Sponge Bath: Keep Clean Without Running Water

A pioneer in the Alaskan wilderness tells us how to take a sponge bath.

| March/April 1981

  • 068 sponge bath
    The author washes his hair with a baking soda shampoo mixture as part of a regular sponge bath routine.
    PHOTO: MANYA WIK

  • 068 sponge bath

Some 10 years back, I left the city and set out to build a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. It was late September before I could actually begin construction of the dwelling, and the rivers were already freezing, so I had to work hard and quick!

Yet — despite the rigorous physical labor — I'd go for days without a bath. At the time I told myself I couldn't wash because of the cold weather and primitive camp conditions, but now I know that I simply hadn't yet adjusted to "new" means of keeping clean.

Since then, I've spent as much as 26 months at a stretch without even seeing running water, and I've very rarely missed my daily bath. I'd like to pass on what I've learned about taking a sponge bath to any of you who may be about to quit the city and its conveniences, whether on a permanent or a temporary basis.

Clean With Seven Cups

I once doubted the word of a friend who told me that he'd been taught to take a complete bath with an army helmet full of water. Now I know he was telling the truth, because I've done it myself using a hard hat while fighting forest fires. The fact is, it's possible to clean every part of your body but your hair — using an ordinary metal wash basin — with only seven cups of water ... which is just under half a gallon!



A complete bush-country bathing outfit should include a 15-inch metal basin, washcloth, towel, soap, baking soda, and fingernail brush. It's best to stay away from enamel basins (they'll eventually crack, and you'll ram an enamel chip under your fingernail sooner or later), and steel tubs will rust ... in spite of their shiny appearance when new. Aluminum basins, on the other hand, have never failed me. Whatever type of basin you use, however, keep a fingernail brush handy for scrubbing out the dirt film after you bathe.

The real secret of this water-conserving wash method is the elimination of soap from most of the bath. If you really lather up, you face the problem of getting rid of the suds, and — when you're washing from a small tub — this can be such a chore that you may start to skip baths altogether.

Denise Mantei
2/8/2013 10:26:55 PM

What if you live on the desert and only have hard water?


Daizy Daigle
9/2/2012 5:53:56 PM

I have to correct the basin type. It is the Aluminum that rusts, Steel does not rust and is idea.


Sheryl Isaacs_2
6/10/2010 2:06:07 AM

This article inspired me to create another version, that works well for a bath or shower. Use Baking Soda. Follow with an Apple Cider Vinegar and Water rinse. Follow with an Essential Oil(s) of choice and Water rinse. Rinse again, if needed. I tried this before commenting here and my hair is soft, shiny, and full of body. Better than any shampoo or conditioner I have used before. Note that this also replaces the need of soap for bathing. Note that this is the perfect recipe for cleaning the home.







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