OUTDOORS

Best Biodegradable Soap: Wash it Away

Dennis Owens
Written by Dennis Owens

Washing your hands or clothes without soap is pretty much unheard of in the civilized world, and knowing how big of a difference this makes, it’s easy to understand why. For Cthulhu’s sake, it’s been around for at least 5,000 years, in one form or the other, so you’d expect it to be a part of every camper’s pack. Right?

Well, it’s not that simple. Some backpackers will be sure to bring it, others will poke fun at them and. The problem is that even the best biodegradable soap won’t be completely eco-friendly, no matter how organic or vegan it is (especially when you facto in the crud it’s meant to clean).

Don’t take it the wrong way, biodegradable soaps are still a whole order of magnitude “greener” than those containing synthetic detergents, but that doesn’t mean you can feel free to pour your waste water in a stream. On that same note, we make a segue to our next section…

Biodegradable Soap and Water Streams: Or, What in the World is LNT?

Leave No Trace, or LNT, as it’s commonly referred to online, is a set of ethical guidelines for campers and backpackers, and generally anyone who wants to enjoy the great outdoors. It implies pretty much what you’d think – planning and preparing ahead, not disturbing the wildlife or plants, properly disposing of waste, leaving what you find and taking only what you brought, the works.

soap

The whole idea is probably best summarized by the credo of the Baltimore Grotto caving society:

“Take nothing but pictures.
Leave nothing but footprints.
Kill nothing but time.”

Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Now, you’re probably wondering what this has got to do with biodegradable soap. Well, the fact of the matter is that biodegradable soap is anything except biodegradable when you get it directly into thewater. For this reason, many campers will advise using washcloths or baby wipes (make sure they’re alcohol based).

Even hot water and a hard scrub are preferable to any kind of soap (to be honest, that’s probably enough for most times you need to wash), and if you’re dealing with a particularly difficult patch of grime or dirt, some wet sand, pebbles, or even sugar can do wonders.

washing hands with water and biodegradable soap

However, it’s not always enough, and especially not when you need to cut grease from the pots and pansor wash your hair. If you do need to use soap in the backcountry, your first order of business is to take care it’s biodegradable.Also, be sure to use it sparingly, and follow the proper procedures for disposing of soapy water.

Soap & Camping: How to Dispose of Biodegradable Soap?

There are two schools of thought about properly disposing of biodegradable soap in the great outdoors, though both agree on one thing – you should avoid dumping it in water courses at all cost. Get at least 200 feet away from the pond, river or stream you’re camping next to. This should allow the ground to filter the waste water well before the soap can get into the water course.

soap for camping

Now, here’s where the two schools differ – most claim that you’ll need to dig a cat hole, six inches deep at most, where you’ll pour the sudsy water. Conversely, some think it’s better to disperse it over a wider area (still 200 feet away from any water, mind you). The debate is still on.

8 Best Biodegradable Soaps: EightSoaper Duper Choices

To save you the trouble of digging up the Internet looking for the best biodegradable soap, we made a short list of the most popular ones. Mind you, they also work well for travel, not only backpacking.

Coleman Camp Soap Cleaner

coleman soap

Color: White

Weight: 0.06 pounds

Packaging: 50 biodegradable sheets

Specific features: instant desolvation, lightweight, works in cold and hot water.

Best use: dishes and hands

The Coleman Camp Soap Cleaner is pretty much what it reads on the tin. The soap comes in sheets, 50 sheets (or leaves, whichever you like better) per pack. It’s like those instant meal type of things, you just need to add water to use it.

It’s good for washing both yourself and your pots and pans, as well as pants. Seriously, though, whether you take is as a carry-on (it’s TSA approved) or as an afterthought in your backpack, this thing will come in handy. Its primary purpose is washing hands, but you can just as easily use it for your clothes (single items or small loads).

All you need to do is take a ziplock, put as many sheets as you need (make sure your hands are dry) and add water; wait a minute until it dissolves completely; wash; rinse and repeat. It’ll do nicely with both hot and cold water, even salt water.

