Keeping Clean at Summer Festivals (or the ABCs of Sponge Baths)
By Jessie Newburn
If you’re headed to a weekend-long festival this summer (or maybe even just camping) you’re likely to get sweaty, dirty and—depending on your natural biome, your hormones and your diet—possibly even funky.
Be good to yourself (and those around you) by keeping relatively clean when out camping or glamping. The trick? Sponge baths. The pro trick? Sponge baths done well.
Now, you may be thinking, “But there are showers at the festival / burn / event / campground I’m attending, to which I’d say, “That’s nice … but. As in, but lots can go wrong with campground and festival showers: the water pressure may be low, the showers may be blocked up, the hot water heater may suck, the bathroom floor may be disgusting and filled with other people’s hair, the women’s bathroom may be a place where some gal thinks it’s fun to bring her new fling in for some hot steamy sex (while you’re simply trying to rinse off). Whatever.”
The point is, while shower facilities when camping are most certainly nice, and occasionally quite lovely, they are not to be counted on. And most music festivals and burns happen in the sunnier, warmer, more-likely-to-make-you-feel-hot-and-sticky months of the year (the same months when bug bites from chiggers, mosquitos and whatever else are more likely to be gnawing at your skin, too).
So, be good to yourself, be good to your body and be prepared for an ace-level sponge bath. See, maintaining good hygiene while camping isn’t simply a good practice; it’s also—at least in my experience—good for your emotional state of well-being.
With that in mind, here are some core tips for sponge bathing when camping and glamping. I’ll present an ideal state, and you can tailor your setup from there.
Cheap, thin washcloths — 2-3 per day
Get those packets of eight or so washcloths, or 20, or 50, or whatever. What you’re looking for are the 100% cotton, super-thin kind. (The more people you see complaining in the reviews how thin they are, the better.) The nubbier the better, too. Each washcloth is used once and only once, for one whole body clean, then you can hang it to dry and take home with your dirty clothes to wash later.
Mild, preferably environmentally friendly, soap
Some people prefer a diluted Dr. Bronner’s soap (or equivalent). And, yes, you must dilute it because full-strength castille soap is just blech. I prefer a hard soap such as a goat-milk soap. You don’t need a lot of soap to get clean, and the soapier you are, the more water you’ll need to use to wash off and the more likely your skin is to be filmy with soap residue. Just a smidge of soap will do the trick.
You need an in-tent water supply. Water for body-washing doesn’t need to be potable, of course. Or filtered, or fancy. Fill up a gallon jug at home and bring it with you.
A way to heat your water
I bring a JetBoil Flash for boiling my water. I heat up really hot water and then add it to tent-temperature water to get it to the right temperature for me. You can use a solar water heater, or a camp stove. I like the JetBoil because I can keep it in my tent and I can heat up my water any time I want. For example, I might want to clean up from a day in the sun and change into my evening outfit around the same time the camp’s dinner is being prepared. There’s no chance I’m getting access to one of the kitchen tent’s propane burners when dinner is being made. With my own water heating source, I’m good to go whenever I want.
A hard, stable surface available
You need a stable surface to put your bowls (plural) of water on. And if you’re heating water in your tent, you absolutely need a stable surface for your JetBoil, or whatever you’re using. As I usually do my sponge bath on the floor of my tent—I always bring a wool afghan or rug for the floor of my tent, so it’s nice and padded and comfy—I prefer a shorter table such as a beach table. There are these cute little ones with short little legs that sell for about $20 online and have the added bonus of having all the table parts connected. (You can never lose a piece of the table somewhere in your camping equipment bins.)
You need to be able to put your hands in both the bowls. Well, at least one hand. The first bowl is for your clean water and soap. The second bowl is where you rinse your wash cloth every few swipes, and then wring out the dirty water.
Self care at festivals is more than luxurious; it’s important. When we’re dancing around; out in the sun for hours (and days); exposed to the elements; pushing ourselves beyond our norm with—perhaps—alcohol, cannabis and/or hallucigenics and such; and not in our normal “everyday” patterns of self care at our homes, it’s all the more important to consciously attend to our bodies. While lotion may, or may not, (depending on your personal attitudes about such things) be a necessity, it’s certainly a nice luxury to protect your skin with moisturizer. Personally, I’d recommend you go as natural as possible with your lotion ingredients. (If I need to explain why, well … IDK. Just believe me. Stay away from the sticky, smelly stuff.)
