Backcountry Health

Two Backpackers in a Field at Denali National Park

NPS/Alex VanDerStuyf

Adventures in the backcountry can take you to breathtaking places and show you the best of what nature has to offer. As you venture into the backcountry and leave behind many of life’s modern conveniences, you open your world to the wonder of the outdoors. But as in everyday life, there is a chance that you can become ill during your adventure. It is an unfortunate possibility that you need to plan for when in the backcountry. The best advice is to plan ahead and remember that prevention is better than treatment.

Listed below is advice for avoiding illness and what to do if you get sick. Disclaimer: This advice is intended for personal, non-commercially guided trips only.

7 Tips for Staying Healthy in the Backcountry:

A clean hiker is a happy hiker! Your backcountry adventure may leave you dirty and sweaty, but it’s important to keep up your hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, and before handling food or eating. If soap and water are not available, cleaning hands with disposable hand wipes or hand sanitizer is the second best option. Clean hands will help keep you healthy!

Your backcountry outing may take you far away from running water. When planning your trip, you should pay attention to where you will be able to access clean drinking water (whether from a potable water tap or natural source). Remember: Water from natural sources must be purified by boiling or filtering and disinfecting.

Always store potable water in clean containers. When possible, use water from approved park facilities. If you will be drinking water collected from a natural source, you need to treat it first to remove bacteria, viruses, and other organisms that can make you sick. Water collected from natural sources can be cleaned in two ways: (1) boiling, or (2) filtering and disinfecting. Filtering does not remove viruses, which is why disinfecting is needed as well. Instructions for both methods are listed below:

Boiling Filter and Disinfect
  1. If water is cloudy, allow it to settle.

  2. Bring clear water to a rolling boil for 1 minute or 3 minutes if elevation is over 6,500 ft (2,000 m).

  1. Filter water through a 1 micron filter.
  2. Disinfect with bleach according to the table below
  3. Let water sit for at least 30 minutes before drinking.

Use the table below to determine how much bleach to add, depending on concentration of sodium hypochlorite:

Volume of Water Amount of 6% Bleach to Add Amount of 8.25% Bleach to Add
1 quart (liter) 2 drops 2 drops
1 gallon 8 drops 6 drops
2 gallons 16 drops (1/4 teaspoon) 12 drops (1/8 teaspoon)
4 gallons 1/3 teaspoon 1/4 teaspoon
8 gallons 2/3 teaspoon 1/2 teaspoon

For more information, visit the CDC Backcountry Drinking Water Guide.

Eating is an essential part of any hiking trip!

Avoid cross contamination by storing food separately from cleaning supplies, fuel, human waste, or garbage. Avoid packing foods that need to be kept cold. Store all food in sealed containers to protect from moisture and pests.

Wash hands before handling food or eating. Consume or discard all cooked food within 4 hours of preparation. Wash dinnerware and utensils using a biodegradable soap and rinse thoroughly using potable water.

For more information about cooking in the backcountry, visit the Cooking in Camp webpage.

At some point during your adventure, you’re going to need to use the bathroom. Don’t wait until you need to go to make a plan! Identify park regulations about human waste before you leave and plan accordingly. Regulations vary by park and can be located on individual parks’ websites. Always follow the Leave No Trace principles to leave the wilderness in the condition you found it in.

When possible, use permanent park facilities for human waste. If none are available follow these instructions:

Urine: Pick an area at least 100 feet (30 meters) from freshwater and in an inconspicuous site not traveled frequently by people. Urinate on rocks, pine needles, or gravel. If allowed by the park, urination directly into a river with a high flow of water may be the preferred method.

Human Waste: Check with the park to determine the best way to handle waste. The two methods frequently used in parks are catholes and waste collection and removal. Instructions for both methods can be found below:

Catholes Waste Collection and Removal
1. Go at least 100 feet (30 meters) from water, trails, and campsites.
2. Dig a 6-inch (15 centimeters) deep hole, 4-inches (10 centimeters) in diameter.
3. Deposit and bury waste with soil and other native materials.
4. Use a resealable plastic bag to carry out all used toilet paper and menstrual products.
1. Use bag containers to collect human waste.
2. Dispose of the bags in accordance with park guidelines.

Pay attention to where you make camp for the night!

Warm weather means mosquitoes are active. You can protect yourself by sleeping in enclosed tents and avoiding campsites with lots of mosquitoes or near stagnant waters. For additional protection, use mosquito netting treated with 0.5% permethrin.

Do not pitch tents or place sleeping bags near rodent feces, burrows, or other possible rodent habitats including dense brush and wood piles.

The backcountry is a great place to see wildlife in its natural habitat. Keep yourself safe and wildlife wild by observing from a distance and avoiding contact with all wildlife. Many parks require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. Parks may have different minimum distances, so check with your park before you go! And keep all food and garbage in sealed containers to avoid attracting animals.

If you are bitten or scratched by an animal or think you may have (such as sleeping in a cabin where a bat is found), contact a ranger as soon as possible to capture the animal (if possible) and to help you contact public health and medical care. A small proportion of mammals carry rabies, and you may need post-exposure treatment.

To prevent bites from ticks and mosquitoes, use an EPA-registered insect repellent containing 20-30% DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus on skin and 0.5% permethrin on clothing and gear. Learn more about diseases that can be spread by ticks and mosquitoes.


Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants if conditions allow. Avoid campsites that have high mosquito populations or are near stagnant waters.


Wear light-colored clothing to allow you to see ticks crawling on your clothing.

Do a tick check after exposure to tick-infested areas. Pay special attention to the backs of the knees, groin, armpits and neck. Remove any ticks you find on your body.

How to Remove a Tick:

  1. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as you can.

  2. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick.

  3. After removing the tick, clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.

  4. Dispose of the tick by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet.

The advice listed above will help you stay healthy and have an amazing backcountry experience. But no matter how prepared you are, there is a chance that you can become ill during your trip.

It is important to know what to do if you do get sick. Be aware of the disease risks that exist and watch out for any symptoms that develop. If you are feeling ill, leave the backcountry and seek medical care. Report all illnesses to a ranger and the NPS Disease Prevention and Response branch.

Last updated: December 3, 2019