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Laundry etiquette

Ok -  dumb newbie questions - we are doing our first true backcounty camping trip in a month (always done car camping previously).  We are staying at a small campsite that has 5 camp sites and a small creek running through.  If we want to wash out our clothes using camp suds (just a drop of soap, but mainly just to rinse off our clothes as it will likely be hot and sweaty,) can we do it in the creek were we get drinking water, or is that bad etiquette?  We would do it downstream (make it obvious that we are going down from the camp site).   Not sure how else (other than just taking a couple bottles of water out of the lake and doing so at our camp site.

thanks all!

Not only is it bad etiquette, it is bad for the environment. Wash your dishes at least 200 meters from water sources, and certainly AWAY from your camp site as well. I would familiarize yourself with these practices before you depart...

Thanks for the link. I was actually talking about laundry. Not dishes. But am guessing the same recommendations apply 

Googled stuff. Sounds like I can use my bear canister as a “washing machine“ and rinse out away from the water. 

200 feet is the standard I see used frequently. 200' is about 70 full sized strides to give you some idea of how far you should get from water and camp to avoid contamination. Most folks have good intentions I assume, yet end up not actually making the effort. They either don't know how far 200' is or it isn't that important to them.

Some other options to consider rather than adding soap to the environment would be to just rinse with water rather than wash or simply bring clothes to wear the entire trip and wash them at home. We go out for a week or more and hand sanitizer is the only cleaning agent we carry.

thanks. Honestly maybe just a quick rinse gets most of the stink out from my trials at home. At least enough to weae it for another day of hiking 

On longer trips when my socks keep standing up on their own I boil water in my cooking pot then add it to a freezer bag with the socks in it. Give them a vigorous shaking. It brings them almost back into the realm of sanitary for human use.

Totally agree and support the advice from others...never introduce things into the aquatic are always upstream of someone or something. Also LS gives good advice on distance...pace it out at home to get a gage on how far 200 ft is.

Have a great first trip!

Glad you asked. 

People have to learn the right sort of behaviors.  It is not always intuitive. 

Agree with above advice. Just because a soap product may say biodegradable on the label does not mean you can put it into a stream or lake -- biodegradable suds can still kill wildlife.

You didn't mention the length of your stay, but it is usually possible to just remain grubby and wash up at home.  Different standards apply out in the wild....

I am barely housebroken and used to being out there.  But cleaning up is important for health and especially if you want to have some nice looking women along.  i learned from the commercial river runners to provide a means for people to wash their hands often and before meals.   Taking a bath is important especially in warm weather.  
That is another thing about river trips is that there is always plenty of water around.  I like the solar showers quite a bit.  It is your responsibility to keep all soap no matter what kind, out of streams and lakes.  I have some friends that take a solar shower every day in the field.   It is actually a good habit to get into.  I have tried relaxing the standards on long trips like a month, but it is a bad idea. 

+1 on solar showers.  They are really great.  I have used them regularly for up to two weeks at a stretch.

If solar showers or something similar is not possible, it helps if the group ripens together....

You can usually tolerate the bodily and clothing stench even on a lengthy trip. However, you will find out that the major source of "the runs" is the cook (that's what happens to your innards if you contaminate your food). Make sure that your cook uses one of the liquid hand cleaners (the cook generally doesn't want to use boiling water on his hands).

There have been a number of surveys at the trailheads that have found that failure to clean your hands is the major source of the runs, far more than drinking directly from the streams.

You can reduce the aromas by using baby wipes to clean armpits and other parts of the body. Be sure that you transport the used wipes out of the backcountry (too many people believe you just have to bury the wipes or TP, not knowing that the local critters will often dig up sources of odors).

You can use the approaches listed above IF you make sure you dump the soapy water, etc, as well as deeply burying (but remember that critters will dig up buried foods).

General rule - LNT (Leave No Trace!!!!)

Bill S said:

You can usually tolerate the bodily and clothing stench even on a lengthy trip. 

Speak for yourself! I can recall days storm bound in tents, with partners who stank so bad I wondered if they died or something.

In the old days (but within my lifetime) doctors simply used soap between patients to mange contamination vectors.  And studies by Cornell University School of Culinary Arts indicate a basic hand wash regime with soap was at least as effective as glove programs in managing food borne illness resulting from kitchen food handling.  I once got sick when someone in our boy scout patrol did not practice civil hygiene habits.  Ever since then I gladly volunteer to both cook and clean.  No one ever got sick eating from my kitchen.  I go the extra mile, and bring a vial of bleach, for disinfecting kitchen and dish wares after use. It weighs a few ounces for week long trips - insurance well worth the weight IMO.

As for bathing: I find getting cleaned up after a day on trail makes a huge difference in camp comfort.  I don't dip in the streams and lakes - I don't like cold water! Instead I just draw a pot full and take up slope to a comfortable rock, or on cold days heat the water and wash in my tent.


I am with you Ed.  

I now carry a steel wash basin for truck and river trips.  I can heat water quickly on the stove using it directly on the flame. It works great for the cold mornings.  I like a solar shower in the late afternoon. 

Hand washing before meals and after the latrine should be mandatory for everyone, especially for meal prep and clean up.  I cook with my service club.  We follow the County Health inspection rules.  They translate for camping and the backcountry.  I like your line "no one has every gotten sick by eating out of my kitchen." 

My longest stretch without bathing was three weeks on Denali, over thirty years ago - no bathing at all, what with -20 temps for normal conditions, with one memorable night when we dealt with -80 wind chill.  One's incentive for bathing decreases considerably in those conditions.

As soon as we arrived back in Talkeetna, we headed right to the showers - we did not pass Go, and we did not collect $200.....


I'm with you on the "low temperature" question. When the temperatures are that low, you don't really notice the aromas that much. EXCEPT! The times I was in Antarctica, between storms you got pretty warm in your gear. look over at my avatar photo and notice that I was wearing only a couple layers (except for the Baffin Boots which had several layers of socks as well as all the padding). You can get a better view if you double click on the photo which gets a much larger version of the photo.

On a couple of my Denali climbs, we had a "Super Macho Man" who "bathed" in the snow. Never did figure out how he avoided frostbite.

I been out for three weeks no shower but inbetween I clean my hands and rinse off here and there...When I hit a shower its just incredible

In the military we used one canteen of water in a helmet for soaping up, start at the face and finish at the smelly parts.  Another canteen for a rinse and we were good.

Back at base we would disgust anyone else, even drove kids from an ice cream shop.  We had gone a bit nose-blind.

November 26, 2020
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