When my family first started discussing the possibility of a Grand Canyon rafting trip, one of my parents’ biggest questions was how, exactly, it would work to go so long without a shower. My folks are pretty outdoorsy: they’re avid cyclists, will bundle up and go for a hike in just about any weather, and have done plenty of weekend camping trips. And while “getting away from it all” is part of the appeal of a river trip, for them, the idea of going weeks at a time without access to running water was daunting.
It’s true that backcountry travel lacks access to the hot showers we’re used to at home, but that doesn’t have to mean hygiene goes by the wayside while you’re on the river. On the Grand Canyon trip my family took with OARS in 2019, our guides put my family at ease right off the bat with tips for keeping clean. By the end of that weeklong trip, they were practically pros (although both reminded me that they’d never enjoyed a shower as much as the ones at Phantom Ranch). These Leave No Trace-friendly tips have kept many a river traveler fresh for days or weeks at a time.
Table of Contents
How to Stay Clean on the River
1) Befriend the Body Wipe
While it’s sometimes possible to bathe in the river—more on that in a moment—it’s a fairly intensive process, so it’s not practical to do it every day. That’s where body wipes come in. I ration one per day to wash my face, armpits, and “swimsuit zone.” It’s amazing how refreshing a little cleanup in those areas can be, and body wipes are lightweight and easy to stash in a plastic baggie to pack out.
2) River Baths
Depending on the river you’re running, it’s sometimes appropriate to bathe in the river (always with biodegradable soap). It’s chilly—think of it like a cold, invigorating shower—but, on a sunny day, it’s worth the effort. In areas where the ecosystem is too fragile to handle bathing in the river, it’s often possible to haul buckets of water ashore or set up an easy-to-pack solar shower. Do some research on the local regulations and Leave No Trace guidelines before your trip so you can come prepared with the right bathing setup.
3) Frequent Hand-Washing
One of the most frequent causes of illness in the backcountry is gastrointestinal distress caused by poor handwashing habits. Fortunately, when you’re on the river, it’s simple to set up a handwashing station with two buckets and a foot pump, making it easy to wash your hands before preparing food or eating, after using the bathroom, and any other time you’d do so at home. For the in-between times, a travel-size container of hand sanitizer will do the trick.
4) Laundry, the Old-Fashioned Way
After a week on the river, no one smells detergent-fresh, but it’s possible to keep your wardrobe in reasonable olfactory condition. Again, depending on the local guidelines, it may or may not be possible to wash clothes in the river or on shore with biodegradable soap. Regardless, consider designating some clothes for daytime wear and others for sleeping. When you change, rather than leaving sweaty daytime outfits in a heap, air them out by hanging them on a length of paracord, or a travel clothesline.
5) Backcountry Bathroom
The groover is a subject of much discussion on any river trip: where to put it for maximum privacy (and, ideally, the best views), what (and what not) to put in it, and how to clean up afterward. Fortunately, a handwashing station is easy to set up in the groover zone, too. I won’t get too far into the weeds on the solid waste side of things, but let’s take a moment to talk about pee—namely, as river runners tend to put it, that dilution is the solution to pollution. In other words, peeing directly into the river is the way to go. Depending on the situation, this can mean submerging one’s lower half into the river; in that case, pull aside your swimsuit rather than peeing through it in order to keep it cleaner for the duration of the trip. Or, some women may find that a female urination device is useful on the river.
6) Special Considerations
Luck tends to favor the prepared. If you’re someone who menstruates, bring along sanitary supplies even if you’re not expecting to need them—backcountry travel has a way of causing our bodies’ natural rhythms to improvise. Because everything on a river trip needs to be packed out, consider how you’ll store used sanitary products; I use a plastic bag lined with tin foil for aesthetic purposes. If you’re prone to urinary tract infections, a supply of cranberry concentrate pills can head off symptoms before they become too uncomfortable.
Now that my parents have a week in the Grand Canyon, plus another on the Main Salmon, under their belts, I’m convinced they’re up for just about anything—which means it’s time to start planning a trip down the Colorado all the way from Lees Ferry to Pearce Ferry. After all, if you can stay clean for 8 days, 18 should be no problem, especially in a setting as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon.
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Photos: Josh Miller, Cindi Stephan