February 29, 2024

A backpacker’s guide to staying healthy and clean on the road

Keeping clean while living out of a backpack can be a fine art that goes beyond simply stocking up on mini toiletries. Whether you’re planning on staying in city hostels during your next backpacking adventure or you’re considering a trip that takes you off the grid, you’ll want to maintain your personal hygiene to not only look after your health but also your happiness.

From washing your clothes to deciding what products to pack, here are our backpacking hygiene tips for staying fresh on the road.

backpacking hygiene - backpack

Tips for staying clean and healthy as a backpacker

If you’re heading off the beaten track, learning some nifty tricks to stay clean and healthy will be vital for your wellbeing.

1. Wash whenever you can

While staying in a traditional hostel means ample opportunities for showering, those who opt to camp-out may find washing regularly a little trickier. You can still keep clean by taking refreshing dips in fresh lakes or rivers (check they’re safe to swim in first!) and by collecting water in small containers for a makeshift shower or sponge bath.

2. Keep your feet as clean as possible

Our feet can get all sorts of nasty fungal infections if we don’t keep them clean. Make sure you wash your feet whenever you can to remove sweat and dirt. Allow them time to breathe every day by taking off your closed shoes or wearing sandals. It’s also never a good idea to reuse dirty socks unless you absolutely have to as they can be crawling with bacteria after several days of wear. Yuck!

3. Avoid wearing cotton clothing

This may seem like an odd suggestion as cotton is often claimed to be the lightest and most breathable fabric. However, when you’re out on the road in sweltering temperatures, cotton can easily absorb your sweat and develop a real stench.

Instead, go for light synthetic fabrics that dry quickly – a bonus both if you’re sweaty and if you’re washing them. Packing a wool jumper is also ideal as it’ll keep you warm if you’re wet or if it’s chilly without developing an odour.

4. Make sure you have good travel insurance!

If the worst happens and you find yourself ill on your trip, it’s absolutely crucial that you have good travel insurance to fall back on. There are numerous ways you might become unwell while backpacking in an unfamiliar country, whether it’s from food or a bacterial infection caused by poor cleanliness.

backpacking hygiene - river crossing fail

Washing your clothes when you’re backpacking

Having clean clothes is something we very much take for granted when we’re at home. If you’re planning a long-term backpacking trip you’ll need to have a plan in place for laundry.

backpacking hygiene - laundrette

1. Take some washing powder from home in a ziplock bag

Whether it’s to wash underwear in a bathroom sink or to use in a washing machine at your hostel, taking a small bag of washing powder is a must. Not every place will supply you with detergents and buying a whole box from a local supermarket can be expensive and illogical.

2. Ask your hostel about their laundry service as soon as you arrive

Depending on where you’re travelling to, you’ll find many hostels have a laundry room or service that lets you wash clothes for a fee, usually based on weight. Make sure you ask about this when you arrive as it can sometimes take a couple of days to have your clothes washed and returned. If they don’t have a laundry service, you’ll need to hunt out a local laundrette instead.

3. Freshen up your clothes by airing them out

If you’ve not got the time or the means to wash your clothing, you can freshen them up simply by airing them out. Place items on hangers or hang them somewhere where there’s a slight breeze to get the air flowing through them. This will help dry them out and reduce odours.

4. Remember there’s nothing shameful about re-wearing dirty clothes!

When packing clothes for your trip, make sure you choose items that you can easily mix and match in case you don’t get the opportunity to wash them very often. Also, if you’re absolutely desperate, there’s nothing wrong with reversing your underwear for the day every now and then!

backpacking hygiene - woman head in hands

Your essential backpacking health and hygiene kit

  • Baby wipes – If you take one thing with you, make it these. Wet wipes are ideal for giving yourself a quick wash if you don’t have the time or means to shower, plus you can use them for cleaning up messes and cleansing your hands when eating on the go.
  • Hand sanitiser – From using public bathrooms to travelling on public transport, sanitising your hands is a must. Try buying an alcohol-free hand sanitiser that’s unscented to keep things eco-friendly.
  • First aid kit – Before leaving home, it’s worth putting together a first aid kit of basic items like plasters, painkillers, rehydration sachets and an antiseptic cream for bites. Buying these from a pharmacy or supermarket back home means you can use a recognisable brand with instructions you can easily read.
  • An all-purpose bar of soap ­­– Reduce the number of heavy bottles you’ll need to carry with you by bringing one product that does everything. A bar of soap that’s made from all-natural products will keep your hair and skin shiny and clean — just remember to keep it contained in a soap case or zip lock bag.
  • Microfibre towels – These are much smaller than regular towels but just as effective at drying you off. They’ll fold up neatly and slip into the top of your rucksack — and they also dry super quickly if you’re in a hurry to pack.
  • Plastic bags (preferably biodegradable or recyclable) – Plastic bags are great for a range of things, from storing dirty clothes to keeping valuables from getting wet in your rucksack if you’re walking in the rain. They’re also perfect for stashing your toiletries in so they’re all in one place and aren’t likely to leak on your clothes.
  • Dental products ­– Toothpaste and a toothbrush are givens, but don’t forget to pack floss too. As well as helping to keep your gums clean, it can also double up as string in an emergency.
  • Sunscreen – Ending up with horribly uncomfortable burns because you couldn’t be bothered to carry some sunscreen is never a good idea. If you take one large bottle of anything with you backpacking, make it this.
  • Insect repellent – Whether you’re island-hopping around Asia or heading to Africa for a trekking and safari trip, insect repellent is a real lifesaver. Try using one that comes in a spray bottle and opt for a natural product made from citronella or eucalyptus.
  • And for ladies, sanitary products – Buying these overseas can often be pricey or just plain tricky. Estimate how many of each product you’ll need and bring them along with you if you can. It’s also worth packing eco-friendly nappy sacks to place used items and packaging in if you’re likely to be out and away from a bathroom.

backpacking hygiene - packing bag

And what shouldn’t you bring?

While bringing glass bottles or pressurised cans is an obvious no-no due to their weight and breakability, it’s additionally not worth taking expensive skincare products, heaps of makeup, mirrors or fancy shampoos. Deodorant can also be ditched if you’re planning on being out in the wild as it can attract insects and animals.

Bottom line: anything that adds unnecessary weight to your backpack or you don’t use every day (besides from medications) should stay at home. Honestly, you’ll be fine without it!

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