5 Best Biodegradable Soaps for Camping & Backpacking of 2019
|Top Pick: Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap||
|Best Biodegradable Soap Sheets: Sea to Summit Pocket Hand Wash||
|Coleman Camp Soap Sheets||
|Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash||
Camping and backpacking can both be dirty activities. Biodegradable soap — used in a Leave No Trace-friendly manner — is a great way to get clean.
After testing the grease-fighting power of five of the best biodegradable soaps, we recommend Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap. It has the greatest cleaning power of the soaps we tested and is cheap and socially responsible.
Included in our tests were a couple brands of soap sheets (aka soap leaves) which are thin sheets of dry soap designed for washing hands and dishes. If that’s the type of soap you’re looking for we recommend Sea to Summit Pocket Hand Wash.
Looking for biodegradable shampoo? We’ve tested those as well! You’ll find our reviews and recommendations in our guide to the best biodegradable shampoos.
Top Pick: Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap
Dr. Bronner’s is a perennial favorite among campers and backpackers.
It’s affordable and 100% biodegradable, containing no synthetic preservatives, detergents, or foaming agents.
Yet it doesn’t skimp on cleaning power. In our testing Dr. Bronner’s was the strongest liquid soap, removing more oil from a dish than the competition.
What’s more, it has multiple uses (18 in total). You can use Dr. Bronner’s to wash your hands, face, body, dishes, and clothes. In a pinch you can even use it as shampoo, shaving cream, and toothpaste.
Dr. Bronner’s is also an industry leader in social responsibility. Their main ingredients are certified fair trade and never tested on animals. Dr. Bronner’s is a Certified B Corp.
The line of Pure-Castile Liquid Soap comes in plenty of scented varieties plus a Baby Unscented. This is the variety we tested and my personal favorite because I worry about scented soaps attracting bears and other wildlife.
If you’d rather have your camp soap be in bar form, Dr. Bronner’s also makes a line of Pure-Castile Bar Soap.
Best Biodegradable Soap Sheets: Sea to Summit Pocket Hand Wash
Of the two brands of biodegradable soap sheets we tested, Sea to Summit Pocket Hand Wash cleaned the best by just a hair.
For washing hands and dishes these soap sheets work well. Just pop open the container, pull out a sheet, and wet it to make a soapy lather.
For a full body wash they aren’t ideal since they need to be pulled out with dry hands. A potential workaround is to dissolve a few of them in a water container before bathing.
You get 50 sheets in a small plastic container that can easily fit in your pocket. Unfortunately the container isn’t waterproof. You’ll have to take care to keep it dry. If they get wet the soap sheets clump together.
The Sea to Summit sheets have a fresh, soapy scent. It’s nice. Sea to Summit calls it a “light green tea fragrance.” (Though I drink green tea most mornings and would beg to differ.)
Reviews of the Other 3 Biodegradable Soaps We Tested
The other brands we tested are all acceptable alternatives. They’ll still get the job done, just not as effectively as our top picks.
The second brand of soap sheets we tested performed just slightly worse than Sea to Summit Pocket Hand Wash.
Another minor difference is the scent. The Coleman sheets are almost completely unscented.
Otherwise the Coleman sheets are identical. They come in a similar plastic container. The sheets are the same size. You still get 50 of them.
Let price and availability guide your decision if you want soap leaves and are undecided between the two brands we tested.
Campsuds was the second-best liquid soap in our testing. It didn’t clean as well as Dr. Bronner’s but it still removed the lion’s share of the oil from the plate.
Like Dr. Bronner’s, Campsuds is an all-purpose soap. The label says it can be used to clean hands, face, hair, clothing, dishes, and “anything washable.” That’s quite the spread.
Otherwise, Campsuds is regular biodegradable soap. If it’s all you can find it works well enough.
It’s available in a couple pleasant scents. The “original formula” we tested has a mild pine scent. The company also sells Campsuds with Citronella, a version containing citronella, lavender, and peppermint oil. It claims to help repel insects while you bathe.
They’re lightweight, leakproof, durable, and reusable. If you don’t have any yet buying a bottle of Campsuds is a good way to start stocking up.
Wilderness Wash performed the worst in our testing. It removed less oil from a plate than any other brand.
That’s not to say it’s terrible — it worked fine — we just don’t recommend it given the competition.
It’s still a versatile soap. According to the label it can be used as body wash, shampoo, dish washing detergent, and clothes detergent.
The classic version we tested has essentially no scent. There is also a citronella version that has the “the fresh scent of Citronella & Sandalwood.” Like the citronella-containing Campsuds, it claims to help keep insects away.
Here are the best biodegradable soaps:
- Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap
- Sea to Summit Pocket Hand Wash
- Coleman Camp Soap Sheets
- Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash
How to Use Biodegradable Soap in a Leave No Trace-friendly Manner
Even biodegradable soap can harm the ecosystem. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics explains how:
“Getting any soap in a water source is not acceptable or recommended. The soap can cause all sorts of issues from increased nitrogen to actually causing significant harm to aquatic inhabitants.”
Bottom line: Do not dispose of any soapy water in backcountry water sources — even water with biodegradable soap.
Instead, to dispose of soapy water, most biodegradable soap brands and Leave No Trace principles recommend you pour it into a cathole that is 6 to 8 inches deep and 200 feet away from water sources.
Doing so has a couple benefits:
- It lessens the attraction of wildlife as compared to the “broadcast method” which also broadcasts the smell
- It allows bacteria in the soil to biodegrade the soap
Be prepared to dig a cathole by packing a good backpacking trowel. Be prepared to carry water away from water sources with a pot, bottle, or water reservoir.
