You're a traveler in a pre-industrial era, temperate climate, grass, trees, rivers, rain, nothing extreme.

You're travelling for weeks or months. You take only what you can carry. You may have a horse but you can't rely on acquiring it or keeping it. Assume you've got well-made, durable clothes (leather, wool, etc, nothing synthetic) but you can't spare the carrying capacity for several changes of clothing. It may get very cold, so you need to wrap up.

You don't have soap except perhaps in small quantities (a bar or two if you're lucky), and making a good fire is difficult and/or dangerous.

You want your journey to be as speedy as possible -- for a journey this long, a ten percent slowdown can cost days or weeks.

IRL I had damp shoes for three days and battled athletes foot for ages afterwards until I threw the shoes away. In the above situation once things get wet it's difficult or impossible to clean and dry them (at least before the next rain comes down).

How would you prevent, mitigate, or cure boils, sores, lice, skin infections and the like?

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    $\begingroup$ You don't. People in the middle ages died of that stuff. Good thing you don't live then. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 3:40
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    $\begingroup$ Ever spent a week or two backpacking? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not seeing is suitable respect for the dangers of getting cold and wet (bathing etc). Hypothermia is dangerous guys, and you don't need to be up a snowy mountain to get it. $\endgroup$
    – Nathan
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ What's the reason behind "no fire" rule? I think it might change quite a bit. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ You have died of dysentery $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 15:14

10 Answers 10


Like most people in the Middle Ages, cleaning and changing clothes is almost impossible in your scenario (most people had only one set of clothing at any given time).

Military campaigners of the time resorted to all kinds of expedients based on a total lack of understanding of the mechanisms of disease (long, beak like face masks with pleasant smelling herbs stuffed in the "beak" were responses to the idea that diseases were spread by "bad air" coming from swamps, putrid food and decomposing bodies, for example).

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Black Death doctor

The one which actually worked was to keep troops well fed, so their bodies and immune systems were working at full capacity, and keeping them busy so large numbers of troops were not congregated in one camp. Keeping the latrines away from potable drinking water was also highly important (even people in the Middle Ages could make that connection).

Since your traveller obviously seems to have some knowledge of modern medicine and hygiene, we can simply update the techniques used by the ancients and add modern medical knowledge to the mix.

  1. Keep well fed, so your body and immune system work at peak efficiency
  2. Rest and recovery is important. You do need to take time to eat, sleep and take a bath whenever the opportunity arises.
  3. Proper clothing. Even the Ancestors seem to have understood the importance of layering and proper ventilation as they trekked across the planet out of Africa. Airing out clothing and layering to prevent overheating and sweating will go a long way to prevent chafing and skin disease.
  4. Without knowing where you are or where you are going, it may or may not be possible to have or acquire some herbal medicines to rub on your skin, eat or drink or even sprinkle over your clothes to treat symptoms of disease, provide relief of pain and drive off some parasites and insects. Since you are travelling well outside of any areas you may be familiar with, you will need to trust either the locals or have very keen observational skills to observe what the local wildlife seems to be eating.

In any realistic scenario, you would not travel alone, ever. Even the Polo's travelled from the Repùblica de Venesia to Cathay with trading caravans, and moving along the Silk Road from China to Europe and back was a multi stage caravan journey. Having access to fellow travellers with their knowledge of various stages of the journey, languages, local guides and hired guards meant that there would be a much better chance of arriving at your destination. Even falling and breaking a leg would be a life threatening situation if you were travelling alone, but an inconvenience if you were with a caravan.

  • $\begingroup$ I can't see a bird mourner and not throw an upvote, now can I? $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 3:10
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    $\begingroup$ and those times are still with us in the name of malaria, literally "bad air"... $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 9:43

If you are a traveler then you wash or take a bath in the inns, public baths, or guest houses of the cities, towns or villages through which you pass. What you are describing looks more like a beggar, an explorer, or, given that lighting a fire is dangerous, a scout. Public baths were very much a thing until the late Middle Ages / Early Moden period (say, 16th or 17th century), when for some reason they went out of fashion in Western Europe.

  • If you are a beggar then you simply don't keep clean.
  • If you are an explorer you do whatever the locals do. In pre-industrial times explorers generally tried to practice the local culture of the peoples that they met with.
  • If you are a scout then you have survival skills and use them. However, scouts rarely engage in long-term spying on enemy territory, so they just defer cleaning up until they return to their camp.

