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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Mopping-Up Operations

Cleaning Up in the Backcountry —
From the Skin Out

By Tamia Nelson

October 25, 2005

Paddling is good, clean fun, but you can still get wonderfully dirty doing it. By the time a typical day on the water ends, you may find yourself mud-splattered and salt-encrusted, with sand in your shorts and pine sap in your hair. Sound bad? It can be. Yet that's only the beginning. Bug bites and cuts bleed. Cooking pots blacken your hands. Fish guts slime you. There's no sink in the bathroom. The list is long and the conclusion is obvious. Getting dirty is easy when you're back of beyond. And cleaning up — what about cleaning up? That's not so simple. Yes, turning the tap at home yields torrents of hot water, and scrubbing down after a day trip is a snap. But you won't find many backcountry campsites with bathtubs or showers. For that matter, in most places you can't even assume that the water in the river or lake itself is clean.

This is a problem. Camp life takes us back to a simpler age, when Saturday night was a time to wash off the work week's accumulated grime, and not a time to party. A few paddlers can still remember what it was like to fill bucket after bucket with icy water at an outside pump, haul each overflowing pail into the house, heat the water in a cauldron on the wood stove, and — finally — empty the steaming cauldron into the rusty tub that stood in a corner of the kitchen. Each member of the family then took his or her turn in order of seniority. Dad got hot, clean water. The youngest kid got what everyone else had left behind. Those who missed this treat may have seen it romanticized in Little House on the Prairie reruns, or watched while it was played for giggles and groans on the latest back-to-the-past "reality" TV show. But guess what? In real life, when there was no way to quit the show and the season never ended, the groans far outnumbered the giggles. There was nothing very romantic about a tin tub full of cold, greasy water, either. The dirty secret? When you can't get hot water at the turn of a tap, it can be mighty hard work getting clean.

Then again, some paddlers say they don't mind being grubby. I call this the Nessmuk approach to backcountry hygiene. "I carried a cake of soap and towel in my knapsack through the North Woods for a seven weeks' tour," the nineteenth-century champion of go-light camping wrote in Woodcraft, adding that he "never used either a single time." Yet there are others, more fastidious by far than Nessmuk, who think that the smallest speck of dirt is intolerable — though these folks usually find health club juice bars more congenial than portage trails or wilderness waterways. Of course, most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes. It's pretty much a matter of adjusting our expectations. Once we leave the put-in, we really can't hope to stay clean. At best, we can clean up at the end of each day. Is it easy? No. But it can be done. Here's how, beginning with…

Fundamental Matters

Nessmuk notwithstanding, there's more to cleanliness than vanity. Getting clean is an important first step in preventing illness, chafe, and infection. It also feels good. Something as simple as washing your face in hot water can help banish the last vestige of sleep from your brain as the sun struggles above the horizon. (Many men find that shaving does the same thing for them, even in the backcountry.) Then, at the other end of the day, a sponge bath washes off more than just grime. Fatigue and soreness also float away in the hot water.

But were does the hot water come from? That depends. If fuel or firewood is plentiful, a large cooking pot makes a good boiler. Don't imagine that you can use as much hot water as you do back home, however. Water rationing may seem counterintuitive on a paddling trip, but fuel is never so plentiful that you won't want to conserve. After all, the more water you use, the more you'll have to haul and heat. How big a pot is big enough? You decide. Solo paddlers who make the most of each drop have been known to get by with a one-quart billy, or even a military-surplus canteen cup. On the other hand, large groups may discover that a 10-quart pot is cutting it pretty fine. Luckily, a big pot will earn its keep in other ways. It's ideal for cooking pasta or heating soup, for instance.

Still, heating the water is just the first step. For a quick morning wash or shave, it's best to pour a small amount of very hot water into a folding basin or another large pot and temper as needed with cold. Any remaining hot water can then be used for washing the breakfast dishes — but only if it's kept warm. Just place the covered boiler near the fire. Or if your stove is your sole source of heat, shroud the pot with an improvised cozy. A towel or old sweater works well, but don't expect to use the towel on your face afterward. It will be covered with soot. And unless you want a beacon, don't put a towel-wrapped pot near an open flame! At day's end, repeat the process. Since you'll be washing more than your face, however, you'll need to heat more water. If fuel is scarce, or the weather inclement, concentrate on high-value targets. After sluicing the salt and soot off your face and hands, give priority to the "Three Ps," soaping, rinsing, and drying your 'pits, privates, and pedal extremities (aka feet) in turn. (Why feet? Because it makes a world of difference in how you feel, even if you've spent the whole day in your boat without taking a single step down the trail. Try it and see if you don't agree.) This is also a good time to check out newly formed blisters and evict any unwelcome fellow travelers like ticks. A hint: A plastic labware wash-bottle makes a pretty good substitute for a shower wand. There's nothing better for rinsing the places where the sun seldom shines.

