Some thoughts on crisis hygiene...

Sanitation & Hygiene in the field or a SHTF setting

Selco had a good post the other day (HERE) on survival hygiene that I wanted to attempt to flesh out a bit. Granted, this topic is not as thrilling as gunfights and multicam gear, but it is nonetheless a crucial aspect of survival, as improper sanitation & hygiene can kill you just as dead as gunfire.

Let’s look a few different scenarios…
1) Suburban family sheltering in place due to grid-down/disaster situation.
2) Team at a camp/patrol base with a potential for enemy troops in the area.
3) A couple in a high rise apartment in a large city and the utilities cease to function.

Family awakens to no power or water. The family members continue to use the non-flushing toilet as they assume things will return to normal at any moment (normalcy bias at work). Luckily, they have a couple cases of bottled water on hand, as the misses hates the taste of the local tap water. Father heads into town to see what he can find out and to restock supplies……he returns hours later disheveled, empty handed and visibly shaken. He tells everyone to lock the doors and windows and close the curtains. His wife is starting to get scared due to his unusual behavior, but he refuses to discuss what he witnessed while away. By day three they have sealed off the bathrooms as the odor is getting bad. Father decides to craft a makeshift outhouse in the backyard.  The backyard is not very big, so he digs a hole in the back corner of the yard and rigs up an old shower curtain across the corner of where the fences meet.  On day four mother notices that some kind of animal has been digging around in their shower curtain outhouse. Food is now beginning to run low as well as water. Father goes to fetch the kids for dinner and finds their youngest curled up with the family dog on her bed scratching away at his belly. The family immediately sits down and begins to eat without washing, as father had opted not to enforce it since water was in such short supply.

Up at the camp…
The 18 man team had been lying in the prone watching their individual areas of responsibility for hours now. The leadership, huddled in the center of their somewhat circular camp, where trying to decide how long to occupy this area. Their logistics drop at a nearby forest service road was a no-show and they desperately needed resupply. Team leader Phil returns to his men on the line and informs them that they will be staying put for at least another 24 hours. He takes one of his men and exits the camp to set up a temporary latrine. He finds a large pine tree about 20 yards or so away with a clear line of site to the camp. He digs a slit trench on the near side of the tree and then places a section of silver duct tape a couple feet up on the tree trunk. Once back in the camp he informs the rest of the leadership of the latrine location which the team leaders all point out to their individual men. As they have no more soap or hand sanitizer, the medic sets to work on a wash station. He puts a pot of water on to boil over a Dakota fire pit and gathers several handfuls of fresh pine needles and some of the wisps of pastel colored lichen that are hanging from nearly every tree  branch. He adds them all to the boiling water and lets the concoction simmer for a few minutes.  Once it has cooled to a tolerable temperature, he instructs everyone to aggressively wash with the solution after using the latrine and prior to eating.

Frank and his wife lean over the rail of their 12th floor balcony, gripping the rail tightly and trying to make sense of the carnage they are witnessing on the streets below. It was like something they had seen repeatedly played out on CNN, in Libya, or Greece, or Iraq. It had only been a few days since the television had stopped working…..when everything had stopped working…..but it seemed so much longer. Frank’s wife, Lynn, had been in the bath when the first emergency broadcast started only days ago. Her husband’s alarmed beckoning caused Lynn to grab a robe and dash into the living room. It must have only been a day later when they came to the conclusion that a tub full of dirty bathwater was the only water they had…and for the time being, leaving the building was out of the question… god, people were shooting guns on the street right outside! The bright side to their situation, if there was one, was the fact that the couple’s favorite pastime was to get out and go camping at least once a year. Consequently, they had accumulated quite the collection of camping gear. Frank used his MSR hand pump filter to transfer bathwater to a stockpot which he then brought to a boil with his little butane powered campstove on the balcony. Lynn setup their old mop bucket as a toilet by lining it with a trashbag and fashioning a makeshift cover to keep the odor down. Lynn was a bit of a hypochondriac at heart so they had a large supply of soaps and sanitizers on hand. In some small way she felt the current craziness had vindicated her “germ obsession”….but how long could they keep this up?
In each of these three situations some good and bad things were done. Let’s break it down and discuss the proper courses of action.

