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Travel Hygiene: Are Travelers Dirty, Dirty People?

travel hygiene

Often times, whenever I tell someone that I have been traveling, living and working around the world for the past 13 years or so, I receive a very similar response. It begins with a “Hmm…” and continues with a “You don’t look like someone who has been traveling for 13 years!

At that point, I’ll ask for some clarification.

And this is when such observations as “Your clothes are clean. Your hair isn’t a mess. You’re clean shaven. You don’t stink.” are mentioned.

I usually just smile and say “Yup.

The problem is that it’s quite common for some to think that long-term travel can only be accomplished in two ways – either with an endless supply of money or basically no money at all. And since I rarely take my Lamborghini with me on my adventures and I prefer to leave my Rolex locked up in the hostel safe, it is automatically assumed that I’m traveling on an extremely low budget. And if I’m traveling with such little money, surely I should fit the mold of what we think a person with such little money who bums around the world must look like…well, a bum. So, in conclusion, I should be disturbingly dirty and completely unhygienic, I should be someone who sleeps on the streets, eats trash, rarely showers, never washes my clothes and has forgotten what a toothbrush looks like.

But guess what?

Long-term travelers do laundry.
We take showers.
We even sleep in beds, usually!

And while I can’t speak for every long-term traveler out there, I personally travel with more than one shirt and more than one pair of underwear. My socks rarely smell too bad. I brush my teeth, every day, two or three times per day in fact! I shampoo my hair and I even shave. Heck, I also shave my armpits and even pluck my eyebrows. And I’ve found it quite easy to do all of these things and to avoid the transformation into a food-permanently-stuck-in-my-teeth, lice-infested, torn and stained clothes-wearing, disheveled and bedraggled mess. Amazing, right?

Not so much.

Travel Hygiene - Dirty Travelers?

It really is not so difficult to practice good travel hygiene while out there in the world. Showers are plentiful (or at least a pipe with water coming out of it), even when you stay at the cheapest accommodation possible. Toothpaste, shaving cream, deodorant, shampoo, soap and even nail clippers can be bought everywhere. Laundry can be done in a sink at a hostel/budget hotel and laundry detergent costs as little as 2 US cents for a packet in some countries. In many parts of the world, you can bring your clothes to a laundromat and they’ll clean the lot for a few dollars. Even inexpensive new clothes can be purchased in just about any country in the event that your pants sustain a major rip across the crotch.

The point is that long-term travelers are not dirty folk and even on a budget of a few hundred dollars per month, it’s very possible to stay clean and healthy. There’s really no reason to live an unhygienic traveling lifestyle, unless you really want to, as you pretty much need to make a real effort to avoid showers, keep your clothes dirty and not give in to the temptation of clean teeth.

I personally feel good after taking a shower and I tend to enjoy life better when my feet aren’t itchy from a pair of socks that haven’t been cleaned in months. I know, I’m strange!

Feeling Dirty?

If you’re ever out there traveling and you do start to find that washing your clothes is becoming difficult or that keeping up good travel hygiene is not as easy as you thought, you might want to slow down your travel pace. You really might be moving too fast if you don’t have time to wash, clean, scrub, shave and brush. Stop for a week somewhere, relax and refresh, get your stuff in order, wash that massive bag of dirty clothes and even put some moisturizer on after a shower. You’ll feel good, believe me.

While you’re at, and this is important for all travelers, you might also want to ensure that you’re not only clean but in optimal mental and physical condition as well. Your travels will be infinitely more rewarding if you take a few minutes each day to really focus on yourself. Take some vitamins to supplement any potential deficiencies resulting from a constantly changing diet, try to eat as healthy as you possibly can, exercise often, either with simple hotel room workouts or even by walking as much as you can every single day (it’s a great way to experience a destination as well!).

