On the road or the trail, it can be tough to wash your hands regularly.
On the road or the trail, it can be tough to wash your hands regularly. (Photo: Austin Kehmeier)

A Dirtbag’s Guide to Sanitation During a Pandemic

The ins and outs of staying clean (and safe) at camp

On the road or the trail, it can be tough to wash your hands regularly.

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It’s the summer of the American road trip. COVID-19 has made flying risky and staying close to home a much more appealing getaway option. Though many people have canceled or postponed vacations, it’s still possible to get out—if you plan very, very carefully and follow CDC guidelines. We spoke with Dr. Sallie Permar, a professor of pediatrics, immunology, and microbiology at the Duke University School of Medicine, for advice on how even the crustiest dirtbags can stay clean on the go. In short, she said in an email, “Remember the three W’s: wear a mask, wash hands, wait (maintain a six-foot distance)—and enjoy the great outdoors.”

Cover Up and Stand Back

Masks have been shown to effectively reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. If you’re in a public place, you should be wearing a mask or face covering “whenever you are indoors or outdoors, well before [being within] six feet of individuals who are not in your immediate family,” Permar said.

That translates to masking up at tightly spaced campsites and when passing others on hiking trails, too. Although increased airflow outside means a lower chance of transmission, face coverings further reduce risk. Plus, it’s common courtesy, and in many states, going barefaced can result in a fine. 

Keep Your Hands Clean

Permar recommends washing or sanitizing your hands “any time you are changing activities or locations—after a car stop, after eating, after a bathroom trip, and after going into and out of a building.” On the road or the trail, it can be tough to wash your hands regularly. While nothing beats soap and water for both cleaning and sanitizing, Permar suggests using alcohol-based sanitizer (with 60 percent alcohol or more) to kill most bacteria and viruses, including COVID-19, if there isn’t visible dirt on your hands. Keep a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Organic Hand Sanitizer ($5) in your car for a quick application after pit stops. 

At camp, all you need to set up an effective handwashing station is clean running water and soap. While you’re scrubbing, Permar said, the most important thing to focus on is “getting soap everywhere, which takes 20 seconds to accomplish.” At dispersed sites, consider a water jug with a spigot, like Coleman’s 5 Gallon Water Carrier ($24), or have a member of your group pour water over your hands. Make sure your soap is biodegradable, like Sea to Summit’s Wilderness Wash ($5). Leave-no-trace principles advise using even eco-friendly cleansers at least 200 feet away from water sources—and never wash your hands or your dishes directly in the stream. Better yet, collect dirty water in a bin and pour it in a cathole when you’re done to avoid attracting wildlife.