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Gear talk: hygiene on trail

Bags and pouches of small stuff carried on longer hikes

Bags and pouches of small stuff carried on longer hikes, these include a wash kit and w/c bag

This is another glance at some of the little bags and pouches that Three Points of the Compass takes on longer, multi-day hikes. This time, my wash and ‘poop’ kits. Not the most thrilling of blog subjects- nonetheless, some vestige of cleanliness should be kept on trail despite being difficult to maintain at times.

A high camp on the Cape Wrath Trail. Tent wash and tick check is the order of the day

A high camp on the Cape Wrath Trail. Tent wash and tick check is the order of the day

Wash kit

Sections on longer hikes may mean that an opportunity for a decent shower and washing clothes can be infrequent. This is not so much the case in the UK, more so in the US where many hikers apparently prefer to ’embrace the stink’. There are few days while hiking in the UK when at least some small hamlet or village is passed. It is really only the more lonely reaches of North Western Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland where we can truly detach ourselves properly and pitch up in the evening far from a comfy bed indoors and a hot shower. A slightly higher standard, or at least frequency, of washing and body hygiene is usually maintained by hikers on UK and European trails. Certainly this is the case for Three Points of the Compass, and a few small items of kit enable me to do so.

Contents of my wash kit

Contents of my wash kit

Three Points of the Compass carries enough to be able to carry out a fairly decent body wash in the tent of an evening if wild camping, with the expectation of staying somewhere every few days where a more thorough scrub can be conducted. While I could simply carry things in a zip lock, I prefer a more robust DCF bag that will last multiple hikes and weighs roughly the same as a short-lived plastic bag.

Toothy Tabs from Lush- perfect for backpacking

Toothy Tabs from Lush- perfect for backpacking

Oral hygiene is an absolute necessity. I am not going to attempt to scrub back teeth with a pathetic little half brush with the handle chopped off, or one of the little brush heads that you slide over a finger tip. I want my none too clean hands outside my mouth, so use a full size toothbrush. The weight of this child’s bamboo brush is ridiculous at only 5g and despite their mostly recyclable construction, last well. There is no need to take a tube of toothpaste, or dry it out before snipping pea sized lengths in advance. High Street cosmetics shop Lush sell a range of toothy tabs perfect for backpacking. I take a number of these in a baggie. I have carried a whole bottle of them on multi-week hikes.

Dr Bronners castile soap- a large bottle will last many years of backpacking

Dr Bronners castile soap- a large bottle will last many years of backpacking. Simply decant a little in to a tiny dropper bottle for use on trail

I have tried soap leaves in the past but found they eventually get damp and turn to frothy mush. The solid bars of soap and solid shower bars from Lush are pleasant and effective but pretty heavy. Most often these days I simply carry a tiny dropper bottle of liquid castile soap. This is a vegetable based soap that comes in solid or liquid form and is extremely concentrated.

Years ago I purchased a 32 fluid ounce / 946ml bottle of Dr. Bronners and am still working through it. Some hikers will even brush their teeth with this stuff but I find that pretty nauseating. I may be carrying a disposable razor in my wash bag, a little Dr. Bronners is also enough to soften the beard for shaving.

Disposable razors are all light but obviously do not last long. Have a look around as many of the actual blade heads on these easily clip off and can be exchanged for a used head on the lightweight plastic handle. For a week or so, I will go unshaven, longer than that I simply look scruffy and prefer to shave. For those able to grow a decent beard, go for it.

If carrying disposal razors, only one handle need be carried as the heads are often interchangeable

If carrying disposal razors, only one handle need be carried as the heads are often interchangeable

I have hair, if increasingly thinner these days, so carry a small 7g Kent ‘Slim Jim’ comb. Also a tiny brush that is used both for scrubbing the body and when clothes washing. I may carry a small square of microfibre cloth for a tent wash, but do prefer the little compressed dried pucks/towelettes that can be purchased by the hundred online quite cheaply. Each can be used for a single wash, or with care, for a few days before falling apart. I also keep a couple of these in the First Aid kit that can be used for cleaning up any wounds as necessary.

What I tend to do is add a couple of drops of Dr. Bronners to the unwrapped ‘puck’, then a squirt of water to wetten and loosen it. Face, pits and bits, torso, feet and legs get a wipe down to remove as much of the days grime, sweat and salts. I always feel the better after this. I carry camp/town clothes and then change into these to allow my hiking clothes to dry off prior to the following day. These compressed towelettes are not particularly good for the environment I appreciate, but they are bloody handy. I have a little 480mm x 480mm Nano Towel from PackTowl hanging from my packs shoulder strap. Used of an evening, this can also be used to wipe sweat etc, during the day, washed in any stream passed, and left hanging while hiking to dry.

Sealed towel 'puck', and an uncompressed and wetted towel- large enough to cover my hand

Sealed and compressed towelette ‘puck’, and an uncompressed and wetted towelette- large enough to cover my hand

foot balm

foot balm

Five years ago I was suffering badly from Plantar fasciitis. It took me over two years to recover from that, even now, after a long hard days hiking, I will feel a twinge. Part of my treatment for this is a deep massage of my feet every evening. I may even do this at a lunchtime halt. While massaging I will rub in a dab of foot balm. For many years I used the fantastic Gehwol foot creams but have switched over to a deodorising foot repair balm from Naturally Thinking. This includes things like peppermint, lemongrass and enough camphor to bring tears to the eyes at time. It replaces oils that frequently soaked feet have lost, removes any stink and after this and a massage, my feet invariably feel great, they are then slipped into a pair of non-trail socks. Socks are either waterproof Sealskinz if I still have to wander around outside the tent. Or sleeping socks- thin merino in the summer, or lovely comfy and warm possum down socks in the colder months. A little of the foot balm can also be used on the body to disguise a few days trail stink if visiting cleaner and fresher smelling non-trail company occasionally. There is no need to take a whole tin of this balm on trail, I decant some into a little 40ml screwtop plastic pot.

