Anyone who has ever helped a hiker get into or out of town knows that hikers smell. The same can be true for anyone who is out in the wilderness for a long time. Hygiene is apparently optional for many of them. To some extent, this is just a reality of camping, but with some preparation and skills, this doesn’t have to be the case. Bathing in the wilderness is perfectly acceptable and actually not very hard, if you know how to bathe yourself and have the right supplies.
The Towel Bath
Remember how in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy there is a rant about the useful capacities of the towel. That is for a reason. The towel is about the most massively helpful thing you can have when you are going to be away from home for more than a couple of days. A hand towel is all you need to take an effective bath in the wilderness. I usually bring two.
Take the first hand towel and wet it. If you are bathing at a non-surface water supply, far away from any lakes or streams, then you can feel free to use a biodegradable soap product like Dr. Bronner’s or a camp soap. I like Dr. Bronner’s because the extremely strong scent wakes me up and it cleans quite well while still being (fairly) safe for the environment.
Now proceed to give yourself a sponge bath. Really dig into yourself, since you will probably need a good scrubbing. I prefer to soap my entire body twice, then I will rinse the towel thoroughly before using it to rinse off twice. Finally, I clean the heck out of the first towel, and dry myself off with the second.
The Rain Shower
If the weather outside is rainy, but warm enough, another option is to take a shower in the rain. Rain showers are refreshing if you can manage them. Strip down as much as you can in your circumstances and step out with your washcloth. Again, use a biodegradable soap in limited quantities to minimize your environmental impact. A great feature of the rain shower is that you can shampoo your hair with the soap.
Always start with your hair, since you will have the most trouble de-soaping it should the rain cease. work your way down from there.
Rain showers take some creative thinking. If you need a privacy screen and have a poncho, you can string it up and use that as a shower curtain. The toughest part is drying off, since you can’t exactly step out of the shower. If you have a shelter you can get to without compromising your modesty, that might be a good place to step in to dry off.
Never use soap within 50 yards of a surface water source, since you don’t want to contaminate it directly. If you are washing it into the soil a fair distance away, the soil will filter the soap and give microbes time to digest it before it can affect the lake or stream. Remember to keep your showers and baths short, and waste as little as possible. Put your towels onto your tent or pack once the sun is out to dry them, or (if you are looking for a risk) try to dry them over a fire.
You will feel great once you are clean again on the trail or in the woods. Enjoy your camping time and be sure to brag about being the freshest smelling person in the wilderness.