The Smelly Truth: Washing Clothes on the Appalachian Trail

Washing clothes on the Appalachian Trail is a smelly endeavor. Learn tips for hand washing, drying, using scentless soap and more to clean clothes while thru-hiking the AT.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

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One huge question that comes up for anyone thinking about thru-hiking is managing cleaning clothing on the trail, the focus frequently being that they stink and that they want to smell better and cut some of the stank out, so do you wash clothes on the AT?

Most thru-hikers will not do laundry on the trail with their primary clothing, most will limit this to washing out socks and underwear while wearing the other pair. Then they leave the washed clothes pinned to their backpack to dry in the sun which also helps kill stinky bacteria.

This plan to avoid washing won’t work for everyone and just like deodorant, some will want to do this just to maintain some sense of normalcy while they start on the trail.

For these people I wanted to cover ways, you can manage cleaning clothing while out on the Appalachian Trail .

Why Choose to Do Laundry on the Trail?

Many thru-hikers will choose to do laundry on the trail to help keep the stink down, others will choose this to maintain a personal level of cleanliness for themselves.

Maintaining cleanliness on the trail can help lessen overall issues with health and injury, and cleaning your clothes removes the gunk. The most common cause for foot killers, like blisters, is a buildup of mineral deposits in the socks.

Overall, most hikers don’t want to be smelly and they don’t like getting dirty looks from trail towns residents when resupplying or by other day hikers who are passing them on the trail.

There is also an element that some may just not have enough time before starting their hike or if they are hiking an alternate route or just flat out haven’t had the time to do laundry, so this article will cover doing your laundry while on your thru-hike.

How to Wash Clothes on the Appalachian Trail

There aren’t any washing machines on the trail which leaves you with three choices when it comes to doing your laundry while on the trail.

Hand Washing

Take off clothing as you need to and keep them separate from everything else then go wash them by hand in nearby streams, rivers, or ponds.

Most people don’t like this method since it’s slow, messy, and time-consuming. It also requires more planning ahead when you come across a good water source as well as having to carry more water with you for the process.

The biggest of all is that it isn’t going to get your clothing totally clean, so many people who use this method end up doing a wash in a stream or river near an outfitter and then hanging the clothing up to dry before heading on their way.

Washing with a Laundry Bag

This is by far the most popular way to do laundry when out on the trail and it’s also the fastest and easiest of these options.

The benefit of using a laundry bag is that you are going to be able to keep your clothing and soiled items separate from everything else, easily contained, and you can use a river or stream to wash out the bag.

Almost all thru-hikers will follow hand washing at most as adding additional gear weight like a laundry bag with only a single purpose is very wasteful.

It is just simpler to take your single item and wash it individually instead of carrying a sack for the single need.

What To Wash on the Trail

When on the trail you are trying to focus on cleaning the most needful items that you are going to wear, as mentioned then people will often wash their socks and underwear.

Doing this is going to keep your feet clean which means less of an issue with blisters.

Washing dirty clothing on the trail is done infrequently since it’s just a hassle that most don’t need when there isn’t a pressing need for it.

You are also going to want to make sure you have water on hand when doing your laundry so some people will try and set up a resupply to do this.

How to Wash Clothes on the Appalachian Trail

Once you choose to do laundry while you are hiking you will need to know how to do it efficiently and effectively, so the question comes wondering how do you do trail laundry?

The simplest way to do trail laundry is to use the same methodologies that you would when at home but to switch to a large plastic bag instead of a washing machine.