A small piece of alum stick is carried to reduce the hiker funk

A small piece of alum stick is carried to reduce the hiker funk

I do include one other small item that keeps the stink down a little. This is just a nib of left over alum stick. I use this stuff at home anyway. A rub onto wet skin, or wetting the end and rubbing over dry skin, keeps bacteria at bay and stops the armpits smelling. The solid alum sticks last weeks, months even.

This is yet another item that does double duty as a First Aid item. Rubbed over small cuts, it constricts the blood vessels and will reduce or halt bleeding. Hence their use by shavers worldwide.

Travel sized spray deodorants don't last long and still need to be packed out once empty

Travel sized spray deodorants don’t last long and still need to be packed out once empty

It is usually necessary to ‘train’ the body to use this over a number of days, or even weeks. It works for me, possibly not everyone. As said, there is no need to take even one of the smallest that can be purchased, I just take a small piece wrapped up in a little baggie. Just don’t drop it from slippery wet fingers onto a hard floor, it will shatter into a thousand pieces…

Three Points of the Compass has tried deodorising creams in the past, though pretty light and effective they stain clothing

Three Points of the Compass has tried deodorising creams in the past, though pretty light and effective for a while, they stain clothing

Travel sized spray deodorants and roll-on sticks could be carried but these either don’t last long or are mostly ineffective. Spray scents simply mask one smell with an overpowering chemical stink. If necessary, the foot balm is enough for me, being at least based on natural oils. Anti-odorant creams simply don’t work for me and end up causing rashes and staining clothes yellow.

I mentioned that I will do some deep foot massage of an evening. I also carry a 2 inch diameter hard cork ball in my wash bag. Weighing 17g, this ball can be rolled on tight muscles if required though I confess to being hopeless at maintaining any form of regular routine with this.

Rolling out foot on hard cork ball

Rolling out foot on hard cork ball

Another task that invariably needs to be carried out most evenings in the tent, that results in a lovely series of confined space contorted callisthenics, is the nightly tick check. A mirror can be helpful for this and I use the one carried in my First Aid Kit, more on that in a future post.

What do bears do…?

‘Poop’ kit

Nothing is cleaner, sweeter, wholesomer, than a wild wood unspoiled by man


I am often dismayed by the thoughtlessness of many visiting the countryside and our wilder places. It seems the concept of Leave no Trace is alien to many. Crap left for the next person to find, TP ‘flowers’ left to be blown around and decorate our paths, fields and woods. The idea of digging a hole in an appropriate place in which to shit just doesn’t seem to exist for many. No need to go into practical ‘how to’ detail here, there is plenty of good advice from others available on t’internet.

'Poop' kit

‘Poop’ kit

Many people say that a suitably deep enough hole (6-8 inches) can be dug with a stick or the heel of a boot or shoe. Well I find there is never a stick around when you want it and I can’t dig that sort of hole with my shoe. Nor am I relying on my trekking pole to cut through roots. That is why, on every single hike, be it day hike or multiple day, I slip my ‘poop’ kit into an outside pocket of my pack. There is not a lot to this- simply a plastic bag with a trowel, some more plastic bags and plenty of toilet paper. I do use a plastic bag for this kit as the very nature of use means that the possibility of bacteria is higher and the bag gets changed out after each hike.

My favoured implement is an 18g titanium QiWhiz Big Dig trowel. This is light, strong and will cut pretty well into hard ground and roots. It is thin and is uncomfortable in the hand sometimes but I am happy to put up with that. I stuff a number of plastic bags into the main bag, these are for anything I may need to pack out. And a roll of minimum ply toilet paper (TP). Always take more than you think you will need.

Leaving waste in a drier environment results in a product that will remain for many years. Paper needs to be packed out and disposed of later. Fuertenventura

Waste left in a drier environment will remain for many years. Used paper needs to be packed out and disposed of later. Desert stretch on Fuertenventura

I often include a Mini-Bic lighter in this bag. This is my spare carried. While it can be used to burn used paper, this often cannot be done, usually for reasons of safety such as peaty soils that could potentially hold a flame below ground for weeks before bursting out, or in ‘no-fire’ areas. In some waterlogged parts of Scotland, dig a hole with a shovel from the bothy and the hole has more or less filled up with water by the time you have completed your business. Used paper may have to be packed out.

Hand washing

The statistics for hikers falling ill on trail are pretty impressive. Most of that is undoubtedly down to hand to mouth transmission. People sharing trail mix etc. This has to be guarded against. For a start, don’t share trail mix.

37ml GoToob. Used to wash hands with soap and water while on trail

37ml GoToob. Used to wash hands with soap and water while on trail

Most people favour hand sanitiser on trail. I prefer soap and water. To that end, we come to my final item in my hygiene kit- a small 32g, 1.25 fluid ounce / 37ml GoToob. This is a squeezable travel tube with a flip lid. Each morning I put a drop or two of Dr. Bronners soap in this, top up with water, and use it and refill it throughout the day to wash hands and fingers as required, both after ‘doing my business’ and before eating. Completed with a rinse off with clean water from my water bottle.

Some hikers seem to embrace the concept of being unkempt and dirty on trail with little regard as to what potential harm can result. Obviously cleanliness standards while hiking are not what are found at home and within general society, but that is no excuse to become completely feral on trail.

My next glance at the small bags and pouches of ‘stuff’ carried on trail shall peek inside my First Aid Kit. Hygiene in itself is part of first aid- looking to reduce chafing, sores, rashes and also attempting to prevent ingestion of bacteria. Such things can end a hike.

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