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What's That Smell? The Science to Maintaining Personal Hygiene While Off-Road

Let’s face it: social media tends to glorify overlanding. Daily chores and personal hygiene techniques are rarely portrayed amongst the breathtaking photos of vast landscapes and sunset selfies. Just wait until smell-o-vision becomes a thing. Want to get a whiff of the ripened aroma of the person manning the camera? There’s an app for that.

Thankfully there are several products and workarounds that make it tolerable to travel with other (and our own) happy camper stank. The topics below will get you rolling down the right road to everything you’ve ever wanted to know, but were too embarrassed to ask about.

Get the Stink Out 

Sometimes you just really need a shower, if not for yourself then at least give your traveling partner(s) a break. Whether you choose a straightforward gravity-fed system or something with a pressurized flow, you’ll find that investing in a portable rinser-offer (yes, that’s a term now) is well worth it. You never know when you might hit an extra dusty road or when you will be forced to layer on the sunscreen or bug spray, or both. What you see here is a fully pressurized shower complete with a propane-powered water heater. The RoadShower is easily pressurized by an onboard air compressor installed in the bed of my Toyota Tacoma. The pressurized water feature also works well for rinsing dishes, but remember to dump anything that would be remotely tempting to wildlife far away from your campsite.

Camplux water heater for camping

In the second year of having this setup, I realized that showering in a bathing suit while camping trackside is a bit awkward. Being able to hide behind Overland Vehicle Systems’ fold-out shower stall allows me to focus on the task at hand rather than being self-conscious about aiming the shower nozzle down my butt crack in front of an audience.  

Portable shower stall for privacy while camping

Environmentally friendly bar soap, liquid soap, or biodegradable soap sheets. I prefer just plain Bronner’s Castile liquid soap—also great for use in the home. The standard dilution ratio is 1-part soap to every 3-parts water. Bronner’s an all-in-one option that is great for multi-taskers who want to wash themselves, the dishes and laundry in one shot. (Um, just don’t share the rinse water.) It’s also safe to use for bathing in rivers or lakes.

Biodegrable cleaners, soaps and wipes for camping

Though it lasts the longest, bar soap needs to be stored dry so as to not to develop mold or grow bacteria. It also requires more water to lather up and it isn’t ideal for dry skin, unless you’re willing to pay more for the fancy stuff. The soap sheets are neat, but when they get wet (which is easy to do) they’re done for. For me, personally, I do carry a bar soap backup and will occasionally carry sheets just for handwashing.  It’s also handy to have biodegradable wipes when you’re feeling a little grimy, but not filthy enough for a complete wash. There’s a wipe for every use, including body, face and butt, with sensitive skin options for all. Body wipes are great for hitting the hot spots (you know where) or to use in place of showers when water is not readily available. Friendly reminder: “Biodegradable” doesn’t mean leave it behind. Pack’em out!

Sh!t Happens

That familiar rumbly in the tummy is back, and it only means one thing. Hopefully you get through this section before urgency kicks in. As more and more people explore the outdoors, poop-related problems pile up. The math really does stink: Humans produce up to a pound of poop per day, plus it can take over a year to fully biodegrade. That’s a lot of potential for disease spread to wild fauna and water sources. Because of all the risks, some popular destinations will require you to bag your poo. In environments where organic material is scarcer, or if you’re staying near river canyons or beaches, it’s best to carry everything out in a sealed bag. A lot of campers use WAG bags, which is essentially a dog bag for humans. Most have a special anti-poo powder that stifles the stink. Everyone should be responsible for properly storing their own bags while on the trail and then discarding them properly once off the trail. Because, ew.

Think about it: If you stumbled upon a mess of old smeary toilet paper—or worse, a pile of human waste, corn chunks and all—the blissful connection to nature that you were experiencing just seconds ago would blow away with the wind. Hopefully downwind… And, um, no photo necessary. Moving on.

You might find yourself in a situation where having a dedicated private relief area, like a portable pop-up pooper tent paired with a portable toilet, is necessary to let it all go. A tent with interior pockets is ideal, so you can complete your palace with wet wipes, hand sanitizer and air freshener.