Activities such as reading, meditation and silent contemplation, listening to music, yoga, even juggling your socks (preferably clean ones!)…they are all perfect travel companions. Anything that improves your mental and physical well-being and allows you to clear your head and keep your body in shape, is worth doing while out there on the road. Travel can be mentally and physically draining after all and if you don’t take care of yourself, it can easily lose its appeal after a while.

Stay healthy, stay fresh, stay clean and you’ll wake up every day with even more energy to get out there and experience life as a traveler. In fact, now that I wrote this post, I realized that I could use a little meditation session myself today and it’s also probably time I work on getting that piece of corn out of my teeth. That barbeque I attended here in Bucharest was almost three weeks ago.

Have you found it difficult to stay clean while traveling? Any concerns about maintaining hygiene for those about to travel? Anyone know how to get a piece of corn out of my teeth that’s really wedged in there?


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70 Responses to Travel Hygiene: Are Travelers Dirty, Dirty People?

  1. Pingback: You're Dirty! Take a Bath at Banos Balcarel - Migratory Muzings

  2. Lehua says:

    Its all those darn dirty hippies, giving us travelers a bad name! No, but seriously. I think you are a much cleaner traveler than a lot I’ve met in hostels. Of course, you travel semi-professionally, so that helps. Its mostly those that travel like I do, flying by the seat of your pants, not knowing which city you’ll be in, almost always on the edge of destitution. I have definitely found myself using baking soda because I didn’t have deodorant, or (embarrassingly) sun washing my clothes until I could find a place to wash them (especially in places where I had to hand-wash). I wrote tips the other half – the stereotypically dirty travelers, students, hippies, wayward souls, etc. It is here, if you are interested

  3. Pingback: Adjusting to long term travel | NZ Muse

  4. Pingback: Travel Bloggers of the Month: July “Getting Real” Edition | The HostelBookers Blog

  5. Great advice, especially on taking the time to work out and meditate. I think feeling clean and healthy doesn’t take as much on the road as it does back home, but it’s important to keep it up to avoid that tired/icky feeling. I’ve definitely had that before on longer trips, and I’m only learning now what I need to maintain my own level of ‘freshness’ – which I think varies between people too.

  6. When I did my RTW trip I packed really light so was doing laundry in the sink every other day…and over 11 months only had to wear underwear inside-out once! It was no problem.

    Unless I was on a trekking trip or something I was able to keep my hygiene up just about the same as back home. If you’re thinking about travel don’t be concerned, they have showers in most places!

  7. Nicole says:

    I know how to get piece of corn out of there. Two words:

    water pick.

    I’m not going to lie though, I have smelled a couple of stinkers on our travels. But, maybe they missed their daily shower. Whatever. I won’t judge.

  8. I have never traveled extensively, but the first few times I visited my inlaws outside Johannesburg I did need to learn new laundry habits. I had used a washer and dryer all my life, but they had a deep stone sink in the yard and a clothesline out back. I had to learn how to scrub clothes by hand and hang them properly. But it was not unpleasant to do. I found the work kind of a meditative oasis, bonded with my MIL as she taught me the basic skills I never learned in the American suburbs, and marvelled at how quickly the African sunshine dried all my stuff – just as fast as a power-eating dryer would have.

  9. Peggy says:

    People have so many preconceptions – “hostels and backpackers are dirty” is just one of them. The truth is, budget travelled has evolved so much that the old stereotype of a one-shirt-one-pair-underwear dirty, smelly backpacker is now pretty much a rarity!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Peggy – I wouldn’t say a rarity but luckily, a little less common these days. I still meet plenty of people who never change their clothes, barely shower and whose hostel bed simply smells foul. Still a ways to go!

  10. I definitely am dirtier now than when I’m at home. Also? My hippie pants have holes in them. it’s shocking considering I spent a whopping $5 on them. Tears.

    I like to call it a ‘glaze’ that I’m perpetually covered in when in Southeast Asia – a glaze of DEET, sweat, and sunscreen.