Now, it would be nicer if it were a bit cheaper, or, alternatively, if you got more of it for the same price. On the other hand, it is definitely worth paying for the convenience, so it kind of balances out. On a similar note, the soap is quite strong, and works into rich lather, but it’s also quite tough to rinse. Other than this, there’s really nothing to fault.

Ingredients:

  • 5% triclosan (FDA approved organic compound, as of yet, though it’s being monitored and tested for efficacy);
  • 5% water.

Related: Coleman Camper’s Toilet Paper, because of obvious reasons and Coleman Biowipes, for cleaning your hands when you are in a hurry.

Check the price on Amazon

Original Campsuds

Sierra dawn soup

Color: Green

Weight: 1.6 ounces

Packaging: 2-ouncebottle,  plastic

Specific features: highly concentrated, lightweight, works in cold and hot water.

Best use: dishes and bathing

The Original Campsuds is one of the oldest, if not the oldest brand of biodegradable soap, with well over half a century of experience under their collective belt, and the very unoriginally named Original Campsuds does a great job of building upon the reputation. It’s a liquid soap, and highly concentrated at that, so you only need to use a little bit.

You know how the saying goes – a little goes a long way. It comes infour variants, 2, 4 and 16-ounce, as well as a whole gallon. The 2-ounce package should be good for about two weeks’ worth of backpacking if you use it sparingly (and, trust us, you will).

On that note, it’s important to note that this is not a great shampoo, as it strips all the natural oils from your hair, but when you’re out in the boonies, it’s better than nothing. You can use it for dishes, bathing, washing hair, washinghands, clothes, shaving, you name it.

Just make sure you dilute it accordingly, and you’ll be one squeaky clean happy camper. Of course, it goes without saying that the soap works with both hot and cold water, and will do nicely even with salt water in a pinch (if you’ll pardon that pathetic excuse for a pun).

The package takes up very little space, so it’s great for travel, as well as backpacking. Granted, you might have an “incident”, and the bottle leaks or breaks, but on the flipside, your backpack (or suitcase, or trunk) will never be cleaner. While we’re at it, remember to watch out for cheap knockoffs

Bottom line is, the soap will get you clean, and without making suds or lather. Also, it won’t make you smell fancy (though it stop stop you from smelling rancid).

There’s only a hint of fragrance, although, to be honest, it’s something most soaps could do completely without (but then again, those might just be personal preferences coming out to surface). The plus side of it is that the soap won’t attract any animals to investigate round your camp.

Ingredients:

  • purified water;
  • biodegradable vegetable-based non-ionic andanionic cleaning agents;
  • natural oils(for fragrance).

Related: Coleman’s Blowipes, for a quick freshen-up, as well as Coghlan’s Backpackers Trowel, so you can dig a hole to dispose of the sudsy water.

Check the price on Amazon

All Terrain Wonder Wash

Terrain Natural soup

Color: White

Weight: 0.4 pounds

Packaging: 12-ounce bottle, plastic

Specific features: rich lather, fragrance-free, lightweight, works in cold and hot water.

Best use: bathing, washing hair

The very much aptly named All Terrain Wonder Wash is a highly concentrated liquid soap, and it’s guaranteed to clean pretty much any crud off of pretty much any surface. With this in mind, you should make sure to use it sparingly, and watch out if you use it in the shower, as it tends to make things extra slippery (on that same note, please, don’t use it as lube).

If this is your first experience with a biodegradable soap, here are the instructions – wet your hands (and other areas to wash), then work it into rich lather. Wash and rinse well, and, as with any other kind of soap, avoid contact with the eyes.

In case you do manage to get some in your eyes contact, just flush with water, and you’re in the clear. On that same note, you should know that this thing takes a lot of rinsing. On the flipside, it comes in 12-ounce bottles, so it should last you a good long while.

It’s also worth noting that the soap is fragrance-free, so it won’t attract bears or raccoons. That doesn’t mean it’s completely devoid of scent, as the natural Ingredients in it do make it smell nice. Moreover, the soap is PH-balanced, so it’s OK both for bathing and washing your hair – it won’t dry out the scalp, nor strip the hair of its natural oils (well, to an extent).

You could probably even use it for brushing your teeth, though it’s hard to imagine the situation that would call for it; besides, it would probably not taste all that well. On a similar note, it will do a nice job of washing your clothes and dishes.

