Travel Hygiene for Cleanish Vagrants

Travel hygiene isn’t really something we like to think about, because it’s sometimes better not to remember how gross you get while backpacking. But you can’t make friends if you smell like a horse, as we learned through many sad, sad experiences. Fortunately, unlike backpackers of the olden times, you don’t have to spend two months smelling like patchouli and homeless, and you will never again have to avoid hugging your new travel friend for fear that they faint.

Unless you totally dig that smell, in which case, I don’t know what to tell ya. [credit]

If I could have it my way, I’d always smell like a human and not like a farm animal. Unfortunately, when I am not attentive to my hygiene I become a disgusting wildebeest, and I’ve been mistaken for a homeless person on numerous occasions (I’m not saying this for comedic effect. This has actually happened, and it wasn’t funny). This problem is compounded because I love doing dirty things, like camping for extended periods, working outside, and living in mudhuts. I just find these activities enjoyable, so I’ve had to come up with a few ways to fake being a clean person while I’m on the road.

1. Hang your clothes to dry in a windy sunny place to blow out the smell and kill the bacteria with UV rays.

2. Don’t ever try on shoes you find on the side of the road (or floating in a river) without spraying them with some serious antifungal or bleach!

3. Pack some trash bags so you can keep your dirty clothes separated and sealed, because it sucks when you dig through your bag to find something clean and realize that it all smells the same, even when you are sure that SOMETHING was recently clean. Also, don’t be ashamed about determining clothing’s suitability for wear by conducting a sniff test – we all do it. Also, know that your sniff test standards will rapidly deteriorate with each additional month on the road, so be conscious of this fact.

4. If you have a towel that is wet and a towel that is dry, you can roll them together and squish them to average the water content (two half-wet towels will dry a lot faster than one sopping wet towel, and towels take forever to dry, unless you get one of those fancy microfiber towels).

5. Brushing your teeth dry (sans toothpaste) is way better than not brushing them at all. Seriously, how do some people not realize this? Just try to rinse your toothbrush.

6. Speaking of tooth hygiene, do you know how magic baking soda is? Baking soda is my one beauty/hygiene product that I’d have trouble doing without. Use it to brush your teeth, deodorize your armpits (it works! Not like those other organic deodorants that your smelly hippie friends swear by – it ACTUALLY works! Take it from a fellow smelly person). Check out these other nifty uses for baking soda here. Your only problem will be trying to convince airport security that this strange white powder in your bag is actually totally harmless and legal.

Honestly officer, it’s wrapped in a condom because I just didn’t have any bags on hand. And the mushrooms, those are just for decoration! I was going to build a centerpiece! [credit]

7. Lavender makes a good deodorant because it’s marginally antimicrobial. Other things I’ve been known to rub under my pits: Coconut oil (antimicrobial and antifungal – and much nicer feeling than baking soda!), corn starch, sea salt, tea tree oil.

8. Diluted apple cider vinegar makes a nifty facial toner if you need something in a pinch. Olive and coconut oils are awesome for removing mascara and eye makeup.

9. Pack a baggie of corn starch to use as dry shampoo, and you can add some cocoa powder if your hair is dark. It really works! Just avoid overdoing it with the corn starch, or you’ll look like you have a gnarly case of dandruff.

You’ll notice that we didn’t use any of our own pictures in this article. A great man once said, “Remember me not as I am but as I used to be that day two or three weeks ago when I took a shower,” or something. [credit]

Shit Tourists Say

After you’ve been in a foreign country for long enough, hearing English is a bit jarring. Even in large crowds, the English voices seem to stand out, and it’s hard not to overhear. Sometimes, a shared language is a great starting point to make friends with a fellow traveler, and if you overhear them sounding interesting, I would encourage you to do just that. Other times, you hear lame tourist shit like this:

1. “I want to see the REAL America/Thailand/Peru”

First, it’s all real. Second, no, you probably actually don’t, because real life is mundane beyond belief.  You don’t travel in order to experience other people’s menial jobs and hang out at their strip-malls and watch them take their kids to school. You really want a tourist experience, but without all the other tourists, don’t you? Well get in line.

Well, maybe it isn’t all real. But we found this real fake dinosaur at the Little America road-stop(/tourist trap), a gas station which is technically its own town.

2.  ”People who don’t travel aren’t experiencing life”

This statement is about as obnoxious as people who claim that those who don’t have children aren’t experiencing life, or that those who travel are running away from life. There are many, many life experiences, and you’re not getting all of them. I’ve never herded sheep, taken a prolonged vow of silence, built a boat, or lived in a redwood tree, though I’m sure there are people out there who find these to be life-affirming and essential experiences (and really, save for the vow of silence, they all sound pretty awesome to me). People who don’t travel are still experiencing life – they’re experiencing their own lives, on their own terms. It is not your place to tell them that the path you’ve chosen is more valid than the path they’ve chosen, even if you do feel the need to defend your strange nomadic lifestyle.

