Backcountry exploration is an extremely dirty business. Hiking long distances with a heavy pack takes a lot of effort and generates a lot of sweat. Frequently scrambling under downed trees, climbing over logs, trudging across beaver dams and pushing through dense thickets just exacerbates the problem. Mix in insect repellent and sunscreen residues, and hiking clothes are typically filthy, clammy and all-around disgusting after just a single day.
Unfortunately, the nearest washing machine is many miles away. Although laundry is often a forgotten chore out in the backcountry, it does not have to be that way. Backcountry laundry can be almost as convenient as at home with the proper planning and equipment. In fact, I perform the following laundry procedure frequently during my backcountry adventures, most recently at Cracker Pond during a bushwhacking trip through the deep interior of the Five Ponds Wilderness this past summer.
Proper planning starts well before ever hitting the trail or entering the forest. In fact, it starts while shopping for hiking clothes. This is especially true for the clothing worn while hiking as these will likely be in the greatest need of cleaning during any trip.
Lightweight clothing made of synthetic fabrics work best. The synthetic fabrics tend to hold water less and therefore dry quicker. Quick drying is important since only the sun and the wind will be available for any drying. Do not attempt to use a fire for drying except in the most extreme situations, as the risk of melting is too great.
Very little specialized equipment is required for laundry in the backcountry. The necessary equipment is relatively inexpensive or typically carried already for other purposes. Forget about hauling an old-fashioned washboard, all that is needed is a re-sealable, plastic zipper storage bag (Ziploc bags for those not brand name averse), some detergent, a water basin, a super-absorbent towel and a clothes line. Do not forget the filthy clothing too.
The zipper storage bag should be a heavy duty bag, such as a freezer bag. A gallon-sized bag works well unless you plan on cleaning only small articles such as socks and/or underwear. The bag thickness is especially important if it is to be used multiple times on a single trip since small holes can develop easily.
Select a biodegradable and environmentally-friendly detergent for use in the backcountry. Powdered detergents work best as they weigh less than the liquid alternatives. If the temperatures are forecast to be high during your trip then consider supplementing the powdered with a small amount of liquid scent destroying detergent.
My favorite liquid scent-destroying detergent is Sport-Wash. Only a half-ounce is necessary per gallon of water. The label indicates it rinses completely, leaving absolutely no residue or scent. Plus, they claim it restores loft and effectiveness to down and synthetic insulation, improves wicking of fibers and maintains breathability of waterproof fabrics. The only downside is the instructions indicate to let clothes soak for thirty minutes prior to agitation.
When selecting water for washing laundry, try to find the cleanest source available. This may pose a difficult task in some places within the Adirondacks, especially in those ponds with mucky bottoms and indistinct shorelines. Streams often provide the easiest access to relatively clean water.
The water should be scooped up carefully from its source if the plastic bag has had prior use since getting detergent (or any other cleansing agent) into the water can have adverse consequences for aquatic life. Pouring water into the bag from some other receptacle sometimes works well, though at some point you will wish you were an octopus; the extra arms come in handy!
The detergent should be added after the water is in the plastic bag. It is best to place the cleaning agent in first before the clothes since it is easier to get it to mix uniformly. Take care not to use too much; it only takes a little to get the job done.
After adding the clothes, seal the bag and either soak the contents for a while or shake to simulate agitation. Feel free to use your imagination here, alternating between soaking and shaking as time allows. Although it is tempting to open the bag and agitate with one’s hands, be careful not to puncture the bag when doing so.
Depending on how dirty are the clothes, multiple loads can be washed using a single batch of water and detergent. But be warned, the water may be so dark and dirty after just washing a single article of clothing that you may feel a little ill. When the dirty water is finally ready for disposal make sure you are at least 150 feet from any water source, if such a thing is possible in the Adirondacks.
After washing is completed, the rinsing can commence. Although the plastic page could be used for rinsing, I typically use a self-standing water basin for that purpose. The water basin allows for more vigorous ringing and more frequent water changes.
My rinsing basin of choice is a Backpacker’s Pantry collapsible pack bowl. This pack bowl is extremely lightweight, flexible and very packable; it folds down completely flat. This bowl could double as a washing bucket but I only carry one and I prefer washing and rinsing simultaneously.
Dispose of the rinse water in the same manner as the wash water; at least 150 feet from any water source. Try not to dispose of all the water in a single location; spread out any possible impact.
After the clothes are completely laundered, they need to be dried. Although a majority of drying is performed by the sun and wind, there are several procedures that can minimize the amount of time required.
A clothes line is essential for drying laundry in the backcountry. The food bag rope used to foil hungry bears, rodents, etc. can easily double as a clothes line. The only complication of this duel use is it is not possible to dry laundry AND hang food simultaneously.
The clothes line should be tied between two trees where the rope gets as much sunshine exposure as possible. If available place the rope in an area where it takes advantage of any cross-breezes. If you want to avoid your rope getting sticky from sap residue make sure to tie it off to hardwood trees only.
Although throwing the clothes right on the line and waiting for the sun and wind to do all the drying is an option, a super-absorbent pack towel can cut the amount of drying time down significantly. One of these towels should already be in every hiker’s backpack for drying after fording streams, swimming and personal hygiene purposes.
I carry a couple MSR Ultralite pack towels of different sizes for personal hygiene purposes. The larger of these towels doubles for laundry duty when necessary.
Just lay out the wet (and presumably now clean) article of clothing on top of towel and roll the two up together. When completely rolled up, just give a couple gentle twists to transfer the moisture from the clothes to the towel. Unroll and ring out the towel into the rinse bucket or at the proper distance from any water body. Repeat until the clothing is merely damp and then hang it out in the sun to finish the job.
The next time you slip on that hiking shirt and the stench makes you dizzy just be thankful you have the necessary equipment to do your laundry out in the backcountry. Afterwards you will be delighted at how clean are your hiking clothes. Just do not get used to it; after an hour carrying a heavy pack over who-knows-what you will be smelling your own body odor all over again.
Photos: Drying laundry at Cracker Pond by Dan Crane.
Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.