Ingredients:

  • purified water;
  • sodium coco sulphate;
  • coco betaine;
  • coco amide;
  • vegetable glycerine;
  • sodium chloride (sea salt);
  • olive oil;
  • citric acid.

A word to the wise: watch out for leaky caps, and be sure to put the bottle in a zip lock every time you pack, just in case; on the flipside, if it does leak, you can trust it to do a great job of cleaning the bag or suitcase you packed it in; just rinse, and you’re good to go.

Related: Original Campsuds if you need something even stronger, and Coleman Camper’s Toilet Paper, for a completely unrelated business (wink wink).

Check the price on Amazon

Sea to Summit  Wilderness Wash

Sea to summit wash

Color: White

Weight: 0.05 pounds

Packaging: 50 biodegradable sheets

Specific features: instant desolvation, lightweight, fragrance-free, works in cold and hot water.

Best use: dishes and hands

The Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash sells as dry soap leaves, 50 in each pack, so there’s absolutely no risk of leakage. Plus, this way is TSA-approved, so you can take it with you in carry-on. There are three F’s to remember about this soap – it’sphosphate-Free, fragrance-Free and paraben-Free (a type of preservative).

This is an all-purpose soap, good for personal use, as well as cleaning pots and pans, as well as clothes and any piece of outdoor gear. The fact it sells dry means it won’t pop open or leak in your backpack or suitcase, which makes it perfect for carry-on.

Ingredients:

  • starch;
  • glycerin;
  • sodium dodecyl sulfate;
  • cocamide DEA;
  • cocamidopropyl betaine;
  • tea tree oil;
  • water;
  • mineral oil;
  • carbopol resin;
  • sodium lactate.

Related: Sea To Summit Trek and Travel Pocket Soap and Travelon Laundry Soap Sheets, if you’re travelling in company.

Check the price on Amazon

Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Soap

Dr bronner soup

Color: Yellowish-brown

Weight: 1.2 pounds

Packaging: 16-ounce bottle, plastic

Specific features: highly concentrated, lightweight, works in cold and hot water.

Best use: soothing body rub, bathing

Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Soap is the most animal-friendly soap there is, thanks to its all organic and vegan ingredients (in case anyone’s interested). It’s certified by the National Organic Program (a USDA program) to be organic, just as it’s certified by Vegan Action to be Vegan. What’s more, it comes inrecycled packaging, which makes this one of the greenest soaps out there.

This is a pure-castile soap (basically means it’s made with olive oil), with peppermint fragrance, making it not only a great cleaning agent, but also a mild therapeutic stimulant.This is an all-purpose liquid soap that washes everything. It’s highly concentrated, so dilute it according to the task at hand (mopping, washing, bathing, shaving, you name it)

Ingredients:

  • water;
  • coconut-hemp-olive oils;
  • olive fatty acids;
  • menthol-boosted peppermint oil;
  • vitamin e.

Here’s a useful tip – for everyday washing, just use it like you’d use a regular soap, but if you want to make a facial pack, you’ll want to dash just a little bit on a towel and soak it in a sink filled with hot water. You’ll then need to wring it out, and lay over your face.

For a soothing body rub, you’ll want to take the soaked towel and massage the legs and arms a couple of times (up to four) with your fingertips, always going towards the heart.

Related: Foaming Dispensers for Castile Liquid Soap, if you wish to pinch a penny down the line, and Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap, if you prefer the scent of citrus.

Check the price on Amazon

Trek and Travel Pocket Soap

sea to ssummit trek

Color: Various

Weight: 1 ounce

Packaging: 50 biodegradable sheets

Specific features: instant desolvation, lightweight, works in cold and hot water.

Best use: dishes and hands

The Trek and Travel Pocket Soap from Sea To Summit comes in packs of 50, which makes it ideal to ration. There are five distinct flavors (not literally, of course) –body wash, hand wash, conditioning shampoo, shaving soap and laundry wash, all of them color-coded (off-white, white, blue, pink and yellow, respectively). It’s ideal for carry-on, as it won’t leak or pop the cap.

