Biodegradable Soap: The Responsible Way To Stay Clean Outside

Staying clean in the great outdoors is tough. Doing so in a conscientious manner is tougher still. But never fear! With the best biodegradable soap along for the ride, your camping trips will be clean, conscientious, and sweeter-smelling than ever before.

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Environmentally Friendly Soap for Campers

Looking to learn more about the best soap for camping?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • How to stay clean while camping?
    • What makes soap biodegradable?
    • Why you shouldn’t use traditional suds in the great outdoors
    • How to dispose of eco-friendly soap responsibly
    • Our top 3 recommendations for the best biodegradable soaps

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.

Do

  • Use biodegradable soap for all camping/hiking/backpacking needs
  • Dispose of it properly, away from lakes, rivers, and streams
  • Use soap sparingly (even the bio kind)
  • 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
  • Bring traditional soaps into the backcountry
  • Use more than needed

What Are Bio Soaps?

Biodegradable soap for camping 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, biodegradable 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.

Camping pots filled with soapy water
The ingredients in biodegradable soaps break down on exposure to bacteria in the soil.

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 biodegradable 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.

Soap suds soaking inside a camping frying pan
Having soap to clean yourself and your cooking gear does make camp life a lot simpler!

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 of biodegradable soaps can, actually, last longer than a larger version of the traditional variety.

Small bottle of concentrated Campsuds
A bonus of being in concentrated form is you only need to bring a very small bottle. (Photo by Tony Webster / CC BY 2.0)

Healthier Ingredients

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. 

Cleaning a cup directly in a river
Never use any type of soap suds directly in a water source such as a river or lake.

Using biodegradable 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Biodegradable Soap For Outdoors Lovers

Dr. Bronners

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!

Campsuds

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 biodegradable soap 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.

Wilderness Wash

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 soap and shampoo also come in a very packable 3 fl. oz. bottle, making it ideal for long-distance backpacking. 

Final Thoughts

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 biodegradable soap out in the wild we can stick to the LNT principles and preserve the great outdoors for everyone that follows us!

If you liked this post, give us a shout in the comments box below. And please feel free to share it with your friends!

Last update on 2022-06-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

In addition to his role as an outdoor adventure guide, Chris Olson seeks to share his passion for, and experience in, the great outdoors through writing and photography. He has backpacked, hiked, climbed, kayaked, biked, and skied throughout much of the eastern United States, as well as iconic locations such as Zion National Park, Newfoundland, and Puerto Rico.

His passion for fresh air, and beautiful places, reminds us all of the simple joys to be had from spending time outside!

3 thoughts on “Biodegradable Soap: The Responsible Way To Stay Clean Outside”

  1. I agree with everything in this article. I don’t use sunscreen or bug repellant for the purpose of not getting it in water when I take a dip in the lake. Just wear long sleeves and pants. These are all great soaps, another great soap is Summit Suds. It’s a powdered soap. You can get it at pikaoutdoors.com

    Reply
  2. I would love your recommendation for the least toxic bar soap on the market, safe for people, the environment, and grey water systems. I am focused on having a zero-plastic home. Anything other than Dr. Bonners? Or is that brand simply the best? (I’m aware that zero soap is the best way to do no harm)

    Reply
  3. BG, I’d recommend to you to find a local Handcrafted soap seller for bars ( and possibly liquid) these can be some of the best options for body and earth. I myself make soaps and my Ingredients are usually all plant based and biodegradable. That includes liquid and bar castille soaps, Bastille soaps , and other plant based and some animal based (beeswax, honey, etc.) I personally don’t use fats that the animal has had to die for such as tallow and lard, however many do. These are also biodegradable and not bad for your body, it’s just a personal preference of mine. Read ingredients though! Some soap makers use artificial fragrances and colorants such as micas (which are not as natural as they are claimed to be) if there’s anything more than essential oils for fragrance and herbs and herbal powders for colorant you may not want it for the LNT purpose. Hope that’s helpful! I’m sure you can find a few soap makers at your local farmers markets or craftshows/festivals with vendors!

    Reply

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