3. “Wow, this amazing experience I’m having right now really reminds me of <other country>, except it was ten times better and crazier” or “This amazing experience will make a great blog post/facebook post.”

It is hard to always live in the moment, but being in the moment is the only way to get the most out of travel. We’re guilty of these kind of thoughts, as is every traveler, but they still grate every time we hear them from someone else. Comparing someone else’s biggest tree ever with that time you went to the redwoods is a good way to devalue their experience and take the magic out of their memories. Only a jerk would want to do something like that.

This tree does not make your experiences less magical

4. [Insert broad, sweeping, usually BS generalization here]

I’ve had actual people tell me that you can find vending machines selling used panties on every street corner in Japan (false), that Italian men are all rapists because their culture doesn’t allow for women to say “no” (false), and that Scandinavians are fleeing their home countries en masse because Sharia Law is taking over in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway (false). To be fair, this is more frequently done by people who have not visited Japan, Italy, or Scandinavia, because anyone who has will immediately see how ludicrous these statements are. But sometimes people want to seem really knowledgeable so they run their mouths off in the hopes of impressing people. Don’t be one of those people!

5. “I like to travel like a local, not a tourist”

Usually uttered by people who who have no idea how to speak the local language and no interest in eating the local specialties. These are probably the loudest, most self-involved people you meet on the road. If they’re American, you’ll probably find them criticizing other Americans vociferously (actually, you’ll probably find them doing that regardless of their nationality).


The gross assumptions that come into play when tourists visit a foreign land and expect everyone to speak their language deserve an entire separate blog post, but for now, we’ll just tack it on here. It’s always really embarrassing for me when I meet other travelers complaining about locals who don’t speak English. It is not your place to determine which language they should speak and, as you are on their turf, show them just a little bit of respect. You don’t have to learn their language, but be humble, for goodness’ sake.

To Avoid Parasites; or: Parasites I Have Met

I am pretty safe and pretty careful while traveling, but somehow I can’t seem to avoid parasites. I’m a woman traveling alone, so I never walk by myself at night, I avoid creepy strangers, and I never travel without telling someone my whereabouts. Being careful is enough to avoid the big dangers. I just wish I could figure out how to escape the small dangers. (Never walk by myself through sewers, avoid creepy mosquito, never eat raw meat without telling someone my whereabouts?) Maybe it’s all the strange food I eat?

Just a few weeks ago I got worms. Yuck, right? But the worms weren’t the worst part. The worst part was how I discovered I had them in the first place (please don’t press me for details – I’m still traumatized). I won’t even get into the time I acquired Hepatitis abroad, except to say that it wasn’t the kind that sticks with you forever (phew!), just the kind you get from unwittingly eating an infected person’s poop. No big deal. And then there was that time I got malaria, despite taking all conceivable (and a bunch of inconceivable) measures to avoid it. Again the malaria wasn’t the worst part, it was the fact that I was stuck living with a man named Bongo who insisted on washing my underwear and thought I should really sleep in his bed, for, ummm, my safety? Perhaps this is why I prefer to travel in the colder parts of the world.

Here is a photo of someone who is not me probably contracting malaria, the sucker. (Credit)

1. Don’t be afraid to insist on seeing a doctor. I have hypochondria, certainly. Everyone knows that, so it is hard to be taken seriously. But when I finally insisted that I get to the doctor, it wasn’t just malaria, it was falciparum, the worse form of malaria. So even though your instincts are probably a little crazy because they are always telling you HOLY CRAP YOU ARE DYING, recognize that they can still be right sometimes. My motto: Just because I’m a hypochondriac doesn’t mean I can’t still get the bubonic plague. It hasn’t failed me yet.

2. Take the usual precautions. I hate wearing DEET, so I got some semi-permanent stuff to spray on my clothes and sleeping net. It didn’t work great, but it worked pretty well. I also used some barbecue-scented Swedish pine tar, which works nearly as well as DEET but makes you smell like a grilled hamburger forever. Of course, you can’t really beat DEET. Anti-malaria pills really do work, even if they have some crazy side effects. (Side effects of long term use: hallucination. On the 6th month, when my friend started hearing his dog talk in Barry White’s voice, that was probably a sign to stop.) Quinine is a natural anti-malarial with an interesting history, but it has just as many side effects, if not more, ranging from erectile dysfunction to temporary deafness (and you’d need a lot more than is in tonic water). See a doctor who specializes in travel medicine before and after your trip. They will be able to give you great advice on the risks specific to your destination.

