If you’re off on a short trip, chances are you won’t need to wash your clothes en route, but when I’ve been trekking for weeks, my belongings start smelling a little ripe. Once, I took a full bar of vanilla-scented Marseillais soap with me on an expedition, and while I’m sure that my perfumed aroma was the envy of all the other hikers, it wasn’t particularly practical. Thankfully, I’ve honed my washing technique since then.
Which items of clothing should you wash?
Think about how long something is going to take to dry. This will depend a lot on your environment. For example, if you’re hiking through a winter tundra, risking washing any of your gear could mean that you’re left trying to put ice cubes on your feet rather than freshly laundered socks. Even on the warmest, sunniest of trails, I wouldn’t recommend washing thick, outer layers. The two things that need a scrub pronto are socks and underwear. Quick-drying T-shirts are also easy to wash on the go.
Try to wash your socks every couple of days. It’s not only to avoid fumigating fellow hikers with feet that smell like old Camembert, wearing socks that have become waterlogged with sweat or boggy ground runs a higher risk of giving you blisters.
Where should I wash my clothes?
While the idea of scrubbing laundry against a rock in the river might seem quaint and romantic, it’s not the best way. First, you could be contaminating water sources for fellow hikers and the flora and fauna. Using biodegradable washing products will help minimize the risk of contamination. Second, washing clothes in the river runs the risk of having garments swept away by the current. Arriving back in town without your pants is thoroughly amusing for everyone else, but less so for you. I recommend washing your clothes in a bag. There are specific bags designed for washing clothes on the trail, or you can use a drybag. A sealable plastic bag will work if it’s all you have.
What else should I know?
Think about how easy your clothes will be to wash when you buy them. Moisture-wicking, quick-drying fabric is invaluable, not only for soaking up all the sweat you’re surely producing as you steam your way up mountains, but to help gear to dry speedily when you wash it too. Avoid cotton clothing, it retains moisture and is a nightmare to dry. Consider investing in a lightweight camp washing line. If you don’t have one, dry clothes by attaching them to the guy lines of your tent, or to the outside of your backpack. Many backpacks have daisy chain loops which are easy to attach items of clothing to, or you can use safety pins. You’ll look like a walking clothes horse, but that’s better than wearing wet clothes, right?
Here’s how to finish a thru-hike as fresh as a daisy.
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Although guy lines and loops on your backpack are better than nothing for drying clothes, the Sea to Summit Lite Line is so light and portable that it’s a worthy addition to your luggage. The length is adjustable up to 11.5 feet and no pegs are needed, laundry is attached using little beads integrated on the line. It comes with a storage pouch and weighs just 1.3 ounces.
While the Scrubba Portable Wash Bag wouldn’t make the kit list for a couple of days of camping, it’s incredibly useful for long-distance thru-hikers tackling multi-month trails like the Pacific Crest or Appalachian. The bobbled inner washboard lets you really scrub your clothes, achieving a much better clean than you’d get with a sealable bag. A twist valve expels any excess air, and the clear panel means you can even see how much of a lather you’re creating as you scrub.
I’ll often wax lyrical about Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap. Each flavor smells wonderful, and as with the wilderness wash, it can be used for dishes, laundry, and your body and hair. Made from organic hemp, olive, and coconut oil, it’s completely natural and even the packaging is recycled. Due to the oil content, it feels more moisturizing than most soaps if you’re using it on your body as well as your clothes.
If you stuff dirty laundry in a trash bag, it festers and smells. A better option is to store it in the Sea to Summit Travelling Light Laundry Bag, made from yarn that lets odors escape. The yarn is water-resistant and very strong, so it doesn’t snag easily even when caught in zip fasteners.
There is no smell on this earth quite so putrid as the stench of hiking boots that have got wet. Even if it’s just from your feet sweating, moisture and bacteria build up and produce a thoroughly unpleasant smell. The Gear Aid ReviveX Odor Eliminator can be made into a little solution to carry in a spray bottle, which can be applied directly to the inside of your boots, your tent, and even wetsuits. It uses water-activated microbes to quash the nasty smells caused by bacteria, mildew, and sweat.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to wash your clothes, The Laundress Activewear Freshener is an (albeit temporary) fix. It’s anti-bacterial, made with biodegradable ingredients, and smells wonderful. The bottle is a little big, so I’d recommend decanting it into a smaller spray bottle for trekking.
Granted, I wouldn’t recommend cleaning your waterproofs on the trail, but Nikwax Tech Wash is well worth a mention for keeping your gear fresh when you return home. It’s for use on waterproof jackets, trousers, and even sleeping bag shells, and can be added to a washing machine. As well as removing sweat and dirt, it revives the breathability and water repellent properties of clothing. To check whether your gear is still repelling water, trickle water on the fabric. If it beads up, it’s waterproof.