Whether you're headed out for one night, one week, or even half of a year you're going to need your toothbrush and toothpaste. While brushing your teeth at home isn't really something you have to even think about much, on the trail dental hygiene is crazy important. This post is going to be dedicated to the one subject no one ever really talks about and most hikers skip - how to keep your teeth and gums healthy outdoors.
Before delving into the "how to" section of this post, I'd like to mention common dental issues that hikers can face. A friend of mine, despite all her brushing on trail, ended up with three cavities after a 6-month hike. Considering the amount of high sugar and high fat foods, along with carbonated and sickeningly sweet drinks a hiker consumes, it's no surprise that even with regular brushing cavities are a common problem. Another thru hiker I know had a molar crack completely in half and fall out while consuming her dinner one night. Thankfully, she was a short way from a town where she was able to be seen by a dentist on an emergency basis. Commonly, plaque buildup can cause gingivitis - a swelling and bleeding condition of the gums. Having a bloody mouth while you're trying to eat boiling hot and incredibly salty food is never a fun time! If any of these scenarios don't sound like fun to you, you're not alone.
Saying that most hikers don't brush their teeth regularly is not a shock to many of us. It's been a long day and all you can think about is eating your dinner and crawling into your bag. If you aren't keeping your toothbrush in your food bag, chances are you've skipped this important action more than once on trail. The number one way I advocate to remember to brush your teeth is exactly this: keep your toothbrush, toothpaste, and any other oral hygiene items in a Ziplock in your food bag. If they're close at hand when you're cleaning up your dinner, you won't forget to brush! Since your brush and toothpaste smell like foodstuff to mice and bears, leaving it in your food bag is an even better idea so it can go in your bear hang/bear can at night.
Since we've talked about an easy way to remember to brush, let's talk about the toothbrush and paste you're carrying on trail. Many hikers opt for a travel toothbrush because of its small size and weight. Alternatively, if you have a brand or firmness of brush you prefer to use at home, you can cut the handle off to make it travel size yourself. A tube of travel-sized toothpaste will last you easily 2-3 months in the backcountry. Dental floss picks are also a popular item on trail due to their small size and disposability options. These come in handy after a meal that just doesn't want to come out of your teeth! Options I don't recommend on trail are single use disposable finger brushes, which are often expensive, heavier, and not so great at cleaning teeth.
So you've picked out your brush and toothpaste of choice. Is there really a proper way to brush in the woods? Actually - there is. For brushing in the backcountry, you're going to use a LOT less toothpaste than you normally would. I recommend just a small dab in a thin layer on a dry brush. This way, there won't be too much to spit out onto the ground. After brushing as you normally would, the "spew" method is the most taught in Leave No Trace principles. We recommend you spray it, blowing a wide area of toothpaste as to not concentrate a large glob. Also, if you're out in the woods, digging a cathole is an acceptable method of disposing your extra paste. The final method taught by Leave No Trace is to swallow it. Yes, I said to swallow your toothpaste. Keep in mind that you aren't using even a quarter of what you're probably using at home. I always use toothpaste without fluoride anyway, so that isn't a concern for me. Tom's of Maine is a great non-fluoridated brand available here on minimus.biz.
Did you experience any dental problems on your long-distance hike? What is your method of keeping your teeth clean in the woods? Leave me a comment here on the blog or over on my Facebook page and let me know!