A lot of time on trail is spent getting very, very dirty, and getting clean in town still requires hygienic compromises you’d never make in the real world. After nearly a month on trail, we’ve developed a scale to identify our own levels of cleanliness and filth.
- 100-Socially Acceptable, Daily Life Clean
This is taking a shower every day (or close to it), wearing freshly laundered clothes, and getting to wash your hands with soap and water before meals and after the bathroom. It would never occur to you that someone standing in line behind you might be silently edging away due to your stench, because you smell of shampoo and detergent and a light, citrus-y perfume.
- 82-Finals Week Clean
You’re a college student, you ran out of quarters for laundry a week ago, and all your shirts smell faintly of the ramen you’ve been cooking in your dorm coffee pot. Your hair is 20% dry shampoo at this point, and you wore pajama pants you’d slept in to your last exam.
- 78-Hiker Newly In Town Clean
After a week on the trail, you’ve made it to town, checked into a motel, taken a long hot shower, and done laundry at a local laundromat. If you’re staying with a trail angel, there’s a good chance laundry is free, but an equally good chance their washing machine is irreparably tainted with trail stink. Maybe you keep a town dress in a Ziploc at the bottom of your pack, or bought some cheap duds at a thrift store, but either way, you are as clean as it’s possible to be while thru-hiking. Of course, you’re covered in weird rashes, patchy sunburn, and sticky leukotape residue, and your puffy jacket smells terrible from sleeping in it on a few particularly cold nights. You also forgot to pull out the little toes of your Injinji socks before washing them, so they’re still full of sand and sad smells. Washing them in the motel sink sort of helps.
- 69-Hiker Leaving Town Clean
Your clothes inventory includes: one hiking shirt, hiking pants, sleep shirt, sleep pants, sleep socks, four pairs of hiking socks and four pairs of underwear (because everyone needs a luxury), one sports bra, a rain shell, a rain skirt, a town dress, and the aforementioned smelly puffy.
By the time you’re leaving town, you’ll have worn your newly-laundered sleep shirt, then slept in it, then worn it again. This is still “clean”. Maybe your town dress is picking up some stink, so you’ll hand wash it in the motel bathroom sink with your half bar of Dr. Bronner’s to make it tolerably clean before the next town stop. You’ve still got some dirt under your toenails, but you’ve taken three showers and are still feeling fairly fresh. Tomorrow morning you’ll be back on trail, so you’re savoring these last moments of hygienic peace.
- 50-First Day Back on Trail Chaotic Neutral
Your hiking shirt may be visibly stained with salt and sweat, but even after a day of hiking, it’s still relatively sweet-smelling and crisp. Your pants are dusty, but not yet smelly, and most of your socks are still soft and clean. Your toes are filthy again, and the dirt tan on your legs is back, but a damp bandana takes care of most of that. Your sleep clothes are warm and dry and your sleeping bag liner is not yet covered in sweat or drool. Feels pretty good.
- 42-Midweek Lucky Break Filthy
A few days of 100+ degree heat means you’re covered in layers of sweat and dust and more sweat and more dust. Fortune strikes, though, because your midday respite from the heat is at a wildlife preserve with individual bathrooms that have running water, sinks, and hand soap (and, blessedly, no mirrors). After a quick lunch, and making sure none of the second graders on a school trip are waiting for the restrooms, you barricade yourself in the bathroom and wash all your clothes in the sink with hand soap, and give yourself a quick scrub with a bandana. The water from your clothes will turn black, then light grey, which means they are clean now. You’ll have to put all your clothes back on soaking wet, but they’re synth and the heat means they’ll dry in about fifteen minutes anyway. You’re filthy by polite society’s standards, but frankly you feel pretty refreshed.
- 20-Five Days In Filthy
You haven’t had a shower for awhile now, and days of accumulated grime have undone all the progress of your public restroom laundry. You camp near a creek, though, so you can afford to get a bandana wet and get most of the visible dirt off your body. On the other hand, you were assaulted by biting ants falling from a tree on a short break and lost your specialized pee bandana, so let’s just say that situation isn’t getting any better. Your pajamas have taken on a unique rabbit hutch odor. At this point, you’d understand if a restaurant turned you away at the door.
- 0-End of the Week, Point of No Return Filthy
Water is scarce, so you only have baby wipes with which to clean yourself. Unfortunately, you’re so exhausted after finishing a 20 mile hike at 9 PM that you can’t be bothered. You put your sleep clothes on over your filthy legs, and you put your sleep socks on in a desperate attempt to protect your drool-covered sleeping bag liner from your dirt-encrusted feet. It sort of helps. Every time you turn to your hiking partner or lean down to adjust your gaiters, you get a whiff of yourself, and nearly go cross-eyed in disgust. When you reach the on-trail McDonald’s, you terrify the poor high school boy taking your order, and a woman waiting for the bathroom lets out an audible “ohhhh boyyyy” when you join the line. Fortunately, in just a couple dozen miles, you’ll be in town again. Sure, you won’t have a chance to shower exactly right before you get a burger at the quaint local lunch spot, but the locals are too polite to react to the visible stink lines emanating from your body. Luckily, in just an hour or so, you’ll be at a trail angel’s home or a motel, perfectly primed to work your way back up to the mid-70s.