Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dan Crane: Adirondack Backcountry Hygiene

Exploring the backcountry of the Adirondacks is hard work. Regardless of whether it is exclusively done on well-worn trails or way off the beaten path, hiking generates a lot of sweat and stirs up plenty of dirt. When the stench emerging from a sleeping bag in the morning instantly brings tears to the eyes, there can be no doubt; some backcountry hygiene is now a dire necessity.

Adding some backcountry laundry to the usual camp chores can mitigate this smell to some degree, but often more extreme measures are necessary. Although everyone’s tolerance to intense body odor, sticky skin and slimy hair may wildly vary; it is inevitable that at some point the sickening smorgasbord of filth will exceed even the hardiest individual’s ability to ignore it.

Although personal hygiene may be optional for the solo backcountry enthusiast, it becomes a downright necessity for those traveling in groups. One of the few things worse than smelling one’s own overpowering body odor is enduring the stench of someone else’s natural aroma.

Some people prefer the simplest solution to a dire body odor situation. Just a dip in a nearby lake or stream does the trick for these trepid souls. Unfortunately, finding a rocky-bottomed water body in the Adirondacks is not always an easy task. Plus, there is the threat of leeches, snapping turtles, overly enthusiastic fish and a whole menagerie of other creepy organisms to deal with.

For those looking for a more traditional bathing experience, only a little planning and a few pieces of extra equipment are required. The ultimate goal of backcountry hygiene is to deal with the stench and other associated issues without over burdening the weight of the backpack.

Soap is an important component of any backcountry adventurer’s personal hygiene system. Simple biodegradable soaps work best as they have less impact on the environment than the more aggressive, heavily marketed alternatives made by the major manufactures.

Using soap with insect-repellent properties, like Sallye Ander No-Bite-Me, allows for added protection against all blood-craving insects. Having a single piece of equipment satisfy two purposes, such as these repellent soaps, is a weight-conscious backcountry explorer’s dream.

A small sponge comes in handy for rinsing off the soapy residue or engaging in a sponge bath. Currently, I use an ecotools™ cellulose facial sponge. These sponges come in threes, are made of cellulose, contain no petroleum by-products, are minimally packaged and the limited packaging is printed on recycled paper.

Use some type of basin filled with water to wet and rinse the sponge. Backpacker’s Pantry’s collapsible pack bowl works extremely well. It is lightweight, flexible, and extremely packable as it folds down completely flat. Just make sure to dispose of the waste water 150 feet away from any stream, lake or pond.

After cleaning with soap it is important to hold off the inevitable stink as long as possible. Typically, deodorant sticks are used back in civilization to accomplish this task. Deodorant sticks are typically too bulky for backpacking into the backcountry.

An alternative I use is a deodorant powder, such as Thai Crystal & Cornstarch Deodorant Powder. It claims to be free of aluminum chlorohydrate, controls wetness, offers 24-hour protection and is unscented. I typically pack it in a small plastic film container (you do remember film, right?). Since it is a very fine powder I usually place the film container in a small plastic bag, just in case.

Nothing spurs the desire to take a shower more than the slimy feeling of greasy hair in the backcountry. This is especially true at night when it is often no longer possible to cover it up with a convenient hat. Unfortunately, this feeling cannot be fully alleviated by just wetting your hair in a convenient lake or pond; only a thorough shampooing can alleviate this situation.

Despite their utility back in civilization, liquid shampoos are inconvenient in the backcountry. They are not lightweight, require a sturdy container (which often seems to leak despite all attempts to the contrary) and are often heavily scented (which attracts all types of insects, including the biting and stinging kinds).

An alternative to liquid shampoos are solid shampoo bars. Although they typically come in large sizes, they can be cut to a convenient small size for an extended backcountry adventure. They do not leak, can be easily placed in a plastic re-sealable bag and tend to have subtle scents. My favorite is J.R.Liggett’s Shampoo Bar, which I like so much I use it at home fulltime.

The dirty water reservoir of an inline water filter system can be helpful for rinsing shampoo from hair. The reservoir, with the inline filter removed and the hose tied off in a loose knot, when filled with water makes an effective shower. Just be sure not to tie the knot too tight since undoing it with eyes closed is a daunting task.

I use an old Platypus 3L Big Zip Reservoir with some surgical tubing for my inline filter system. The surgical tubing is supple enough to be easily tied and untied regardless of whether my eyes are open or not. Three liters is more than enough to rinse the shampoo from my hair with enough left over to rinse my back and arms. Make sure the water is not too cold or risk having an intense headache after the shower.

Do not forget to have a lightweight and highly absorbent pack towel handy for all of the above activities. They are not only handy for drying but become an effective defensive weapon when wet against crafty biting flies that have discovered the sweet spot on the back where few people can reach. I currently carry a MSR Ultralite Pack Towel for just such occasions.

Spending many days in the wilderness often requires taking steps to perform some backcountry hygiene. Fortunately, personal hygiene in the backcountry does not have to be another tedious chore and can deliver sizable dividends when exploring the backcountry in groups. Otherwise be prepared to spend much of the trip alone with a stench of your own making.

Photos: A perfect place for a late summer bath on Moshier Reservoir by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




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