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How to Brush Your Teeth in the Wilderness (4 Methods)

Your oral health does not hit pause when taking a trip into the wilderness, so it is important to know how to take care of your teeth on extended trips into the wild. Luckily, if you forget your toothbrushing supplies, there are some interesting ways to improvise to take good care of your teeth.

Brushing your teeth and maintaining your oral health is possible in the wild, even if you forget your toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, and mouthwash. There are many alternatives that you can use for each part of the kit to maintain your oral health in the wilderness.

Understanding how to take care of your teeth when you are spending time in the wilderness is a vital skill to maintain optimal health. Let’s go into some of the ways that we can take care of our teeth if we don’t have our normal modern amenities.

Cartoon of a man brushing his teeth using a twig

Oral Hygiene Necessities | pH Levels and Plaque

In order to give some perspective on how wilderness toothbrushing methods and oral hygiene is effective, I feel it is important to go over some basic dental care mechanics to give context to the methodology.

Generally speaking, in order to maintain good oral health, you need to control the pH of your mouth and address the plaque buildup on your teeth.

Controlling the pH of your mouth has lasting impacts on the overall health of your teeth. Prolonged periods of high acidity on your teeth with change the bacterial balance to favor cavity-causing bacteria, and the acidity will tend to demineralize your teeth.

Removing the plaque buildup on your teeth will do a lot to maintain healthy breath and prevent cavities. Plaque has a tendency to wear away at the enamel on your teeth and cause cavities and, eventually gum disease.

If you have access to your entire modern toothbrushing and flossing kit, by all means, use that since it is by far the easiest and most fool-proof method to use.

Let’s take a dive into some no-nonsense substitutes to try to flesh out your dental care routine while you are in the wilderness without all of or part of your normal dental care setup.

4 Brushing Methods to Use in the Wilderness

Using your modern manufactured toothbrush is obviously the ideal circumstance. However, in situations where you do forget or lose your toothbrush, there are plenty of decent substitutes to bridge the gap before you make it back to civilization.

Toothbrushes as a tool tend to play a big role in providing the abrasion required to remove plaque and reach as many areas of the teeth as possible. Keep this in mind when we look at the most common options we can use when we find ourselves without a toothbrush.

1. Use a Washcloth to Clean Your Teeth

If you have access to a washcloth or another rough-textured chemical-free cleaning cloth, you can easily utilize it as a valid toothbrush alternative. The rougher the texture of the cloth, the more effective it will typically be.

Follow these four steps to utilize a washcloth effectively for cleaning your teeth:

  1. Wrap it around a finger – wrapping the washcloth around your finger will help you clean different parts of your mouth.
  2. Apply the toothpaste – apply the toothpaste to the surface of the washcloth near your fingertip.
  3. Brush teeth – try to brush as much surface area of your teeth as possible. Apply additional toothpaste to different parts of the cloth and adjust on your finger if the textured part of the cloth becomes too slick.
  4. Rinse and spit – use water to rinse and spit the toothpaste to avoid ingesting the fluoride typically present in toothpaste.

Keep in mind that with this method are that it will be difficult to get to every part of the surface of your teeth, and it should not be used as a long-term cleaning solution if it can be avoided.

2. Use a Paper Towel to Clean Your Teeth

In a scenario where you don’t have many other options, a paper towel can be an effective toothbrush alternative. This option will work better if you use a higher quality paper product but use whatever you have on hand if needed.

Follow these four simple steps to clean your teeth if all you have at your disposal as a toothbrush is a paper towel:

  1. Wrap it around a finger – wrapping the paper towel around your finger will give you the best ability to reach different areas in your mouth.
  2. Apply the toothpaste – apply the toothpaste or toothpaste substitute to the surface of the paper towel near your fingertip.
  3. Brush teeth – try to brush as much surface area of your teeth as you can manage. You might end up needing to use more paste than normal due to the absorbency and smoother texture of a paper towel.
  4. Rinse and spit – use water to rinse and spit the toothpaste like normal. This step is crucial to avoid ingesting the fluoride typically present in toothpaste.

