In the field, that is, when you are living out in the woods, on an expedition or otherwise not at home with home comforts exposes us to additional problems not usually encountered at home. Good hygiene become more important than it is at home.
For a start, hygiene is harder to enforce as you wont have a bathroom to use or a tap to quickly wash your hands.
In the Arctic, even when cabin´s are available, it is extremely rare to encounter one with running water from a tap let alone a hot tap. This is because the temperature is so consistently low that pipes freeze, then burst. People in the north look to other ways to keep clean such as a sauna if available.
If no obvious means of washing are available, we must look for other ways.
Indoor, flushing toilet´s are also something of a rarity for the same reasons, an outhouse is the standard up here and is simply a small cabin, just large enough to sit down in and a seat over a hole in the ground. A good one will have a polystyrene seat (actually really nice to sit on even in extreme cold)
Picture this, Your stomach is rumbling, you bowls are loudly protesting and you have a uneasy feeling that something is about to happen. You realise that you need to get to a toilet, quickly.
You first have to get out of bed which is a depressing prospect in itself as it is warm in there and cold out. You get dressed and prepare to go to the outhouse.
First you have to put your thermal underwear on, then your socks, trousers, jumpers, coat, hat, gloves and boots. This can take 5 minutes and all the time, the urgency of a visit to the outhouse is increasing and when ill, you may run out of time while getting dressed and then you have an even bigger problem to deal with as you will now have to find a way to wash your clothing too.
Then you have to get out side and make your way in the dark, to the outhouse. Once inside, you notice that the cold is biting on exposed skin and your hands are hurting due to the cold.
The general advice for ¨how to shit in the arctic¨ is simple, you do it quickly but not so quickly that you do not finish the job properly. Repeat visits to the latrine or outhouse are a thing to be avoided if at all possible.
You sit down and wait for business to care of itself, it could be -40 degrees centigrade but your bowels do not care. It is important to not rush this and you do not want to have to come back to repeat this any time soon.
Once finished, there is no tap to wash your hands, it is so cold, the thought of putting water on your skin is almost unthinkable anyway. At this point, an alcohol based anti bacterial hand gel is the best option as your only means of preparing hot water is to fill up a billy can of water and heat it up on the wood stove, this will likely take 20 minutes or so.
You go back to the cabin, get undressed, get back into bed and then as you breath a sign of relief, your bowels again begin to protest and you need to get back to the outhouse.
When you are ill, this can go on for days, you get very little sleep and the amount of time and energy you expend just going to the toilet is staggering.
With most stomach upset´s, colds and flu´s, your energy will be low anyway, this will simply make it even worse than it is at home and our ability to look after ourselves is greatly diminished. Firewood still needs to be collected and prepared, food still needs to be acquired and cooked, the wood stove still needs to be fed and water still needs to be collected and prepared.
It is therefore much more important that we maintain a good level of hygiene when out in the field to help us to avoid bacterial and viral infections at all costs.
Getting sick out in the field is so much worse and potentially more dangerous than it is when at home.
Antibacterial hand gel will only get you so far, it is not enough on it´s own but it is extremely useful. You need to clean your whole body to get rid of the build up of grime and remove the conditions for bacteria to breed in. Armpits, groin, hands, feet and face seem particularly prone to this and an infection in any of these areas can turn into a serious problem.
Wet wipes or baby wipes tend to leave a slimy residue behind and seem to just push the grime around instead of actually cleaning you so I do not recommend these.
I have found that the easiest and most satisfying method is to heat up about 1 liter of water then add 1.5 liters of cold water to that. This is probably more than is needed and you could get away with less. Then with some soap and a wet flannel or small towel, you just wet the flannel in soapy water and wash yourself with it.
You usually cannot not just strip off entirely because of the cold but you can do a bit of your body at a time, only undressing that part of your body and then replacing clothing as you move onto the next bit.
You will feel much better too, something about being dirty has a really negative effect on our mood and once clean you feel refreshed and like a new person.
If anybody in your group is sick, keep them well away from any food preparation and give them a small bottle of anti bacterial hand gel to use throughout the day. You don´t want them to pass on whatever it is that is making them sick by touching things like equipment and door handles.
Get their water for them so that they do not infect the water supply.
Ultimately, washing is all about routine, the sooner you get into a new routine the cleaner and fresher you are going to feel and the less likely you are to pick up an illness. Don´t go days and days without washing and if in the cold north, do not be fooled into thinking that bacteria and viruses cannot survive the cold, they can as they use you as a giant heat source to stay warm.
Once on a canoe trip in Scotland of all places, I made the mistake of drinking some bad water while in a rush. I did not have time to properly filter and boil the water so I just dropped a purification tablet into the water. That night, I had the most explosive and debilitating diarrhea of my life and sometimes you just cannot control it, when it comes, it comes, weather you are ready for it or not.
It turned out that the purification tablet was out of date and not effective.
I got no sleep, despite being exhausted, the next day I could not eat and could barely drink but had to cover many more miles of hard paddling into the wind.
It was horrible, trust me.
I think what it really boils down to is motivation, a lot of people just think ¨I can´t be bothered with this and i´ll be alright¨. The chances are that you won´t be alright and even if you do not pick up and infection, you will smell bad and feel bad at the same time so make a point of washing every day, You will feel better for it.
In the Arctic, some advice against the cold is to not wash exposed area´s of skin as the oily residue that builds up on your skin helps to protect against the cold.
I have put this to the test and found that it made no difference at all to me.
Keep yourself clean, maintain a high standard of hygiene and take extra care to avoid passing on an illness if it all possible, at all costs because coming down with the run´s or the flu while out in the field can be a major nuisance at best and a life threatening problem at worse and can usually be avoided by good hygiene and good camp discipline.