It’s a phosphate-free and paraben free soap, with a light hint of green tea. Still, if you’re sensitive, even this little can be too much for you. To use it, you need to add water and make liquid soap, essentially, and wash anything from your hands to your clothes.

While we’re at it, it’s important to note that the laundry wash is not for machine washing, and you’re supposed to use it with small loads or single items (socks, underwear, getting stains out). It’s a real outdoorsy type of soap.

Pro-tip: Put two or three sheets in a small zip lock bag, and simply add water until you end up with a nice sudsy mix with rich lather (make sure your hadns are completely dry when handling the soap). It doesn’t have to be much, just a couple of spoons.

Scoop the mix out and apply. Rinse and repeat if necessary. While we’re at it, we should point outit’s a great body soap, but not so great for hair and scalp, as it tends to dry out the scalp and strip all the natural oils from your hair.

Ingredients:

  • differs slightly for each of the five variants.

Related: Travelon Laundry Soap Sheets and Travelon Toiletry Sheets Body Wash, if you want to have more versatility.

Check the price on Amazon

RX Biodegradable Camp Soap

Rx biodegradable

Color: Blue

Weight: 4 ounces

Packaging: 8-ounce bottle, plastic

Specific features: hypoallergenic, mild, fragrance-free, lightweight, works in cold and hot water.

Best use: hands and body

The RX Biodegradable Camp Soap is exactly what you would think after hearing the name. It comes in 8-ounce bottles, and despite the name, it’s not too concentrated. On the flipside, it’s hypoallergenic.

However, there’s one part the name’s got right- the soap is fragrance-free,so it won’t attract any bears into the camp to snoop around your tent or camping hammock. It’s an all-purpose soap, meaning you can use it for anything from your hair and hands to pots and pans, as well as pants.

It does take a bit more of it to cut grease, but as an everyday bodywash, it’s great. You can use it with hot and cold water, and even salt water if there’s nothing else.

One of the major selling points is that the dispenser cap bottles are available in several different sizes, so it would be a good idea to get a smaller bottle (TSA-approved 2.8-ounce), use it up, and then re-fill it from bigger bottles (it’ll save you a pretty sum in the long run).

Ingredients:

  • non-ionic cleaning agents;
  • proprietary natural anti-allergen extracts;
  • deionized water;
  • FD&C green 3.

Related: Coleman Biowipes and Coghlan’s Backpackers Trowel, two items which can’t be connected in any conceivable way, but they are (wink wink).

Check the price on Amazon

Castile Soap

castile soap

Color: White

Weight: 12 ounces

Packaging: 3 biodegradable bars

Specific features: hypoallergenic, inexpensive, natural fragrances, lightweight, works in cold and hot water.

Best use: body and clothes

The Castile Soap from Kirk’s is definitely one of the best bangs for the buck when it comes to biodegradable soaps.You get three bars (4 ounces each) for a decent price. The soap’s gentle, anddoesn’t leave any drying residue.

The manufacturer stresses the fact that the soap is made with no animal by-products, as well as that it was never tested on animals, so it’s the most humane soap out there, in a manner of speaking.

All jokes aside, though, this is definitely something people need to know. Another major selling point for this soap is that it’s hypoallergenic, and doesn’t contain any synthetic ingredients such as detergents or fragrances (well, if you don’t count the soapy smell of its natural ingredients as fragrances).

It doesn’t smell like coconut, at least not like the artificial coconut scent we’re used to, but it does have a fresh, clean and soothingly bland aroma to it. It works into richlather, and does a great job of washing both skin and hair, as well as washing laundry, which makes it great not only for backpacking, but also globetrotting.

Ingredients:

  • water;
  • vegetable glycerin;
  • coconut oil;
  • natural fragrances.

Related: Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda, when you really have to get rid of grass stains.

Check the price on Amazon

Washing in the Backcountry: Do You Really Need Soap on a Camping Trip?

To be honest, if you’re just a weekend warrior, there is zero need for soap, biodegradable or not. A pack of wipes is more than enough, and you can easily dispose of those in a zip lock bag, and then take it with you when leaving.

Alternatively, you could just leave it with the camp authorities, if they offer that service (it really varies from park to park, or campsite to campsite, but most will insist that you clean after yourself).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Owens
Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.

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