Backpacking Shower: Stay Sweet Smelling on Your Travels!

Camping shower
Written by Russell McCarty

Backpacking is a wonderful experience; not only do you get to see some of the most beautiful sights in the world, but you can also experience it all in your own personal way. Many people choose to venture from hostel to hostel, but many also choose to camp, and head into the wilderness too.

See also: Camping Bathroom: The Art of Relieving Yourself in the Wild

There are many ways to do this, but there are also many pitfalls and questions that need to be answered in terms of how to do it, and how to keep your personal hygiene and fashion stakes up. If you are going down the latter route, or perhaps mixing up both options, then hygiene is probably going to be high up on your list of research questions, and rightly so!

Whilst you want to enjoy the wilderness, and experience it in all its natural glory, you don’t want to be smelling rather unpleasant at the same time! This is not the way to make new friends, or keep old ones that you’re travelling with!

For that reason, informing yourself up on how to stay clean and sweet smelling during your backpacking trip is important. There are many ways to do this, but it certainly takes a little clever thinking on your part before you pack your bag.

As a first port of call, your toiletry bag should certainly include the following items:

  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Hand sanitiser (alcohol-based is best)
  • Soap – biodegradable, for reasons we will discuss shortly!
  • Soft wash cloth
  • Tissues/toilet paper
  • Wet wipes/baby wipes

What is a Backpacking Shower?

Obviously, when you’re backpacking you have limited space, and that means you can’t take a full blown shower with you! On top of this, the fact that you are outside in the Great Outdoors usually means that there aren’t going to be any plush, sophisticated bathrooms with shower facilities. Some camp grounds do have showering areas, but overall, we’re talking about total wilderness here.

A backpacking shower is a smaller version of the shower that you have at home, and you will fill this up yourself, and then empty it when you have finished. This is basically a portable shower that fits easily into your bag, and it is designed more for hygiene reasons, than for long, hot showers at the end of a busy day.

You can purchase these showers from various different big named outdoor companies, and they come in various sizes, patterns, and colors. The most common color however is black, because of the color’s ability to absorb heat, and therefore keep the water warmer, for longer.

A backpacking shower comes in a regular size, which is a 10 liter capacity. You are able to choose between whether you want your shower warm or cold, but you’re never going to get a hot shower, because the material of the bag (polyurethane coated nylon) is damaged by extremely hot temperatures, even boiling water.

Basically, a backpacking shower is a great way to stay hygienic, sweet smelling, and also to save you space. If you don’t have room for a camping stove, you can save room in your backpack with this very small piece of equipment, and if you do have a camping stove, but someone else is cooking dinner, you can head off for a shower whilst you wait for your meal!

How to Fill up And Use a Backpacking Shower

A backpacking shower has a hole in the top where you fill up the bag with water and then screw the top on, so obviously this is where the water will go! Each individual backpacking shower will have slightly different instructions on how to use it, so do check out the paper which will come with your particular product.

Overall however, each bag will have a line inside which is the maximum fill capacity, and this shouldn’t be exceeded. As we mentioned earlier, never pour boiling water inside the bag, and instead go for sun warmed water or cold water.

A 10 liter bag will usually last for no more than 7 minutes, so as you can see, a backpacking shower is certainly about getting clean, and not luxury. This is based on a regular amount of water pressure, and obviously, if you turn up the pressure for a stronger water flow, you’re going to use up your water up much faster than if you are frugal with it instead.

If you are careful with how long you shower for, you can usually use your water for a few showers, and that is a very useful thing if you are in a place where water is hard to find, or is limited. In terms of using a backpacking shower, it’s pretty easy!

Basically, you need to find a tree which is taller than you, but where you can hang the shower and reach it to adjust the flow easily. Make sure that you choose a tree and location where there aren’t any issues to get in the way, e.g. animal nests/sharp branches.

You should also be not that close to a water stream, because of the run off from your shower, which could contaminate the water if you allow your suds or dirty water to run straight into the stream – instead, stick to around 200 feet away, minimum.

Once you’ve finished showering, you can either leave it hung up for the next shower, keeping the water warm, or you can empty it, roll it up and store it back in your backpack. Backpacking showers are ideal for travel because they’re so functional and they pack up incredibly small.

Cautions When Using a Backpacking Shower

We have to appreciate the fact that when using a backpacking shower, you’re out in nature, so you have to be careful about what you allow to run free, or possibly contaminate the water or soil around you. For this reason, cautions need to be highlighted; if you’re careful however, and follow advice, there should be no issues.

First things first, you shouldn’t use any soaps which are perfumed or non-biodegradable. We mentioned that you need biodegradable soap when we gave you the toiletry list at the beginning of this chat, and we’re now going to explain why.

Basically, when you have a shower, no matter whether it’s for five minutes or five seconds, and you use soap, there are going to be suds, and these suds run away when water is present. This means that if you shower close to a river or lake, these suds are going to end up in the river or lake, and could cause problems for the fish who dwell in there.

You could also contaminate water that your campmates might use for washing too. Even if you don’t shower close to a river or lake, which we mentioned is not something you should be doing, the rain can transport the contaminated water via the soil, eroding what the suds land on, whilst also carrying it into the nearest water source.

Basically, those suds will always end up where you don’t want them to be! Biodegradable soap is safe because it isn’t going to cause problems for the soil, water, or fish.

We talked about not using hot water because of the damage it can cause to the material of the shower bag, and for that reason, cool water is best, which is heated by the sun. Now, if you shower first thing in the morning, the water is not going to have been heated by the sun, because the sun hasn’t had a chance to get hot yet!

