Brushing your teeth in the backcountry – Leave No Trace and Fresh Breath

By Chelsea Parrott


As an outdoor educator, I’ve seen some of the most beautiful outdoor spaces tarnished by some of the ugliest human impacts. Abandoned gear, trash in fire pits, even the dreaded “surface poo”. Chances are, most of these backpacking crimes are not done out of malice but perhaps lack of understanding about how our actions can affect the ecosystems where we recreate.

Tooth brushing is a classic example of human activity that affects the surrounding environment more than most people realize. Some typical challenges with outdoor human hygiene involve: A) Keeping chemicals away from water sources B) Eliminating enticing smells that could attract wild animals and C) Avoiding trampling or damaging plants in the campsite area.

To address these challenges and leave the least amount of negative impact on popular and secluded campsites alike, consider these four brushing techniques.


Gold Star Technique: Trash Bag

After brushing your teeth with a minimal amount of toothpaste (a small, pea-sized dollop is more than enough), spit directly into your trash bag. This method avoids introducing foreign chemicals into the environment and satisfies every tired hiker’s desire to sit still after a long day without extra hiking away from camp. Remember to stow away your “smellies” in a safe place like a bear box or bear canister whenever you are not with your items and while you sleep. And always pack out all of your trash.


Silver Star Technique: Swallow

Swallowing a minimal amount of toothpaste might sound odd, but don’t knock it ‘till you try it. With a splash of water, you might find this method is the easiest, laziest, and freshest option for keeping your chemicals away from camp and away from water sources. But consider the potential effect this method might have on your stomach health if you’re going to be backpacking for a longer time. 


Bronze Star Technique: Spew

The perfect “spew” technique takes some practice. I’ve seen too many decayed leaves and poisoned plants covered in toothpaste “spittle” along the perimeter of campsites from daily human impact. To avoid harming vegetation (including grasses, biological soil crust, etc.) find a location away from water sources and away from campsites to spew your toothpaste into little, tiny particles.  Imagine a whale spraying out of its blowhole – now build up some pressure and spew your toothpaste over durable surfaces like rocks or dirt. Remember, wandering off trail and walking on non-durable surfaces can harm plants and contribute to erosion issues – leading to many problems including aquatic ecosystem damage. The spew technique might not be suitable for all ecosystems so do your research!


One Star: Sump Hole

Much like a cathole (for human waste), a sump hole allows for chemicals to filter through the ground before ever reaching a water source and ideally obscure any intriguing scents from curious animals. For toothpaste waste, dig a small sump hole approximately 6 inches deep, 200 feet away from water sources, campsites, or trails. Spit toothpaste into the sump hole and remember to fill in the hole completely after you are finished. Never spit into a fire pit. Fire pits are not magical portals for disposing of waste.


Learn more backpacking tips from World’s Best Adventures! If you like these tips and want to learn more, join World’s Best Adventures on a trip this spring. We take beginning backpackers, families, groups, and hikers of all skill levels on guided backpacking trips to some of the most beautiful locations in North Carolina. Learn more here.

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