Staying with the same subject, more or less, anatomy is destiny. Sort of, at any rate. Women need to take particular care to keep the area around their waterworks clean. If we don't, we court frequent bladder infections. Fashion takes its toll, too. Long hair is a nuisance in camp. Frequent shampooing is a must for comfort, but drying wet hair — particularly long, wet hair — isn't easy in the backcountry. And a wet head makes for a very cold night. My advice? Get your hair cut short before any long trip. How short? The shorter the better!

Neither of the sexes enjoys immunity from tooth trouble, of course, and there's more to hygiene than washing. In fact, a toothache can spoil a trip like nothing else. So don't leave your toothbrush and floss at home. Moreover, to avoid unpleasant upsets farther down your alimentary tract, be sure to treat the water you use to brush your teeth. And what do you do if your teeth give you trouble anyway? See your dentist before you leave for the put-in and ask her advice. A dental first-aid kit can make all the difference.

While we're talking about things to bring along, this is as good a place as any to say a bit more about…

Tools for Gracious Living

OK. Nessmuk had a point. There's a lot to be said for paring your equipment list to the bone. But you can go too far for comfort, and comfort is as important in the backcountry as it is in your living room. I've already hinted at the virtues of the folding wash basin. If it eliminates a pot, it can actually save both weight and space in your pack. Even if it doesn't, however, it's probably worth having just for convenience' sake. Canvas basins are sturdy and unlikely to collapse, but heavy and slow to dry. Their nylon and vinyl counterparts are just the opposite. Experiment to see which works best for you. A folding bucket or water carrier can be very handy, too. A few outfitters and most military surplus stores sell them.

Want real luxury? Consider bringing a solar-heated shower bag along on your next trip. They can be had in sizes ranging from three liters (less than a US gallon) to as much as five gallons, making it possible for everyone from solo paddlers to large parties to soap down in style. Don't imagine that you'll be able to soak in the shower for hours, though. Even the biggest bag holds only enough water for a few minutes, so figure on using a gallon of water at most. Seconds count here, and technique is everything. The method of choice is the so-called "navy shower," developed to meet the needs of blue-water sailors in the days before nuclear power plants, when the only fresh water for bathing came in a trickle from a boiler-fed still. Wet yourself down quickly, then shut off the water and lather up, using a minimum of soap. Finish with a fast rinse. Practice makes perfect. Try it at home first. A word of caution: If fortune smiles, the sun will warm the water in your shower bag while you paddle. But if not — and cloudy, chilly days aren't exactly rare in canoe country, even in summer — you'll have to heat water almost to boiling on the stove or fire and then temper it with enough cold water to bring the temperature down to a safe level. That's another reason not to linger under the shower. There's just no such thing as a free wash.

You choice of soap is important, too. The suds from the familiar bathroom bar take a lot of water to rinse off, and they can irritate chafed skin. Soap isn't a great shampoo, either. A wet bar is also hard to store. Worst of all, if you drop it on the ground you'll spend the rest of the trip scrubbing down with an abrasive slurry of sand and pine needles. Liquid soap is better, and the catalogs all list biodegradable cleansers, some of which advertise benefits that go far beyond getting the dirt off your sweaty body. Me? After years as an Ivory girl, I now use a mild dishwashing detergent for everything: skin, hair, clothes, and dishes. It works, and it simplifies trip planning. Whatever your choice, however, whether it's labeled "biodegradable" or not, don't let your wash water drain into a lake, swamp, or river. One hundred and fifty feet (30 double-step paces) is not too big a buffer zone.

Hard chargers may eschew the fuss and bother of washing, and opt for waterless cleansers or disposable wipes, instead. But beware. Alcohol-based cleansers are flammable — keep your distance from the fire. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, if you use them on a cold day when a stiff breeze is blowing, your numb hands will remind you of the power of evaporative cooling. (Farwell got just such a reminder recently, following an emergency repair to his bike on a backcountry jeep trail. He used an alcohol-based "hand sanitizer" to clean up afterward. It got the grease off all right, but the evaporating alcohol, coupled with the forty-degree Fahrenheit temperature and a brisk Force 5 breeze, instantly froze his hands into clumsy claws. It was a lesson he won't soon forget.) As for disposable wipes.…well, there's no trash service in the backcountry, is there? Use them only if time presses and washing is impractical.

Further hints and tips: Store your soap or detergent in doubled plastic bags, along with your towel and washcloth. But air dry the latter every chance you get. A wet towel stored in a waterproof bag for several hot days will develop a pungent pong that's certain to repel all but the least fastidious camper. It helps that rayon (viscose) towels dry much faster than cotton blends, though light cotton bandannas make acceptable towels and they dry pretty quickly, too. Do you jealously guard your personal space? Then avoid strongly perfumed soaps. Better yet, leave your scents and toiletries at home. Wildlife may well appreciate your favorite perfume as much as your partner does, but you probably won't welcome their attentions equally.

Sweat and salt water, dust and mud — they all come with the territory. That doesn't mean canoeists and kayakers can't go to bed clean, though, even if it isn't as simple as turning the tap at home. A little mild detergent and hot water can work wonders. That's the secret of a successful mopping-up operation.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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