Pop up tent and portable toilet for pooping in privacy while camping

In areas less traveled, if it’s not an emergency situation, you could enjoy a short hike about 70 paces away from the nearest trail, water source or sounding campsite. Using a trowel, dig a hole, a cathole if you will, approximately 6 to 8-inches deep and 6-inches round,  wider if you have bad balance. The depth depends on the climate, but it’s key to stay in the soil’s organic layer, otherwise, your “organic” matter won’t decompose. Use unscented, one-ply (good luck with that) toilet paper sparingly, or plan to wrap the used squares in a neat little package for the trash. I prefer the latter because I prefer my bottom to be pampered, but If you choose to leave a couple of squares behind, use a stick to stir it into the hole, then cover it. Leave a stick or an ambiguously placed rock on top to let future travelers know what lies beneath.

Be responsible and warn others after burying your poo.

If you chose a prime location, chances are someone else might settle in there, too. Bet you didn’t think going potty could be so technical, huh? Two more things: Avoid eating too much cheese while at camp. Oh, and consider spritzing your (lower) cheeks with bug repellant before heading out for a squat.

This section is for the ladies

That’s right: finally, some lady-specific camping advice. I never thought of myself as a skincare or makeup collector until I had to learn how to pack for long overlanding trips. Aside from the products suggested earlier, I narrowed my skincare selections down to face wipes, Indian Healing Clay, Alba shaving lotion, and a small bottle of my favorite moisturizer. Achieving glowing skin is much easier when you spend your time outdoors in warmth and humidity. Sweat is the best glow you can get, and it’s cost-effective. For covering up the mess that is me, I carry Physician’s Formula SPF 15 tinted moisturizer, mascara and eyeliner (because I can), and SPF 30 lip balm. I rarely use the eyeliner.

Personal Hygiene products for lady campers

While sweat might do wonders for your face, it can leave your scalp feeling itchy and your hair tangled and crispy. Dry shampoo will help get the oils out, but it’s difficult to find a brand that doesn’t make hair feel heavy or gritty. So far, I like Klorane. Messy buns and hair clips are still the “in” thing, so I take the low-maintenance route. However, if you have exceptionally long, thick hair and wear it down, it works decently to keep the bugs off your back.

Battling the monthly monster is a whole other issue. (it’s ladies only for real this time, guys. Y'all can spare yourselves and jump to the final words.) Many women are choosing flexible cups, like the Diva cup, Softcup, or Lily Cup, among others. Each has a different fit. As gross as it may seem, I’ve found these cups to be the easiest way to dispose of the mass murder that goes on in my innards. When you venture off to freshen yourself, I recommend bringing a small bottle of water and biodegradable soap for cleaning. If tampons are your ticket, be sure to bring enough to last for your trip and have an airtight place to store used ones. Yep, you gotta pack those out. Before leaving home, you can make your own biohazard bag by completely covering a zip-top plastic bag with duct tape and marking it with a skull and crossbones. Add dry tea bags or crumbled aspirin to control the scent and be aware of your surroundings. For example, if you’re in bear country, you’ll need to place this bag in a place where it won’t attract unwanted guests.

Blessing myself with the ability to unzip my bottoms and pee through a tube seemed like a grand idea, so I gave one of those portable silicone funnels a try. When I received my portable urinal, the instructions recommend to practice using the device while you’re in the shower or bathtub. I laughed at the thought but followed the advice. I highly recommend you do the same just to get a feel for it. It’s a bit, um, awkward. Pressing a narrow cup to your privates and praying the small opening drains fast enough to keep up isn’t for everyone, but I have used it several times. Usually when I’m shooting photos at rally races and don’t want to throw the competitors off their course, or more likely, expose myself to the mosquitos.

Final words

Male readers: it’s safe to resume. I want to thank you for making it this far. You’re either brave or heeded the warnings. There are just a couple more general housekeeping tips to touch on, like the most convenient way to carry trash out. Five years ago, research led me to find the Trash-a-roo brand, and it has dutifully served its purpose. It’s easy to spray out, has cargo pockets, and has never broken a strap. However, I constantly have people yelling “Your tire cover is coming off!” There’s something odd about its shape that makes it flap awkwardly in the wind. I’m considering trying something new, like Overland Gear Guy’s spare tire trash carrier.

Trash-a-roo for carrying trash while camping

Okay, one last thing, I swear. I recently discovered an ingenious solution for separating dirty laundry from clean in my duffel bag: dry bags. These watertight bags are traditionally used to protect the items inside from moisture, but they are also perfect for preventing cross-contamination if your space is limited.

Want to know what else to pack for your adventures? Check out this list of overlanding survival gear.

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