BIODEGRADABLE SOAP: THE RESPONSIBLE WAY TO STAY CLEAN OUTDOORS

BIODEGRADABLE SOAP: THE RESPONSIBLE WAY TO STAY CLEAN OUTDOORS

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QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

Dirt. Grass. Mud. Sweat. Pollen. Sticky foods. Body substances. Insect repellents. Sunscreens. Do we need to continue?

Venturing outside can be a messy endeavor.

Bringing soap into the backcountry, particularly for multi-day backpacking trips, is a great way to keep yourself refreshed, sleeping well, and ultimately feeling like a human within wild environments.

That being said, it is important to understand the environmental impacts that using soap outdoors will entail. Choosing the right biodegradable soap is an important part of that understanding, as is developing proper backcountry hygiene practices. Doing your part to leave no trace and minimize impact will increase the likelihood that beautiful places will remain for many generations to enjoy.

Keep reading to discover, exactly, what makes a soap biodegradable, why you should be using one, both outside and at home, as well as specific instructions for disposing of it properly while hiking or backpacking.

Looking to Learn More About Biodegradable Soap?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

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    What is Biodegradable Soap?
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    Why you shouldn't use traditional soap in the great outdoors?
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    How to dispose of biodegradable soap responsibly.
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    Our top 3 recommendations for biodegradable soap.

Do

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    Use biodegradable soap for all camping/hiking/backpacking needs
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    Dispose of it properly, away from lakes, rivers, and streams
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    Familiarize yourself with alternate cleaning techniques which can limit your soap use
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    Always use soap in group camping situations

Don't

  • Use soap, even biodegradable, anywhere near a freshwater source
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    Bring traditional soaps into the backcountry
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    Use more than what is needed

What is Biodegradable Soap?

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A biodegradable soap is, simply, one that can be broken down or decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Contrary to many popular hand or dish soaps found in homes and businesses throughout the country, biodegradable soaps are efficiently decomposed (eliminated or reduced to negligible amounts) by organic soil.

A young traveler man kneels by the falls and washed his face. Start of the day in the camping, morning water procedures of the tourist

Biodegradable soap compared to traditional soaps

Traditional soaps, like those, probably, sitting at your kitchen sink right now or found within public restrooms, often contain synthetic (man-made) chemicals. Many of these harmful chemical preservatives, such as parabens, phthalates, petrochemicals, along with artificial colors and scents, do not break down quickly.

This means that if they are disposed of in nature, traces of their chemical makeup can still exist many years later. The negative impact potential on local flora and fauna is considerable, and that is why traditional soaps should never be used while camping.  

Most biodegradable soaps, however, are produced with natural, organic ingredients that break down efficiently when exposed to the bacteria found in soiled environments. These concentrated solutions can, also, provide suitable cleaning power with drastically less soap.

Why You Should Use Biodegradable Soap

Before looking closer at the benefits of using a biodegradable soap over a traditional version, we should address the reality than any soap used outdoors will cause an impact. The highest quality, all-natural, organic, biodegradable soap still has the ability to affect the environment in a negative way, especially for aquatic species.

river

If you are, truly, adamant about leaving no impact, you will, likely, learn to hike and camp without the use of soap. This is not to say that using a biodegradable soap is considered unethical or unacceptable. We’re just acknowledging the fact that any soap, even biodegradable, will cause more impact than none at all.

Most, ourselves included, will still justify bringing soap into the backcountry for the sake of general hygiene, health, and to aid in the prevention of communicable diseases commonly transferred through camp cookware. Following strict guidelines for its use and disposal helps us remain responsible and aligned with LNT principles.

While minimizing environmental impacts and adhering to LNT practices are the most obvious reasons for why you should be using a biodegradable soap when cleaning up outside, there are numerous other benefits that you may not be aware of yet.

Benefits of using biodegradable soap

Fewer environmental impacts

The very nature of a biodegradable substance means that it will become, virtually, undetectable over time (when disposed of properly). Unlike other harmful chemicals or plastics, biodegradable soaps pose very little threat to existing ground vegetation or surrounding plant life.

Additionally, they pose less risk to aquatic species. Although soap exposure to waterways should be avoided at all costs, it’s nice to have a little extra assurance in the event that we fail with this responsibility.