3. Don’t hug dirty strangers, or wear shoes/clothes that you find on the street without disinfecting thoroughly first. There is a species of lice that only lives on clothing. Also, scabies! And bed bugs! And fungus, oh my!

Once upon a time, I hiked through the rain forest to a beautiful tropical river. As I waded through the rocks and enjoyed the little fish exfoliating my legs, one of my flip-flops broke. I could not hike back through the rain forest in bare feet; soldier ants are vicious creatures. I despaired of ever getting home alive. Then, miraculously, a pair of flip-flops came floating down the river out of nowhere (I guess it wasn’t so unusual, the river wasn’t exactly pure). I thought, ‘these must be clean, they’ve been washed in the river for who knows how long!’ Mistake. Turns out foot fungus is really easy to get and really hard to get rid of in a warm wet tropical country. It took two month and a heavy course of systemic anti-fungal pills before the thing would leave me alone.

This is the river. Speaking of parasites, the locals didn’t just swim in this river, most of them also drank from it, too.

4. Speaking of shoes, always wear shoes! For worms, there are many routes of entry into a human, but the most common is through the feet. These worms can crawl anywhere within 6 feet of human feces, and keep in mind hiking trails are low on public toilets. They live in nearly every tropical country. On the other hand, a worm infection suppresses the immune system, which can cure asthma, allergies, diabetes, arthritis, IBD, and MS. You win some, you lose some. (*do not construe this as medical advice! Eeeew!)

5. Water can be a problem in many places. You can splurge for the nice filter – or buy some inexpensive yet foul-tasting chlorine/iodine – but if you will mostly be drinking bottled water, you can get one of these inexpensive Life Straw in case of emergencies. You could drink water from a river, a lake, even a stagnant manure pond and still be fit as a fiddle with one of these.. If the water in your country of choice is OK but not great, go with one of these non-iodized filtering bottles. They are kind of difficult to suck water through, but it is worth the trouble if you don’t want to end up doubled over with stomach cramps.

But many places have an unjustly bad rap for their tap water. Find out if your destination does water testing or water treatment, you’d be surprised how many places have great tap water (often even better than the tap in the USA). Swimming and wading are questionable activities, find out if the body of water has been tested, and if the area is home to leaches (especially the dreaded Asian aquatic leach, who will swim into any orifice it can find). Salt water is usually safest.

6. Eat safe food. If you only eat things that are cooked, washed with purified water, or wrapped in thick skins, you will be fine. I never follow this rule, but I think if the rotten shark has been hanging in the open air for a six months without a single carrion bird touching it, it can’t be a good home for parasites either (or good food for me). Make sure your food is fully cooked, especially your pork. I just don’t eat pork when abroad. There are other meat options (you could even go veggie), and I don’t fancy getting a tapeworm–if its babies swim to your brain, they may cause serious permanent damage up there.

Yum, not brain-damage!

7. Don’t get an STD! Practice safe sex like never before! I don’t care if condoms don’t feel as good! Don’t get gonorrhea!

8. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you still get sick. Before I got malaria, I took my pills religiously, I slathered myself in fowl chemical concoctions, I used a sleeping net, and I even peed in jars to avoid going outside at night. I did things only a crazily paranoid person would do, and I still fell deathly ill. Sometimes you have to make peace with the fact that you will get sick if you travel to a new and more sickly country, and your weak, sheltered body may react far worse than the bodies of locals. Sometimes you find yourself outside at night. Sometimes your flip-flop breaks mid-hike. Sometimes you can’t take malaria pills for the duration of your stay. Since pulling out all the stops in Africa, I’ve been to malarial countries and not taken pills at all with no problems. With parasites, sometimes no matter what you do or don’t do, it is mostly out of your hands, so enjoy your stay while you are there instead of knocking yourself out with worry.

9. If you do get sick…

For diarrhea or vomiting, drink a ton of water. If you can’t keep it down very well, take it in slow sips. Broth is even better, the salts keep your electrolytes balanced. Bonus points if you can find some yogurt, kefir, cultured sour cream, live kombucha, sauerkraut, or other beneficial probiotic product. Also, eat raw garlic and raw onions while traveling as much as you can bear: they have antiseptic properties that kill bad stuff, and prebiotic properties that boost growth of good stuff. If it is serious and you are becoming dizzy from dehydration, don’t be a fool, see a doctor. While we appreciate your readership, don’t take our advice in lieu of advice from an actual doctor.

For skin infections, coolness and dryness help, but nothing beats medicine. For the ladies, if you can’t get medicine for a yeast infection, garlic and yogurt can help (either as a preventative eaten over a long period or time, or for immediate relieve applied topically). The same is true for thrush.

For almost anything else, see a doctor for goodness sake.