There are many adjectives to describe backpackers on the go: Adventurous, thrifty, resourceful, and sociable are just a few. But what about stinky? When your travel style involves bouncing between hostels, campsites, borrowed couches, and the occasional hotel, keeping clean can take a little extra work. But a little forethought will help you enjoy that free-spirited travel style with a minimum of grunge factor.
Here are a few ways to stay as fresh and clean as possible while you are out on the trail.
Pack the Right Type of Clothing
When you carry everything on your back, packing light isn’t just an ambition—it’s a necessity. The fewer clothing items you bring with you, the easier they are to keep clean, even when access to laundry facilities isn’t guaranteed.
Start by packing quick-dry clothing that resists wrinkles. These are the sorts of clothes that look good when hand-washed and can be hang-dried even in humid climates. You know the drill: Choose staples like t-shirts, button-up shirts and yes, even socks, that you can mix or match to cut down on the number of items you have to carry.
Look for clothing that uses 37.5 Technology. It will help keep your body at a temperature of 37.5 degrees Celsius with a comfortable relative humidity of 37.5 percent, which means you’ll sweat less. And where there is less sweat, there is less smell. The performance-enhancing technology is found in a range of products, including pieces perfect for backpackers on and off the trails.
If you’re traveling in a cold climate, some warm layers aren’t great for handwashing. But, you can get around that by wearing undershirts and other base layers beneath your warm clothes, so your underthings take the brunt of the repeated washings.
Finally, although you could carry dedicated laundry soap or laundry bars, many backpackers choose Castile soap or other multi-use products that work for both body and clothes. Shampoo also works well in a pinch.
Master the Handwash
There you are: dirty clothes in one hand, soap or shampoo in the other, staring down a tiny sink and wondering how you’re going to make this work. While many hostels, guesthouses, and campgrounds do offer some sort of laundry facility or service, some don’t and the sink will have to do. Alternatively, you can wash your clothes in any sufficiently large tub or bowl—even a bathtub or, if you’re truly pressed for time and water, in the shower. If you’re really serious about handwashing, consider carrying a lightweight dry bag that can double as a portable sink.
Let’s assume you’re using an actual sink, start by cleaning that sink out with a bit of soap or shampoo. You wouldn’t put your clothes in a dirty washing machine, would you? Then, add a bit more soap and fill the sink with water. Submerge your clothes in the water, making sure they’re wet throughout, and let them soak for about five minutes.
Once that time is up, swish your clothes through the water. There’s a lot of conflicting advice about whether you should scrub your clothing. Avoid it if you can, because it can warp and tear the fibers. But sometimes, a little cloth-on-cloth rubbing is the only way to truly get things clean.
Depending on the state of your clothes, you might need to repeat the soak-and-swish operation another time or two. When you’re ready, drain the sink, refill it with clean water, and swish your clothes through this as a rinse.
You can squeeze the extra water out of sturdy items, but the gentlest way of handling delicates is to lay the clothes out on a towel, roll the towel up, and press the bundle gently to remove excess water from your clothes. Then it’s time to hang or drape your clothes to catch as much airflow as possible while they dry.
Keep Those Armpits From Getting Too Smelly
Keeping your clothes clean on the go is only half the battle for hygiene-conscious backpackers: What about your body? Once again, it comes down to prudent forethought and packing.
First, have a toiletry “go bag” that’s always handy. This is the little bag of soap, shampoo, toothpaste/toothbrush, and other sundries you’d cart to and from shared bathrooms in a hostel. Don’t stow it deep in your backpack when you’re on the move; keep it near the top, or in an external pocket, so you can freshen up when the opportunity presents.
There are a few things you should have in there beyond the normal hostel toiletries. Start with baby wipes or face wipes for quick clean-ups on the go. Try to avoid those made with synthetic detergents, which are famous for leaving your skin feeling sticky or filmy.
Next, or instead of the wipes, add a bandana or small, quick-drying cloth you can use for a quick “bird bath” any time you’re near a bit of water. It may not be fun, but a quick dab at the armpits and other smell-inducing points can do a lot to reduce odor and help you feel better.
If you menstruate, keep period-appropriate supplies on hand just in case; travel is famous for making periods arrive (or sometimes, depart) unexpectedly. A menstrual cup, reusable pads, or so-called “period underwear” are all ways to travel light. In case you have a menstrual cup but no running water, use a small, clean cloth and a bit of water from a bottle to wipe the cup out after you empty it, then store the cloth in a zip-close bag until you can wash it out.
And the final gold medal items when you’re sleeping on an overnight train, airport floor, or in other dodgy accommodations? Hand sanitizer, a bit of toilet paper in its own zip-close bag, and a pack of breath mints—all of which will do a lot to keep you feeling human, no matter what your trip throws at you.
Written by Lisa Maloney for Matcha in partnership with 37.5.
Featured image provided by Matt Gross