How can I take care of my skin while I'm backpacking?

That sun will get you if you don’t take a few simple steps to protect your skin while backpacking. See more extreme sport pictures.
That sun will get you if you don’t take a few simple steps to protect your skin while backpacking. See more extreme sport pictures.

We expose our bodies to a wide variety of conditions, not all of them skin-friendly. If you pay attention to your skin, you probably follow some kind of skin care regimen. This process probably centers around the climate you're exposed to on a daily basis and involves a number of products that come in containers of all shapes and sizes. Taking care of your skin is a good thing, but your skin care regimen isn't always portable. Such is the case with caring for your skin on the hiking trail.

Two things become apparent when you're backpacking on the trail. First, a light pack makes a happy hiker. Second, you're in another world -- one that rarely lies near stores and shopping malls.


It's still a good idea to take care of your skin despite -- and because of -- these tenets of backpacking. Your daily regimen will probably look a little different while you're out on the trail; it will involve fewer products with specific purposes like defending skin from insect bites and other hiking-related injuries. The ultimate goal remains the same, however: to keep your skin healthy and beautiful.

The best way to protect your skin is also the simplest. Wearing pants, long sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat can prevent sunburn, biting insects and other harm from coming to your skin. Sunburn isn't fun on the trail, since you're likely to scrape against brush frequently. Mosquito bites aren't a picnic either, and they can transmit disease. Keeping them off of you is a big task in wet, wooded areas, where as many as 10,000 larvae can grow per square foot [source:].

They may be more expensive, but it's worth it to invest in good clothing designed for backpacking. Lightweight shirts made of synthetic materials like nylon can block more ultraviolet (UV) rays than cotton, and are often designed to wick moisture from your skin as you sweat. This will help prevent rashes.

Clothes and hats alone aren't going to protect your skin, though. Depending on where the trail is, your skin will be exposed to a number of threats. The sun, wind, temperature and insect bites can cause problems. Keeping in mind that packing light is a must and that you'll be off the beaten path, supplementing the protection provided by your clothes with skin care products that can pull double or triple duty is a big help.



Skin Care Products on the Backpack Trail

Even in chilly regions, you can work up a sweat while backpacking. Bring some talcum powder along to prevent chafing.
Even in chilly regions, you can work up a sweat while backpacking. Bring some talcum powder along to prevent chafing.
Ryan McVay/Thinkstock

When packing light and hitting the trail, try bringing along a good allover body balm that includes some sun protection. Dermatologists recommend using products with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 that protects against ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. There are a number of body balms on the market that have SPFs of 30 or higher [source: ADA]. A body balm with SPF can stand in for sunblock, lip balm and skin and facial moisturizer -- usually in a stick weighing just a few ounces.

You'll also want to bring along talcum powder, which is extremely useful in keeping moist skin dry. Putting talc on areas of your skin where it can chafe, like sweaty areas beneath your underarms where your backpack straps may rub against your skin, can help protect from heat rashes [source: Davidson-Meyn]. Sprinkling talcum powder on your feet and toes absorbs the moisture that can lead to trench foot, a debilitating condition that will knock you off the trail quickly.


Packing light can make any combination product a fantastic idea. This isn't always the case with products that combine sunblock and DEET-based insect repellent. DEET is a chemical ingredient found in many insect repellents. It's designed to evaporate over time -- and to be used in moderation. Frequently applying sunblock with DEET in it could lead to health hazards. When using sunblock and insect repellent separately, apply the sunblock first [source: CDC].

In colder climes, chapping from low temperatures and wind can pose skin problems. Fear not, though: There are products that can be used as both lip balm and a barrier for skin against UV rays and wind. If you're heading out into freezing temperatures, look for skin balms designed for such climates. These products don't have water in their formulas, which ultimately protects against frostbite since the ingredients won't freeze your skin [source: goFASTandLIGHT]. And remember that even though it's cold, the sun continues to threaten your skin. Snow on the ground reflects sunlight well, making backpacking along snowy, sunny areas seem like getting blasted by the sun twice.

Making a few good decisions while backpacking can help you adjust your skin care regimen. Adding just a few extra ounces to your pack can go a long way to keeping your skin safe and healthy -- wherever you take it.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Dermatologists can help separate fact from fiction for sun exposure, sunscreen and vitamin D." November 10, 2009.
  • Centers for Disease Control. "Insect repellent use and safety." February 25 2010.
  • Davidson-Meyn, Heather. "Tummy aches and food mistakes." Backpacking the Planet. Accessed April 8, 2010.
  • Ecoki Articles. "Top 4 backpacking skincare products." May 22, 2009.
  • "Dermatone waterfree sun wind skin protection." Accessed April 7, 2010.