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How to stay clean (and healthy) in the wilderness – even if no water is available.

Dirt on hands

Hygiene is a typical routine for most people but cleanliness in the wilderness is sometimes ignored by even the most devout germaphobe. In a wilderness survival setting, we tend to focus on food and water and forget that poor hygiene can lead to infestations, infections, and skin disease. Even eating and drinking with dirty hands can cause a number of serious health issues. If water is lacking, the potential danger is much higher.

Methods for keeping your body clean in the wilderness (even if you have no access to water)

Extract saponin from plants

There are several things you can do to keep your body clean if no soap and water are available. The first and best option is to rely on plants. Saponin has been used for personal hygiene for thousands of years. It is a glycoside found in several plant species. It can be extracted by crushing the plant and using the mushy fiber to create a soapy lather that acts as a cleanser and disinfectant.

Yucca plant

Plants that are high in saponin include:

  • Yucca root
  • Soapwort root
  • Ginseng root
  • Soybeans
  • Peas
  • Asparagus
  • Horse chestnut
  • Oats
  • Sugar beet leaves
  • Quinoa
  • Chickpea
  • Saffron crocus
  • Licorice root
  • Ivy
  • Alfalfa
  • Sarsaparilla

Using smoke to clean the body

When water is not available, but fire is, smoke can be used to disinfect the body. Although it may not smell good, smoke has anti-bacterial properties that can help keep you safe from infections and disease.

Using dirt to keep your body clean

It sounds like an oxymoron but indeed, you can use dirt to keep your body clean. Fine dirt can be applied to the body, then scrubbed off. Dirt absorbs body oils which may act as breeding grounds for bacteria.

To clean your body with dirt, cover your body with fine dirt. Keep dirt applied for at least 15 minutes to allow it time to absorb body oils. Then scrape the dirt off with a knife blade. Mud can be worked into the hair and then allowed to dry. Once dry, break it up and work it out of the hair.

When it comes to hair, remember that it can always grow back. You may choose to cut off all hair to avoid having to keep it clean.

Keeping your teeth clean without a toothbrush and water

There are a variety of substances in the wilderness that may act as a replacement for toothpaste.

Saltwater rinse

Salt can be used to keep mouth bacteria in check. Add salt to water and swish the solution around in your mouth. Bacteria cannot survive well in saltwater.

Fire flames and ashWood ash

Mix wood ash with water to create a mushy substance that can be used in place of toothpaste. Like saltwater, the wood ash solution has anti-bacterial properties that can help keep the mouth clean and bacteria free.

Using feathered wood as a toothbrush

You can easily fashion a toothbrush replacement in the wilderness. Take a stick (willow wood works well) and chew on one end. The process of chewing will partially clean the teeth. Once chewed, use the softened end as a brush. Rub across the teeth (preferably with an ash or salt solution) to clean.

Keeping fingernails clean in the wilderness

Since the hands are used for eating and drinking, it is important to keep them clean. But since the hands are used for almost everything else, keeping them clean is a difficult endeavor. It may help to keep fingernails short so dirt and bacteria will not collect underneath them.

Trim fingernails with a knife. If a knife is not available, use a rough rock to file them down.

Replacements for other substances we use for personal hygiene


Betel plant leaves

Nature offers a variety of natural deodorant options. Betel leaves work best and have antibacterial and fungicidal properties. Boil the leaves in water and drink daily. You can also apply betel directly under your arms.

Other plants that may be used as a deodorant substitute include:

  • Basil
  • Beluntas leaves
  • Etlingera Eliator
  • Ginger
  • Lemon

Charcoal can be applied under the arms to absorb perspiration.

If baking soda is available, you can add a small amount of water to create a paste that can be rubbed under the arm as a deodorant.

Lotion and sunscreen

Almond trees make excellent lotion replacements. Cut the bark and leach the liquid that seeps out. It can be used as a lotion to soften tough skin. It also acts as a sunblock.

Insect repellent

You can crush onions and wild leaks and rub on your body to help ward off mosquitoes. Staying near smoke can also help deter mosquitoes.

Replacements for other bathroom/personal hygiene items

Cotton swabs

To create a replacement for cotton swabs, place a piece of cloth over a small stick (about the size of a pencil).


Certain leaves can be used for bandages. Plantain leaf is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory and is easy to find in wilderness settings. Chew the plantain leaf and place the mushy plant fiber over the injured area.

Toilet paper

A replacement for toilet paper is simple – grab a handful of grass or plant leaves. Alternatively, if near a river, smooth stones can be used and washed off in the water.

Clean plates

Cleaning your hands before eating is pointless if your eating utensils are dirty. Roasted orange peels make excellent surfaces for holding food. Carved wood can also be used. Harden the wood and disinfect using fire.


Soapwort plant with flowers

Many plants have medicinal properties but plants can also be used as preventative measures too. One often overlooked plant is elderberry which is believed to clean pathogens from the body. It may help prevent or shorten the length of colds too.

Ginger and boneset are also thought to be good for prevention of colds.

Bugout tips

Bugging out may offer the opportunity to preplan and take personal hygiene items with you in your bugout bag. There are also procedures you can follow to help maintain good hygiene. Here are a few bugout tips related to personal hygiene.

Rotate socks often

When socks become damp, they begin to foster bacteria. Rotate damp socks frequently. Allow them to dry before wearing.

Change into clean clothes before climbing into your sleeping bag

There is no point in dirtying up the place you spend several hours each night. Before climbing into your sleeping bag, remove dirty clothes and clean up your body as best you can.

Wear loose clothing

Loose clothing absorbs less body oil and dirt. Avoid synthetics too. Natural materials have inherent antiseptic properties and are preferred over synthetic materials.

Microfiber clothTake a microfiber cloth

A microfiber cloth is a fine-waved cloth used for drying cars, cleaning glasses, and getting oil off of phone screens. They fine weave of the cloth makes it less likely to harbor dangerous bacteria. They can be used for cleaning and as a bandage.

Avoid deodorant entirely

You may wish to avoid deodorant entirely, especially if it is scented. Scented deodorants attract predators such as bears and pests such as bugs and mosquitoes.

Take alcohol for keeping hands clean

Alcohol can be used to keep hands clean before you eat. It can also be used as an antiseptic for cuts and abrasions and as fuel for cooking. Its many uses make it a very practical supply to include in your bugout bag.

Take feminine pads for a variety of uses

Feminine pads can be used for more than just menstrual purposes. They can be used as bandages and other first aid needs.

Take a bandana

Bandanas are lightweight and easy to pack. You can probably easily carry several in your bugout bag without sacrificing room and increasing weight. They can be used as bandages, head bands, tourniquets, etc.

Take dental floss

Dental floss can be used to keep teeth clean when a toothbrush and toothpaste are not available. It can also double as thread for clothing, backpack, or tent repairs. It can be used for fishing line too. As with bandanas, its many practical uses make it an especially useful item to include in your bugout kit.

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