Staying clean and fresh is not just a civil nicety. Far from it, hygiene is a mandate for good health in good times or bad, and a lack of hygiene will quickly result in debilitating illness, disease or other maladies which can sap morale or even lead to incapacitation. Considering how simple and effective even an austere grooming and bathing routine can be, this is unacceptable.
Don’t listen to the hardcore snake-eater types who would have you abandon all thought (and subsequent supplies) for grooming and hygiene; while they may proffer such advice with good intentions, they would actually be opening up a chink in your armor that would leave you vulnerable to just another preventable source of harm.
Besides the obvious health concerns, close confines, proximity and extended exposure to another person’s fragrant stench will fray already raw nerves, sow conflict and discord and generally make a bad situation worse. Conversely, the simple routine of washing and self-care, even if done minimally, adds much needed routine to trying days, reduces stress and prevents the spread of disease.
Now’s the time to reconsider your view on hygiene protocols for a SHTF event if you had scoffed at the idea, or improve your techniques if you are already aboard the personal cleanliness express.
When I am referring to hygiene and a personal care regimen throughout this article I am referring broadly to ongoing efforts to stay clean. Depending on the situation you find yourself in, e.g. bugging out, bugging in, limited/no water, etc. the regimen may happen more or less often, or the techniques may change slightly. That’s ok and I will make notes as appropriate in each section.
Understand that we are making a commitment to ongoing cleanliness as a practical concern, not just for nicety, though that is a secondary benefit. The skin or mouth conditions, even infections, which can result from a lack of care can wind up being show stoppers, meaning bad enough to incapacitate or even kill you if left unchecked. Considering there are few true SHTF crises that will allow you 24/7 access to a doctor or higher level medical care (even access to topical treatments or medications) and you can see how things can get.
And let us not underestimate the benefit of those secondary values: proper mindset and good attitude are absolutely essential for surviving any serious and long-term disaster, and so long as you have time and opportunity to do it, hygiene may be one of the few “essential” pleasures that can work wonders for your morale, and the morale of your group or family. Only the most inveterate slob does not enjoy taking care of themselves and
Being forced to endure hideous odor is bad enough no matter who it is wafting off of, and in conjunction with other stressors may very well see some people snap and go off the deep end, even if it is just a vicious circle of personal attacks and a permanently bad attitude. One person coming unglued could lead to another person doing the same, and before you know it you have a downward spiral of conflict, a textbook case of disaster dominoes that will be very hard to arrest. Always keep in mind that body odor is the herald of worse afflictions to come, it being caused by bacteria on the skin or in the mouth.
You can keep everyone happy, clean and disease free with minimal effort and resources. The following sections will address the major areas of concern for a hygiene regimen and offer procedures on how to stay clean and fresh.
The Basics of Hygiene
The three main areas of concern on our bodies are our hair, skin and teeth/mouth. Each requires its own care regimen for best results. Like I mentioned above, you need not think you will be adhering to the exact same regimen you enjoyed in normal times. You don’t have to, and that level of diligence is not necessary to prevent infection and disease. Shaving is a nicety and very refreshing, but unless you have serious issues with lice or fleas, or must be able to wear a gasmask (men) then you can forget about it unless you are just plain not happy without doing it.
Regarding scheduling, if you can bathe every other day, do so. If your supplies and/or water is so tight you can only manage every 4 days or even once a week, then do that. We will though be attending to each of these areas of concern with the same diligence and standard of care that we are familiar with. For the minimal amount of time and effort it takes, the results are too valuable to skimp on.
At its most basic, all we need to get any of the areas above clean is some sort of rag or cloth and hot water, though we can make do with cold water. If we are really in a bind, or water is absent, scarce or tightly rationed, we can even clean up with no water at all, though this is only a temporary solution until such time as we can bathe properly.
Your environment and activity level will have a major impact on your schedule: hot, humid areas and intense activity will mean more heat and moisture on lightless, closed areas on the body, and ergo more bacteria, which means more odor and a fast track to malady. Bathe accordingly, even it means quick “spot-cleanings” with a baby wipe or rag in the interim.
The following sections will address each of the three areas of concern with guidelines, tips, supplies and other advice. Read on to get the scoop.
Bathing on a (Water) Budget
In short, our default option for bathing will be a towel bath. The premise is simple, as is the supply list. All you need is some hot water and a fairly clean towel, rag, shirt or other cloth to scrub your body with. Note here that we want to clean our body in strategic order, so we progress from least dirty to most dirty parts in an effort to not spread grubby germs all over ourselves. This seems like a small thing, and it is, but it makes a difference,
Generally, we want to start by cleaning the face (keeping any additional germs away from such immune-privileged sites as our eyes and mucous membranes) then progressing to the arms and trunk, back, legs under the arms and lastly your groin and backside. Also for you larger folks, make sure you are cleaning between any folds on your body as they will be rife with moisture and bacteria. NOTE: you can make your washcloth go a lot farther and ensure it is much easier to sanitize for next time if you wipe off your groin and especially your crack with a disposable item like a baby wipe or scrap of old clothing before washing it in earnest.
