When someone is backpacking for several days, washing hands with soap might not always be possible, or inconvenient (e.g. because of soap polluting the water; you want to minimize the weight of your pack, ...). However, some resources, such as the Backpacker's Field Manual strongly recommend either using soap, or some hand sanitizer, and claim that gastroenteritis is likely to occur if they are not used. The main argument here is that even healthy individuals can contract gastroenteritis from contact of their own feces, if they don't wash their hands thoroughly enough.

While I agree that washing hands is reasonable, I wonder if soap or sanitizers are really necessary in most cases? This is mainly due to 2 questions:

  • Apparently, washing hands simply with water already decreases the amount of bacteria on your hands significantly. Shouldn't this be enough when on a hike? (Unless you were in contact with someone who has Salmonella, ..., i.e. some serious illness).

  • Do bacteria (like E.coli, in particular) die after a while when on the skin anyway?

Is it true that when outdoors for several days and no means of using soap or a hand sanitizer, but washing hands simply with water, one is at a notably higher risk of contracting some kind of gastroenteritis?

  • 2
    Welcome to skeptics.SE! Questions here should include a notable claim, which yours doesn't, so I'm voting to close. If you can focus your question on a specific claim for which you can show notability with sources, I'll retract. Otherwise, outdoors.SE might be a better fit.
    – tim
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 23:18
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    Thank you for pointing that out! I have reformulated my question to better fit the rules.
    – DominikS
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 0:51
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    When going on a several day-long hike, there's usually a lot of useful equipment you would like to bring, but you have to cut it down to the bare minimum - every extra pound will be a pain after a few days. A couple of 'light' items like a hand sanitizer can quickly accumulate to an extra pound. Like for every item you consider bringing along, it is indeed good to know if you'll need it or not.
    – DominikS
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 17:09
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    I'm skeptical. The most likely source of GI problems when camping is the water one drinks. So boil it, or bring some iodine pills. The next most likely source is dirty hands. So wash them, with soap or a drop or two of dishwashing detergent. Maybe I'm too old school. I would never have thought of taking hand sanitizer on a camping trip. A small bar of soap and bit of something with which to clean cooking equipment, dishes, and utensils ("camp clean", of course) have been essentials for 100 years. Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 2:47

1 Answer 1


It is definitely worth bringing sanitizer on a hike

Germ Longevity

Bacteria and viruses die after a while on your skin - anywhere from hours to months according to the UK NHS. If you can keep your hands away from your mouth and nose for 5 or so months, good for you! However, this study shows the average time between hand to mouth contact is less than 2 minutes - the germs are very much alive.

The case for soap

Washing with water only is definitively better than not washing. Washing with soap is easier than washing without when removing visible dirt and soiling. There is conflicting evidence as to if it is more efficacious at reducing the transmission of disease.

This laboratory study showed the number of exposed subjects who had pathogens on their hands was:

  • No washing: 44%
  • Water only: 23%
  • Soap and water: 8%

However, this long-term field study showed a reduction in the incidence of infant diarrhea when hands were washed but it was not statistically significant if soap was used.

The case for alcohol

First, alcohol sanitizers do not clean your hands, they kill germs - to remove visible dirt you need water and, preferably, soap.

From the World Health Organisation:

At present, alcohol-based handrubs are the only known means for rapidly and effectively inactivating a wide array of potentially harmful microorganisms on hands.

Pack the sanitizer.

  • The WHO quote seems to be contradictory to what you claim by saying "alcohol sanitizers do not clean your hands". You claim it does not, but the quote says it does exactly what we want it to do: inactivate pathogens.
    – Cronax
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 11:17
  • @Cronax yes, but it doesn't remove dirt.
    – Dale M
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 11:29
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    I'm suggesting a rephrasing, to something along the lines of "First, alcohol sanitizers do not remove visible dirt, they only kill germs".
    – Cronax
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 11:35
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    All you've done is prove that soap removes germs from the hands, what's required to answer the question is proof that this action is necessary, that failing to remove that quantity of germs will result in illness in an otherwise healthy person. I see no evidence in your answer to demonstrate that. Evidence with infants, hospital settings, care homes etc is so easy to come by I wouldn't expect citations, but this is not so readily the case with otherwise healthy adults.
    – Isaacson
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 12:54
  • Don't forget to pack the hand grenade. it is better suited to chase polar bears off than a nail file
    – miracle173
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 5:55

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