That means your water is going to be cold. Now, a cold shower is nice sometimes, but it’s not particularly good for your health if it’s too cold, or too prolonged. Bear caution to this issue, and perhaps shower before bed, or in the middle of the day.

It’s always a good idea to shower before jumping into your sleeping bag anyway, especially if you’ve been hiking or wandering around during the day, to avoid your bedding becoming a little smelly, and therefore needing to be washed earlier than you would have otherwise done.

Because a backpacking shower isn’t going to last forever in terms of water amount, it’s a good idea to cut down on the amount of showering you need, and find a few other ways to stay odour-free!

How to Stay Sweet Smelling Without Showering Twice a Day

Whilst you should certainly be showering every day, if not for yourself, then for everyone around you, you can’t shower twice or more a day, because of the lack of water supply, and also because of the hassle. For that reason, finding those ways to help you stay fresh and sweet smelling is more important than ever when you’re out in the wilderness.

Of course, you have limited space to carry any items with you, so keeping things simple is the best way forward. Try these few suggestions out for size.

  • Always make use of hand sanitizer – This is the godsend of the Great Outdoors, and will not only keep you away from any nasty germs, but will also help your hands feel much fresher too.
  • Use cotton buds and alcohol solution – Because deodorant is a big no, as it does nothing for the environment around you, a good way to stay fresh under the armpits, and to avoid having to have countless showers throughout the day, is to use cotton wool pads or balls, and soak them in alcohol solution. Use isopropyl alcohol solution for the best result, or you can use the hand sanitiser gel bottle you simply use for your hands. Once you’ve soaked the pad, rub it under your armpits, and feel fresh as a daisy! You can also use it on the back of your knees, your groin, and anywhere else that is feeling a little on the sweaty side, within reason!
  • Wash your clothes regularly – This goes without saying really, but washing your clothes and leaving them out to dry overnight whilst you sleep will mean that you not only feel fresher the next day, but you won’t be smelly either. For tips on how to dry clothes quickly, see our article to find out more.
  • Don’t forget to brush your teeth! – Another which doesn’t need to be said, but it can help you feel fresher, whilst avoiding wilderness breath!
  • Wet wipes or baby wipes are your friend – For basically everything, you can use these wonderful creations. Whether you want to clean something, you want to wipe your face down, or you want to wipe under your arms on the go, always carry wet wipes or baby wipes with you at all times. Remember to dispose of these in the right way, i.e. put them in your backpack and place them in a bin when you find one, rather than leaving them lying around – these can be harmful to the environment. For review of the top biodegradable toilet paper, see our article for more information.

Is a Backpacking Shower Worth the Fuss?

There’s no denying that the ability to have a shower when you’ve been out and about in nature all day long, is a major plus point, but is a backpacking shower really worth it?

Many people don’t like washing in a bowl or water or a river, and they much prefer to the homely feel to a shower, which a backpacking shower function really does give you.

You don’t need anything else apart from water and a tree to hang the product on, and 10 litres of water will certainly last you more than 5 minutes for a quick shower. If you want a luxury shower however, this is not going to be the ideal situation for you!

Having said that, how exactly do you think you’re ever going to find luxury shower facilities in the wilderness?!

There are many backpacking shower products on the market, and it’s really about personal preference in terms of which one you go for; as an idea however, this is what you should look for when choosing your particular showering facility:

  • Price – Obviously, this is going to be your number one concern. Nobody has a money tree, and that means cutting costs when heading out into the wilderness. Shopping around will help you find the best bargains, and online is also where those bargains are likely to be hiding.
  • Size – How small does the backpacking shower roll up and how large is the showerhead? This is something important to look into, as well as the weight. Remember that you have limited room inside that backpack, and you don’t want to be carrying heavy equipment, when you don’t really need it.
  • Brand name – The biggest brand names in outdoor equipment will give you the most peace of mind in your purchase, so this is something to look for also.
  • Capacity – We mentioned that most backpacking showers have a maximum capacity of 10 litres of water, but do check your particular product of choice before parting with money. This is because there are some shower products which have a smaller capacity, to enable those who are going on shorter trips to save space. If you want to go for the maximum 10 litre product, make sure that you check this detail before you buy.
  • Strength – How strong is the bag part of the backpacking shower? Most top quality products are made of polyurethane coated nylon, which is the standard go-to in this particular outdoor equipment. If you find a shower which is made of a different material, this should be researched first.
  • Reviews – Finally, check out reviews before parting with cash, to find out honest opinions.

To Sum it up

A backpacking shower is the ideal answer for those who want to remain odor-free during their backpacking wilderness travels. It’s not easy to stay sweet smelling when you can’t use regular deodorant products, but a shower you can hang from a tree and heat up the water using the sunlight is the perfect solution.

Remember to pitch your showering area away from streams and rivers, to avoid any contamination, and always use biodegradable soaps and shampoos/other products, to avoid any disruption to the water supply, and to keep your environmental karma points intact.

On top of this, remember to shop around and find the best deal for your cash, and always look at the capacity of the product, before you buy. Backpacking showers are lightweight and small, and they roll up into your backpack without taking up a lot of space at all.

For this reason, you could argue that this is the number one hygiene answer to your backpacking issues, and something which will keep you within your circle of friends, and not on the outskirts, with whispers about your personal hygiene!

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Russell McCarty

Russell considers backpacking one of his great passions in life. He actually managed to transform his passion into a living becoming a professional adventurer. Russell loves long-distance backpacking and he enriched his portfolio with famous trails like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition or the Appalachian Trail. With thousands of miles under his feet, Russell is the expert to consult when it comes to how to prepare for a successful outdoor adventure.