Small forest river

Extended use out of a single bottle

Biodegradable soaps are concentrated and designed to be mixed with water. This means that you can, typically, use only 1-2 drops of soap per cleaning application. One small bottle of biodegradable soap can, actually, last longer than a larger version of the traditional variety.

Healthier ingredients

If you already pay close attention to the ingredients that make up what you eat and drink, why not extend this monitoring to the soaps and lotions that you place on your skin? Chemical laden soaps can contain known carcinogens and skin irritants

I don’t know about you but natural ingredients that I can pronounce, like olive oil, coconut oil, or jojoba oil, commonly found in biodegradable soaps, give me extra confidence to know that I am not risking my health with a product.

How to clean if you decide not to use soap

Camping hiker man on trek washing clothes in river

If you make the decision to go soapless when handling your hygiene needs in the backcountry, consider some of the following strategies:

  • Go for a swim! As long as you’re not heavily covered with bug sprays or sunscreens, taking a dip in a fresh body of water is one of the best ways to stay refreshed and clean sans soap.
  • Sand, dirt, or pine needles can provide the abrasive qualities, often desired of soap, to aid in cleaning dishes. Simply rinse with fresh water when you have removed the heavy soot or food debris.
  • Protect yourself from sun exposure and bugs with clothing and/or netting, as opposed to lotions and sprays. Permethrin-treated or UV-protected clothing helps limit the amount of bug spray or sunscreen you need to clean from your skin each night, further reducing your need for soap on the trail.

How to Dispose of Biodegradable Soap Responsibly

There is a common misconception among many hikers, backpackers, and campers that biodegradable soap doesn’t pollute the environment. As a result, these folks pay little attention to how much they are using, where they are using it, or how they, ultimately, dispose of it. 

Landscape with forest, river and stones

Using a biodegradable soap near or within any water source is a serious violation of LNT practices. It carries numerous environmental and marine wildlife impacts that cannot be reversed. Please, do not shower, wash your face, or do your dishes with soap in any river, lake, or stream.

Here’s what to do instead:

  1. Carry the necessary water for your cleaning tasks, via a bottle, hydration reservoir, or collapsible bucket, to a site that is at least 200 ft. away from all sources of freshwater.

  1. Use soap sparingly - 1 to 4 drops is more than sufficient in most cases. Biodegradable soaps are highly concentrated so that you can limit what you need to use outside. Follow the instructions for mixing with water, which are typically found on the bottle.

  1. For best practice in disposing of biodegradable soap, consider digging a cathole into which you can pour your ‘grey water’. This surrounds the soap with the organic soil compounds that aid in efficient decomposition. It, also, helps to prevent potential surface runoff during rain events.

  1. It is, alternatively, acceptable to disperse small amounts of grey water in a wide arc (imagine slinging the water out of your pot, as opposed to pouring it). This method prevents the concentrated pouring of the entire solution in one spot and saves you from having to dig a cathole.

Top Biodegradable Soaps for Outdoors Lovers

Dr. Bronners

dr bronners

This is, perhaps, the most well known biodegradable soap amongst outdoor travelers and eco-conscious consumers. Dr. Bronners has amassed a cult-like following with products that feature organic and certified fair-trade ingredients. Their famous 18-in-1 philosophy, found on each bottle’s label, is a testament to the versatility of their soaps.

Campsuds

Campsuds

Manufactured by Sierra Dawn Products, CampSuds has been the pioneer for concentrated, multi-use, biodegradable soap since 1968. You can find these iconic green bottles in most outdoor supply stores and they are, typically, the most affordable option.

Wilderness Wash

sea to summit wilderness wash

Sea-To-Summit’s Wilderness Wash is another popular option for backcountry-ready, biodegradable soap. Like the others, it is concentrated so that only 1 or 2 drops are necessary for diluting into water. The citronella version, also, features essential oils that help deter bugs.

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About the Author Chris Olson

In addition to his role as an outdoor adventure guide, Chris Olson seeks to share his passion for, and experience in, the great outdoors through writing and photography. He has backpacked, hiked, climbed, kayaked, biked, and skied throughout much of the eastern United States, as well as iconic locations such as Zion National Park, Newfoundland, and Puerto Rico. His passion for fresh air, and beautiful places, reminds us all of the simple joys to be had from spending time outside!

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