Somebody asked about this in the comments section of a recent post. Let me start by saying that I am not a doctor or a gynecologist or a medic. Do not take what I say as legitimate medical advice and is just my observations and experiences of what has and has not worked well. As always consult your personal panel consisting of the family doctor, your lawyer, accountant, life coach, therapist and any applicable specialists (in this case a doc with a background in wilderness medicine seems appropriate) before doing anything. If you think that the cost of such a panel would be ruinous than act like an adult, do your own research and take some personal responsibility before acting.
Let me define the scope of this post. I am going to talk about keeping healthy, clean and functional with limited access to modern facilities or hygiene supplies for periods of time between 24 hours and a month. Again don’t take this as the gospel; remember it is just one guys opinion.
To start I must say Americans have a fairly OCD approach to personal hygiene based heavily around almost limitless supplies of hot water and clean clothes. Also half the need for a shower is to wash off all the junk we cover ourselves with. Believe it or not people survived just fine for centuries without a hot shower (or 2) and clean clothes every day. In many parts of the world they still manage to survive without these luxuries which show that people have not biologically changed in recent years so it is in fact possible.
Let us go from head to toe and short periods to long periods.
Hair-For relatively short periods the easiest solution is to do nothing. Don’t put gel, hairspray or any other junk in it. Worst case it gets a bit greasy or something. Over longer periods (say beyond a week) I recommend men cut their hair very short and women cut it relatively short. Washing weekly is sufficient if you are short on water. Get it wet, shampoo, rinse.
Teeth-This one is the easiest as there is no change. Brush and floss your teeth regularly. If you are going to be out for a long time bring an extra roll of floss.
Shaving- I recommend not doing it unless you have good amounts of hot water. Men embrace your inner mountain man. Ladies, why you would try to shave anything in primitive conditions is completely beyond me.
The Army does this stupid thing where it expects soldiers to be clean shaven in the middle of nowhere in a dry camp. If I am ever in charge I will (at a minimum) institute a rule that if hot water is not made available to soldiers daily then shaving is not required. In any case if hot water is available shave as normal, a small mirror helps. Of hot water is not available I recommend electric razors (not rechargeable, the kind that take AAA or AA batteries) as the option is scraping half your face off dry shaving or using a little bit of cold water. I have a 20 dollar electric that has kept me in compliance to our stupid rule for years of field time.
Skin- If possible I like to clean my body daily even when a shower is not practical. As an added bonus doing this daily before bed helps keep your sleeping bag clean. This is especially important if you are in a hot/ humid environment or doing strenuous tasks. I am a big fan of baby wipes. You don’t need to use many of them and unless I am particularly funky 2 wipes works for my whole body. Order of precedence is face, upper torso, legs, armpits, crotch, butt. I should not have to explain to you why this is important. Baby wipes are super easy and cheap so you should get a lot of them.
If you are going to be out for awhile and or have access to at least some warm water then a washcloth and soap can be used to get the same effect. Use the same order of precedence and don’t let the washcloth get funky. I recommend letting it hang to dry and washing it often. This is pretty much how people bathed for a long time so it works fine to keep you clean over the long run.
That brings us to the subject of soap. The fellow who asked about this topic in a comment mentioned unscented soap. There is a theory/ historic anecdote that goes like this, GI’s in ‘Nam would use unscented soap so the Vietcong couldn’t smell them in the jungle. The same idea pops up every now and again in our Army culture. However in the contemporary operating environment in Iraq and Afghanistan it is completely irrelevant for almost everybody. The reason is that everybody pretty much knows who we are. We are the Americans in the crazy uniforms with all the armor and the huge tan trucks. In Iraq the centers of gravity are the cities and you just can’t hide during a patrol. They don’t have to smell you as they can see you 6 blocks away because an MRAP is about 12 feet tall. In Afghanistan we do some more patrolling but there is almost always a mounted component due to long distances involved and sparsely distributed soldiers. Also the terrain is so open that you can see people from hundreds of meters off. So I would say to use whatever kind of soap you like.
The crotch- I am going to talk about this area specifically because the crotch and inner thighs are where people tend to chafe, if they chafe. Typically chafing is an issue most often when you do a lot of walking in a hot and humid environment. You can get wicked friction burns and it is no fun at all, especially when you have to keep moving with them. Stay dry if at all possible. Some of the worst chafing I can remember was during a long road march in the spring at Benning when there was a thunderstorm. I would have been fine except my pants were completely soaked. At that point not a lot can be done.
Underwear is a factor as they cause friction. Tighty whities are probably the worst as they are right in that crotch/ inner thigh area where chafing is rife. Boxer briefs (like the spandex kind not the whitey tightey’s with legs kind) are better. The best option IMO is wearing no underwear. It decreases chafing due to less material in the area and letting things breathe better. From the time I have spent in the field with women I have never heard one gripe about chaffing. I think that smaller legs, wider hips and different anatomy make it a non issue. (As for women and underwear in the field I am about clueless. I would guess that stringy little underwear is not the way to go but other than that can’t help you. Also as to specific to female field hygiene issues I know they exist but I just don’t know anything about that)
To prevent or manage chafing you can use some gold bond powder (a darn good thing to have) to keep things dry down there. Also I’ve heard of runners using Vaseline at friction points like thighs and nipples (that wasn’t meant to sound dirty but does).
Feet- If you ignore everything else take care of your feet. Keep them in good shape or you are useless. Some folks like foot powder but I am not one of them. I find that it cakes onto your socks and decreases their ability to breathe while simultaneously shortening the amount of time you can wear them for. Keep toe nails reasonably short. Wearing good socks that are (as much as possible) dry is the best thing you can do for your feet. Also take off your socks and let your feet air out at night.
Carry plenty of spare socks, they are about the only piece of clothing you really need to change semi regularly (every couple days or so, depending). Also (though of course you should do this with everything) be sure to put your socks into plastic bags to keep them dry.
Boots- This is not a place to pinch pennies. Buy quality boots that suit your purpose from a good reputable manufacturer. Break them in by wearing them as you do everyday tasks and then for progressively longer walks and then hikes. Hardening your feet is done in the same manner. Start with short marches and then get progressively longer with heavier loads. This will also harden your legs and heart. Foot care and footwear could be a whole different post as it covers so much and is so important.
Clothes- Keep as clean as is practical. Keep some clean (a relative word) dry clothes to wear in the evening for down time and sleep. This will also let your day’s clothes air out overnight (if possible) and dry. Do the same thing with your socks. If possible wash them when you can.
Sleep wear- If your operational situation allows letting your body breathe at night is good. I typically will sleep in shorts unless it is real cold.
Sleeping bags- Get a liner as it is far more practical to was it than the whole bag in the field.
In conclusion with a little bit of planning you can stay quite healthy in the field for a prolonged period of time. Using the techniques outlines above I have been just fine for upwards of a month in the woods on multiple occasions. Mostly it just requires getting used to not having modern conveniences.
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