Telling me about a 2300 km journey through the Iranian Zagros and a much shorter Pyrenean ridge, I regularly received a question from listeners and readers: how do they clean up? How do you wash in the desert when there is no water within a radius of many kilometer? How do you wash yourself on the trail when you sleep under a tent or sheet for weeks? Or when you are wandering in winter?
These questions made me think that we are far from our original nature. For thousands of years people have been mistaken in rivers and streams as if they were afraid to use them.
The first principle is that wandering requires compromise and the abandonment of certain amenities. For example, daily bathing. Going upstairs, I consciously switch off my phone, leave my computer at home and give up the comfort of a soft bed. It is no different with hygiene in the mountains – it is another compromise. Newcomers on the trail are sometimes terrified: “How is it, without washing? But you can feel good without a daily shower. On the other hand, after a long day of walking in the heat, when you go downhill, a shower, even a cold one, becomes the first need. A clean person sleeps better and wakes up more rested than a dirty person who comes out of a sweaty sleeping bag in the morning. The universal answer is: wash yourself when you can or must.
How to wash on the trail?
If it’s hot, it’s enough to find a secluded stream, river or lake. It doesn’t have to be very far from civilization, as long as it’s not in view. Dress up and jump into the water – simply. A cold bath injects endorphins, removes sweat and skin dust. Choose a place to bathe where nobody gets water to drink. And most importantly: do not use any soap! Why? Because it’s even bio degradation? Because even this biodegradable soap contaminates the water and removes the so-called surface tension which keeps many insects on the surface. In soapy water, these tiny animals drown. After such a bath, get out of the water, wipe yourself and dress. You can immediately do a quick soap less laundry (see below). This lasts for a while and is a nice interlude for a day-long march.
Also make sure you don’t swim in water if you’ve used a sunscreen or mosquito cleaner beforehand. Cosmetic fat or mosquito repellent will contaminate the water. Especially in ponds where the water is standing still for a long time! In this situation, wash yourself with soap, but at a suitable distance from the water.
If you want to use soap, take water for a mess or a bowl (my 10-liter MSR Dromedary Bag works well) and move away from the jet/jet by 50 meters. Using environmentally friendly soap, soap and rinse. Dirty water should soak into the soil and not run off to the source, so pour it into the ground. Do the same with the toothpaste you spit out. Instead of a sponge, use a small scarf or other piece of clothing (the sock works well).
In the area visited by bears, choose a place to wash away from the camp site – the smell of soap or paste can attract unwanted guests.
When it’s cold and it’s impossible to immerse yourself in water or rinse it, use a patent that I often use myself: washing myself with “pieces”. I pull off my shirt and use a sponge or handkerchief to wash my hands, trunk, back, neck, head. Jawing with my teeth I dress and repeat the operation with the lower half of the body. Regular cleaning is necessary in sensitive areas where abrasions and sore spots occur most often: groin, feet, buttocks.
The final method, which I use only in winter, are moistened wipes. However, they have two disadvantages: they freeze in cold weather, and their packaging becomes brick-like and is made of viscose, using toxic chemicals. I use them very rarely and rather as a last resort.
Eventually, when the conditions are not favorable, I postpone washing for later. During the winter passage of the Slovak Carpathians I took a shower only in shelters. I met the first one almost two weeks after the start, the next one was once a week. During the winter hike it was not a problem.
However, my record remains the passage of the Arc of the Carpathian Mountains, during which I walked for 5 weeks without a shower. The autumn of that year, however, was so cold that I finished the tour feeling quite fresh.
Washing my hands
Food poisoning is often not the effect of bacteria in food, but on our hands. You can filter your water and cook food, but you can get ill from the bacteria present on your skin. Hence the advice: Wash your hands every time you come back from the toilet and before preparing a meal. Some people use a special gel with alcohol content. Personally, I simply choose soap and water (again: away from streams and lakes!), although the antibacterial gel is great in case of lack of it, e.g. in high mountains, in the desert or in means of transport, when you need to eat something and there is no water for anger. The alcohol contained in it will not remove all the dirt, but it will kill germs quickly.