Camp Hygiene
Credit: Kevin Callan

What a horrible discovery.

A client I had been guiding had wiped his hands with my dishtowel after pooping in the woods. When I asked him how long he had been doing that, he informed me it had been his routine throughout the entire weeklong trip. How disgusting! The worst part, he had no clue that he wasn’t following proper camp kitchen etiquette.

I think most people know you should wash your hands after pooping, especially if you’re going to handle any food or kitchen items. However, some people just don’t do it while camping. They have some strange notion that being unhygienic is a part of the “real” camping experience. Not true! One of the most common ways for sickness to plague a group, and ruin a trip, is for someone to enter the camp kitchen without washing up first.

The trick to safe food handling is to make it hassle-free to wash up (or to guilt everyone into making sure they wash up). The best overall method for hassle-free washing is to have two cleaning kits: one stored with the kitchen gear and the other in the toiletry bag.

The kit in the kitchen gear is a no-brainer. The cook will see the hand soap and/or alcohol hand sanitizer among the pots and pans and most likely make use of it before preparing a meal. If they don’t, other campers will surely notice and most likely make a comment.

The toiletry bag is the problem. Individual campers can say they’ve washed up, or even pretend to do so, but who is to say they actually did (yes, this happens more than you’d want to know). So the trick is to hang a communal toiletry bag in a tree, or somewhere just as obvious, the moment you set up camp. It should consist of the usual items, such as toilet paper, wet wipes, bug repellent, a flashlight and maybe some light reading material. Then attach a second bag with hand soap and/or alcohol hand sanitizer. The entire kit should also have a big red bandana or bright yellow ribbon tied to it. Give instructions to the group that when someone has to use the facilities (whether it’s an outhouse at the campground or a latrine in the interior), the toiletry bag(s) goes with them. This works twofold: it will allow some privacy to anyone who’s using the facilities — basically if the toiletry kit is gone then no one else is allowed to wander off to accidentally witness someone pooping in the woods. This gives a bit of indirect peer pressure from members of the group to make sure everyone uses the soap or hand sanitizer.

The most effective way to wash dishes is to fill a large cooking pot or lightweight collapsible basin with warm, soapy water (use biodegradable soap). Never do dishes directly in a lake or river. For a scrub brush, use a handful of pine needles, sand or leaves off the forest floor. It sounds crazy, but pine needles do a better job than wet sponges or scrub pads, which are breeding grounds for bacteria.

Once the dishes are done, take the grey water well away from the campsite and dispose of it in a small hole created by kicking up the first layer of topsoil with the heel of your boot. It will become part of the soil in a couple of weeks. Never get rid of the grey water in a lake or river. Biodegradable soap only biodegrades in soil, where bacteria and enzymes exist to begin the process. Food scraps or leftovers can be burned in a hot campfire or packed out in a separate sealable plastic bag or container.

One last process to do to make sure no one gets sick from bacteria on the trip is to place the dishes on top of a small ground tarp and pour boiled water over them. Then, let the dishes air-dry rather then use the same drying towel repeatedly, which is also a breeding ground for bacteria.

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