Using this method can be combined with some toothpaste alternatives in a pinch. However, it will perform poorly with oils or any sticky toothpaste alternative and will have trouble reaching all the surface areas of your teeth.

3. Use Your Finger to Clean Your Teeth

When all else fails, and you have no ability to have a toothbrush or toothbrush alternative, you can always just use your finger.

  1. Apply the toothpaste – apply the toothpaste or toothpaste substitute to the tip of your finger.
  2. Brush teeth – try to brush as much surface area of your teeth as you can manage. Since your finger is smooth, it might take extra paste to get the desired coverage and lather on your teeth.
  3. Rinse and spit – use water to rinse and spit the toothpaste like normal. This step is crucial to avoid ingesting the fluoride typically present in toothpaste.

This method won’t provide the abrasive effects that you are looking for on its own to get rid of plaque, so choosing a toothpaste that is abrasive will be important to get your teeth clean.

4. How to Make a Primitive Survival Toothbrush from Twigs

Hand holding a toothbrush made out of a twig

Dental care was happening long before the invention of the modern toothbrush, and there were many regional equivalents that have been used for hundreds of years in some form or another.

One of the most prevalent forms of toothbrushes throughout history was the use of frayed twigs as a primitive toothbrush. People still use these twig-based toothbrushes to this date all over the world.

Take a look at the table below for a quick guide on which trees have good twigs for teeth cleaning.

RegionTrees Ideal for Teeth Cleaning Twigs
The United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States Apple, Pear, Bamboo, Fig, Hazelnut, Oak, Willow, Orange, Birch, Lime, Olive, Walnut, Bay leaf, Liquorice
AustraliaMango, Mangosteen
IndiaPeepal, Indian plum, Java plum, Safed babul, Apamarga, Bael, Dhak, Madar, Karanj, Kamer, Vijayasar, Arjun, Gular, Gbargad, Mulhatti, Tejovtati, Mango

This is not an exhaustive list of trees that you can use for the task, but it contains a lot of the common trees one could use in those regions.

In order to actually use the twig as a toothbrushing tool, use the steps below:

  1. Select a twig – Grab a twig that is 6-8 inches long and about the width of a pencil from one of the trees on the table. Ideally, select a young twig with thin bark.
  2. Trim it – trim the twig to the ideal length if you cannot find it in the right size.
  3. Chew the end – chew on the end that you intend to use to brush until the fibers fray. Note that the use of twigs with hard bark can cause gum damage if you do not chew sufficiently.
  4. Brush – brush your teeth like you normally would with a modern toothbrush.
  5. Trim the head – after several uses, you can cut off the frayed end and repeat steps 1-4 until the twig is too short to be used as a brush. Dip the head in water if it becomes too dry and brittle.

The trees used to harvest the twigs tend to have anti-microbial properties that reduce the harmful bacteria in the mouth. Between the abrasion caused by the brushing and the anti-microbial properties, this method covers the functions of both toothbrush and toothpaste.

Closeup of a toothbrush made out of a twig

3 Toothpaste Alternatives to Use in the Wilderness

The role of toothpaste is important in dental health. It is usually used for abrasion to remove plaque and control bacteria in your mouth. Luckily if you forget your toothpaste, you can use other methods to achieve the same results.

1. Use Baking Soda to Clean Your Teeth

Any frequent camper or outdoorsman will know that baking soda is a great supply to carry with you on trips into the wilderness. It can act as an antacid, control odor, and offer pain relief for insect bites and bee stings.

Now you can add its use as an alkaline toothpaste to the list of reasons you should keep baking soda with you. In fact, it is even used in some modern toothpaste.

To brush with baking soda, dampen the toothbrush in water or put it in your mouth to moisten with saliva and dip it into the baking soda and brush and rinse like normal.

The baking soda will be abrasive and remove plaque, but the best quality is that it is alkaline and is highly effective in bringing your mouth to a better state for pH. Making your mouth slightly alkaline will even help to remineralize enamel and make your teeth more resilient.