After some reflection, you may be thinking of a situation similar to the USA in the early 19th century, where there is a large sparsely inhabited wilderness between islands of civilization. Historically, that is an anomaly which lasted for a very short time -- generally states expand gradually over land and not by large jumps; and anyway, 19th century is not pre-industrial. In such a situation you do whatever you can, wash in rivers or lakes, set out your clothes to dry in the sun, clench your teeth and carry on.


We've grown a lot more comfortable in the modern age than our ancestors ever were before. And a large part of this comfort consists of very well appointed washroom facilities, as well as access to skin, and hair care products, not to mention medicine for pretty much anything.

It's easy to forget that as late at the 1940's diseases such as typhus would sweep the land and kill millions. True, in those years it was due to the conditions brought about by war, however the take-away fact here is that hygiene is the only thing needed to keep it at bay to begin with.

In the pre-industrial age, mortality rates were a lot higher than they are today. And a large percentage of them were children. Quite simply, only the lucky, or the ones with very strong immune systems would make it to adulthood. Arguably, our ancestors were a lot more ruggedly built from that point of view than we are today. In fact, there's studies suggesting that the over-washing and cleaning of children is contributing to dramatically weaker immune systems.

And so, these people would be a lot more resistant to the rigors of the road than you or I. However, that doesn't mean that they wouldn't suffer from the same inconveniences that you did.

Would they have fleas? As someone who spent many a summer on my grand parent's farm I can tell you that yes, they would have fleas. Lice? Most likely (thankfully not something I've ever gone through). Would they be dirty, and smelly, and generally quite disgusting by modern standards? Guaranteed.

Watch the opening moments of "The Revenant" to get a pretty good idea what people travelling in those conditions would look like. Spoiler: they ain't clean.

So how would they "get clean"? The answer is that they wouldn't. They might bathe in a river or lake given the opportunity, but they typically wouldn't have many different changes of clothing, so they would just put their dirty, lice and flee infested clothes back on afterwards.

Read up on the terrible conditions that soldiers in WWI endured in the trenches. Infections ran rampant. One way to try and keep your feet from rotting away in the muddy, wet, rat infested trenches was to liberally coat your feet in Vaseline, or fat of some kind, in an effort to keep the damp out of your limbs.

Your travelers would only be clean when they reached civilization again.

  • $\begingroup$ There is plenty of evidence in folk songs from pre-industrial times that peasants had a change of clothes and that they washed their clothes in the river, creek or whatever running water they had nearby. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ @vsz -did you actually read the question? We're talking about people on a long journey through wilderness, not peasants living in a town. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ The answer as most other answers seemed to assume that the whole population lived without a change of clothes. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 17:08

Traveling would not be more messy than normal day to day living, and remember bathing was not a daily activity in many preindustrial societies, usually weekly, and often only involved washing the key spots like the hands face and groin (think sponge bath). clean then was not the same as clean today. It actually does not take much time or effort to clean like this, travel was basically controlled by access to water, travel routes followed water routes. You could not carry everything you needed, you had to find it on the way, and remember water came from rivers or public wells it was not like today where it came to your house. Pomades might be used in the hair, or it would be kept short. Smoke baths could be used. plus a bar of soap would last months or years for a single person at the time.

Additionally linen clothing is much easier to clean and sheds dirt easily, drying could be done over the fire or during sleep. Many cultures used things like traveling cloaks and clogs or overshoes to keep out the worse of the mud. This is also why hosts were often expected to give travelers time to bathe and clean up after traveling before anything formal started.

the better question is how are they eating if they have little to no fire.

And honestly the horse is going to be an issue, they will either have plenty of time at camp or they will have a dead horse. a horse does not have the same endurance a person does they also dehydrate faster, you can't walk a horse all day for many days without killing it. your person is better off either using the horse for a short burst of speed and distance or using it to carry supplies until it drops. They would be better off with a donkey than a horse they can keep up with a person as a pack animal.

  • $\begingroup$ "a bar of soap would last months or years for a single person at the time" -- what changed? $\endgroup$
    – spraff
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ If you only use your bar once a week for a sponge bath, you use a lot less soap than if you wash your entire body every day.... $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 3:02
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    $\begingroup$ And don't forget that if you wash your hair in shampoo every day, you'll be very uncomfortable not washing it for a week; but if you never wash it with shampoo, it will be far more resistant to dirt. Similarly woollen clothing: you'll get to a certain level of grubbiness after a couple of weeks and after that it won't get any worse. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 22:56

People traveling so long as months can't keep clean, unless there are many rivers and lakes to do a bath. I've been doing long trekking sessions and some camping in the wild, so I have exactly an Idea of what is needed.

