Keeping Clean in the Boundary Waters

What I love about paddling and camping in the Boundary Waters is the ability to keep somewhat clean. The lakes provide all of the water you need to bathe unlike some hiking trips that never pass by a good water source.  Does that mean you can lather up with biodegradable soap and jump in the lake to rinse off? Not at all.

Biodegradable soap is only biodegradable in soil and not in water.  Soaps are usually deemed biodegradable if bacteria can break them down to at least 90-percent water, CO2, and organic material within six months.   Soap still contaminates and contains chemicals that are not natural to the environment and it will take time for soil to break it down. A good rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t want to drink it then don’t put it in the water. Bug spray, sunscreen, lotion and soap should be washed off on shore a minimum of 200 feet from the water source.

How clean do you need to be when camping in the BWCA? I never bring shampoo or conditioner on my Boundary Waters trips and I use soap very sparingly. The exception to this rule is after using the latrine I use anti-bacterial hand soap. I try to use the least amount of bug spray and sunscreen so this means wearing clothes that cover my body to protect me from the sun and spraying bug spray on the clothing and not on my body.

Some people love to use wet wipes and while they are convenient they cause excess waste and need to be packed out of the wilderness.  Some people throw them into the latrine but I feel it’s putting too much extra paper into the latrine. I don’t think wet wipes biodegrade as quickly as single ply toilet paper, but I could be wrong.

If you care about being clean then bring along a washcloth, camp towel and/or bandanna. Scrubbing yourself with a wet washcloth can do wonders to get you clean. You can boil water to use and even put warm water into a camp shower if you want to feel like you’re really getting clean. Soap is really not needed in order to get clean especially if you use a hand sanitizer after using the toilet.

I don’t get uptight about keeping clean while in the Boundary Waters. There is dirt, mud, pine needles, sap and more just waiting to stick to you and it’s really not a big deal if it does. It’s more important to me the water in the wilderness stays clean, I can clean up when I get back to civilization.

A few helpful things to remember…

  • Only use biodegradable soap when absolutely necessary and a minimum of 200 feet from the water
  • Keep all soaps, lotions, sunscreens & bug spray 200 feet from the water
  • Just like rinsing off before jumping into a pool, rinse your body off 200 feet from the water prior to getting into the lake. This will remove soaps, lotions, sunscreen & bug spray.
  • Use a washcloth to scrub dirt off of you.
  • Embrace the dirt, it won’t hurt you.

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