A guide to biodegradable soap for ultralight backpacking.
Is soap safe to use out on the trail? Well, that’s somewhat of a loaded question. Biodegradable soap is better for the environment, and there’s no denying a little soap certainly has its perks—like refreshing scents and super bacteria-killing powers, just to name a few.
To take a deeper look into this long-standing debate, we cover the four main types, we size up a list of eco-friendly, biodegradable soap options and we finish by looking at common myths and facts about biodegradable soap.
1. BAR SOAP
Pro: Made from animal fats and oils, bar soap is a long-lasting, cost-effective hygiene option. It’s also argued to have the lowest overall environmental impact because of its natural makeup and compostable packaging.
Con: More water is required to get a sufficient lather from bar soap, and its higher pH levels can leave sensitive skin dry or irritated. Also, it must be stored dry to avoid bacteria and germ growth which makes it less convenient for travel compared to liquid soap, sheets or wipes.
Weight: 3 to 6 oz
Ease of use: Not as multifunctional as liquid soap.
Ease of disposal: Biodegradable packaging. Life span: Many bar soaps have a shelf life of 3-5 years if unopened and 4-8 weeks after initial first use.
Who’s it for? Those without skin sensitives looking for a cost-effective, eco-friendly hygiene product.
Recommended? Bar soaps create a thicker lather compared to other portable soap options. That being said, bacteria build-up can be a concern and they aren’t as cross-functional or convenient as liquid soap.
2. LIQUID SOAP
Pro: Multi-use and compact, liquid soaps fill many cleaning needs and their added moisturizers typically make them gentler on skin. A bottle is also less likely to spread bacteria.
Con: Pricier than bar soaps and more of a “detergent” base, liquid soaps may contain more chemicals and are stored in plastic containers. Also, it may be harder to find completely fragrance-free options.
Weight: 1.5 to 6 oz.
Ease of use: Pop, pour, add water and voila: you’ve got soap!
Ease of disposal: Plastic containers must be disposed of properly.
Life span: 3 years, if unopened longer.
Who’s it for? Hikers wanting a compact, multi-purpose cleaning product.
Recommended? Liquid soaps are small enough to fit in your pocket and easy to store thanks to their seal tops. A little bottle can be used for multiple cleaning purposes while backpacking like germ sanitation, killing off bacteria on clothing, or cutting grease on dishware.
3. SOAP SHEETS
Pro: The lightest and most compact soap option on our list, these mini-cleaning wonders are smaller than the size of your palm and can be used for a variety of cleaning needs.
Con: Multiple sheets will be required for washing clothing or larger items, and your hands must be dry to remove sheets from plastic packaging. Also, they must be stored carefully because if water leaks in the package they’ll dissolve.
Weight: .5-1 oz.
Ease of use: Wash hands with a single sheet, or dissolve a few sheets in a container of water.
Ease of disposable: Sheets dissolve and the plastic case should be recycled.
Life span: Never expire.
Who’s it for? Hikers looking to pack ultra-light or travelers who want a pocket-sized cleaning product to easily wash hands, clothes, etc.
Recommended? Soap sheets are a solid lightweight hygiene option. If going into wet, rainy climates, you may want to store them in a waterproof bag since the sheets can dissolve if exposed to water.
Pro: No water required so you can give yourself a thorough wipe down anywhere you please. Also, wipes are a good way to ensure things “stay clean down there” after using the facilities.
Con: Wipes per package are limited and they can be heavier/bulkier than other cleaning options.
Weight: 4-10 oz.
Ease of use: Just like a portable shower.
Ease of disposal: Unless wipes are 100% biodegradable, they must be carried out and disposed of properly.
Life span: 3-6 months after opening.
Who’s it for? Those who want a quick, fuss-free way to stay clean or those heading into areas where water supply is limited.
Recommended? Wipes fare well for hikers with sensitive skin or those who only want to hit the hot spots during their cleansing routine. Wipes are also great in sterilizing cuts, wiping down camp gear or to use in place of showers if water is not readily accessible.
From left to right: bar, liquid, sheets, wipes.
INGREDIENTS: FAVOR NATURAL INGREDIENTS
Look for soaps made with all-natural ingredients and that are free from toxic chemicals such as phthalates, sulfates, surfactants, parabens, petrochemicals, and “anti-bacterial” components.
If you have sensitive skin, it may be helpful to consider a soap that’s fragrance-free, hypoallergenic, and that has moisturizing ingredients like aloe vera or coconut oil. Be sure to test your skin's reaction to any new products prior to taking them on the trail. Or alternatively, make your own DIY biodegradable soap.