But note one thing:

  • Personal higiene is especially important on long trips (morale higher, less smell for eventual predators, less risk of infecting blisters or scratches)
  • If you find only cold water, nonetheless you should try to clean at least some parts of your body (hip, feet, armpits)
  • If some people in the past can't keep clean they were doing that wrong! (and movies are full of examples of people that do not things much correctly).

A common misconception is that on long travel you will be not very clean, this is fake. It is important to keep clean (to a certain degree of course).

If water is not going to miss, you'll need the ability to carry at least 2 liters of waters, and you will replenish that reserve with time. You will need also a good knife and some way to keep it clean and out of rust. If fire is not an option (and if you can use a fire you will travel much better!!), you can live only with fruit and vegetables. The biggest problem is that you will need drinkable water sources because you cannot boil the water. You do need just some soap to use before you arrive at destination, but most times you will be fine having a bath in the river (if not too cold, if you have warm clothes you can do baths in water cold as 10 degress, not less, and you have to get dry and dress immediatly after the bath).

If you can make a firepit: (you should unless you are 150% sure you can drink all the water you find in your trip)

  • You will have to bring a small pot (you will need to cook food and boil water)
  • Something to ignite the fire (matches, a lens, a linchpin)
  • A small mechanical trap for hunting small animals

Anything you should bring with you anyway

  • Regular clothes
  • Few extra panties
  • A hat (you have to protect against rain, ticks)
  • A Cloak
  • a good blanket
  • a leather blanket
  • a water bottle
  • a knife
  • if the world is dangerous also a ranged weapon will help.
  • strings (are very versatile and have almost no weight)
  • 3 x pair of socks. Socks are much more important (you need a wool pair to keep feet warn during night, and a comfortable pair to avoid blisters as much as you can).
  • additional pair of shoes (if yours get wet, without an additional pair you will slow down your trip waiting shoes get dry).
  • 3 x small ropes (at least for creating a safe refuge in case of rain, and enough to wire your horse to a tree, if you have one).
  • walking sticks!! (beside you can use to make a emergency refuge, with sticks you will walk much faster and using much less energy! Also most little animals becomes less dangerous if you can keep them far from biting you with a stick.) You will need good sticks anyway if you get injured in a leg.
  • never and ever run jump or try to climb anything unless you are forced to, and always throw your backpack first.
  • eat anything edible immediatly (unless it is your special 2 reserves of food). You don't know when you will find food again.
  • drink water every while, and replenish water bottle as soon as possible (and when you find drinkable water drink some more immediatly).
  • some mean to shave and keep hair and beard short. The last thing you want is waiting for your hair to get dry during a rainy cold day.
  • A dog, he can smell and hear something dangerous much before than you, and anyway you will need some companion. the downside is that he have to eat also meat so you will need a fire anyway if you want a dog.

You also need to have an exact idea of the land in which you are travelling. If you want to travel safe you want to travel only a limited amount of time every day, you should ave reference points and know in average how much distance you travelled each day. Do not rush your daily dose of chilometers.

Weight count:

  1. The fire's stuff is about 1kg.
  2. Clothes and spare clothes can be another 2kg.
  3. Cloack and blankets are another 2kg.
  4. 3 kg of all the other stuff.
  5. clothes you may be wearing.

In total you will have to carry 10 kg of stuff. that's not very much. If you are trained on walking (says at least 10/12 kms every day for 2/3 months), you will have no problems carrying that stuff (in my trekking sessions I usually carry water for everyone, and that's alone 10 kgs, I have no problem in doing that). If you travel more than 8 hours/day you will start to have blisters on your feet (you will probably get some anyway if you are not trained even if you walk much less).

You have absolutely to keep yourself warm and dry. You have limited energy and you should spend less amount of energy. Leave early in the morning, you will have to search for a safe place in the first afternoon, you always have to make your resting place before it is night (you have no light). Wet clothes should be hanged on your backpack to dry early.

It seems incredible but most movies and books get those facts wrong, because their authors never did camping once.

You can walk as much as 40/50 kms in a day, but 20 kms is much more realistic for a person if you want to avoid side effects of walking too much (and even less and with more pauses if don't want to sweat much). And you should be trained, otherwise keep as limit 10 kms. Also keep some food prize with you:

  • 2/3 chocolate bars, you will eat a small bite every few days.
  • some dry meat, you will eat sometimes only if you do not find food. You can also use it to give it to a wild animals. That will not protect you from a bear or a lion, but small predators may get scared and hungry, so a small piece of meat may disguise them to try to attack you.

