In my bathroom at home, a luxurious skin-care practice might involve a tiny, precious $ 80 vial of vitamin C serum, a hefty tub of thick, ultra-hydrating moisturizer, or a Korean sheet mask soaked in hyaluronic acid. But when I’m in the middle of the woods and 50 miles away from so much as a cell signal, let alone a Sephora, that routine starts to look a little different.
As a beginner backpacker planning my first two-week expedition, I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months preparing and soaking up as much knowledge as I possibly can. I’ve recorded the weight of every single item in my pack down to the ounce, learned how to make my own dehydrated meals, and swapped out some of my bulkier, more cumbersome camping gear for lighter, leaner alternatives. I’ve researched pants that dry quickly and nerded out on the many redeeming qualities of merino wool. (I never thought I’d be excited about buying a wool sports bra, but life is a rich tapestry.)
I’ve also learned a lot about how some hikers scale their own personal care routines down for the trail, and the clever ways they manage to take care of their skin without sacrificing too many precious grams in their packs.
Of course, not everyone who’s outdoorsy cares about this stuff, nor should they feel obligated to. When your goal is to carry everything you need for survival on your back, things like food, shelter, and water filtration will obviously take priority—and certainly no one is trying to cram a 10-step beauty regimen into their Osprey pack. For some, the elements might even work in your favor, which was the case for Kelsey, a hiker from Richmond, Virginia. “I was worried about painful acne on my month-long backcountry trip,” she says. “But my skin ended up being the best it's been in ages.”
But for those who struggle with painful cystic acne flare-ups caused by sweat and sunscreen, or dry and irritable skin made worse by wind and dry air, a little extra planning and a few additional ounces can be worth it to feel good in your own skin. And by the way, if you do have acne or another skin condition you’re being treated for, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about how to deal when you’re away from your usual routine (and out in nature, no less).
Blessed with an unholy trinity of skin that’s very fair and burns instantly, breaks out painfully at the mere suggestion of oil, and flakes like a day-old croissant when exposed to wind and dry air, I know my personal care kit will look a little different from a diehard ultralight packer (who would probably call it “high-maintenance,” which, sure.) When I’m scrambling up Paintbrush Divide in the Tetons or crossing a 30-foot-wide river in Yellowstone, I certainly won’t be worried about how my skin looks—but you can be damn sure I’ll want it to at least feel good so that it doesn’t distract me from the incredible scenery I’m heading there to enjoy.
When I started looking into how to pack skin-care for my trip, I learned there are a few important criteria to keep in mind.
Naturally, it isn’t as easy as packing up my standard products in an old Clinique makeup bag, tossing it into my pack, and sallying forth. There are parameters.
For starters, most everything should be fragrance-free, lest I want to share my moisturizer with a curious grizzly. Bears have an exceptional sense of smell, which is why most backcountry regulations in bear-populated areas require campers to tuck “smelly objects” into a bear-proof canister (and usually also hang them 10 feet or so above ground) at night. This isn’t limited to food, trash, and cookware, though: the National Park Service also mentions lip balm, toothpaste, and bug spray as items that campers are required to stash away in their canisters. Of course, there’s only so much you can do about minimizing your smell—but in general, if you have a choice between something with fragrance and without, it’s best to opt for the latter. (It’s also worth noting that bears don’t distinguish between added and natural fragrance.) If the products you bring have any sort of smell, make sure it goes in the bear vault.
Products also should be compact and easily packable—no unwieldy tubs or precarious glass dropper bottles. And weight is crucial. For a mere two weeks in the backcountry, lord knows I don’t need to lug along all 12 ounces of my trusty CeraVe cleanser—that’s precious weight I can, and should, allocate toward essentials like a cookpot (8.4 ounces), stove (2.9 ounces), and spoon (1.1 ounces).
When it comes to cleansers, it’s best to choose versatile products that are biodegradable.
Caitlin, who lives in Washington, D.C. and has hiked a ton of bucket list-worthy treks everywhere from Nepal to Zion, has a few skin-care go-to’s she always includes in her packing list. For cleansing her face and body, a droplet of Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap goes a long way. While it can be harsh on some people’s skin, it’s versatile, which is key for streamlining a pack.
