario just described is probably the worst the average hiker is likely to encounter. Bicycle tourists in the desert should additionally consider the case where the bike breaks down in the middle of nowhere and they have to walk out. Always have enough water on hand to allow this. Hikers and bikers should both be prepared to hibernate and wait out severe storms. For hikers, severe storm implies rain or snow, so water should not be a problem. For desert bike touring in the winter, severe storm may merely mean bitterly cold temperatures and strong winds, so that water might be a problem. Desert bicycle tourists must keep water in mind at all times. A healthy human can easily go without food for a few days of hibernation, without losing the strength to resume movement after the storm abates, but going without water for several days is another story.