Personally, I don’t like baby wipes and feel sticky when I use them without following up with a washcloth, soap and warm water. Baby wipes can be useful for dealing with more dirt and “stuff.” You may wish to do a first round wipe with baby wipes if you got really dirty and muddy outside, or if your nether regions need a pre-wash. Basically, use baby wipes to get stuff off you, and use the wash cloths to get luxuriously clean.
- Rewetting eye drops
- Saline rinse (test it before you bring it; some of them will burn your skin; go for quality)
- Cuticle sticks
- Plastic baggies in case you use baby wipes at the portos
- And, of course, you have your toothbrush, toothpaste and floss, right?
How to Do a Glorious Sponge Bath
OK, you’ve got your supplies and set up:
- A JetBoi or something
- Two boals
- Thin washcloths
- A stable, flat surface
Great. There are approaches to sponge bathing that work better for thin, skinny people and approaches that work better for people with more folds in their skin (including thin women with larger breasts).
I’ll provide the general idea and approach, and you can adjust per your body, needs and preferences. Your sequence of body parts may vary. It’s your body. You do you! Oh, and preferably, your hands will be clean before you start.
Start with your face
Love the heck out of your face with that lovely warm wash cloth. Go for it, get in and around your eyes, go up your nose, get in those ears and around your neck. Love, love, love on your face.
Now, put the washcloth in the second bowl (the rinsing bowl) and rinse the washcloth and wring it out. Then put the washcloth in the clean water bowl and add a smidge of soap to your washcloth to start on the next area. Rinse as needed, which will usually between cleaning big areas of your body. (Plus the fresh new water is nice and hot, and that, in and of itself, is worth wringing out the used water and starting fresh.)
Wash your upper torso and arms
Your basically looking to clean areas that are less-dirty first. You may want to wash your armpits and under your breasts (or where there are any folds in your skin) later. Rinse.
Wash your lower back, hip area, butt (but not anus) and upper legs
Again, clean areas that are less dirty but don’t yet clean your genitals or anus. Rinse. Get the rhythm? Wash, rinse and get the washcloth ready for the next round.
Wash your lower legs
But not yet your feet.
Here’s where you just gotta make your own decision, and it may even vary from day to day. If you are heavier, have more folds in your skin and/or are prone to yeasty-ier skin, you may wish to wash those areas last, as to reduce any possible contamination. If you are not prone to yeasty skin, then …
Finish up and …
- Wash your armpits
- Wash under your breasts, as needed.
- (I wash my hair with the washcloth at this point — I just run it over my hair; no big commitment. Takes less than a minute.)
- Wash your genitals. Rinse, rinse, rinse that washcloth.
- Wash your feet.
- Wash your anus.
Remember: rinse that washcloth, as needed. See why you want two bowls of water? You may —depending on how much access you have to water and whether you can dump your gray water or have to cart it out (such as when at Burning Man)—want even more clean water for your rinsing bowl.
Then that’s it. That washcloth is done for the rest of the festival. Hang it up to dry. Take it home and bleach that puppy. Then repack those washcloths for the next festival or whatever you need them for.
- Dry yourself off with a microfiber camping towel. (If it’s cold or windy, being wet isn’t comfortable. Paty yourself dry after each body part you washed.)
- Put rewetting eyedrops in your eyes.
- Clean your ears.
- Use a saline rinse and blow your nose. (You might be getting a lot more dust and allergens in your nose than you normally do.)
- Floss and brush your teeth.
- Use an orange or wood stick on your nails to clean under your cuticles. (Your hands will be soft from being in the water.)
- Apply body lotion.
- Do whatever else is part of your personal care.
I hope this helps. Obviously, you need to make your own decisions about the sequence of how you wash your body. I’ve gone to at least 40 regional burns and to Burning Man proper a handful of times. I love a good shower, but I don’t depend on them when I’m camping, and my advice is nor should you. These tips are a combination of those 40-some festivals, common sense, and conversations with a number of friends about their sponge-bathing tips.
Stay clean. And if you have additional recommendations, kindly add them in the comments section below.