Are You A Dirtbag Biker?

if-nobody-is-there-..Have you ever met a touring cyclist who has completely given up on personal hygiene? You know the type. Yellow teeth, bad breath, blotchy skin, matted hair, clumpy beard. Enough fingernail dirt to start a community garden. The dirtbag biker.

Truth is, it’s easy to descend into dirtbagdom, especially if you’re touring solo. If nobody is there to see you (or smell you), you may not even notice your slow slide into slovenliness.

I’m not judging. On my solo tours I’ve skipped washing for days in a row. But that was for lack of water (and, yes, also some laziness). Mostly, I try to keep clean.

Some cyclists, on the other hand, are proud to be dirtbags. I once met a proud dirtbag couple riding Route 40 in Patagonia who told me, “We don’t worry about washing; that’s what river crossings are for.” Fortunately, it was so windy I couldn’t smell them, because all the rivers were dry, so they couldn’t have been doing much “washing.”

OK, I'll comply, but how long may I use the shower?

OK, I’ll comply, but how long may I use the shower? I found this inelegant translation in a Bolivian bathroom.

No offence to any dirtbags reading this, by the way. You’re all nice people. But you have to admit, you are a little smelly.

In all seriousness, there are good reasons to stay clean on the road. Let’s look at a few of them…


First, you might as well. You’ve got plenty of time, now that you’re a nomad. Surely, you can spare fifteen minutes a day to wash. I know it’s harder in dry areas where you need to preserve water, or in cold areas where washing means shivering. But it always feels great once you’re dirt-free and your tent is set up and all that’s left to do is enjoy your dinner and crawl into a nice, clean sleeping bag, unsoiled.

Second, you’ll make a better impression. Even in dirt-poor areas people are usually clean and presentable. It may seem it incongruous that people living in a slum with open sewers or a in a mud-hut village with dirt floors would bother to maintain a high level of personal hygiene, yet it’s almost always the case that they do. So when you roll into their midst looking like a Wookie and smelling like old gym socks you risk offending them.

Then there are the medical reasons for keeping clean.

Harmful flora and fauna can’t be avoided completely, but they can be controlled by cleaning your body and food. My own body has hosted intestinal parasites, skin fungi, and even burrowing insects (disgusting, I know). I can only imagine how much worse it would’ve been if I were more of a dirtbag.


Fast food, altiplano style: alpaca with boiled egg, potato, and sauce. Purchased from a walking vendor at a toll gate at 4,300m. I have no idea how ‘clean’ this food was.

This brings me to a common misconception that persists in travel circles – the idea that you can eat and drink anything because that way you “build up a tolerance” for endemic germs, as local people do. Some travellers go so far as to actually avoid washing their hands and food, believing they’ll “become immune.”

This idea makes several shaky assumptions: That tolerance and immunity are the same; that it’s possible to immunize yourself to anything by abandoning hygiene; that you needn’t control the quantity of germs you ingest; or the amount of time you expose yourself to the germs in one environment before travelling to the next.

Shakiest of all, it assumes that local people don’t suffer from water- and food-borne illnesses.

The truth is, people in poor areas regularly suffer from diarrhoea, stomach illness, skin infections, worms, and other parasites. The fact that you see only healthy locals simply means that you’re not seeing the sick ones (the sick are in bed, recovering). And they get sick despite growing up around germs that your body is experiencing for the first time.

Parasites and pathogens are part of travel and if you’re keeping clean there’s no need to obsess about them. Fortunately, there are many strategies for keeping clean. Let’s look at a few of them.


• Wash every day. Change your clothes every day. Being lazy with hygiene comes at a cost.

• Pack clothes made from quick-drying synthetic material. Sure, also pack your favourite clothes made from organic cotton, or hemp, or bamboo, or sawdust, or whatever, but save wearing them for when you have access to proper laundry facilities. Biking clothes should be easy to clean and quick to dry.

• You only need two sets of biking clothes. Rotate them daily. Hang damp laundry inside your tent at night if it’s raining; your body’s heat will start drying them. If they aren’t dry by morning, hang them on top of your back panniers on the next day’s ride. Unless it’s raining they’ll be dry before lunch.

• Shampoo is good for washing more than hair. It lathers up with very little water so it’s good for washing your whole body when water is scarce. Plus it makes excellent laundry soap. Instead of taking different soaps for different jobs, consider saving space with one bottle of shampoo.


When my bike and body are so dirty I don’t even know where to begin, I simply ride into the bathroom and turn on the shower.

• Saddle sores are a bummer. You can buy chamois lubricants to relieve chafing, but these products won’t do much to disinfect. When I was an amateur racer, a pro told me his trick of spreading a little Noxzema on his chamois. I’ve almost never had a saddle sore since adopting this practice. Warning: the first time you do this, it’s going to feel a bit tingly – bracing, even – but only briefly.

• To preserve water in dry areas, or avoid freezing in cold areas, do a “sectional wash.” Fully clothed, soak a small washcloth and soap it up with a dab of shampoo then wash your hair and face. Then rinse the cloth, using minimal water, wring it out and re-soap it. Next, remove your shirt to scrub your torso and arms and when you’re done put on a clean shirt. Then repeat the process for the next “section” down (between waist and ankles) and finish with feet. It’s surprising how effectively you can clean yourself using this system while both saving water and staying warm.