    Also, why is it that the bathrooms one has to pay to use are always the gross squatters with no soap or even a sink to wash your hands after? Where do I submit my complaint?

    So, in my case, this traveler is dirtier on the road, but I still shower regularly, (usually) am wearing clean clothing, and definitely keep my teeth brushed and flossed.

  11. Jess says:

    I admit, I shower – and wash my clothes – rather less then daily when I am actually travelling between places, or out in the middle of nowhere. (One camp shower for 30 people means you get a turn maybe once a week.)

    On the other hand, the first thing I do when getting back to actual civilization with indoor plumbing is to get clean – I don’t just wander around like I stumbled out of the woods.

  12. Anthony says:

    Quality post, well done for the entertainment!

  13. I just want to say how much I love this blog and how much its an inspiration. Every post has been informative and interesting. Next month I’m putting everything in storage and going on my own adventure, thanks in no small part to your blog Earl!!

  14. mzuri says:

    I especially like your comments about slowing down one’s pace at times – for laundry and to do other self-care activities. I call it “taking a vacation from my vacation.”

  15. Hahaha that first pic is great!

  16. This made me laugh. I for one wouldn’t want to travel if it meant I couldn’t stay clean. Wouldn’t most ppl think the same? Who wants to smell their own stink? Not to mention, any other’s stink.

  17. Mimi says:

    When I flew to Paris through school, our flight took much longer than it should have due to delays and layovers. We ended up flying the last leg through the night and it was a bit miserable, but I learned something. Even if all you can do is wash your face and brush your hair and teeth in the little airplane latrine, cleaning yourself up really makes you feel better on long journeys. A little hygiene gives you just enough peace to fly those last few hours and maybe even get some sleep in the process.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Mimi – I believe the same…just splashing some water on your face makes a huge difference. It doesn’t take much to feel ‘clean’ and as a result, feel much better in general no matter what kind of travel situation you’re facing.

  18. Baby wipes are a god send! I stuff a small packet of these in my pack and they’re awesome for waking yourself up after a 24 hour bus trip across mexico. It’s like you mentioned in your article about sitting down for a coffee when you first get to a city, a quick wash of the face has the same effect for me.

  19. Hahahaha!

    I’m a bit of a clean freak! I’m a 2 shower a day kind of guy unless I’m out on the road hiking, camping or doing the bus/flight thing…then I’ve got wipes on hand for the important bits to keep myself feeling fresh and from getting too reekish.

  20. Charmine says:

    Hi Earl,
    when I started my travels to India&Nepal, my mother completely freaked out about the hygiene-topic: She wanted to buy single-use panties for me… ever heard of it?? Me neither! In the end I could convince her that I wouldn’t need them, nor would I need five rolls of toilet paper, nor a huge package of single-use washrags, nor two bottles of disinfectants, nor.. well you get the idea.
    Funnily, even though she knows that I survived and stayed clean and healthy there without using a washing machine once (I really enjoy washing my clothes in the sink, do it at least every second day, and need almost no clothes to take with me as a result), the conversation was repeated when I started a hitchhiking trip through Europe: She offered to visit me in Berlin and “bring some fresh clothes and take the dirty ones back home” – as if I was running around in my two dresses for four weeks now without cleaning them :D

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Charmine – For those who don’t travel, it’s hard to understand what it’s really like out there on the road!

  21. Jaryd says:

    So true, we aren’t all bums and maybe on the odd occasion that we do look scraggy, its probably because we just came from a stupid 42 hour transit. The way I stay clean, fit and healthy is pump out a quick few push ups and sit ups, have a shower and wash my clothes whilst I’m in there (if I’m on a tight schedule). Yea Earl, get a hold of some tooth pics mate, or you can now buy these amazing little chimney look alike floss brushes (in the supermarkets) that can bust that corn kernel right out of there.

