Q&A;: Wilderness Body Cleaning


Q. In the Emigrant Wilderness (next to Yosemite) you cannot use ordinary soaps or shampoos to wash up with in or near the waterways. Not like you'd want to, because even in the summer the water is frigid, having been snow about 15 minutes before. Sometimes though, it's nice to wash up, and the water will definitely wake you up (and cause a serious brain freeze when you dunk your head in it). My question: are there any body cleaning products that are 1) lake and stream friendly, and 2) able to work in such amazingly cold water? Thanks, Chris.
A. Thanks for asking, Chris -- good question. First, let us offer this little disclaimer. Though some soaps are better than others for this kind of thing, we can't recommend anything to actually use in the fragile waterways of places like the Emigrant Wilderness. It's best to practice proper "Leave No Trace" techniques: Wash at least 200 yards from any water source, drip soapy water onto durable surfaces like rock or gravel, and dispose of the graywater far from springs and streams. Okay, now on to the soaps.When it comes to backcountry cleaning, it's important to look for soaps and cleaners that are biocompatible, not just biodegradable. "Biodegradable" soaps simply break down into their separate ingredients, which is not good when those ingredients are toxic or harmful chemicals and compounds. "Biocompatible" soaps also break down, but, generally speaking, do so into graywater that isn't harmful and can be used for things like watering plants -- you probably still won't want to drink it. Not a whole lot of things are marketed as "biocompatible," but it's easy enough to read the ingredient list, and if you find anything with nasty chemicals like ammonia or chlorine, stay away.

Dr. Bronner makes an extensive variety of soaps good for (limited) backcountry use, in both liquid and bar form, and we like these because they're so versatile. Backpacker.com recommends Vermont Soapworks Camping Soap, though we've never tried them. You may also consider No Rinse shampoos and body washes, which require little or no water to use. The shampoo just goes right in and stays there, requiring no water for rinsing, and the body wash needs a little bit of water to get it going, but can be toweled off without rinsing. All of these products also claim to work excellently in chilly water.

We hope this helps whet your appetite for keeping yourself and the wilderness equally clean, Chris. Thanks again for asking and have fun out there!