Dirt. Grass. Mud. Sweat. Pollen. Sticky foods. Body substances. Insect repellents. Sunscreens. Do we need to continue?
Venturing outside can be a messy endeavor.
Bringing soap into the backcountry, particularly for multi-day backpacking trips, is a great way to keep yourself refreshed, sleeping well, and ultimately feeling like a human in wild environments.
That being said, it is important to understand the environmental impacts that using soap outdoors will entail. Choosing the right camp soap is an important part of that understanding, as is developing proper backcountry hygiene practices.
Doing your part to Leave No Trace and minimize impact will increase the likelihood that beautiful places will remain for many generations to enjoy.Keep reading to discover, exactly, what is biodegradable soap, why you should be using them, both outside and at home, as well as specific instructions for disposing of them properly while hiking or backpacking.
- Use soap sparingly (even the bio kind)
- Most eco-friendly soaps are multi-purpose (they’re good for laundry, dishes, personal hygiene, and more)
- Familiarize yourself with alternate cleaning techniques which can limit the use of soaps
- Don’t use soaps, even bio kinds, anywhere near wild water sources
Table of Contents
- Key Takeaways
- What Are Bio Soaps?
- Why You Should Use Biodegradable Body Wash, Soaps, & Shampoos
- How To Dispose Of Camping Soap Responsibly
- Top Eco-Friendly Soaps For Outdoors Lovers
- Final Thoughts
What Are Bio Soaps?
Biodegradable camping soap is, simply, one that can be broken down or decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Contrary to many popular hand or dish soaps found in homes and businesses throughout the country, bio soap is efficiently decomposed (eliminated or reduced to negligible amounts) by organic soil.
Biodegradable Soaps Compared To Traditional Soaps
Traditional suds, like those, probably, sitting at your kitchen sink right now or found within public restrooms, often contain synthetic (man-made) chemicals.
Many of these harmful chemical preservatives, such as parabens, phthalates, and petrochemicals, along with artificial colors and scents, do not break down quickly.
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If they are disposed of in nature, traces of their chemical makeup can still exist many years later. The negative impact potential on local flora and fauna is considerable, and that is why traditional suds should never be used while camping.
Most biodegradable washes, however, are produced with natural, organic ingredients that break down efficiently when exposed to the bacteria found in soiled environments. These concentrated solutions can, also, provide suitable cleaning power with drastically less product.
Why You Should Use Biodegradable Body Wash, Soaps, & Shampoos
Before looking closer at the benefits of using bio washes over traditional bar soaps or soap sheets, we should address the reality that any soap used outdoors will cause an impact. The highest quality, all-natural, organic, bio washes still can negatively affect the environment, especially for aquatic species.
If you are, truly, adamant about leaving no impact, you will, likely, learn to hike and camp without the use of soap. This is not to say that using bio soaps is considered unethical or unacceptable. We’re just acknowledging the fact that all washes, even bio kinds, will cause more impact than none at all.
Most, ourselves included, will still justify bringing suds into the backcountry for the sake of general hygiene, health, and to aid in the prevention of communicable diseases commonly transferred through camp cookware. Following strict guidelines for its use and disposal helps us remain responsible and aligned with Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.
While minimizing environmental impacts and adhering to LNT practices are the most obvious reasons why you should be using a biodegradable soap when cleaning up outside, there are numerous other benefits that you may not be aware of yet.
Benefits Of Using Bio Backpacking Soap
Lesser Environmental Impact
The very nature of a biodegradable substance means that it will become virtually undetectable over time (when disposed of properly). Unlike other harmful chemicals or plastics, bio washes pose very little threat to existing ground vegetation or surrounding plant life.
Additionally, they pose less risk to aquatic species. Although exposing your suds to waterways should be avoided at all costs, it’s nice to have a little extra assurance if we fail with this responsibility.
Extended Use Out of a Single Bottle
Biodegradable washes are concentrated and designed to be mixed with water. This means that you can, typically, use only 1-2 drops of soap per cleaning application. One small bottle can, actually, last longer than a larger version of the traditional variety.
If you already pay close attention to the ingredients that make up what you eat and drink, why not extend this monitoring to the cleansers and lotions that you place on your skin? Chemical-laden suds can contain known carcinogens and skin irritants.
