Friday, July 6, 2018

Skills: Avoiding Illness In The Backcountry

When traveling into the backcountry is it ok to leave behind hygiene practices along with other creature comforts? In some ways it may be ok (how many of us have picked up our food off the ground and eaten it while camping?) but it is inadvisable and certainly not wise. If you are on a one or two night campout with a few close people you may get away with poor hygiene practices. Good hygiene is the best way to avoid illness in the backcountry. No matter how many times you may have gotten away with poor hygiene, a single incident of backcountry "funk" is usually enough to make you want to avoid it a second time. Not to mention it can be life threatening at times! Here are some guidelines to avoiding illness in the backcountry (and front country too).

Avoid spreading germs: just as your mom, or other parent figure likely told you a hundred times growing up, wash your hands! 

Use biodegradable soap to wash your hands and dishes. Any sort of camp soap will do such as castile soap. It is better for the environment and your own health. Use antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizer sparingly. They are bad for the environment and your long term health according to recent research. Humans have used them so much some bacteria are becoming resistant to them and this is creating super-bugs. So use when necessary but use sparingly. 

Wash your dishes regularly. Many campers get lax and just rinse their dishes. This is the perfect way to breed bacteria and get sick. Use hot water and soap at least once a day on your dishes when possible. 

Only cook what you will eat. It is best not to save leftovers, they go bad quickly and will attract unwanted animals and bugs. If you have uneaten leftovers it is best to bury them well away from your campsite. 

Boil your water. You should always filter water collected in the back country as even “clean” sources can get contaminated. Simply bringing water to a rolling boil is enough to kill most everything including viruses which most water filters miss. If the water source is questionable keep the water at a rolling boil for 3-5 minutes. 

Do not share anything that touches your mouth. This includes eating utensils, drinking utensils, and lip balm among other things. Sharing these is the fastest way to spread sickness while recreating outdoors. A person can become contagious before they even feel symptomatic so following this rule is of utmost importance. When in a group, use serving utensils to dish out group food items. Never let anyone put their personal spoon or fork into the group food. Pour food into people’s hands instead of letting everyone stick their dirty hands into your bag of trail mix or other food. Never eat or drink after someone. And never use someone else’s lip balm. If borrowing lip balm is a necessity, rub the top layer off with a clean tissue but know this is only partially effective at reducing germs. 

Keep sick people away from the kitchen. They may feel up to helping but it’s just not worth the risk of spreading sickness. Delegate other non-food related tasks to them or just let them rest. Everyone will be grateful. 

Wash your body regularly. Medical experts recommend washing your hands multiple times per day, your face once per day, and your underarms and private areas every 1-3 days. This should be done with soap and water or wet wipes. A full body shower or bath is recommended whenever possible even if only a sponge bath. Remember, never use soap directly in the water source (i.e. lakes, rivers, waterfalls) as this is harmful to the water life and contaminates your drinking source. Dump soapy water 200 feet from bodies of water and bury if possible. 

Wash your clothes frequently. It is best to avoid wearing underclothes (clothes that touch the skin) for more than 2-3 days. Change to clean ones. If possible wash the dirty ones out with water and use soap if available. If water and/or soap are unavailable, turn clothes inside out and let them sit in the sun for several hours. At least 1-2 hours on each side will help kill some bacteria assuming you have good direct sunlight and are not too far north or south. Wind is also a plus to reduce smell. 

Be vigilant about keeping wounds and injuries clean. A simple scratch can lead to major complications in the backcountry if it gets infected. Keep all wounds cleaned regularly and covered. Use triple antibiotic to help control infections. Get some first aid training to learn more about this. 

Dispose of biodegradable waste in a sanitary manner. This includes human waste, food scraps, and toothpaste. The proper method is to bury this waste in a hole 8 inches deep and 6 inches wide. The hole should of be 200 feet or about 75 steps from any water sources. Be sure to cover the hole when done. 

Carry a few trash bags. Hauling out your trash is important for the environment. But you don’t want your trash to make you sick or get your gear dirty. It’s good to carry a few empty plastic grocery bags or freezer bags to put trash in. I find they have other good uses too. 

Maintain interpersonal hygiene by treating everyone in your group with respect and humility. When spending a lot of time with a small group of people in the outdoors, tempers can flair easily. Left unchecked this can create a toxic environment that can ruin a trip and possibly become life threatening if tension leads to poor decisions. It is best to smooth things over by talking through them, staying humble, and apologizing when needed. You are all in it together.

Learn more about this topic by following this link about preventing illness while camping from the Minnesota Department of Health. Following the principles of Leave No Trace will help maintain good hygiene. Learn more about the 7 principles of low impact camping at this link.

Written by David F. Garner
Photo credit: jackmac34 via