It blows my mind how many times I’ve seen someone emerge from a stall in a public restroom and walk out without washing their hands. Yet basic hygiene and hand washing goes a huge way in preventing illness, especially gastrointestinal infection.
This is of paramount importance in survival. By definition, if you’re in a survival situation normal life has already gone down the pan. You are already at a disadvantage, you may be traumatized, injured, weak, cold, wet, tired or hungry at the outset. The very last thing you need is to get sick as well. Particularly if there are others counting on you.
At home and in my work life I am regularly the butt of jokes because of my concern with hygiene. Obsession some have called it, though I beg to differ. My cameramen and family often call me Howard Hughes or Mom because I go round squirting them with antibacterial hand gel and other such things. However I’m rarely sick with coughs and colds and even more rarely do I get sickness and diarrhea. I put this down to my ‘obsession’. This is even more remarkable when you consider the nature of my work, I’ve spent a good proportion of the last 20 years traveling to Developing Nations and living off the beaten track when I’m there.
The following is by no means a definitive list but these hints and tips have helped keep me healthy and functioning when others have gone down.
Soap and water. Hand washing hand washing hand washing! Use clean water and soap whenever you can. I can’t express how important this is. Our hands are vectors that transport pathogens to our mouths, noses, eyes, other areas of the skin, from person to person directly or via contaminated surfaces and food.
Soap works by creating a chemical reaction which breaks up dirt and makes it easy to wash away in water. The Ancient Babylonians were using it way back in 2800 BC and people have continued to use it throughout the centuries. Just not often enough at times!
A recent study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine asked volunteers to deliberately contaminate their hands by rubbing them over surfaces in public places like buses and museums. They found that washing hands with water alone reduced the level of fecal bacteria present by 49% but soap and water dropped it down to 81%. That’s a lot less poo floating around just from simple hand washing with soap and water!
Ash. Any backwoodsman or frontierswoman worth their salt will tell you that you can make soap by mixing lye with fat. Lye can be made from ash. Out in the field when I haven’t had access to soap I have often washed my hands with clean wood ash and water. The gritty texture helps to mechanically remove dirt and the high PH level kills germs. It’s harsh on your skin, very drying, and your hands typically look more dirty afterwards but they are actually much cleaner.
You can also use wood ash to clean cooking pots and utensils. By adding ash and water to an oily cooking pot and mushing it around you can remove the grease. When the ash, water and oils combine you are actually creating a rudimentary form of soap. The greasier the pot the better the soap. As ever, make sure your water is sterilized first by heating it to a rolling boil.
On a side note, ash is also a great covering for field toilets or ‘cat holes’. The ash dries out the feces and that combined with the high PH level helps destroy pathogens. It gets rid of nasty smells too which is never a bad thing and reduces flies, which is always a very good thing.
Earth. If you don’t have access to ash, clean dry soil or sand with water can also be effective for hand washing. There is no antibacterial action here (and it is possible that the soil itself may contain contaminants) but again the abrasive action of rubbing the grit against your skin removes grease and dirt that harbor germs.
Fire. On many occasions I have used the same knife to kill game, skin it, gut it, cook it and eat it. All without washing the blade in between times. To date, thankfully, I haven’t managed to give myself food poisoning. This is because I sterilize the knife with heat before I begin the cooking process. You can do this by plunging the blade in the flames of a fire and holding it there for a while but I prefer to shove it into the hot coals of a fire. The temperatures are higher and it’s more controlled so you’re less likely to burn your hand.
Go Colonial. During the hay days of the British Empire thousands of Brits and their families left the relative comfort and sophistication of olden days Britain and headed out to pastures new in Africa, the Middle East, India and beyond. They were exposed to an entirely alien way of living – different temperatures, customs, foods and different germs. One way they kept themselves healthy was by following a simple mantra when it came to eating:
“If you can boil it, peel it or cook it, you can eat it. If not, forget it.”
In survival scenarios, after natural disasters or when I’m traveling in remote locations I try and follow these rules to the letter. If it’s not you doing the cooking, police whoever is. Make sure your food is piping hot and thoroughly cooked. Avoid things like ice cream and salad like the plague.
After hurricanes and the like I tend to steer clear of restaurants and cafes for a while, even ‘trusted’ chains. They may have had power outages. You don’t know how long it took for their back up generators to kick in or whether or not their fridges and freezers started to warm up and provide a happy little place for bacteria to breed. Sometimes though you don’t have choice. In these instances I become vegetarian, when storage systems fail it’s easier to keep veggies safe than it is meat. French fries and bottled water are my go to, or known brand bottled drinks like Diet Coke if the water is all gone Boring and not very nutritious but it will keep you alive and safe until better times.
Use Booze. Using a knife or other eating utensil, or even a stick with it’s bark stripped off, is great way to avoid putting dirty hands on your food when hand washing is unavailable. But obviously the implement itself must be clean. I always carry a little flask of booze in my survival kit, if you can’t wash your fork or shove it in a fire, spirit alcohols such as whiskey and vodka make an excellent disinfectant. In eateries in far flung places I always order a whiskey with my meal, even breakfast, purely to sterilize the silverware. Though I have been known to drink it afterwards. Waste not, want not….!
Left is not right to wipe! I was very surprised the first time I visited Southern India to see that everyone, even middle class professional folk like doctors and lawyers, ate with their hands. Or more precisely with their hand, their right hand. I’ve since seen this practice all over South East Asia, in Arab countries and in parts of Africa. Many Hindus and Muslims reserve their left hand for wiping their bottoms and their right hand for eating. It makes perfect hygiene sense in places where water is scarce. I’ve employed this technique out in the bush, it takes a little getting used to but is very helpful in preventing cross contamination.
In conclusion. Out in the field I work almost exclusively with men. ‘All ball crews’ as my husband fondly calls them. We’re often in very rugged terrain and camera equipment is heavy (and expensive) so a little extra muscle helps. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that a lot of men – not all -but a lot of men take hygiene matters less seriously than women. Some even act if cleanliness is affront to their masculinity. I implore everyone to heed hygiene and not to bow to peer pressure or preconceptions. In a survival situation it may just save your life, or at very least save you some hardship.
I recall a trip I made to Rwanda to film mountain gorillas about 12 years ago. We were in the west of the country right on the border with volatile Congo. It was just a few short years after the Rwandan genocide and things were still a little sketchy. My ‘all ball crew’ and I were eating at a roadside café and they were laughing at me because of my hygiene regimen.
I had just been for a pee in an open air urinal so I didn’t have to go inside to the private one and touch all the dirty doors and locks, then I’d slathered myself in antibacterial hand gel, wiped the table down, ordered some boring fried vegetables and a whiskey to clean my knife and fork. They thought this was hilarious and somewhat unnecessary. That night we headed into the mountains and everyone was very sick. Except me. My poor soundman spent the best part of eight hours puking and squeezing his guts out by candle light into a dismal Rwandan long-drop toilet full of mosquitoes and spiders.
Thankfully everyone recovered, but without medicine to hand it could have been a different story. I’ll take teasing about my hygiene ‘obsession’ anytime and live to tell the tale and get home to my loved ones. I hope you do too.