If I’m being completely honest, getting a little dirty is part of the fun of backcountry adventures. After a few days on the trail I start feeling a little more natural, a bit more… human. I feel my body from the inside out, embracing its strength instead of worrying about how it looks.
If I could, I’d forget about toiletries for backpacking altogether!
And yet, there are some tasks that can’t be ignored. I still brush my teeth, deal with contact lenses, and keep the necessary parts of my body clean to avoid infection or chafing. On a long thru hike or bicycle trip, I need to stop in towns for rest and resupply without offending everyone within a twenty foot radius with my “natural” scent.
After cumulatively spending months on the trail or road – thru hiking the Colorado Trail and Arizona Trail for example, and bicycling across the United States – I’ve finally crafted a lightweight toiletries kit that meets my needs while being small, light, and simple.
In this post I’ll explain what’s in my toiletries kit for backpacking (and bikepacking – very similar idea) on different types of trips, and my tricks for keeping it as compact and lightweight as possible. I’ll also explain how you can stay clean-ish when water and showers are scarce, and what to do about tricky routines like contact lenses and specific skin care needs.
Key Tips for Backpacking Toiletries
Before we get into details of toiletries for backpacking, keep these basic principles in mind.
Repackage into small containers to avoid carrying more than you need.
Bring only the essentials and keep an open mind about what you really need. Your full home “routine” of lotions, cleansers, etc. may not feel necessary on the trail.
Resupply as you go for a long trip, like a thru hike where you’ll be mailing or buying supplies along the way. You can mail them to yourself, or find travel-sized items in convenience stores in all but the smallest towns.
After a few days, you don’t really get any dirtier. My personal record for not showering on the trail is 18 days. It’s not as awful as it sounds! Later on in this post, after the list of what’s in my backpacking toiletries kit, I’ll explain a simple routine for staying clean enough in this type of situation.
Basic Lightweight Backpacking Toiletries Kit
For a short backpacking trip of just a couple nights, or a fast-and-light situation like a bikepacking race, these are my bare-bones toiletries essentials:
Travel toothbrush, Dr. Plotka’s is my favorite. After using it exclusively for over half a year, my dentist said my teeth were the cleanest he’d ever seen them!
Toothpaste, travel size. Some folks go even lighter here and use toothpaste dots or powder. For me, a 0.85oz travel-size tube lasts about 2 weeks when used sparingly.
Dental Floss, travel size, or an appropriate number of pre-cut strands for short trips. My dentist finally scared me into flossing every day, and I won’t skip it, even on the trail.
Carmex lip balm: I cannot stand sleeping with chapped lips, and spending a lot of time outside in the wind and sun can definitely lead to this.
Hair ties, as needed obviously.
Toilet paper re-rolled into a small packet, around 4 squares per day. Ladies take note: I don’t use TP for peeing on the trail, so budget more squares per day if you do.
Small ziplock bags for used floss and TP. That’s right, don’t bury your used TP, pack it out! Otherwise it can be dug up by animals or washed out by rain, and will be there for future campers to find.
Hand sanitizer in small bottle, for after going to the bathroom.
Sunscreen and SPF lip balm.
Anti-chafe cream like Body Glide, if needed.
I like to keep my toiletries in a small mesh sack or cloth pouch so any moisture can evaporate instead of causing a slimy mess. I keep my toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, and Carmex together in their own pouch that I use at camp, sunscreen and anti-chafe in an outside pocket of my pack, and my toilet paper, trash baggie, and hand sanitizer in a separate plastic baggie.
Backpacking Toiletries for Longer Trips
The above list works great for a few days or even a week. But if my trip will involve town stops or be longer than a couple weeks, I need a few extra items. Here’s what I add to my backpacking toiletries for thru hikes or bikepacking trips lasting weeks to months:
Folding travel hairbrush, this one is my favorite. Essential for keeping my long hair manageable, and for keeping my scalp healthy when I’m not able to wash my hair often. Folks with short hair may still want to carry a small comb for the latter purpose.
Travel-size razor, I use this one. I don’t mind hairy legs on the trail, but when I get to town for a rest day and a proper shower I like to have the option of shaving. Some folks buy a disposable razor in each town or mail them in resupply boxes instead of carrying, but I feel like that’s wasteful so I carry mine.
Dr. Bronner’s concentrated soap in very small bottle, I prefer peppermint (fresh and tingly, also works as laundry soap, shampoo, and toothpaste in a pinch)
Chunks of solid deodorant (you can slice them off with a knife) in a plastic baggie. A bit harder to apply, but well worth the weight and space saved by not packing the big plastic applicator.
I usually keep these items, which I won’t need every day, in a separate mesh sack from my main toiletries kit above. This makes it easier to find my toothbrush each night while rummaging around in the dark.
Repackaging Toiletries for Backpacking
I almost never carry my backpacking toiletries in the containers they came in. I horde small containers and always decant into the smallest one possible for a particular length trip. Even most “travel size” containers designed for airplane carryon luggage are still too big for most backpacking trips, so here’s what I use instead.
- Hotel shampoo bottles, around 1-2 oz, make great mid-size containers for soap or sunscreen.
- These soy sauce containers are great for packing very small amounts of liquids.
- If you do need a full 3oz travel size container for something, I recommend these from Ikea. Been using them for sunscreen for years and haven’t had one leak or break yet.
- If you suspect a container could leak or break, pack it inside its own plastic bag. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
If you have time, do a dry run with your small containers before leaving so you know how long they’ll last. For example, I know that a travel-size tube of toothpaste lasts me about two weeks if I use a smallish amount and brush twice a day.