CONCENTRATION: USE A 1:3 DILUTION RATIO OR MORE
A standard dilution ratio runs 1-part soap to every 3-parts water. For liquid soaps, a little goes a long way and most users get anywhere from 15 to 20 washes per ounce. Usually, a single capful will be enough to wash a person’s entire body.
Ingredients in United by Blue's Mt. Mazama bar soap.
SCENT: UNSCENTED OR SCENTED?
Out on the trail, you won’t be the only one who thinks that citrus-scented soap smells delightful. Bears and other wildlife will also find the aroma quire alluring. In areas where bear canisters are required these items will have to be properly stored.
VERSATILITY: ONE SOAP FOR ALL YOUR NEEDS
Since thru-hiking is all about packing efficiently choosing a biodegradable soap that’s multipurpose can be invaluable. For example, Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile liquid soap has 18 different uses. Not all soaps are so versatile though, so be sure to read each product's specific recommended uses.
CONTAINER: THINK SUSTAINABILITY, PACKABILITY AND PERMEABILITY
Each option has its pros and cons. Bar soaps have little to no plastic waste, however, they must be stored properly for travel. Liquid soap and soap sheets come in compact, recyclable plastic containers but leakage can pose a problem. Wipes may be biodegradable, but their packaging is likely not, and they must remain sealed to stay moisturized.
KindLather's dissolving soap sheets come in 100% recycled biodegradable envelopes.
This American-made soap is inspired by the Rogue River in Southwestern Oregon. It’s made from bentonite clay, geranium, and various oils, and it has a pleasant cedar and sage scent. The bar has a rougher exterior upon initial use, but it isn’t tough on skin. It does, however, help scrub away dirt and grime. The natural oils in the soap prolong skin moisture, and the packaging is completely biodegradable.
Free from all the bad stuff, Kirk’s is an American-based company that’s been around since 1839. They specialize in creating organic products with recyclable packaging. Their bar soap is made from 100% premium coconut oil that’s extra gentle on the skin, leaving it conditioned without any residue. The soap is great for sensitivities, and can even be used as a treatment for poison ivy.
Made from volcanic rock exfoliants, this energizing peppermint, eucalyptus, rosemary, and grapefruit scented soap puts a pep in your morning step. The naturally infused peppermint stimulates the body's circulation while the grapefruit helps to tone oily skin. The bar is soft to the touch and gently exfoliates without being overly harsh. A single bar is on the pricey side coming in at $14 a pop. But, according to Ursa Major, it should last anywhere between two and three months.
This all-natural wash has hydrating oils and a bold piney scent from wildflowers, bark and tree trimmings harvested directly from hiking trails. The soap is offered in a 2 oz travel size or a larger 8 oz bottle. Upon use, you’ll find that the soap doesn’t create much of a sudsy lather but a small dose still provides a powerful clean. The piney scent is strong and may not be suitable for everyone.
For a liquid soap without the bad chemicals, this lightly scented body wash suds up surprisingly well. The mint oil has a nice cooling addition that helps to naturally soothe sore muscles after a long day on the trail. The tea tree oil is also an excellent remedy for gently cleaning and healing cuts and open sores.
A family-owned company since 1948, Dr. Bronner’s is the most recognized name in the pure-Castile, organic soap game. Available in both liquid and bar form, all soap products come in eight different scents (including an unscented option). Each product has no synthetic preservatives, is made with organic oils and is well known for being easy on people with allergies and other sensitivities. Dr. Bronner’s soaps have multiple uses, even claiming to be used as mouthwash and toothpaste… However, whether it’s enjoyable being used as toothpaste is debatable. (Dr. Bronner's Dilution Cheat Sheet)
Advertised as low suds, multi-purpose wilderness wash, this concentrated biodegradable soap is thick and able to be used in fresh or saltwater. The soap is unscented; however, it does give off a bit of a sterile whiff. The screw-top is a nice measuring feature and the bottle itself is pretty tough so you don’t have to worry about it breaking. A single capful of this soap has some powerful cleaning power behind it that you can use on just about everything.
Stored in a bottle with a flip-top spout for controlled pouring, Campsuds prides itself on being the first-ever biodegradable all-purpose outdoor cleaner for campers. It has a lemon-lime scent and is made from all-natural ingredients. The soap comes out thin. However, after mixed with water a few drops will stretch. When fighting dirty or greasy dishes, Campsuds works better after first wiping some grease out.
KindLather sheets are made with safe, natural plant-based ingredients and the packaging is 100% recycled and biodegradable. These soap sheets are super lightweight and about as flat as a piece of paper. Each soap is hypoallergenic and has a non-irritating formula that comes in scented, unscented or “extra sensitive” options. Their body lather product has enough sheets for up to 160 hand washes. KindLather also plants two trees for every product sold.