2. Use Activated Charcoal to Clean Your Teeth

Similarly to baking soda, activated charcoal is another survival kit essential that campers and outdoorsmen will be familiar with. It helps with water filtration, food poisoning, treating snake and bug bites, alleviating skin infections, and offering toothache relief.

Now you can add in its use as an effective toothpaste to a list of the virtues of activated charcoal. Activated charcoal is even being increasingly used in some natural toothpaste solutions.

To brush with activated charcoal, dampen the toothbrush in water or put it in your mouth to moisten with saliva and dip it into the activated charcoal and brush and rinse like normal.

Activated charcoal is alkaline and can serve as a great pH neutralizer for your mouth. This can help remineralize your teeth and promote enamel repair.

3. Use Coconut Oil Pulling to Clean Your Teeth

It may seem a bit odd to suggest using coconut oil as a toothpaste alternative, but it is surprisingly effective.

Oil pulling has long been used to promote oral health, and coconut oil has antifungal and antibacterial properties that further increase effectiveness.

Take a look at this basic guide to coconut oil pulling below.

  • Step 1: Take a heaping tablespoon of coconut oil and put it in your mouth.
  • Step 2: Swish the oil in your mouth for at least 20 minutes.
  • Step 3: Spit the oil out in a safe area that is at least 100 yards from your intended sleeping location.
  • Step 4: Brush your teeth with plain water or another method to remove the oil from your teeth.

Oil pulling draws bacteria and other toxins from your mouth into the oil, and it is optimal to get as much of it out of your mouth as possible after oil pulling.

4 Mouthwash Alternatives to Use in the Wilderness

man blows bad breath in friends face

There are a number of mouthwash alternatives that are viable to concoct and use in the wilderness when you find yourself without your normal mouthwash.

Let’s take a look at some of the more accessible alternatives in the following sections.

1. Use a Saltwater Rinse as Mouthwash

Using salt to replace mouthwash in a pinch can be very effective since salt is anti-bacterial. It can control bad breath and reduce the presence of plaque-causing germs in your mouth.

To use salt in oral care, you simply create a saltwater solution with potable water and dissolve salt in it to use it as a rinse. After swishing around the saltwater solution, spit and rinse with pure water and do a dry brushing if desired.

The salt will eventually cause corrosion on metal dental work such as metal fillings, crowns, and braces. It will also cause enamel damage with prolonged use. However, this all happens only with long-term use and is a great method to use for short periods of time.

2. How to Make Pine Needle Mouthwash

Pine needles have plenty of medicinal properties that make it a great choice as an improvised mouthwash. Pine needles are very high in vitamin C, which could prevent scurvy. They are also antiseptic, which controls bacteria, and is also the perfect way to freshen your breath with materials available in the wilderness.

Step 1: Pick out some fresh Pine needles. Try going for the new growth because this is where the plant is directing all the oils and nutrients.

Step 2: Cut, crush or grind the needles to release the juices that contain the medicinal properties we are looking to exploit.

Step 3: Add a small amount of boiling water to the ground needles and let it sit for about 10 minutes until the water cools down.

Step 4: Using a clean cloth or strainer, strain the contents of the cup into a clean cup. You will notice that the solution is a bit cloudy, don’t worry because this is just healthy oils with antiseptic properties.

Step 5: Your mouthwash is now ready for use. Swish it around, then spit it out.

3. How to Make Peppermint Mouthwash

Peppermint oils contain anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antibacterial properties that make it quite suitable to be used as a mouthwash. This method will be using baking soda, which will help your mouth maintain a good pH balance. It can be done without baking soda if desired.

Step 1: Boil some clean water. If you are using, fresh peppermint leaves, several handfuls of leaves per cup of mouthwash desired.

Step 2: Cool water and add baking soda and peppermint oil. If you used fresh peppermint, strain it out and squeeze as much liquid out as possible to maximize oil content before adding baking soda. For each cup of water, add in a teaspoon of baking soda and two drops of peppermint oil.

Step 3: Mix everything well by shaking the bottle or stirring the mixture. At this point, your mouthwash is now ready for use.