(If you need some ideas, check out our guide to the best ultralight water bottles and containers for backpacking.)
Finally, be aware that many biodegradable soaps are concentrated. Use small amounts — a little goes a long way. The label on some Dr. Bronner’s bottles even screams at you to “Dilute! Dilute! OK!”
Bathing Wipes: An Alternative to Biodegradable Soap
Soap isn’t the only way to get clean in the backcountry. Bathing wipes are a convenient alternative.
Bathing wipes generally aren’t biodegradable. Even if they are they should still be packed out and disposed of properly. Like toilet paper flowers, no one wants to come across used bathing wipes on the trail.
The upside is convenience. To bathe in the backcountry with biodegradable soap you need to carry water in some sort of container. With wipes there’s no such need. You can remove sweat, dirt, and grime with a quick wiping.
For this guide we tried out three popular options:
- Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes Compact (6″ x 8″)
- Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes Large (8″ x 12″)
- No Rinse Bathing Wipes (7.5″ x 8″)
At 6’3″ and 180 lbs, the compact Sea to Summit wipes are big enough for me to wipe down my hands, arms, legs, and face/neck. The large wipes are big enough for me to wipe down my entire body.
The No Rinse wipes come in one size which is slightly larger and thicker than the compact Sea to Summit wipes. If I use it judiciously I can just barely wipe down my entire body with it before it dries out.
Both brands work well. Their packages are lightweight and resealable. Neither leaves any residue or stickiness on your skin. Wiping down with them made me feel fresh and slightly reinvigorated.
The Sea to Summit wipes have a slight lotion-y scent which lingered on my skin after wiping. The No Rinse wipes have a mild scent similar to that of Wet Ones or unscented cleaning wipes. They didn’t leave any lingering scent on my skin after use, which I preferred.
If you’re really dirty — such as after a long day of hiking — I expect you’ll need to use at least two or three of these wipes to get completely clean.
How to Choose the Best Biodegradable Soap for Your Needs
Types of Biodegradable Soap
Liquid soap is in my experience the most popular type of soap among campers and backpackers. It can easily be stored in a small, leakproof container such as a travel Nalgene. It’s easy to use only as much as you need. Plus, it’s versatile. Most top options can be used to wash hands, face, hair, clothing, and dishes.
Bar soap has many of the virtues of liquid soap while being a little messier to pack and store. It might also be heavier and bulkier. We didn’t test any bar soaps for this guide but our Top Pick, Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap, also comes in bar form.
Soap sheets (aka soap leaves) are thin sheets of dry soap that typically come in a small, pocket-sized container. You pull one out and wet it to make a soapy lather.
Soap sheets are designed for washing hands and dishes. They’re inconvenient for use as body wash.
Though admittedly I still prefer using liquid soap to wash my hands and dishes. During testing, once a soap sheet got wet it tended to stick to my skin a little. I found myself using more water to wash it off. While camping and backpacking I want to conserve water.
The soap sheet containers are not waterproof, either, so you need to take care not to get them wet. If the sheets get wet they turn into a regular ol’ lump of soap.
Bathing wipes are an alternative to biodegradable soap. They are cleaning wipes you wipe across your skin to remove dirt and grime. Some claim to be biodegradable or compostable, but should still be packed out and disposed of properly.
The upside is that they are quick and convenient and don’t require any water.
Scented vs. Unscented Soap
Scented biodegradable soap generally smells great. Some brands even offer citronella varieties that claim to help keep insects away.
Unscented biodegradable soap is recommended if you’re camping or backpacking in bear country because strong odors can attract wildlife such as bears.
What Does “Biodegradable” Even Mean?
In the US, the FTC regulates marketing uses of terms that convey environmental benefits such as “degradable,” “biodegradable,” and “compostable.”
According to the Commission’s Green Guides, here’s when the terms “degradable” and “biodegradable” can be used:
“Marketers may make an unqualified degradable claim only if they can prove that the ‘entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.’ The ‘reasonably short period of time’ for complete decomposition of solid waste products? One year.”
Here’s when the term “compostable” can be used:
“Marketers who claim a product is compostable need competent and reliable scientific evidence that all materials in the product or package will break down into — or become part of — usable compost safely and in about the same time as the materials with which it is composted.”
However, some marketers still use these terms deceptively.
For instance, back in 2015 the FTC sent warning letters to marketers and sellers of dog waste bags for using potentially deceptive biodegradable and compostable claims.
Thus it’s difficult to know whether or not a soap or bathing wipe marketed as biodegradable or compostable is actually so. Caveat emptor.
Our advice: Buy from a brand you trust, use soap in a LNT-friendly manner, pack out used wipes and packaging, and consult ingredients lists to get a sense for what’s inside.
How We Tested
Any soap will work if you scrub hard enough, so the challenge we faced was to design a test that would test each soap’s pure cleaning power.
Here’s what I did:
First, I filled a plastic tub with five quarts of water and one teaspoon of soap. Then I brushed a teaspoon of vegetable oil mixed with food coloring onto a plate and soaked it in the tub for five minutes. Once the time was up I pulled out the plate.
I repeated this process for each brand of liquid soap and then for both brands of soap sheets (using five sheets instead of one teaspoon). Finally, I visually inspected all the plates for remaining oil. The stronger the soap, the less oil left on the plate.
Feel free to visually inspect the plates for yourself in the two following photos. The leftmost plate in each is what the plates looked like before being placed into the tub.
H/T to Leigh Krietsch Boerner, whose excellent Wirecutter article on dish soap gave us the idea for this test.