13 Tips for Washing Dishes While Camping
Today we’re going to show you how to wash dishes while camping.
Just because you’re leaving behind civilization for a few days to commune with nature doesn’t mean you have to leave hygiene behind too.
It all starts with packing.
1. What to pack
There are a couple of things you’ll definitely need:
1. Biodegradable dish soap (to leave only footprints)
2. A lightweight collapsible tub (here's one that we recommend)
4. A lightweight collapsible drying rack (optional)
5. Bread (you’ll see why).
6. A big ol’ cooking pot.
7. An extra mug or cup.
8. A sieve.
9. A trowel, stick, or other tool suitable for digging an 8-inch-deep hole.
10. Reusable plates, cutlery, and cloth napkins.
Once you’ve got those items, you’re ready to hit the road.
2. Join the Clean Plate Club
You venture out. You pitch your tent. You prepare your meal.
As you’re eating, think ahead to your dishwater. The fewer scraps there are left over on your plate, the simpler the task of washing the dishes will be.
So what can you do?
Don’t overload your plate, and try to eat everything that you are served.
3. The Bread Trick
After you’ve finished everything on your plate, save room for a small piece of bread.
You’ll use the bread to mop up any sauce and bits of food stuck to your plate and cutlery. You can even use another piece of bread to wipe out the cooking pot, if it’s otherwise empty.
Then you eat it!
We find that the bread trick makes the clean-up process so much easier.
4. Wash the dishes immediately
It is easiest to wash the dishes right after you’ve used them. Since washing dishes while camping is a bit more complicated than at home, you’ll want to wash up before food residue has a chance to harden.
Since you’ve already wiped your dishes with a piece of bread, they should already look pretty clean.
If you’ve followed all the steps so far, then good news: there’s no need to rinse! Simply proceed to the next step.
5. Find an appropriate spot for washing dishes
As a rule, you should never wash your dishes in (or near) any natural water source such as a lake or river.
Think about it.
If you wash your dishes in a river, any animals quenching their thirst downstream will end up drinking some of your food residue and soap, and either of those things could harm them.
And there’s more.
This is why, while camping, you should only wash dishes *at least* 200 feet from the nearest body of water.
That will prevent the dirty dishwater from contaminating it.
6. Use the right soap
While we mentioned this briefly in the Packing step, we can’t stress it enough.
It is so important to refrain from using any dish soap made with harsh synthetic chemicals when camping.
Even though your dishwater will not be going directly into a body of water (because you are staying at least 200 feet away), it will be going into the soil, which is a part of the ecosystem.
Simply wet your dish sponge, add some biodegradable dish soap to it, and move on to the next step.
7. Lather ‘em up
Now it’s time to lather up the dirty dishes.
Make sure you do a thorough job.
Don’t forget to wash the front and back of plates and pots.
Also focus on lathering the handles of cutlery and utensils to wash off any grease and bacteria.
You got this!
8. Rinse dishes with hot water
Now it’s time to heat up some water on your campfire or camping stove. (Bonus tip: it’s easiest if you start heating the water before you lather up the dishes). Make sure the water is reasonably hot, but not scalding.
Then follow the steps below:
1. Fill up your expandable plastic tub (we recommend this one) with reasonably hot water.
2. Get the biggest pot that you have (whether sudsed-up or clean & unused), and set it next to the tub of water. (If you are right-handed, you may want to place the pot to the left of the tub of water, and the opposite if you’re left-handed). Place the collapsible drying rack nearby.
3. Take a clean mug or cup in your dominant hand, and a sudsed-up utensil in your other hand.
4. Hold the sudsy utensil over the pot, and load up the cup with a small amount of hot water.
5. Very carefully (so as not to waste the water) pour a small amount of hot water over the utensil to rinse it.
6. Place the rinsed dishes in the collapsible drying rack.
You will notice that this method does NOT require three dishwashing tubs (which is the typical method most bloggers recommend).
Why pack three tubs when one will do?
9. Skip the bleach
Many blog posts mention bleaching the dishes as a step for washing dishes when camping.
