I had a colleague at North Country Community College who loved a lot of things about the Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program. He loved the hard physical work, hiking down the trail, working up a sweat. He loved exploring the countryside, visiting beautiful streams and ponds, and the mountaintop vistas. As a counselor, he loved the group dynamics and seeing the students learning to live and work together. Yes, he loved all of that.
He did have one problem, which was a big obstacle to joining us on our 33-day fall expedition or our two-week winter trip: He couldn’t stand the idea of getting hot, sweaty and dirty and not being able to take a shower. “I don’t know how you do it,” he’d say, “I gotta have a shower at the end of the day.”
And that, folks, separates the lovers of overnight wilderness trips from the lovers of hot water and soap.
Don’t get me wrong; personal hygiene is critical to staying healthy in the outdoors. Washing hands should be a frequent and thorough ritual.
On our trips we bathed when the weather permitted. That means in the summer we would “billy can bathe.” We filled our cook pots or other large containers with water and walked them at least 150 feet from the shore of any water source. We’d jump in the lake or stream to get wet. (You gotta love the 50-degree F streams, which are like ice cream brain freezes — only worse.) We’d soap up sparingly; then, using the containers of water, we’d rinse off thoroughly. That kept soap out of the water bodies and us clean — sort of.
It makes you feel clean and refreshed … for about 20 minutes. Then the heat and humidity of the summer beat down on you once again. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Just don’t expect miracles. Will you still probably smell? Yes. Will you be thoroughly clean? No. Will you feel better? Hopefully.
And then there is winter. Not the best environment in which to try to bathe. I spent 40 days on Denali in mostly winter conditions, and the closest I came to a bath was a sponge bath about two weeks into the trip.
So, when I can’t “billy can bathe,” what do I do on long trips (other than wash my hands, wash my hands, and wash my hands)? Not much. I believe the need for extreme cleanliness has been manufactured by Madison Avenue. I even have the medical community to back me up. What happens when you bathe too much?
According to webmd.com, “Normal skin has a protective layer of oil and a balance of “good” bacteria that help protect your skin from dryness and germs. If you clean it too often, especially with harsh soaps and lots of scrubbing, you can strip away this layer, leading to dry, irritated, itchy skin. This can cause cracks in the skin that allow germs and allergens to get through, resulting in skin infections or allergic reactions.”
It is estimated that two-thirds of Americans take a shower every day. But according to health experts for patients with skin conditions, it may be detrimental. As the body’s largest organ, the skin is host to bacteria, viruses and fungi, which form a skin microbiome. According to an article published in Nature Reviews Microbiology, this microbiota protects the body from pathogens, bolsters our immune system and disposes of natural waste. Too much bathing can upset the balance of bacteria and other useful microorganisms.
I rest my case … and my soap dish.
I use my tongue-in-cheek Dirt Scale graph to demonstrate the increase in body grime during the course of a trip. You get dirtiest on the first few days of your trip, but then it levels off. If you’re out for a month, which many of our trips were, you don’t keep getting dirtier or dirtier. You just level off at being a smelly, stinky wilderness venturer. Learn to live in it; learn to thrive in it.
I recommend four things for staying healthy outdoors: Wash or sanitize your hands frequently and thoroughly, don’t share your water bottle, don’t let others reach into your bag of gorp or other snacks, and finally, treat your water for common microorganisms. Most of the time you’re not going to get sick from the outdoors; you’re going to get sick by getting a bug from other campers.
Like so many things, attitude is everything — you need to think positively. So when you’re grimy, gritty and smellier than the FBI’s body farm, don’t think, “It could be worse.” Instead think, “I’ve reached the plateau of Drury’s dirt curve.”