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Practice nontoxic cleaning methods while camping

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Backcountry hikers and seaside campers alike long for eco-friendly cleaning methods. What you don’t want to use are regular soaps, buckets of water, and indiscriminate dumping methods. Following the simple steps below will get everything spic 'n span without sullying Mother Nature.

How to practice nontoxic cleaning methods while camping

Whether you're looking to freshen up after a hard hike or get dinner dishes clean, follow these same, low-impact washing steps.

  • No bathers allowed: Steer clear of washing clothes, dirty dishes, or yourself in nearby fresh water. Bad washing habits, like full-immersion cleaning, are a sure-fire way to deposit unwanted soaps, cosmetics, body oils, and food debris where they can harm fish and disrupt the local ecosystem.
  • Collect and carry: Get some water—only as much as you need—from a local spring, river, or stream (a collapsible water container really helps here) and carry it to your kitchen/wash site which should be at least 200 feet, or approximately 70-80 adult steps, away from the water source. By keeping your water-use activities far from the local watering hole, you ensure that your liquids don’t contaminate the wild water with food waste and soaps, which prevents disease spread and protects animals. You can heat your water over a campfire at your campsite, but be sure to then transfer it back to your kitchen/wash site to avoid polluting the fresh water accidentally.
  • Use soap sparingly: Plan ahead by selecting a soap that’s totally phosphate-free and verifiably biodegradable (check labels closely). Castile soaps are always good choices as they’re plant-based (made from olive oil) and readily biodegradable. And whatever you’re scrubbin’ clean, be sure to use only as much soap as is necessary.
  • Go commando (no soap, that is): Or, if you’re really brave, go soap-free for a few days. Don’t think you can hack this? Well, be prepared—many wilderness areas now require soap-free stays because the ecosystems are so fragile. As long as you’re not a big sweat-er, you should be able to remain odorless with a touch of water and a little rubbin’.
  • A little cloth’ll do ya: When washing dishes, skin, or even hair, get out your dish- or washcloth and add a little elbow grease. This helps with scrubbing, and like sponge baths, will reduce total water use. Need even more scrubbing power? Try using sand or rocks to get stuck-on food bits free from your dishes. Tip: wash dishes immediately after your meal is over to avoid stuck-on food.
  • Strain and store: After washing dishes, sift the used water through a bandana, coffee filter, or other piece of cloth to catch all the food pieces, which you'll also pack with your garbage.
  • Sprinkle widely: Once your clean-up’s over, toss your water here and there, in small batches away from your campsite and on durable surfaces like rocks or gravel.

Find it! Collapsible water containers and eco-friendly soaps

You’ll find that having a collapsible water container makes for easier campsite cooking and washing. Since they take up relatively little space and reduce the number of trips needed to collect water, they also help reduce campsite erosion and trampling of vegetation. The soaps you’ll find here should all serve to keep your campsite free of phosphates and non-biodegradable ingredients.

Choosing a phosphate-free, biodegradable soaps when camping helps you go green because...

  • Biodegradable soaps break down more easily into base components, causing less harm to natural water systems.
  • Many eco-friendly soap brands are made using simple ingredients and earth-friendly processes by socially conscious companies.

Every year, over 270 million people visit national parks throughout the US[1] and America’s 25,000 campgrounds (commercial, public, and private combined),[2] are visited by over 45 million people every year.[3] As the most popular vacation activity in the US (more people camp than play basketball!), it’s no surprise that a full one-third of all US adults say they’ve been camping in the past five years.[4] With Americans spending $289 billion on outdoor gear and related activities (including campgrounds) every year,[5] campers’ collective eco-impacts are significant.

Many people enjoy the outdoors, yet the average number of rural acres lost to city expansion is about 1 million annually.[6] Popular outdoor areas are increasingly overcrowded with evidence of people, horses, tents, and campfires. One family practicing poor wash-up techniques may have little significance, but thousands of such instances seriously degrade the outdoor experience for all.[7]

Commercial soaps usually contain ingredients that are harmful to your body[8] and the environment.[9] Most soap, including soaps used by campers for personal and dish washing, contain phosphates.[10] Phosphates are nutrients to all living organisms, especially algae. When phosphates in products enter waterways they cause the algae population to grow, turning the water green, denying it oxygen, and causing the death of other aquatic plants and fish. And while there are biodegradable soaps, they only break down into their separate ingredients, which is not sufficient when those ingredients are composed of toxic or harmful chemicals and compounds. As a result, soap-free cleaning methods are recommended for camping excursions whenever possible.[11]

Castile soap is one of the oldest forms of soap in the world. During World War I, a shortage of natural oils resulted in the development of synthetic detergents as a substitute for soap-making.[12] The popularity of these "soap-less soaps" is now being questioned due to the lasting chemical compounds from their production and use, and their unexpected repercussions in the environment.

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