Please, do not do this. Bleaching dishes is almost always a bad idea. (To learn why, check out this post).
That’s because bleach is a highly corrosive substance, and a strong oxidizer that can cause other substances to burst into flame. It can blister your skin, and inhaling bleach fumes can damage your lungs,
Since during your camping retreat you’re most likely in the boondocks, the last thing you want is a trip to the emergency room. In that environment, using bleach seems gratuitously dangerous.
Especially since bleaching your dishes is unnecessary in the first place.
Think about it: you probably don’t bleach your dishes at home. Why should you do it when camping?
Researchers at Ohio State University discovered that dishes contaminated with common bacteria such as E.coli can just as effectively be removed with cold water.
And as a side note...
Do you really want to eat from dishes that have been treated with bleach, a residue of which might stay behind on your dishes?
Most likely not.
But if you should have a valid medical reason to need to sanitize dishes during your camping trip, here’s a more environmentally safe method, based on research findings from Michigan State University:
1. Bring a pot of water to the boil over your campfire or camp stove.
2. Place your clean dishes inside the boiling water.
3. Let them soak for at least 60 seconds in the boiling water.
This method should never be used on plastic items, which can melt, or ceramic dishes, which can break due to temperature shock.
Congratulations – you just disinfected your dishes without using bleach.
Make sure to allow the boiling water to cool down to ambient temperature before you discard it, so that you don’t accidentally kill off microbes in the soil that help keep the ecosystem in balance.
10. Air dry those dishes
Since we’ve just talked about keeping your dishes sanitary, let’s stick with that theme.
Unless you’re using a freshly-laundered dish towel, the most sanitary way of drying your dishes is to air dry them.
In addition, anything unsanitary from our hands that gets on a towel will serve as nutrients for bacteria and helps them multiply.
Instead, researchers at Michigan State University recommend air drying dishes as the safest method.
If you want to learn more about an evidenced-based approach to drying the dishes, here’s a post you might enjoy.
11. Filter dishwater
While the clean dishes are drying in the fresh air it’s time to find a safe place to properly dispose of the dirty dishwater.
Since you don’t want to attract bears to your campsite, use the sieve to filter out any little pieces of food that made it into your wastewater.
This is especially important if you’re a meat eater. Meats are strong-odor foods and their smell sticks around for quite a while.
To keep critters away from your tent, discard all food scraps in a compostable trash bag.
12. Discard wastewater
Now it’s time to find a safe place for disposing the dirty dishwater.
1. Move 200 feet away from any natural water source.
2. Look for an area with no foot traffic.
3. Dig an 8-inch-deep hole.
4. Pour the dishwater into the hole.
5. Cover the hole with dirt.
Why choose that method?
Because bacteria in the ground will get a chance to biodegrade any dirt and soap in the wastewater without harming insects or other small animals on the surface.
This speeds up biodegradability and protects wildlife.
And keeping your environmental impact as low as possible is what makes a good camper.
There’s one more point we wanna raise…
13. Never use disposable plates, cutlery, or napkins
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, over 50 million tons of disposable products ended up in municipal waste systems in 2017.
Disposable paper plates take about 5 years to decompose in a landfill depending on the level of exposure to sunlight and water.
Plastic cutlery stays around for about 1,000 years after usage and in the US alone 40 billion pieces of plastic cutlery were consumed in 2016 alone (and the plastic cutlery market has an annual growth rate of about 5%).
Don’t be part of that.
We all have a responsibility to minimize the amount of trash we create, including while camping.
If you enjoy the great outdoors, please keep in mind that in order to maintain our beloved natural scenery, we must treat it with respect.
That includes not creating unnecessary waste that pollutes our environment.
Always bring reusable plates, cups, cutlery, and napkins to keep the planet clean.
That's how to wash dishes when camping!
Before we go, one final tip.
Here’s a non-toxic dish soap made from just 6 all-natural ingredients that even your grandmother would understand.
You might want to take some on your next adventure in the wilderness.
Take a peek at it here.
(When you make a purchase from links in this post we might receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.)