  22. Olfa says:

    Hi Earl,

    Really enjoyed reading this post. We didn’t had any problemen to stay clean and hygenic during our 5 months trip. But we run in a lot of travelers who just liked THE idea of not taking a shower or brush their Hair bc they don’t have to. To them it was part of travelling and being on THE road and being free…personally I feel better after a shower especially in SE Asia! But after some thinking I understand THE fact that some people just want to be free in everything and therefore Also in their daily routine.
    Good luck with your travels.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Olfa – That is what happens, some people are away from home for the first time and simply want to ‘let go’ and do things they ordinarily wouldn’t do back at home. I just think a little hygiene is important and I’m certain that it makes one’s travels a much better experience when you feel clean and healthy!

  23. Steve C says:

    I didn’t think there was one travel topic that you hadn’t covered. Well, I guess there’s always one more! Now, with this one, I’m sure you’ve covered them all! But, with your imagination, I bet you’ll have another off the wall topic to entertain us with come next week!

    Ah, laundry day. For me, the hardest part is finding places around the room to affix my cloths line. I had a real nice one. It was a twisted, stretchy one that had a suction cup on one end and a hook on the other. You could stretch it to any reasonable length and attach the wet clothes to it between the twists. But, as every traveler experiences, it was inadvertently left behind in a hotel in Bangladesh. :( Now, I just travel with a length of cord. It’s always nice to stretch it up outside, but then you run the risk of getting your cloths ripped off. If you stretch it up over your bed, then the wet cloths drip onto the bed and who wants to sleep on wet sheets? Washing cloths is always an adventure. It’s just one of those things that has to be done.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Steve – I’ve never actually traveled with a clothes line but there were plenty of times I wish I had one with me! Usually, I have things hanging on the shower, on the back of chairs, hanging off of tables or even the headboard of the bed…finding space sure is a challenge in many rooms.

  24. SIXVASER says:

    Sure our clothes get dirty and ruined all the time, this is because we carry so little. But we do take more showers then the average person, possibly because sometimes its hard to find a good shower or turn to take one, so we take advantage of it to the max. But yes, we can certainly appear dirty but most of us are actually nice and sparkly.

  25. karen says:

    I must admit I am writing this with trousers and at least two tops that have food stains down them… :) Today is washing day!

  26. Rashelle says:

    Love your words, Earl :)

  27. Alyson says:

    Soap dodgers? Not us, clean as whistles, me and the kids. Other than on the train journeys that go on forever, I’m hand washing our clothes just about every day, with shampoo or hand soap, they’re coming out great and smelling of roses. Hint, from a 47 year old Mum/tropics veteran, wet clothes dry much quicker indoors if you have a fan, than they ever will outdoors in the tropics. There are far too many stinking towels around hostels though, some backpackers haven’t got the hang of drying towels at all.

  28. Haha you crack me up. I must say it can definitely be difficult at times to stay clean when you’re in tropical rainforest where everything molds, but I still manage to floss every day and occasionally give myself a pedicure. Still, whenever I’m in airports I notice how much dirtier I am than everyone else. It’s inevitable that your clothes will get stained even if you don’t smell.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      @This American Girl: Yes, there are indeed some unavoidable issues with traveling, such as the stains! That is definitely why I wear darker shirts normally…I’m a bit of a slob even when I’m not traveling.

  29. Barbara says:

    I had to laugh at that first photo, very funny. As far as staying clean, long term and short term travelers can always find a way to stay clean if that’s what they desire. It’s the ones that don’t care that give us all a bad rap!! I hope you were able to find a solution to the corn issue :)

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Barbara – Some people really don’t seem to care about hygiene at all which is fine, but there certainly benefits of taking care of oneself while traveling. And I’m still working on the corn :)

  30. Wade says:

    The whole exercising while traveling is one that is often overlooked…but for a more permanent traveler, you can’t ignore it. Staying fit encourages and gives your body the needed energy to stay healthy in the other departments. Great tips, Earl!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Wade – I feel the exact same way…exercise is one of the most important factors that has helped me maintain this lifestyle.

