Getting Clean in The Great Outdoors

SOME friends said they didn't like camping out because there was no way to keep clean. I started to tell them the several ways I know to achieve cleanliness out of doors, but they quickly changed the subject. We need our excuses, or perhaps that discussion was too personal for mixed company. In any case, I have since wanted to finish what I started to say, and I take this opportunity to do so.

First and simplest is to jump in the river, lake, or creek, and I used to do that without hesitation, wherever I was. Scrubbing is OK, but soaps and shampoos are forbidden. Fish and other creatures of the water are not fond of soap. If soap must be used, the water is carried inland some distance, and a soap of low environmental impact is rinsed onto the ground.

Until my mid 20s, I never tested the water first; I just jumped. When the water turned out to be fluid only because it was flowing fast, I jumped out just as quickly. A light rinse sufficed, and scrubbing could wait. As I matured, I developed a preference for warmer water and a habit of testing the water before jumping.

For several summers, I worked in the mountains and camped where I worked. This was after I stopped jumping before testing, and the nearby water was always cold, so my co-workers and I developed an effective contrivance.

Forest conditions permitting, we cooked over a campfire, so water for bathing went on the campfire. We fashioned a tripod of dead poles, with a small pulley hanging from the apex. In the bottom of a clean bucket, we punched several nail holes, not too many, and not too large. More could be added later if needed. The rope on the bucket handle was threaded through the pulley; the hot water was dumped into the bucket, diluted with cold water, and hoisted. Three gallons was usually more than enough for a shower and shampoo. A board or flat rock underfoot was nice, so was another dry one to step onto when toweling.

When I camped on Coalpit Mountain in Eastern Oregon, I started a small garden near the top of a south-facing saddle. Every morning, I packed water in plastic jerry cans up to the garden and left them in the sun. Every afternoon, the water was as hot as I could stand for a shower, and the runoff watered the garden.

A garden hose full of water in the sun is an effective solar heater. My wife, Laura, and I used that for our showers when we lived at Toadtown (yes, there really is a place named Toadtown). The one inside the small cabin could always tell when the one showering had been too slow and the hot water ran out before the shower was finished, because the water came from a very cold spring, and vocal effects were unrestrainable. Fortunately, we had no close neighbors.

Jack's place almost doesn't count. Plumbing came from inside the house, with plenty of hot water, out onto the back deck while the bathroom was being rebuilt. It was lovely to mix a hot shower with a rainstorm, but getting quickly dried and back inside when there was frost on the ground was a small adventure.

While camping or on auto trips cross-country, a gallon jug of water, left in the sun several hours, will suffice for warmth and quantity. The water can be carefully applied directly from the jug for most effective and conservative use. I added a half gallon and had enough for shampooing, though my hair and beard are not long.

When we lived in Whitney Valley, I jumped in the river a lot of the summer. Spring and fall, and summer days when I thought I wouldn't get to the river, I put a black canner full of water (about four gallons) out in the backyard in the sunlight early in the day. If time or sunshine was in short supply, I surrounded the canner with reflectors to increase its absorption of light and heat. Then I used a small saucepan to dip from the canner. We had a corrugated tin tub for baths indoors, but I liked to save the time and fuel required to heat water.

Now, in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, in a Girl Scout camp, I haven't yet rigged anything outdoors. But when I get the greenhouse built, up by the garden, I'll have a small solar-powered water heater on the roof, and I'll build a screened off shower and dressing area, open to the sky above and the ground beneath.

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