• Scrutinize your skin for ticks every day when camping in forests (in some areas they’re almost impossible to avoid). When you find one, gently remove it with tweezers. Be sure the entire tick is removed – you should see a tiny hole clear of any bug parts when you’re done. Also beware of other burrowing critters like the bicho do pé (foot bug) that lives on beaches above the high tide mark in Brazil and attaches itself to your foot to lay eggs.

• Consider maintaining a clean-shaven appearance. This may not be your look, but it’s much easier to control personal hygiene when you’re not a total fur ball. Many male athletes keep their body hair to a minimum, shaving leg hair, etc. If this is your habit you might as well keep it up while touring. It makes it a lot easier to find ticks and control skin fungi.

• At times, I’m so completely caked in mud and dust when I arrive in a town, I can’t tell where my body ends and my bike begins. When I’m in this state I find a cheap room with a private bathroom and roll into the shower, fully clothed, and with my bike still fully loaded, and wash everything. You’ll need a room with a large enough bathroom to do this, and completely waterproof panniers, but it’s the fastest way I’ve found to deal with extreme filth.


Cute, sure, but the skin infection this bird gave me wasn’t so charming. You can even see it starting on my neck in this photo.

• Finally, try to avoid petting animals – even if they’re really, really cute. I once stayed at a place in Nicaragua with an adorable budgie that would climb me and sit on my shoulder every time I sat down. I’m a bit of sucker for cute critters so I permitted this behaviour. Unfortunately, the little fella gave me a painful skin infection that sent me to the local clinic for pills and ointment. It took a week to clear up.

Perhaps the theme of this article – keep clean – is a tad obvious. Most long-term adventure cyclists I’ve met do a good job of keeping themselves free of grime and foul smells. If you’re part of this majority I’m sure you have your own reasons and strategies for keeping clean. (please comment below).

But to our begrimed biking brethren (i.e. the dirtbags; and you know if you’re one), all I ask is that you consider observing a little personal hygiene as you tour. We love you, and we’d like to be able to stand near you without gagging.

Stay clean, amigos!





bacteria: bacteria f

clean: limpio -ia

dirt: mugre f; suciedad f

dirty: sucio -ia; manchado -da

disease: enfermedad f

drinking water: agua f potable

germs: microbio m

infection: infección f

sanitary: sanitario -ia

shampoo: champú m

sick: enferma-ma

soap: jabón m

wash: lavar

wash oneself: lavarse


Feature image (top of page): Caked in mud in the Chachapoyan mountains, northern Peru.


© El Pedalero, 2013.



7 Responses to “Are You A Dirtbag Biker?”
  1. jana henderson says:

    Hey Gareth, I reckon a handy addition to the lexicon would be Micosis, or La Tiña, for fungal skin infections like Ringworm, which can all too easily be picked up by petting cats.
    La Tiña the scourge of long distance bikers.

    • El Pedalero says:


      I’ve battled such infections myself more than once (despite my policy of not petting animals; even the really cute ones).
      Thanks for reminding us, Jana!

      Stay “clean” out there!


  2. Yan says:

    Hi El Pedalero,

    My name is Yan and I am a cyclist from China, I have been reading your blog for some months. I like your style of cycling.

    I have got some questions:

    You were talking about Noxzema on this Article:

    I am going to purchase them and use for my bike trip later, how much grams/oz do you think I should buy for 8 months bike trips and it is for two persons use?

    Can I buy some other brands which are also cleansing cream, do you think it will work too?

    Thank you very much for your help and
    Hope to hear from you soon.


    • El Pedalero says:

      Hi Yan,

      Great to hear from you!

      You’ll only need the smallest container of Noxema because you only need to apply a very small amount. Apply it to the part of your chamois (the pad in your shorts) that corresponds to your the ‘sit bones’ of your pelvis.

      As for other brands, I’m sure they would be fine if they contain the same ingredients.

      Another thought – don’t overdo it. I don’t think it’s a good idea to use too many chemicals on your skin (including commercial sunscreens and soaps). Use the Noxema only on those long days in hot weather.

      Good luck on your adventures! Let us know how it goes.



      • Yan says:

        Hi Gareth,

        Thank you very much for your detailed description!

        I am going to purchase the other brand which are much cheaper than Noxema.(Actually I was asking my Korean friend to buy it for me since in Korea, these kinds of products are much cheaper and better than in China.:) )

        About your thought, I will keep it in my mind.

        Apart from it, this article is really helpful, I am not a dirtybag biker, but I was thinking exactly like that ” “build up a tolerance” for endemic germs, believing they’ll “become immune.” ”
        After reading this article, I get lots of useful information and it would help a lot.

        Thank you again!


  3. Sheila says:

    Great article. There has NEVER been a day that we haven’t had at least enough water to moisten a shammy/chamois cloth to run over our bodies from head to toe (leaving the feet to be the last things to wash before climbing in to the tent). It would really bother us not to wash before climbing in to the tent. But we’ve met others who don’t care much (each to their own).

    I’ve also discovered that just a drop of coconut oil works extremely well at removing any chain grease from legs or hands (avoids scrubbing skin raw) . Bonus is it’s not toxic and is good for your skin. Also have read that a spoonful a day can help keep your digestive tract healthy and free of parasites.

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