  31. Carolyn says:

    I embarked on a three-month trip last year with high hopes and the best of intentions to wash my clothes regularly with the biodegradable laundry powder I’d brought from home. However, once on the road, I quickly scrapped my plans and became a devotee of local laundry services. The annoyance of an occasional shrunken shirt of lost sock was far outweighed by the convenience, and it was kind of hilarious to see my thongs neatly folded and stacked.

  32. Missy H says:

    I don’t travel as much on the super cheap as I used but when I did the biggest challenge was washing my own clothes in a cold damp climate. Jeans sometimes took 3 days to dry. On long trips I never travel with jeans any more. Many budget hotels only have hot water in the shower so that’s a good place to wash a small number of items. Some laundromats wouldn’t take less than a kilo of clothes so I often was successful if I asked nicely in getting one of the room cleaning staff at the hostal. She was so happy for the extra money and none of my clothes went missing while drying on the line. Now I stay in medium budget hotels where I am given 2-4 towels which really helps the drying process. After clothes are washed and rinsed, wring them the best you can, roll the item up in a dry towel, either kneel on it or stand on it for half a minute and voilá out comes an almost dry piece of clothing.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Missy – That’s a very good tip…never used it before but will definitely give that a try.

  33. Now if we can only come up with some handwashing and hygiene tips for the office then we’d be all set!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Jennifer – I will say that my time working on board cruise ships really had an effect on me because everywhere the crew members go, there are signs reminding us, or even requiring us, to wash our hands thoroughly and to wipe down our offices and on and on. Ever since then I’ve paid close attention to hygiene and cleanliness. Perhaps you need to plaster the office with signs demanding everyone was their hands and make sure there are consequences for those who don’t!

      • Hi Earl, that’s a great idea. I work in a place that looks exactly like a scene from Office Space. Maybe I’ll put that sign up on my last day next month! I so want to join your Romania tour, I just don’t know if I will have everything wrapped up here by then. Maybe next time!!

  34. I always take a bath and do my laundry when I travel, whether it’s in the bathroom sink or under the shower. Nothing beats feeling, smelling, and looking fresh!

  35. It’s not that hard to take a shower somewhere…In the desert we made our own shower from a huge water bucket put on top of the car and a water hose coming down from it (and a plug – a wine stopper – to act like the tap) :D If you feel like taking that shower, nothing can stop you!

    And good advice about slowing down if you don’t have time to even wash your clothes. :)

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Mina – Like anything, a little creativity is usually it all it takes to find a solution, even when it comes to showering in the middle of the desert! I like the wine stopper idea!

  36. Colleen says:

    It’s really easy to always have all my clothes clean by just washing them the minute I get into a room or a situation with a sink, tub or bucket. First thing I do is take out my dirty clothes plastic sack, which is usually a grocery bag, and put the clothing to soak with detergent (easy to purchase everywhere including the most remote places).

    I do the cleanest clothes first such as my blouses, then soak the slacks, then last underwear and then very last, socks. Also, I try to wash lightest clothes first and darkest last. Next, they get a good soak in clear water and several rinses until everything rinses clear. Now I drape each item somewhere to drip in the shower or tub. After a while I can transfer the dripped out clothes to various parts of the room to finish drying without getting water on anything. This is the time to gently pull on seams and straiten the clothes so that when they’ve dried they look great. I even practice this at home. There are lots of clothes I air dry around the house (my son’s shorts) because they look sharper when I straiten the seams, pockets, etc. while damp and let them air dry. Honestly, some of my laundry looks better on the road than at home because air drying gives it a crisp hang if done right. = ) Also, hanging button shirts on hangers to dry gives a good hang to the shirt.

