Intermediate Bikepacking: "HELP WIPING!" Pt. 1 (WWE and the EASE)

Living out there on the trail, you’ll want some help wiping. Sure, a large enough leaf – and one that you are absolutely certain is not going to inundate your nethers with toxins or irritating fibers (causing rash, itching, and/or burning) - might serve as a decent substitute for toilet paper in a bind. But living out there on the trail, you’ll want to give at least a passing thought to hygiene. By all means, let all the hair – everywhere – just grow. Enjoy the freedom of forgetting about the existence of deodorant. People in the towns through which you pass will remember you, but the ones who will remember you as a stinky, bike-riding vagabond you’ll easily forget, if you ever notice them at all. Maybe wash your chamois or shorts once in a while, but beyond that, get dirty dirty when you go bikepacking. Just draw the line somewhere before ingesting fecal matter. Poo-borne bacteria in your gut is the Freddy Krueger to your bikepacking dreams. Don’t, dear reader, go gently into that good night. Keep the poo out of your grubby fingernails by not fussing with leaves and other poor substitutes for TP. Accept some help wiping.

Now, a roll of TP (especially a downsized one) can be shoved into various nooks and crannies of your rig, but one of the commandments to live by when bikepacking is only to carry things that serve more than one purpose. What else besides wiping your nethers is a small roll of TP good for on a bike? Wiping a runny nose? Now give some thought to what is going to happen to that small roll of TP when it comes into contact with any moisture. You can find a waterproof bag for your TP roll, but a small package of wet wipes has several advantages over that system: 1) its flat shape makes it more packable; 2) it can get wet; 3) it can be used to clean minor wounds, utensils, cookware, and anything else you want to keep crud free.

To help illustrate the virtues and ills of the various wet wipes out there, we have sampled some of the most readily available brands. From our local calls-itself-a-farmers-market-but-it’s-still-just-a-supermarket we bought a “plant-based,” “hypoallergenic,” “fragrance-free” wet wipe. From a local drug store we bought a germ-killing but “gentle” antibacterial wet wipe. And from the nearest 24-hr. convenience store we got another wet wipe that there are no adjectives to help distinguish from the other two. For a control group, we dug up an old package of wet wipes left over from a Tour Divide run; sometimes the best wet wipe around is a dry wipe because it’s the only wet wipe around.

Before presenting the fruits of all our wiping, in the interest of public health and safety we wish to illustrate the method for a proper wipe, based on a rigorously developed theory of wiping. The ideal wipe will be achieved when even pressure is exerted over a wet wipe as it passes over the Estimated Area of Soilage (or EASE) with that pressure intensifying slightly over the estimated area of maximum soilage, which you should try to situate as near to mid-wipe as possible, and tapering as your wipe moves along the periphery of the EASE. Fold your wet wipe into roughly the same size and shape of your hand to avoid any loose wipe producing drag as your wipe passes over the EASE. Tapering the pressure of the wipe as you move toward and away from the estimated area of maximum soilage will prevent you from making more of a mess than you had to deal with at the start; the idea is to never extend the area of an EASE past the boundary line of its initial natural formation. Apply pressure to the wipe with your fingertips if you sense that the depth of material on the EASE warrants a hybrid raking-wiping method; fingernails can achieve an even deeper rake to your wipe but risk compromising the integrity of the wipe itself or produce alternating tracks of lines of cleanliness and soilage in the EASE.

Using proper wiping method, each of the wet wipes we sampled was tested by the most reliable judge of quality and worth, a woman. The wet wipes were rated based on the following criteria: Packability, Disposability, Moistness, Softness, Comfort (Lack of Burn), Aroma, Accessibility, Affordability. Below is a series of graphs illustrating how the wet wipes scored in these areas on a scale from 1 to 5; taken together, the scores reflect an objective determination of WWE, wet wipe excellence.

1. From the nearest 24-hr. convenience store, a generic wet wipe.

2. From a local drug store, a germ-killing but “gentle” antibacterial wet wipe.

3. From a local calls-itself-a-farmers-market-but-it’s-still-just-a-supermarket, a “plant-based,” “hypoallergenic,” “fragrance-free” wet wipe.

Ultimately, the wet wipe with the best WWE profile was the “plant-based,” “hypoallergenic,” “fragrance-free” wet wipe from the local calls-itself-a-farmers-market-but-it’s-still-just-a-supermarket. It won out over the wet wipes from the 24 hr. convenience store and drug store based primarily on sensory data: it smelled better and felt better on the nethers. Most importantly, our judge remarked, there was no burn. It terms of moistness and packability it was about on par with the rest, but it scored lower than average in the areas of affordability and accessibility. It is going to be the hardest wet wipe to come by living out there on the trail, and if you do find it, it’ll cost you a bit more than the more readily available wipes. That said, no wet wipe costs that much for how vital a pack item it can be.

PSA: A note on disposability

None of the wet wipes we tested scored high in the area of disposability, but one scored one notch higher than the others. The “plant-based” wet wipe was described on its packaging as “biodegradable,” but we did a little research and determined that that designation DOES NOT MEAN that you can leave the wet wipe on the ground and expect it to compost. The designation does mean that you can dispose of the wipe in an off-the-grid toilet like you might find at a state park or in a port-a-potty.

All things considered, if you are going to carry wet wipes on your bikepacking rig expecting to use them, then you darn well better carry a sealable plastic bag to deposit your used ones in until you reach a place where you can dispose of them responsibly. It is an important commandment of the bikepacking ethos that the things you carry serve more than one purpose, but a far more important commandment is to leave no trace, expect for the tracks of your tires and feet in the dirt. PACK IT OUT, folks! A wet wipe left as litter will be utterly divested of its WWE, and the cleanliness of your EASE should not come at the expense of that of the land.

Words by Seth Wood @drsethwood

Photographs and graph design by Austin Turner @austikt