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Backcountry Hygiene

Now, we all know that it can be a bit more difficult to stay clean in the backcountry. Sinks and flush toilets aren’t readily available in the woods, so we are forced to think outside the box.

Backcountry hygiene is important in reducing the risk of getting sick and specifically reducing the risk of getting an intestinal illness. The two main causes of intestinal issues while camping are contaminated water and food contamination (due to “fecal-oral contamination). Both of these causes are easy to avoid. Here are some suggestions to help:


Choosing where you get your water from is the first step in backcountry hygiene. Get your water as close to its source as possible. Think about what may be upstream (mountains vs. farmland).  The colder and clearer the water, the better. Cold water means that it is close to its source and has less interaction with contaminants. Collect your water from a moving source rater than a standing one. Swift water typically harbors fewer organisms. Once you have collected your water, the next step is purification.

Water Purification:

When you purify water, you are either removing or killing harmful organisms that can cause human illness. The following are common ways  (with pros and cons) of treating your water:

Boiling Water:

This is the oldest and surest way to treat water. Boiling water kills all contaminants. When using this method, bring your water to a full boil for a minute. Boil-treated water is tasteless, but requires ample fuel and time.

Filtering Water:

Filters use different methods and come in different sizes, but all effectively remove all contaminants and produce instant potable water. Filters require labor (pumping), can be expensive and add weight to your pack. When using a filter, it is smart to have a backup filtration system incase of filter malfunction.   


Iodine kills contaminants, but as most of you know, tastes funky. Iodine also takes time to act (from 10 minutes to 6 hours). Iodine is a good backup system, but it is not the best primary option.


Bleach and Chlorine is also an effective way to treat water, but in some cases it will be like drinking swimming pool water. Like iodine, it is not recommended for regular use. You must use PURE bleach when using it to treat water. The usual ration is about 16 drops to a gallon. AquaMira is a bleach solution that does not taste like bleach, and kills all bacteria including Giardia.


This fairly new water treatment system kills contaminants by zapping them with UV rays. These devices are lightweight and produce instant potable water. They are less effective in murky water and may require pre-filtering water.


This may seem obvious, but really, WASH YOUR HANDS. Fecal-oral contamination is the main cause of backcountry intestinal illness. It is important to keep your hands and nails clean. Soap and water is the most basic and reliable cleaning system. When possible, use warm water and lather for at least a minute. Make sure to clean under your nails and past your wrists. Hand sanitizer is also convenient in addition to washing with soap and water and can be used when water is not available. Make sure to wash hands after using the bathroom and before handling food or water.  


Food is ingested and can also cause backcountry illness. Before dealing with food, again, wash your hands. Make sure you are working on clean surfaces and using clean utensils. You can clean cutting boards and utensils by submersing then in boiling water or washing them with soap and water. Do not touch your face or body when preparing food and use individual cups and plates instead of sharing.


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