4. How to Make Cinnamon Mouthwash

Cinnamon is another spice that can be used as a mouthwash substitute. It has phytochemicals such as cinnamaldehyde and eugenol that can give it a strong antibacterial effect, even killing 99% of E.coli bacteria. It also has anti-inflammatory properties.

Step 1: Break off 3 sticks of cinnamon and place them in a container with 1 cup of pure water for boiling.

Step 2: Boil for 10 minutes or to desired strength.

Step 3: Cool and mix the mouthwash, which is now ready for use.

Floss Alternatives to Use in the Wilderness

Flossing is one of the most important parts of your dental hygiene, and it is important to do this even if you run out of your normal dental floss.

Let’s look at a couple of simple ways to replace your typical dental floss routine when you run out.

  1. Tough fabric – if you have the ability to rip or cut a thin strip of heavy-duty cloth or have a polyester thread, you can sterilize it with alcohol and use it to floss. This will not work with a typical sewing kit thread.
  2. Toothpicks – you can also use toothpicks to pick out food from between your teeth to get some of the benefits of flossing. It is also possible to sharpen sticks to use as a toothpick.

Use Sugar-Free Chewing Gum to Help Clean Your Teeth

If you are a gum chewer you are in luck. Chewing a stick of sugarless gum actually helps to prevent tooth decay.

This mostly occurs because gum increases your saliva production by a factor of 10, which changes the pH of the mouth favorably and does a minor amount of plaque removal.

How to Make Pine Sap Chewing Gum for Dental Health

Pine sap or pine resin has plenty of anti-inflammatory properties. In order to get an effective chew, you need to harvest the appropriate part of the tree.

To get to the chewy edible layer with the sap you’re looking for, you should take these two steps:

  1. Peel back the outer layer – using a knife, peel back a small section of the bark till you get to the cambium layer. Be careful not to cut out a large chunk because this may kill the tree.
  2. Cut out a piece – cut and pull out a small piece of cambium from that layer and pop it into your mouth, and chew it like gum.

This cambium layer has some pine resin and will provide some of those benefits alongside some removal of plaque through the chewing action.

Emergency Dental Cavity Care in the Wilderness

In some unfortunate cases, you may end up needing to do some emergency dental care in the wilderness.

One of the most common issues is having a filling or a crown fall out when a dentist is not accessible. There are a few simple things that you can do to temporarily address the issue if this occurs.

  1. Frequent Saline Rinses – keeping your cavity free of bacteria is an ongoing process. If you can’t fill it to keep it clear, you can try to reduce the likelihood of infection by rinsing with salt water to lower the bacteria in your mouth.
  2. Baking Soda Paste – as a temporary solution, can you make a baking soda paste with a small amount of water and stuff it into the tooth cavity. Baking soda is not a hospitable environment for bacteria to grow.
  3. Candle Wax – take a small amount of warmed-up softened non-chemical candle wax and stuff it into the cavity to provide a barrier from the rest of the mouth. This is a very temporary solution, as the wax can easily fall out with drinking or chewing.
  4. Ginger Root – biting down on a ginger root with the affected tooth will provide an antibacterial benefit and a physical barrier between the cavity and the mouth that will help prevent infection.

These are all temporary solutions that are meant to decrease the likelihood of things getting worse. Get to a dentist for a more permanent solution as soon as possible.

Final Thoughts

There are plenty of ways to take care of your teeth while you are in the wilderness, and losing a part of your dental hygiene kit should not cause you too much alarm.

With some knowledge and a few common supplies, you can keep up your oral health while you are away from civilization.

Related Questions

Can you die from not brushing your teeth? Brushing your teeth is essential to maintaining good health. The length of time one can go without brushing your teeth is dependent on the person, but eventually, people will develop cavities and gum disease, which can lead to death.

Why don’t animals have to brush their teeth? Wild animals don’t typically get tooth decay because their food is natural, low in sugar, and intended for their species. Domesticated animals tend to get an increased amount of carbohydrates and sugars that increase plaque and thus the likelihood of cavities and gum disease.

For more, check out 10 Best Places to Practice Bushcraft and Survival Skills.