1) Suburbia – by continuing to use a non-functioning toilet they are inviting disease vectors into their house. The outhouse option should have been started much earlier. They could have “hardened” their outhouse to animal intrusion by using wood materials or even by “fencing” it in with some old chicken wire. By dodging the hand washing issue this family has invited catastrophe into their lives – especially considering that the family dog was getting into their scat and now is in the house being handled by family members. Cholera and Dysentery are no joke folks….
Father could have set up a wash station with a small amount of water that could be reused for wash purposes with liberal chlorine treatment and boiling. Lime would also be a good item to have on hand for outhouses - fireplace ash could also be used in a pinch.

2) Camp – This team is demonstrating some basic military field hygiene skills. Keeping the scat out of the “living space” of the camp but still being able to provide security for latrine users, is essential. The TL marks the latrine to help ensure that all are clear on the location so there are no blue on blue incidents. It is also worth noting that no one would ever leave a camp like this without the word first being passed to every single member. The medic shows some old world ingenuity and is able to use the local vegetation to work a hygiene solution. Pine needles are high in vitamin C as well as being antimicrobial. The lichen he used is called Usnea or “Old Man’s Beard” and is a rather powerful topical and internal antiseptic. It can be found in most alpine areas of the US.

3) City – Chance seemed to favor these urbanites, even as unprepared as they seemed to be. You have to be creative and engage in some outside the box thinking in situations like these. Keeping the bathwater gave them around 50 gallons of useful water. The MSR filter should do a sufficient job of filtering the unclean water, but boiling is always a good safeguard if available.

Also, don’t get too hung-up on the tactics, or lack of, in the scenarios.  My purpose here was to attempt to augment what Selco had started with the hygiene issues and focus on stimulating some useful ideas on the subject.  Worth noting is, besides Usnea, some useful prophylaxis and treatments for GI infections that you probably have in your cupboard right now are cinnamon, cloves and charcoal. With over 12 deployments to some of the more filthy locales of the world, I can say from experience that these common items have been a lifesaver for me on more than one occasion.  I don’t travel without them….


  1. BOIL THE WATER!!!!!! Every drop. Shoot the dog, as its been in the scat you can't eat it.The guys in the wood will be starving "bandidos" in about a week. If your "city" kids don't hit the exits soon the are toast,as are the ones in the suburbs. Without water they won't last long.

  2. IF at all possible get a $100 kids pool with the blow up top ring. Have it on hand. When things start looking like they may indeed shut down. blow it up and fill that pool up right in the middle of the back lawn or wherever you have room. Don't worry about the grass. It will be dead soon enough without water if it's summer, and if it winter, worry about it later. That pool will hold quite a bit of water that can be covered and preserved for some time. Summer is over now. Look for the sales at Wal-Mart and other places. They will be happy to get rid of the inventory.

  3. Useful information/discussion, and relevant to any lethal conflict situation. Lookit Guadalcanal: Japs lost 20,000 men. KIA maybe 2,000. The other 90% via starvation and disease. And this in a "military organization". And thanks to Rick's comment, I just remembered...there's an unused, empty Jacuzzi in the backyard. Will fill it tomorrow.

  4. Good ideas. One thing to keep in mind regarding the storage of exposed, static water is - in the long term you will end up with a mosquito factory, which can be a huge disease vector. Best to cover those "pools" if possible.

  5. water bobs for the bathtubs from CTD, stackable (when empty) 40 gallon food-grade water barrels, extra filters for your MSR and Katadyn systems, bulk bar soap and dish soap from Sams club.....these little things will make you the richest family on the block if and when TSHTF

  6. How do you use the cinnamon, cloves and charcoal to remedy a GI infection? Do you have a recipe or treatment regimen? Thank you for the article - excellent. Good food for thought and planning.


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