I don’t know about you but natural ingredients that I can pronounce, like olive oil, coconut oil, or jojoba oil, commonly found in hiking soaps, give me extra confidence to know that I am not risking my health with a product.
How To Clean If You Decide Not To Use Soaps
If you decide to go soapless when handling your hygiene needs in the backcountry, consider some of the following strategies:
- Go for a swim! As long as you’re not heavily covered with bug sprays or sunscreens, taking a dip in a fresh body of water is one of the best ways to stay refreshed and clean sans suds and scrubbing.
- Sand, dirt, or pine needles can provide the abrasive qualities to aid in cleaning dishes. Simply rinse with fresh water when you have removed the heavy soot or food debris.
- Protect yourself from sun exposure and bugs with clothing and/or netting, as opposed to lotions and sprays. Permethrin-treated or UV-protected clothing helps limit the amount of bug spray or sunscreen you need to clean from your skin each night, further reducing your need for suds on the trail.
How To Dispose Of Camping Soap Responsibly
There is a common misconception among many hikers, backpackers, and campers that biodegradable suds don’t pollute the environment. As a result, these folks pay little attention to how much they are using, where they are using it, or how they, ultimately, dispose of it.
Using any soaps near or within any water source is a serious violation of LNT practices. It carries numerous environmental and marine wildlife impacts that cannot be reversed. Please, do not shower, wash your face, or do your dishes with soaps in any river, lake, or stream.
Here’s what to do instead:
- Carry the necessary water for your cleaning tasks, via a bottle, hydration reservoir, or collapsible bucket, to a site that is at least 200 feet away from all sources of fresh water.
- Use your suds sparingly – 1 to 4 drops is more than sufficient in most cases. Bio washes are highly concentrated so that you can limit what you need to use outside. Follow the instructions for mixing with water, which is typically found on the bottle.
- For best practice in disposing of outdoor soap, consider digging a cathole into which you can pour your ‘grey water’. This surrounds the soap with the organic soil compounds that aid in efficient decomposition. It, also, helps to prevent potential surface runoff during rain events.
- It is, alternatively, acceptable to disperse small amounts of grey water in a wide arc (imagine slinging the water out of your pot, as opposed to pouring it). This method prevents the concentrated pouring of the entire solution in one spot and saves you from having to dig a cathole.
Top Eco-Friendly Soaps For Outdoors Lovers
This is, perhaps, the most well-known liquid soap amongst outdoor travelers and eco-conscious consumers. But is Dr Bronner’s soap biodegradable? It sure is! Dr. Bronners has amassed a cult-like following with products that feature organic and certified fair-trade ingredients like peppermint oil, helianthus, and coconut oil.
Their famous 18-in-1 philosophy, found on each bottle’s label, is a testament to the versatility of their soaps. Not only is Dr. Bronners an ethical choice, but it also doubles up as detergent, shaving cream, dish soap, hand wash, hand sanitizer, body wash, and, believe it or not, an insect repellent.
Dr Bronner comes in a variety of versions, too. These include pure-Castile liquid soap, baby unscented, tea tree, lavender, and pretty much everything else except a standard bar soap!
Manufactured by Sierra Dawn Products, CampSuds has been the pioneer for concentrated, multi-use, biodegradable washes since 1968. As such, today it is one of the most trusted brands out there. You can find these iconic green bottles in most outdoor supply stores and they are, typically, the most affordable option.
CampSuds also uses ingredients derived from vegetables and plants and contains no palm oil or potassium hydroxide.
Sea-To-Summit’s Wilderness Wash is another popular option for backcountry-ready, biodegradable camp soap. Like the others, it is concentrated so that only 1 or 2 drops are necessary for diluting into water.
The citronella version, also, features essential oils and fragrance oils that help deter bugs. This biodegradable shampoo and soap also comes in a very packable 3 fl. oz. bottle, making it ideal for long-distance backpacking.
Most of us like to keep up a certain level of hygiene, even when we set up camp in the back of beyond. Eco-friendly soap allows us to do just that. By following a few simple rules for using this type of soap out in the wild we can stick to the LNT principles and preserve the great outdoors for everyone that follows us!
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