A lot of people I meet on backpacking and camping trips think that it’s ok to pour soapy water into streams and rivers if they use biodegradable , , or to wash their hands, shampoo their hair, or clean their camp cookware. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Generally speaking, getting any soap in a water source is not acceptable or recommended by Leave No Trace guidelines. The soap can cause all sorts of issues from increased nitrogen to actually causing significant harm to aquatic inhabitants. The impacts are further amplified in high use areas.
It’s important to understand that there are still significant impacts from “BIODEGRADEABLE” products and soap manufacturers say as much, when you read the fine print on the label:
Low Impact Disposal of Soapy and Contaminated Water
So how should you dispose of soapy dish water or water you’ve used to wash yourself with in the backcountry?
It’s pretty simple. Dig a hole 200 feet away from other water sources and pour your wastewater in it. Putting it in a hole lets the soil act as a filter, helps accelerate the biodegradable process, and protects wildlife from disturbing it by helping to hide the scent.
Having the foresight to dig a hole requires a little planning on your part, and if you’re washing dishes it helps to have something to carry water away from other water sources like a camp bucket or a water reservoir. The same goes for washing your hands or taking a sponge bath and aiming your wastewater in the hole. No one’s aim is perfect, but the important thing is that you’re not pouring your soapy wastewater back into a stream, pond, lake, or river, but into the ground where the chemicals in the soap can decompose.
Even if you don’t use soap, think twice before swimming in creeks or potholes where water is scare. Lotion, sunscreen, insect repellent and body oils can contaminate these vital water sources. No one wants to drink downstream water, that you’ve used to wash DEET off your body. Dig a hole. Please.
None of these extra steps are difficult to do or terribly inconvenient, but they can help if you want to preserve the backcountry so it will be there for you or others to enjoy later on.
Written 2014. Updated 2018.SectionHiker.com receives affiliate compensation from retailers that we link to if you make a purchase through them, at no additional cost to you. This helps to keep our content free and pays for our website hosting costs. Thank you for your support.
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