Okay, I am officially responding to the 4 people who asked me this question in the last week. Get ready to take notes!
This may seem a little silly or childish, but it’s actually quite a legitimate question to ask. I will do my best to tackle this subject with tact, but I am not making any promises that it won’t sound silly.
Before I embarked on my thru-hike, I often pondered what bathing would be like or if I would even have the opportunity in the woods. I knew there would be streams and I knew there would be springs and I knew that I would eventually come to a town where I could shower. One day, when I was studying in Library West at UF, I was spacing-out and having trouble concentrating. So I haphazardly clicked on the YouTube link and starting searching. The first question I asked was “how to poop in the woods.” Don’t laugh! I know that sounds weird, but when you are going to live in the woods for five months, everyday tasks like a back-country poo poo become very important! Well…you’d be surprised at how many videos appeared, all dealing with potty-ing in the woods.
So I kept searching, this time about thru-hikers and hygiene. I will admit that hygiene is the antithesis of thru-hiker. We are known for carrying the stench of a rotting corpse. Nonetheless, I was curious about these issues… I continued to stumble upon similar information. Most hikers carried some sort of shammy or “sham-wow.” It made sense. Not only could a shammy dry off a wet hiker, it could sop the water off of your rain-soaked gear before packing it up. The benefit of the shammy is that the water can be wrung out of it and still absorb water as effectively as a large beach towel. So I made a special trip down to Wal-Mart, trotted over to the automotive section, and purchased a shammy that you would use on your car.
How to take a bath in the woods
I will just be honest and tell you that taking a bath out in the woods is just something you have to figure out when you get there. However, there are a few important things to remember…. we should all respect the great and wonderful principles of our friends over at Leave No Trace (LNT).
- Even though you are in the woods there are usually people around (other thru-hikers, tourists, etc.) so you’ll need to get over your inhibitions or wear your skivvies in the water.
- If you are hiking in the Appalachian Mountains, I have news for you; the water is going to be FREEZING cold. There’s no hot tubs out there.
- Pick a location: water sources are usually common and shared amongst other thru-hikers; therefore, be respectful and go DOWNSTREAM of the others. Other hikers will most likely be sourcing their drinking water from the same place and I know they don’t want to drink your body soil.
- Sometimes you won’t be able to immerse yourself in the water. Don’t let a shallow stream or spring prevent you from taking a sort of sponge bath. Sometimes a nice rinse at the end of hot day is all you need to boost your morale.
- This one’s REALLY important! Don’t suds yourself up in the water source. First of all, you should only use biodegradable camp soap (Dr. Bronner’s, Sea to Summit camp soap, Camp Suds). Secondly, if you really need to soap yourself, get wet and then walk 200 feet away from the water source to soap up and to rinse off. I know that sounds like a lot of work, but dumping even miniscule amounts of the most environmentally friendly soap in a water source can have devastating impacts on the environment. Generally, if I needed to bathe in the woods, I didn’t use any soap and just took to scrubbing myself thoroughly with water. It’s your choice.
- This one’s for all you ladies out there– going on a thru-hike is no excuse to let yourself go. I still managed to shave my armpits and my legs. I mean, you could skip on that, but it’s really rather easy and way more comfortable. Just because your living in the woods like Sasquatch, doesn’t mean you have to look like him : )
- Grab your shammy and start drying off.
I said all that to ultimately say… you will always eventually come to a town with modern plumbing and bathing facilities. The longest I went without a bath was 9 days, but it wasn’t too bad. The times that I found myself taking a birdbath were days that it was incredibly hot and I was caked with salt. Generally, I just put up with my funk and waited until town. Even if you do manage to bathe in the woods…. you will still smell like a land fill, so embrace it!
I will leave you with some bathing anecdotes from the trail…enjoy!
Backwoods Bath Time Anecdotes
Quarry Gap Shelter, 17 miles south of Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Pennsylvania…
Here in Pennsylvania, the AT dissects many state parks. Tiger Lilly and I came upon a beautiful stream on a particularly hot afternoon. We decided that it was high time to strip down to our skivvies and take a bath. We smelled so bad! So we waded out to the center of the stream and took a most-needed, most-wonderful bath. However, we failed to realize that we were in the middle of a very crowded Caledonia State Park, Michaud State Forest on Memorial Day Weekend. People started walking by and staring at us. Little children asked their parents why there were girls taking a bath in a stream. We incited much ruckus and it was so funny! I honestly didn’t care what any of those people thought of us because we really needed to take baths!
Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I got to take a bath finally! The sun shined right down onto the creek so I was able to bare the ice, cold water. I even got to shave my legs! I’m no hippy! I haven’t bathed since Fontana Dam Shelter and every day since it has been rain, sleet, and snow. Usually when we make it to the shelter it is freezing cold, but everything is soaked with water…our sweat. To see the sun this afternoon was such a blessing; I’m so glad I finally got to take a bath. It was a little odd because the stream was right in front of the shelter, but at least I got to take a bath and wash my dishes at the same time! I know… it’s the simple things in life that bring me joy now.
Stewart Hollow Shelter, Housatonic River, Connecticut
What a day! The mosquitoes were out in droves today and I am pretty sure that the state Connecticut is home to a mutant breed! My goodness! Since I crossed the Mason Dixon, I’ve been carrying around my little orange bottle of magic…I mean Ben’s Insect Repellent. This stuff is lethal, coming it at 99.9% Deet. For the most part, it does a great job of keeping the mosquitoes off, but it burns the hell out of my skin and if it gets on my gear it dies it different colors. I am not so sure this isn’t going to cause me to have cancer in 10 years..oh well. It beats Encephalitis and West Nile Virus for the meantime.
The last two miles of my hike were on a perfectly flat path alongside the Housatonic. Along with being drenched in the repellent, I was waving a bandanna back-and-forth across my face and neck. Those little suckers kept landing in my eyes! I was so sweaty and so ticked-off about the stupid mosquitoes, that I decided I was going for a dip. I had been warned about the Housatonic, but I just didn’t care! I took my bottle of peppermint Dr. Bronner’s and went for a swim. The water looked pretty murky, but darn it felt so clean and refreshing. I found a nice rock to sit deep into the water and proceeded to scrub, scrub, scrub. A train passed and I could here the horn bellowing in the distance. Once I got out of the river I felt like a million bucks! Oh the power of nice bath in the woods!