“I brought a travel bottle with me to Nepal and ended up using it so much,” Caitlin says. “It was great to have one bottle that I could use for washing my body, hair, face, dishes, hands, etc.” She adds that some people even use it as a substitute for toothpaste, though she hasn’t tried it firsthand. (If you do, I imagine you’d probably want to opt for the peppermint-scented version.)
“The main things [to keep in mind] about skin-care while backpacking is keeping it simple, and practicing leave-no-trace,” Kelsey reminds me. That means soap should be biodegradable, and no washing up directly in a body of water, as alluring as that may seem. Instead, use a bucket, and dispose of the soapy water at least 200 feet away from the water source, preferably in a cathole (a hole you dig in the ground to "dispose" of waste). Backcountry environments are often super delicate and always worthy of protection, and soap—even biodegradable castile—can permanently damage those ecosystems.
Cleansing wipes, especially the fragrance-free options from Burt’s Bees, CeraVe, and Neutrogena, seem like a no-brainer: They don’t require water at all, and there’s something about literally wiping the grime from your body and face that just makes you feel cleaner. However, always remember that you are responsible for carrying every single piece of trash you generate back out at the end of the trip, from toilet paper to tampons. (And since open campfires are generally frowned upon in most backcountry areas, burning them isn’t usually an option.)
For some hikers, the convenience of wipes—not to mention their nominal weight—makes it worthwhile to pack them back out. If you’re concerned about trash, soaking a reusable microfiber cloth with micellar water (which cleanses, removes makeup, and hydrates the skin all at once, and doesn’t need to be rinsed off like soap) would mimic the effect without adding waste. I’m partial to Garnier’s.
To protect your skin against dry air and wind, you’ll need a reliable moisturizer.
For hikers who will be exposed to wind and bone-dry air at high altitude, the elements will almost certainly leave skin feeling parched. For a reliable moisturizer, Caitlin uses First Aid Beauty’s Ultra Repair Cream, and so will I. “I think sometimes it can be hard to find one that is thick and moisturizing but doesn't make your face feel too sticky,” she says. FAB’s, though, absorbs quickly, is fragrance-free, and is sold in travel-sized tubes. (I’m an Ultra Repair Cream acolyte in my everyday life, so once I found a tiny tube at Sephora, it was a no-brainer. It only weighs 1 ounce—less than my spoon!)
If your fragrance-free moisturizer of choice doesn’t come in travel-sized packaging, a tip from Reddit: Just decant some of it into a contact solution case.
On that note, it’s worth checking the travel-size cosmetics section of your local drugstore or Target for other lightweight packaging. You might also have the perfect solution in your medicine cabinet already: Ultralight hikers swear by eye drop containers for small amounts of liquids, like micellar water, cleanser, or soap. Litesmith also sells a range of containers meant for ultralight backpackers, including dropper bottles, flip-top containers, and even spray bottles—perfect for insect repellant.
Last but certainly not least, there’s SPF, which is non-negotiable for me, and should be for everyone, if we’re being honest.
Caitlin uses Alba Botanica for body and Eucerin Daily Protection (SPF 30) for her face, while Kelsey says she rolls the dice with whatever high-SPF sunscreen she can find at a gas station before starting her trek. “I used the same sunblock on my body as my face because simplicity and bringing less stuff in your pack is important,” she says.
Personally, I’m still searching for The One. At home, I usually reach for Korean brand Missha, which has a fluid texture that I love but is absolutely loaded with fragrance, or La Roche-Posay, which is way too pricey to justify using it on my arms and shoulders. For the trail, I’ll ideally find one that stands up to water and sweat, doesn’t leave too much greasy residue that makes me break out, and doesn’t smell like a grandmother’s perfumed bosom.
Right now, I have my eye on this $ 13 drugstore option from Neutrogena, and am also experimenting with Supergoop’s Glow Stick, because the idea of a sunscreen I can just swipe on my face a few times a day without stopping sounds pretty great.
After all, I’ve got places to go.