A way to keep clean is to walk slowly, avoid hard paths, stay away from rain or wet terrain, take regular baths, change your underwear often, as long as underwear get dry you can wear it again. And always clean underwear with water as soon as possible, you never know if there will be some rainy days, in which case getting underwear dry becomes a problem. Keeping as less stuff as possible with you helps in not getting sweaty immediatly but you will need at least the stuff for surviving. Take a rest on most hot hours (that's because you have to leave early in morning if you want to progress on your trip).

If you have a horse things are slightly better, you keep 7/8 of stuff on his back, you do not ride. EVER. (you may still fall). You need horse to escape in case of immediate danger. Your horse drink first, and you use that water to fill an additional water bottle. If the horse will be fine within 2 days you can drink that water too (with a horse you can carry much more water bottles and other stuff anyway).

It is also very important you spend on each task the time it is deserve, especially on round robin your clothes to make the dry etc, apart you will keep pretty good higiene in that way, you will also fill your whole day reducing the risk of going mad.


Well obviously you bath in rivers, if you can't even slow down for a bath, then you wade through the river along your path. sores, most commonly canker sores, will be uncomfortable but will go away on their own in a week or two, if not then a swig and spit of salt water will help. As for other miscellaneous issues you may encounter, simply pick up a copy of herbal medicines or survival guides for the area, they will likely contain information about how to fix infections and the like with natural supplies.


To solve the wet feet problem, consider the Roman solution. The original Roman "sandal" was actually more like a vented shoe with extra ankle supports. If the temperature goes close to or below freezing then this isn't so great; but if you're "warm temperate" then it's not bad. Woolen socks underneath will keep feet warm even when they're wet, and lanolin (if you've got sheep then you've got lanolin) will help your skin.

Avoiding sores is simply a matter of having good, well-fitting gear. I'm assuming the scout doing this march is experienced enough to have this sorted.

And then you just tolerate the conditions. You won't wash, and you will smell. Every so often you'll find a good place to hole up and have a proper wash and dry out and warm up, and you'll take advantage of that because losing a little time here will keep you moving later. (Caves will crop up fairly often, or you may find a culvert where your tent canvas can be stretched to create decent cover.)

Teeth are something you haven't covered. Hazel or birch chewing sticks were the usual solution in Europe; other countries had other native trees which served a similar purpose.

As far as your timescale goes though, you don't fret the "as speedy as possible". Sustained overland journeys without decent roads were hard, and even with established roads they were never safe or reliable. There's a reason all major towns were established on coasts or navigable rivers. If it took longer then it took longer, and that's all there was to it.


Fine toothed comb (metal works well) gets rid of lice. This works without the help of any chemicals or even herbal treatments. 1-2 minutes before bed in short/medium hair is enough to prevent. Morning and night for established infestation. Source: personal experience (tween girls share everything!).

In the modern world, I use tea tree oil for skin infections and the like (works like a charm). It's light and cheap for a year's supply. In your world, there will be other herbal concoctions for the same purpose, and plenty of herbalists to buy them from. I would carry a pre-made product for this common problem and not rely on raw/dried herbs or collecting in the wilderness (though the latter is good to learn about and to have some herbs for teas and poultices). If the world does not have the ability to make essential oils, they will have (slightly larger and heavier) creams and ointments that do not spoil.

Also have a small pouch of powder to put in shoes (disinfectant, etc). And a pouch with fine powdered clay (kaolin or equivalent). Mix clay with a bit of water and it works fantastic on bug bites, boils, welts, etc. Much personal experience with clay; it's like a wonder substance. Some travelers will be able to just reach down and get some already hydrated, but it depends on the location, so bring a couple oz. Larger amounts can shield from sunburn, if that is an issue, though that much clay starts to itch after a while and needs night-time rinsing off.

You do not need several changes of clothes. One or two will allow you to wash a set and carry it on the outside of your pack or saddlebags to dry. You only need to wash the clothes that touch your skin. Outer clothing needs only spot-cleaning and also brushing (clothes brushes are light and ubiquitous).

I am a soapmaker. Bars of soap are harder to come by than soft soap, it depends on the culture. Wood ash produces potassium hydroxide which is generally used to make liquid soap, but can produce soft clumps of soap. Sodium hydroxide, used for bar soap (and also requiring fats that make good bars, like olive oil, coconut oil, or tallow, not lard or poultry fat) is possible for non-industrial societies to make, but has some requirements not every place can meet.

If you keep a bar very dry between uses, it will last a long time, especially if you're using it sparingly once a week, say. I have a medium-small bar in a aerated plastic container in my gym bag I've used (not sparingly, in a full hot shower) a couple dozen times and it's still got life in it.

