Someone emailed me today from Norway, where the three-part TV program has just aired about my Antarctica trip in 2014. Their question was a simple one, but also one that few people actually ask, basically “How do you stay healthy when you don’t have a bath for 2 months!”.
Well first off I have to admit that in that 2 month period (about 52 days) I also wore the same clothes as well, including my underwear (maybe I changed it halfway through!). I had a shower before leaving South Africa and then one on my return. Was I smelly, well maybe, but not so bad that anyone who’d not been on the same trip, or those with a nose for adventure?
I’ve been on a lot of trips where the baths and showers bookended the trip, and although you can just ‘ming it’ and just be grubby, it tends not to be a good plan for your health or your effectiveness.
The importance of staying clean(ish)
The human body cleans out a lot of junk through your skin, the heavier the exercise and the harder the day the more junk your produce. Sweating has always been the most dangerous aspect of extreme performance (not staying warm) because it not only reduces the effectiveness of your clothing and increases evaporative and conductive heat loss, it also adds salt to skin and clothing (increasing drying time, with clothes never quite feels warm and dry after weeks of wearing the same layers). Salt and dirt on your skins biggest impact are it increases friction, namely between your legs (thighs and ass cheeks), armpits and where your body has pressure applied to it (shoulder straps, hips, chins). This can very quickly cause rubbing which can feel just about the most painful experience you can have in the outdoors and can be debilitating. To avoid this first off you need to reduce sweating to a minimum, meaning learning how to dress and dump heat etc, and second to keep your body clean and free of salty grubbiness.
If you’re anywhere where there’s running water (rivers or lakes) you can do the simple thing and just get washed in a stream or lake (nice at the end of the day). The one thing you should try and avoid is using soap or shampoo in natural water sources, filling a pan and washing away from the water if possible as you’re just adding alien crap (as well as your dirt) to the water. If you’re in sub-zero temps you can take a snow bath, which can be very effective. The best way to do this is to get the tent nice and warm (via sunlight or via your stove running), and just jump out and have a quick rub down. If you don’t want to do the whole job you can wash your you’re armpits and ‘bits’ after you’ve been to the toilet Arab style (remember to clean your hands with alcohol jell). It’s also a good idea to clean your feet with snow each night as well, as this will keep your socks cleaner and your feet more blister-free (dirty feet and socks increase the risk of blisters).
Having a wet wipe wash
Now you either love or hate wet wipes, but these offer the simplest way to clean your body, and with just a small cup of water one wet wipe can do pretty much anything, including your feet! Super small packets (with or without a smell… I avoid ones that make me smell like a baby) will do a medium length trip, and I usually start with my face and hands (important to keep hands clean on long trips, and a small alcohol jell should always be taken), then my body, then my feet, under my arms and then my ‘bits’ (using more than one wet wipe is a better option!). Wet wipes soon dry out if stuck in a pocket and these can be burnt when burning your trash.
A better method to really get a lot cleaner is to carry a small sponge or a hand towel (a sponge can be squeezed dry), and a small bar of soap (something like Sea to Summit Pocket Wilderness Wash or just a small bar of soap or even some washing up liquid in a small bottle). Use a pan or cup of water (bring a small plastic baby’s cup if you don’t want to use your cooking pan), and just dip on the sponge, wet your body and wash yourself. You only apply a small amount of water and usually, if you squeeze out the water from the sponge you can dry yourself with the sponge as well (a sock also makes a very effective towel… although it should be a clean one!).
The Wilderness Shower shower
The last option is a proper shower. The solar-powered showers you hang in a tree can actually be very effective (you can just use a water bag or an adapter), just leave it up there then have a shower (again stay away from water sources). This method’s not so good if you’re tent bound or in cold temperatures, so an expedition alternative is to use one of those garden sprays (small or medium-sized, the high-pressure ones acting like an actual shower), just fill with warm water and spray yourself down and wipe in the porch of the tent (again getting the tent nice and warm is a good idea). These small hand sprays are also great if you’re climbing in very hot weather (good for desert climbs). This of course is not something you’d use for a lightweight trip, but for a proper expedition, it’s handy.
Is it worth it?
Yes - you always feel a lot better after a good wash.
Lastly, the choice of base layers is also key to not stinking too much, and wool (I use Montane Primo underwear) is really the only way to go for long trips (especially briefs!). You can wash these base layers easily in a pan of hot water with some soap as well if need be (I once went on a long trip with someone who had the shits all the time, but only had one set of underwear so washing was the only option!). If all else fails you can do what Nassen did and wear your underwear for 50% of the trip, then turn it inside out for the second half : )