  1. Fill Bag With Water: A typical gallon bag can work well for smaller laundry items like undergarments and socks. For many stove gas isn’t able to be wasted to make warm water just to wash so cold water is most typical.
  2. Quick Clean on Your Garments: Before washing you want to clean off as much dirt and debris as possible prior to real washing. If possible go farther downstream and rough wash in the stream.
  3. Add Soap to Bag: This is where you want to add your Camp Suds or similar trail soap to the bag and remember that less is more on the trail, as you can have residue get left on the clothing causing irritation if not fully removed.
  4. Wash & Rinse Garments: Now you need to get to business, take your clothing items and put them into the bag, close the bag then agitate the bag by hand to push water and detergent through the item(s). After completely washing dispose of water far from the stream and then refill the bag to rinse out any residual detergent in the clothing.
  5. Hang Garments to Dry: Once washed and rinsed you will need to hang them dry or place them in full sun on a tree or rock to help dry out the garments. You want this to be totally dry prior to packing up.
  6. Repeat Process As Needed: If the clothing is not cleaned then you can run through the process as many times as necessary, I would suggest limiting this unless very needed.

How to Dry Laundry On the Appalachian Trail

When you wash clothes on the trail you are then going to have to dry them when you are done.

You can use a number of ways to do this with the two most common methods being utilizing the back of your pack or similar area to hang dry or using your body heat and sunshine while hiking.

Hanging Dry on Pack

The most common way to dry is to start washing in the morning and then hanging the clothing on the back of your pack, this way it can be exposed to airflow and sunshine for the rest of the day’s hike.

While this can help get sunshine on your gear it is really helpful at managing consistent airflow to take a damp item and to give you a dry item over time while moving.

Sunshine Air Dry

If you are on a longer, extended break, you can take the clothes and find the most sun-exposed rock to lay the clothing on to heat and expose it to as much direct sunlight and UV as possible.

This will help dry the clothing but as a secondary benefit, the long time in the direct UV sunlight will help to kill off the bacteria and drop the overall stench that can mount over time.

How Often Do You Wash Clothes on the Appalachian Trail?

For most this will be when they get too smelly to be self-comfortable on the trail, or in most cases once you reach the town.

I can say that for most hikers you stop being able to smell yourself all overtime on the trail.

Typically when on the trail, only when far out from a town will you use the time to wash clothes but taking some time to wash and keep clean socks and undergarments can help you stay comfortable and cut down on blisters and rashes.

When you reach town most hostels will offer laundry opportunities and if they don’t many will have washer/dryer units available at a cost.

Hotels are also an option as well as laundromats, and while this is the easiest method you may have to pay for your service which adds up quickly.

5 Tips for Cleaning Clothes on the Trail

If you are looking to wash clothing while out on the trail we have some tips that will help you achieve a better clean on your clothing along with keeping yourself in the clear with other hikers and LNT principles.

Maintain Your Distance – 200′ Minimum

When you are out on the trail and planning to wash any clothing you need to make sure you get your distance right from all the important places: the trail itself, the water source, the food area, and the campsite.

This will ensure your washing doesn’t pollute any other areas where hikers along with animals will be.

Don’t Use Nitrate-Based Soaps

When washing clothes you want to avoid any chemicals that leave behind a residue or have nitrates in them.

The reason for this is the high use of water where hikers go, and the effects these can have on local wildlife and waterways.

Nitrate-based soaps can leave behind residue in the water where it comes into contact with fish and plant life – thus you want to stay on the conservative side, and avoid any chemicals that leave behind nitrates.

Use a Centralized Wash Location

Try to use the same location as everyone else which is away from camp. This will help you not only to get your LNT space correct but also ensure that everyone is aware of where they can and cannot wash clothes, use their site for washing dishes, and do other various activities.

Keeping it in a common area will make sure you are doing your part to keep the trail clean while adding some structure to the area to help keep everything clean and sanitary.

Use a Scentless Soap

When in the woods you want to add as little scent as possible to help limit the impact on other hikers and reduce the chance of your scent drawing in unwanted animals.

Use a biodegradable soap that is also scentless, this can help you limit any smells and will make sure you are staying within LNT principles by reducing your potential for leaving behind chemical residue.

Dry In Direct Sunlight

Use the sun to your benefit, the sun helps kill bacteria kill odor, and helps to dry your clothing faster than simply laying out.

If possible lay the clothes in direct sunlight as well as expose them on top of a warm rock or large piece of granite that will help to speed up drying and kill bacteria.

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