A pot of soft soap is heavier (the soap is heavier for your needs and also the container) but should still last a long time, even if you wash your underthings with it every 2nd or 3rd time you wash them.

  • $\begingroup$ As regards lye - you do not need chemically pure sodium hydroxide for making hard soap, so it is easily within reach of any level of development. Different plants will yield different mixtures in their ashes, but using the right ashes (those growing near salt-water or kelp) along with a little lime will produce sodium hydroxide. Even that isn't necessary as with just potassium hydroxide you can make a hard soap with a bit of salt and a little care. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 18:48

Under normal conditions rubbing down with a linen cloth and combing the hair was a typical good hygiene practice which kept your skin clean and dry and your hair free of dirt and gunk. Bathing in water is not the only means of keeping clean - when water was often contaminated with an array of diseases, it was even dangerous. Humans truly don't need a hot shower with shampoo and conditioner in order to stay healthy.

This may sound unpalatable to those who are only familiar with modern western practices, but if you stop shampooing for a month, your scalp calms down and stops desperately trying to produce protective oils (which you just keep stripping away), and you will hit a more natural equilibrium. People from a culture where bathing in water with soap isn't a daily ritual would probably find the notion of trying to do so when traveling ludicrous in the first place. If you've gotten blood and goop in your hair, you're probably going to need some water to get it out, but you don't waste your soap - you use a small amount of clay if you can find it (it binds to the gunk, and what doesn't rinse out right away easily combs out as dust when dry, without stripping your natural oils), though that depends on the poverty level and culture the individual is from (how valuable is their soap - how profligate are they used to being with it).

Exfoliating with a linen cloth gets dirt and dried residue of sweat off rather well - a good rubdown will keep you clean and dry (you should really be more worried about skin staying wet than having a little dirt anyway). It is pretty easy to give that a quick rinse with some soap at any random stream they come across and hang it on a pack to dry during travel once every few days.

Every once in a while they might need a rest day, which affords a great opportunity to relax the feet and catch up on some mending. When they find the occasional campsite where they can relax for a bit and make a fire, this lets you take care of potential parasites in clothing using wood smoke - sure they will smell like a fireplace, but most people did in pre-modern times anyway. This also generates plenty of ashes which, if using hardwood, are a great source of lye for a thorough washing of clothes and any other items if needed.

They want to travel fast, but an occasional day of rest on a journey of months can save time in the long-run and significantly boost chances of survival (does it matter how fast you travel if you don't get there alive?). Giving a day to rest feet, dry them out, put ointment on any potential skin problems (herbs and ointments have been in travelers medical kits for millennia), inspect supplies, and making sure necessary equipment is in a well-maintained state is prudent. Not only is prevention superior to trying to treat an issue while traveling, trying to rush through can get you killed.


Dont like to answer "How ..." question with "Nope, you cant", but nope, you cant keep clean on long pre-industrial journeys. Especially without fire(place).

On the other hand, rivers and lakes look promising, if temperature allows. Some examples should be in some history books about military campaigns.

Update: Short version did not work well, let me explain in more details then. You may have bath in rivers and lakes, IFF situation is not dangerous, water is known and temperature allows. We can expect "traveler" to be trained to sustain cold water for enough time, but we cannot expect him to survive attack of some water creatures or ambush of locals.

Even you have regular baths it will not provide you with fresh and clean clothes. Outside of hot climate zones you need camp and fire to dry clothes, which was noted in question as highly unlikely situation.

Situation with infections is not easy curable by herbal antibiotics and so, cause if you are (pre-industrial) traveller and outside of familiar zone, you'd be dead by the time you find proper ingredients.

So without a decent break (in road guest house or by visiting some friendly locals) you cannot keep yourself (and your stuff) clean enough and "to be as speedy as possible", this is just a fact.

P.P.S, by now, you can check @AndreiROM's answer for more info that follows the same logic.

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    $\begingroup$ It is most helpful on this site if you justify your claims. "Nope, you can't" may or may not be true - but it is not useful unless you either use reasoning, ex. "There is nowhere to bathe, therefore you cannot be clean" or evidence, ex "According to this source or if you look at this specific example it doesn't work" $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ Speaking as someone who has kept clean on relatively long journeys with the modern versions of pre-industrial technology, I'd say it's quite possible. You don't need hot water for washing -- a river will work fine. You can substitute mechanical abrasion for soap, though soap is far easier on your clothes and skin. The big historical problem with cleanliness was lack of knowledge, not lack of ability. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark, biggest issue with this exact question is very tight constraints. $\endgroup$
    – Sanctus
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 15:45

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