    It’s a great (and weirdly fun) habit to get into, a great way to unwind and think about things. Plus, my upper body was never stronger than when I was hand washing the clothes for 3-4 of us for a year on the road. = ) A little work in the day gives a good balance to a life of travel. (Bloggers and web-business people exempted from that comment as online work can be a lot of work. = )

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Colleen – That’s quite a good routine you have in place. And I agree, washing our own clothes while traveling offers a great way to reflect on the day’s activities and really do some thinking. I normally get into a ‘zone’ while washing clothes that way and it hardly feels like a chore as a result.

  37. Karen says:

    Oh man so many people think you are bum!
    It doesn’t take that much water & soap to clean up each day.
    People sure get some odd ideas about those living on the road.
    Thanks for all your good writing.

  38. Stephanie says:

    I’m currently travelling in SEAsia and it is so easy to stay clean and look presentable! Laundry here is very cheap and every hotel/guesthouse/hostel that I have stayed in has had a shower of some sort (I used a bucket when I was in the mountains in Northern Thailand but It did the trick!).
    They even sell deodorant here, (even though it whitens your armpits!)
    Come on fellow travellers, show your white armpits with pride and give us travellers a good name!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Stephanie – Haha…yes SE Asia is definitely an easy place to stay clean! And it’s not only deodorant that’s designed to make you whiter over there…every product seems to have a ‘whitening’ formula in it in that part of the world!

  39. Not so easy to stay clean when you’re “bookdocking” in a trailer for weeks far, far off the grid. These are gorgeous, wonderful spots…but…not so good for hygiene. I got pretty good at bucket showers in about 2 gallons of water.

    As for that corn…take a really long skewer…

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Kate – I don’t know, if I handle a skewer there’s a high chance I’ll accidentally pierce my cheek.

  40. Kerri says:

    Hm…I think the only time I felt genuinely filthy while traveling was in the Amazon. I was working all day in that lovely equatorial sun (which I was absolutely not used to). I have never been so sweaty and dirty in my life…the people in the village seemed to always be clean and dry somehow, though! That didn’t help our travel self-esteem much. And bathing in the river didn’t quite remove the jungle dirt. :)

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Kerri – It definitely happens and I’m going to guess that once you were out of the jungle, you had a nice shower to get clean!

  41. Debby says:

    That first picture really made me laugh :’) thanks for the tips. I haven’t been on a long-term travel yet but I’m planning to leave for a few months, I’ve read before it’s a good idea to take some detergent with you and I’ve seen a lot of travellers do their laundry in hostel sinks so I guess it’s not a problem if, indeed, you’re not hasty.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Debby – Definitely no problem and I even think carrying detergent around isn’t necessary. Small packets can be bought in most places and this way you don’t have to carry a container with you (it’s not too heavy but will save a little space!).

  42. Ian says:

    Wait! They don’t burn your fingertips still? How dare those barbarians get me again! Stay clean my friends!

  43. I’ve seen some pretty interesting study cases out there :) but all in all, they are the minority. As you said, unless you decide to avoid showers on purpose, you need to put all your effort to get your skin covered in green mold! I must confess that i tried washing my laundry in the hostel sink and i hated it. I’m really demanding when it comes to clean laundry, so i find myself scratching and rinsing every item for hours. In the end i get better results than if i put them in the washing machine, but after that i need two days to recover from the muscle pain! So now i just take my dirty clothes to the laundromat every week.
    I think that those people who just like living like bums, are simply the ones who also live like bums when they are back home. There is no excuse for poor hygiene. There are just bad habits, and we bring these habits, all of them, while traveling..

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Kle – Yeah, I came across one of those case studies last weekend actually. The guy actually admitted that he only showered once per week despite spending that week in the 35C heat and sharing a room with several others. Oh well, some people prefer this style I guess.

  44. In old times villagers sometimes burned the footprints of travellers and washed their coins in a bucket before accepting them. The myth of travellers being dirty is not new.

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