Ideal for ultralight packers, Coleman soap sheets are a straightforward, cost-effective cleaning product. One lightweight and compact plastic case contains 50 single-use soap sheets that can be used for dishes, hands and laundry. One sheet will wash hands, or a few can be mixed with water for cleaning multiple products. Hands should remain dry when removing sheets.
Phosphate and Paraben free, these soap sheets have a subtle green tea fragrance that comes in a pocket-sized plastic case. Each case includes 50 leaves that are environmentally friendly. A single sheet and a few drops of water create enough suds to clean hands or socks, and more sheets can be used to clean larger items.
If you want to indulge in a little pampering on the trail, a 12 pack of these extra thick wipes will do the trick. The packet is compact at about 6 in. long X 3 in. wide. A single sheet is great to use as a daily face cleanser or two could be enough to clean your entire body. The wipes are soft and unscented. They’re also absorbent, pH balanced and infused with aloe vera and vitamin E which hydrates skin. The wipes claim to be unscented but they do have an underlying clean scent to them.
Designed by fellow backpackers who were looking to solve their only problem: staying fresh on the trail and cutting back on the use of baby wipes, these wipes go the extra mile. They are unscented, VERY large (like larger than wipes we’ve ever seen) and are available in a pack of 15 or 32. Surviveware will also soon be releasing a 40-count of individually packaged single-use wipes. All wipes are alcohol-free and 100% compostable. They fully break down just 6 months after being buried. Also, if you’re not satisfied with the product, there’s a 90-day money-back guarantee.
Good for men and women with all skin types, these organic, individually wrapped cleansing wipes come twenty to a pack. A single one does four different things to revitalize and refresh skin. It cleanses, exfoliates, soothes and hydrates. Whether you’re just wanting a little pick-me-up out on the trail, or a quick refresher when skipping the morning shower these cleansing wipes with their soft lavender, orange and fir aroma are sure to do the trick.
Myth: Biodegradable soap has no negative environmental impact
According to the ATSM (American Society for Testing and Materials), the term “biodegradable soap” means it’s a product that’s able to decompose by natural organisms and bacteria, breaking down to around 90% H20 and C02 within six months of use. Many of these soaps are made using animal fats, various oils, and most importantly: little or no chemicals. They’re earth-friendly and a great, green-minded sanitation product for hikers, campers, or anybody looking to cut back on their overall carbon footprint.
However, it’s important to note that no soap—biodegradable or not—should ever be used directly in streams, lakes or other water sources. A study performed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that detergent-based phosphorus and other ingredients commonly found in soap leads to algae overgrowth and reduces oxygen levels that are necessary for aquatic plant and animal life. These effects prove that if not used responsibly, even eco-friendly soaps can contaminate water, harm aquatic habitats, and disrupt the balance of delicate ecosystems.
Myth: Disposable soap can be disposed of anyhow
Even though biodegradable soap is less toxic to the environment than regular soap, the sudsy stuff still must be handled carefully and disposed of properly to keep its environmental impact minimal. Since soap requires soil to adequately break down, one major rule to stick with is that all soapy water must always be buried after use.
Just because biodegradable soap may be made from all-natural ingredients, doesn’t mean it’s 100% nature-friendly. For example, when was the last time you saw a “soap bush” growing wild alongside a trail? Didn’t think so. Since we are the ones who bring our bars, bottles, sheets and wipes of soap into the woods with us, it’s important to ensure we’re also using these forest-foreign products with a green mindset.
Here are a few important rules to follow:
Myth: Soap is essential while backpacking
Bringing soap on a backpacking trip is a hikers’ preference. Many thru-hikers save some space and ounces by ditching the stuff all together and keeping themselves and their things clean by elbow grease, a washcloth and some hot water. On extra grimy days, a good trick is to throw in a few pebbles or sand alongside that hot water scrubbing routine for extra cleaning power and some au natural exfoliation. After all, there’s no place like nature to embrace one own’s natural scent, right?
Fact: A great lightweight all-in-one hygiene solution
If hot water just won’t cut it for your cleaning needs, then biodegradable soap is a nice luxury to have out on the trail. Many options are multipurpose and can act as body wash, shampoo, dish soap and even detergent.
Fact: Decreases the likelihood of germs
Disease and germs are a fast track to cutting a thru-hiker’s trip short. Regularly sanitizing with soap before cooking up that evening meal or after taking a pit stop at the local “facilities” is a good way to ensure hands stay clean and germs stay away.
Bonus: Carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer is another good option to keep clean on the trail.
Final Safety Considerations:
By Katie Licavoli: Katie Licavoli is a content writer, author and outdoor enthusiast. When not reading or writing away, she's out running, hiking, backpacking, snowboarding, or sailing the great lakes in northern Michigan.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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