The Wild Women Guide To Hiking Hygiene
By Di Westaway | Chief Adventure Chick and Founder of Wild Women On Top
Staying clean and healthy is an important issue when hiking, particularly in developing countries where you may be exposed to illnesses and diseases against which you have no natural immunity. When hiking in a group, there is a greater likelihood that bacteria will be passed around the group, so personal hygiene is critical.
When we climbed Mt Kilimanjaro in 2006, a gastro bug swept through the camp, affecting nearly three quarters of the group. Two of the girls had the worst of the bug on summit night, which made the challenging climb even more daunting.
So, what’s the best way to stay healthy on a hike?
Keep your body clean
We recommend a wash at least once a day, paying particular attention to arm pits and groin. On most supported treks, a warm ‘wishy washy’ bowl will be delivered to your tent door morning and night, which you can use to have a mini bath in. The best way to do this is to get a thick, good quality wet wipe, dip it in the bowl and clean yourself with the wipe, starting with your face and then moving towards the dirtier parts. You can add a little Wilderness Wash to the water if you like. If you get good wipes, it’s possible to do your entire body with only one! After your body is clean, you can use the remaining water to give your undies a wash.
This 'Wishy Washy' bowl is taking on some heavy duty washing...
While wet wipes and ‘wishy washy’ bowls work for several days, a mountain stream, even if it’s freezing, is impossible to resist. You can’t beat the clean, alive feeling of a bath in a river – it’s one of the highlights of hiking. In this instance, we recommend packing decent undies… just in case you need to plunge near the track. You should also always carry Wilderness Wash, moisturiser and a trekking towel in your day pack, just in case a dip location is to arise!
Many funny moments have been spent bathing in mountain streams and there is nothing more delightful than cleaning your whole sweaty body in a river before snuggling into your sleeping bag. However, be discrete and ensure that you don’t offend the locals… in some cultures this is inappropriate, if not offensive.
Keep your hands clean
Your hands are often near your face and mouth, especially when you’re in the bush. As well as washing them daily when you have access to water, we recommend anti-bacterial gel or spray to keep them clean. There are some great non-toxic ones available these days, so check them out (we like Dr. Bronners).
Clean nails are also important for hygiene as well as look! We always have somebody who remembers a nail brush on a hike, but it’s never me. However, it’s really difficult to keep clean nails when hiking in the wilderness so I highly recommend ensuring that somebody in your group carries one of these and you can all share it.
Brush your teeth... the right way!
Cleaning your teeth on a hike can get technical – no running water or basin to spit in. Try to use a biodegradable toothpaste (or just bicarb soda!) and if you’re spitting onto the ground make sure you dilute it. It’s pretty gross to arrive at a campsite with lots of white, minty globs about the place! When cleaning your teeth, also remember to use purified or sterile water. Do not use tap or river water unless you’re sure it’s clean and free from pollution.
Prioritise your eyes
Your eyes can take a beating in the wilderness, and in this case, prevention is better than cure.
If you’re trekking in a dusty environment, take some eyewash solution to give your eyes a good wash out each evening. If you’re trekking in snow or extreme light conditions, ensure you have high quality polarised sunglasses to prevent eye injuries.
If you normally wear contact lenses, consider taking your glasses instead or as well, especially if you’re trekking in a hot, dry area. Contact lenses can cause inflammation if dust gets under them. If you’re trekking at altitude, you should also consider glasses instead of contacts because the dryness of the air can cause the eyes to become inflamed and infected. Speak to your optometrist for more information on this as it can become a serious issue at altitude.
Don’t forget your skincare
For many, makeup when hiking is optional. However, skincare is not optional – it’s critical. The harsh elements of the sun, wind, altitude and cold can damage even the most experienced trekker’s skin. Think carefully about what’s important for you.
At altitude, the body breaks down faster than normal, and in an oxygen-reduced environment, things don’t heal quickly. Sunscreen and hat are obvious essentials, but I prefer to cover EVERY part of my skin with a physical barrier as it’s not just sun to be worried about.
The wind is the most damaging because we’re not used to being out in it all day and we’re not used to protecting our skin from it. A day with your face out in the wind can result in serious windburn, cracked skin and cold sores – which hurts and looks pretty awful. A cheesecloth scarf is ideal for full face covering, as it allows you to breathe easily as well as protecting you from sun and wind. But, remember to uncover your face for the odd photo, or when you get home you’ll wonder which face was yours!
Papaw ointment: This can be used for everything from lips, to finger cracks, to dry nose, to dripping nose, to complete skin cover in the elements. The cold and wind in the mountains causes your nose to drip and dry, so shoving some ointment up your nose is a great relief. I carry it in little pots and keep one in every pocket.
Super thick night cream: Yep, a night cream, even during the day. Your skin takes such a beating at altitude that it needs all the hard-core moisture it can get. I like Clarins.
Cheese cloth scarf: These are not easy to find, but they’re brilliant. A cheese cloth scarf allows you to have your face, neck and ears completely covered and protected from the wind and cold without fogging up your glasses. The fabric has tiny holes that allow you to breathe through it, and you won’t need to keep applying sunscreen every couple of hours. When we went to Everest Base Camp in Tibet, the whole team bought cheese cloth scarves in Lhasa, and they we all agreed it was the best bit of kit we had. With practice you’ll work out how to drape it for best effect. I strongly recommend this. It really works.
Cheese cloth scarves... here, a fashion statement. Higher up, a seriously crucial peice of kit.
Hat: Benefits of hats need no explaining, but the right hat is important. It needs to be really comfortable, with no pressure points anywhere, because you’ll be wearing it all day. Make sure you train in your hat so that you know it will work for you. On our Tibet trek, some of the girls complained of headaches from their hats being too tight or pressing on different parts of their head after several hours wear. I prefer the Outdoor Research peaked cap with a legionnaires attachment for extreme wind.
Mascara: I know I said makeup was optional, but for me, mascara is essential. It’s been known to last up to five days on a trek if I don’t rub my eyes! For me, I feel a lot better with a coat of mascara, especially if my skin is cracked or my eyes are puffy from the altitude. If you’re a lipstick girl, throw some in because it doesn’t weigh much and it can make you feel fab. Or, revel in your gorgeousness and know you don’t require makeup, because that’s awesome, too.
Expect the unexpected
When it comes to personal hygiene, always expect the unexpected, no matter how unlikely. For example, always be prepared for the worse possible period, even if it’s not due. Always be prepared for a really bad case of diarrhea, because, well, you never know. For more on this, check out our blog How To Handle A Bloody Bad Period While Hiking and this one, which will make your worst poo experience seem less crappy!