Seven years ago when I did my first long hike – the spectacular John Muir Trail – I was shocked and appalled when my more experienced hiking companion explained that we wouldn’t be showering or washing our hair for the entire three week trip! It ended up working out just fine, and these days I don’t bat an eye when a similar situation comes up.
The trick to staying clean on a backpacking trip is that a little bit goes a long way. When you can’t shower for days or weeks, follow a simple daily routine and make the most of any opportunities for more thorough cleaning. Here’s how.
Focus on hygiene tasks that actually matter, like keeping your personal areas (for the sake of clarity: genitals and anus) clean to avoid infection or rash. At the end of the day, rinse salt and dirt off any part of your body that suffers from chafing. Some body parts, like arms and legs, can be safely neglected for quite a while. Keep your feet clean if you tend to get blisters.
Master the minimalist backcountry shower: Each night before bed, perhaps while changing into nighttime layers, take a water bottle into the bushes. Using a cupped hand, splash water on and scrub your face, underarms, and crotch area (in that order!).
If it’s a warm evening and you have plenty of water, you might indulge in splashing off the rest of your body too. Every few days you might add a little dab of biodegradable soap, if you packed any, but don’t wash with soap directly in water sources as it pollutes them. I often don’t carry soap at all, since plain water is surprisingly effective. You don’t need a camp towel, just dry off with a spare sock or shirt or just air dry.
If water is scarce, this whole routine can be done with a wet wipe. I usually pack half a wet wipe per day, rewetting with a few drops from my water bottle if needed. If you’re in the mood for luxury, these shower wipes really get the job done but they’re not as lightweight. Start with your face and work down.
Your hair? It doesn’t really need to washed. Brush or comb your scalp every couple days to remove dead skin and wait until you have access to a shower for anything else. A hat or buff is helpful if you’re worried about how it looks.
What about clothes? Cleaning your body doesn’t help much if your clothes are filthy.
First of all, choose the right clothes. I highly recommend merino wool, like the Icebreaker Tech Lite tee, which is breathable and stink-resistant. You won’t need to wash them every day.
When water is scarce, you can get by with rinsing out your socks, underwear, and the underarms of your shirt every few days. Most people like to pack a spare pair of socks and underwear so they can change into a clean pair while they wash and dry the other.
When water is plentiful, you can “do laundry” by putting water and a dab of Dr. Bronner’s soap in a gallon ziplock bag and squooshing it around, then refilling the bag with clean water to rinse.
Protecting Natural Water Sources
For those who aren’t well versed in Leave No Trace ethics yet, here’s how to avoid doing harm to ecosystems and wild animals in your efforts to stay clean.
Never use soap directly in water sources, even so-called camping or biodegradable soap. It pollutes them, killing the organisms that live in them and harming wild animals who need to drink from them. It’s best to use no soap at all, but if you must, carry some water a few hundred feet away from the source and do your washing there. This allows your waste water to filter through the soil, reducing its negative effect on nearby water sources.
With particularly small or fragile water sources, it’s best to not wash your body or clothes directly in them at all, even without soap. Use your best judgment here. In a large, fast-flowing river in a lightly used area, going for a swim or rinsing out your clothes may be fine. But in a small pool of water in an otherwise dry area, with no inflow to flush it out, a mindful outdoorsperson will avoid polluting the water with the sunscreen, bacteria, and other contaminants on their body and clothes.
Backpacking with Contact Lenses
I backpacked with contact lenses for many years. More recently I’ve found I can get along without them, since my prescription is very minor. But for those who want or need to wear contact lenses while backpacking, here’s what I’ve learned.
Travel size contact solution containers work well and can be refilled from larger containers to save money.
For very short trips, like one or two nights, pre-fill a contact case or two with solution and leave the bottle at home. Or, use a new pair of disposable contacts for each day.
Always clean and sanitize your hands before putting in or removing contacts.
You can learn to put contacts in without a mirror, but it takes some practice. Look straight ahead, as if you were looking into a mirror, and resist the urge to look at your finger approaching your eye.
Bring an extra pair or two of disposable contacts. It’s easy to lose or damage them on the trail.
Acne and Other Skin Care Concerns
Worried that a minimalist skincare routine might cause problems? Let me share my own experience.
I’ve struggled with acne on and off since I was a teenager. Surely all the dirt and sunscreen from the trail would make things worse, right? I used to carry a series of cleansers, creams, and prescription lotions on the trail, decanted into little tiny bottles, and wash my face carefully with soap twice a day.
At some point my adventures grew longer and I grew lazier, and simply stopped bothering with those extra creams and cleansers. Now I splash off my face with water each night, and occasionally scrub with a wet wipe.
And you know what? My face does NOT erupt into a mess of zits when I do this for weeks or months at a time. In fact, my skin seems happier when I’m on the trail getting plenty of exercise and sunshine (protected by sunscreen, of course) and stressing less.
Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on the underlying causes of your skin issues. If you have skincare items you really need, simply bring them in small bottles. Just know that a change in skincare routine isn’t necessarily a guaranteed disaster, and consider experimenting to see if you can get by with less.
Getting out into the wilderness for a few days – or weeks or months – is refreshing in its simplicity. But if you’re not sure how to take care of your toiletries and hygiene needs on the trail, it can seem daunting. I hope this post helps you compile a simple toiletries kit for backpacking so you can enjoy the outdoors more confidently.
More Backpacking Resources
If you’re going backpacking, you might also find these helpful:
- Tips for Lightening Your Backpack
- How to Sleep Better While Backpacking
- Hiking Poles: When and How to Use Them Effectively
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