Wilderness Hygiene…How to stay clean in the woods (or desert for that matter)
written by John Campbell,
Photos taken by John Campbell
In the wilderness it is very important to stay clean. In my opinion more so than any other time. Lets start off with going to the bathroom.
Urinating is best done at least 100 feet away from any water source. This will keep you from contaminating any usable water. Defecating is also done well away from camp and your water supply. Dig with a tree branch to bury it and cover it with rocks or logs. Use suitable vegetation to wipe with if you don’t have the proper sanitary paper. Long grasses or fine inner bark of some trees folded in half will work well. I usually use mullein leaves. I have found that these leaves are the best substitute and an Improvised toilet paper. Just be careful this plant can irritate the backside. This plant has been used as a deodorant by bruising the leaves and rubbing under the arms. This too can cause irritation. They also have a natural chemical that will aid in the sanitation process by killing bacteria.
Washing- in the desert water can be quite scarce to say the least. The best way to find water is to get to a high point and look for large stands of deciduous trees. These areas are called riparian zones. There is water in a riparian zone even if it isn’t flowing. A lot of creeks and rivers in the Southwest flow underground. I have easily found water literally inches under the dry ground even in the middle of summer in these zones.
Enough about the riparian zones and back on hand washing. Certain plants have chemicals called Saponins. These will cause the plant to lather when pounded and rubbed vigorously in the hands with water such as those of the Yucca plant. This is a form of soap. These plants can be used to wash your hands, feet, body, scalp, and hair. You may even be surprised what this stuff will do for your hair.
The Yucca used was Banana Yucca or Yucca baccata
Keep your feet clean! Stop at least every couple of hours to clean them. Let them dry out, change your socks and use foot powder if possible. If not use these methods to clean your feet as well. Never neglect your feet.
In a situation were these plants may not be available there is another method. Straining wood ashes with water creates a chemical called lye. For centuries soap was made from this chemical by adding animal fats and allowing it to simmer. After straining your ashes with water you can wash with this mixture. Be sure to rise thoroughly afterwards due the caustic properties of lye especially if mixed heavily. Your clothes can also be washed in this mixture then rinsed and hung to dry. Try this, next time you are in the bush and you cut yourself place some ashes on the cut and wrap it with a shirt or bandanna. you will notice the bleeding will stop almost immediately. This does two things, first obviously it stops bleeding by forming an instant scab and allowing the blood to coagulate, but it also disinfects the wound. Be sure to care for the wound regularly. The process that ashes are created is completely sterile nothing can live through that amount of heat.
When absolutely no water is available or in short supply take a smudge bath. This is using certain trees or bushes smoldered over coals and allowing the smoke to cover your body. Such trees and bushes include the juniper, cedar, and creosote bush to name a few. These contain natural chemicals that will kill fungus and bacteria as well as act as a sort of deodorant. The leaves can be crushed and made into a paste and rubbed under the arms in nether-regions and to your feet. This will also help to prevent or treat fungal growth. In some situations these have been burned to cure foot fungus. A wash made from these same plants can be used as an effective mouthwash or antiseptic for cuts and scrapes. The sprigs or small twigs can be used as an improvised tooth brush by chewing the ends till frayed than rubbed on the teeth and gums. Careful for splinters though.
These methods work and work well. I have often been asked how to keep clean in the desert, I hope this helped.