Start by heating up your water in an appropriate vessel. Cover your vessel to speed up the heating process and save fuel and time. Your water is ready to use when you see the very first bubbles starting to form on the bottom of the container. Remove the water from the heat source and then carefully wick up water on your wash cloth until it is pretty wet, but not soaking, as it will be very hot and hard to hold.
Now, move quickly as your cloth will go from piping hot to chilly in short order. Wash your body in the order detailed above. When you are done, you should not be dripping wet and you should air-dry fairly quickly, but you can certainly dry off with a spare cloth or towel if you have it. Bingo! You are done and ready to get dressed.
An alternate, even more water-miserly method is to use a spray bottle (a clean one, or one that at no time contained any noxious chemicals) and simply spritz your trouble areas before scrubbing with a cloth. You can leave a bottle in the sun to warm it up. If you want to keep a new jumbo sprayer handy, of the type commonly used for applying insecticide or herbicide, you will have a pretty good portable shower with enough pressure to rinse you off.
In the total absence of water, you can use baby wipes, or an alcohol-based product like hand sanitizer on a rag to attack the germs in your most troubling areas. CAUTION: alcohol is highly drying to the skin, and very irritating for some folks. Test a small area with a light touch before you go all in on the alcohol method.
Dealing with Greasy Hair
Washing the hair is usually a little more involved than washing the body due to the need to thoroughly rinse the hair of soap or shampoo. In short, hair will go longer than your body without becoming hideous, as natural oils will often reach equilibrium and then stabilize after a period without washing. You may find it an even bigger mess if you start to wash it and then do not follow-through on a thorough rinse. Assess your water supply and timetable before you commit to washing your hair.
The aforementioned jumbo sprayer can be handy for rinsing short hair, though longer hair needs commensurately more water and time for a thorough rinse. If you are facing a prolonged crisis, you can make a good case for chopping off long hair for the convenience factor of keeping clean alone.
If you cannot afford the water to properly wash and rinse hair, you can rub a little bit of body powder into it and then massage it in thoroughly before combing it out very well. Sure, it looks like you have bad dandruff, but your hair will feel and smell much cleaner.
Again, the “chinchilla” technique will not replace a proper shampoo and rinse, but it will prolong your time between such events if they are rare.
Keep that Smile Intact and Bad Breath at Bay
I often see some supposedly cast-iron hard survival types advocate leaving all hygiene items, including, most grievously, toothbrush and toothpaste out of your BOB or other supplies, their reasoning being you aren’t camping and some things take a back seat to survival.
Good grief, what dire times if you cannot spare the ounces for a compact toothbrush and tube of toothpaste. Toothbrushes are one of those things that are very hard to field improvise, and are so plentiful and cheap that you should have a couple handy at all times. You can take a bog standard brush and cut the handle down a few inches to make it more compact. Toothpaste can be had in either a standard tube or smaller travel size version.
If you need instructions on how to brush your teeth with toothbrush and paste, you have come to the wrong article. I will only add that you do not have to have water to flush your mouth with. Should you lack a toothbrush and toothpaste, you can use baking soda or salt on a clean rag if it is wetted down with a dab of water. Rub your teeth and gums clean and then swish a little water to rinse.
Floss is another item that is very tough to field improvise and considering how useful it is for other tasks you should have a roll at all times. Use as normal either before or after brushing.
Aside from developing some truly horrendous halitosis from a lack of brushing, gum disease and other mouth maladies can strike quickly due to lack of care and stress. Don’t neglect your chompers!
Laundry Day, Doomsday, Just a Day
Doing laundry is definitely not as big a priority as bodily hygiene, but in the case of very dirty or soiled clothing it will definitely lead to skin problems aside from horrid odor. You can obviously give clothes a pretty good cleaning by swishing them vigorously in water and then letting them air dry, but let’s assume you are without even a decent source or supply of water for washing clothes and their current state is just shy of “burn.”
You can harness the power of the sun’s radiation, specifically UV radiation to kill bad germs and freshen clothes a fair bit. Additionally, the dirt and debris in the fibers of the clothing also block airflow and reduce the insulative value of the garment. Remember, odor and skin conditions are usually caused by bacteria chowing down on the sweat, dead skin cells, body oils and other bioproducts left behind on our dermis and clothing. Strong radiation can kill these germs. No germs, no odor, or at least less of it.
To pull of this “sun wash”, start by turning the clothing in question inside out and then shaking the ever living daylights out of it. I mean flog it like it owes you money. If you do this in a brightly lit area, you should see a cloud of dust and grime coming off. Good, that is what we want. Next, spread the clothing out in full sun with as much surface area catching rays as possible. Off the ground is best. If you have time, leave it in the sun for a full day before flipping. If not, flip it halfway through the day.
The more copious and potent the sunlight, the better when employing this technique. A hot summer day in the South or Southwest will “wash” a side of a garment in hours, whereas the same garment may take a day or longer elsewhere. When it is finished, a sunwashed garment will have noticeably improved smell and feel, if not appearance.
Hygiene is not just a perk of civilization! Proper hygiene protocols prevent the spread of preventable disease, stop skin conditions from sidelining you, and make close-quarters habitation with your fellow survivors drastically more bearable. You need not partake in your usual grooming routine, but basic, regular hygiene and bodily upkeep will make all the difference in a long term scenario.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.