How to Wash Dishes While Camping

Last Updated: August 31, 2022
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On a big camping trip, there’s no option of rinsing your dish and tossing it straight into a dishwasher. Nor can you rely on using a sink with constant hot water, or simply handing it off to someone else to take care of. 

There are different rules and guidelines for being in the wilderness that you need to follow while camping. Leave No Trace principles provide a helpful starting place, but there’s even more to it when you start looking at more specific tasks. Washing dishes while camping is one thing that can easily get overlooked. 

Without properly washing your dishes, you can leave a negative impact on the area that a lot of people may camp in. In order to preserve everything for future use, the proper way of washing dishes is important to keeping our woods in pristine condition.

Key Takeaways
  • Use hot water over cold whenever possible when washing dishes while camping.
  • Get all the food waste off of dirty dishes before beginning to wash them.
  • Use biodegradable soap sparingly and only if necessary.
  • Air dry dishes when possible.
  • Avoid cooking raw meat whenever possible when camping.

Get the Proper Equipment

Is the cast iron frying pan all packed? There's a lot more to go. When camping, even car camping, you need to think about what you bring. Here's a great list of what to bring when camping.

Biodegradable Camp Soap

Soap is the key to most washing scenarios. Washing anything off while out in the woods, or at home, without soap is a completely useless endeavor. Regardless of the amount of bacteria that get stockpiled without soap, a lot of debris won’t even come out of a bowl until it’s broken down by soap. 

Thankfully, soap scientists have developed biodegradable soap that is perfect for the backcountry. With this, you can wash up without contaminating any nearby water system. 

The top three competitors for “best biodegradable soap” are typically going to be Dr. Bronners, Campsuds, and Wilderness Wash. Any of these are a great option to reduce your footprint, but stay clean while doing it. 

Brush or Sponge

Cooking over a fire can be tricky. It’s not as simple as turning a knob and adjusting the flame to heat a ribeye to the perfect temperature. Campfires are much less tame and are much more prone to burning food onto any pots or pans that make their way above them. Even a camp stove will boil water fast, and burn food onto camping dishes even faster.

The key here is to bring along a solid brush, scrub pad, or sponge and use it with warm water.

Now, it’s not completely impossible to scrub the dishes without a brush or a sponge. Here, we’re talking about how to wash dishes while camping in a way that will make camping just as enjoyable as possible. There’s no need to be picking grime out from underneath your fingernails for the following weeks just because you needed to clean the dishes. A sturdy brush solves that problem immediately. 

Sanitizer

Sanitization is another way of ensuring that you don’t get any illnesses from poorly washed dishes while camping. While it isn’t entirely necessary, I like to include it in my routine of washing dishes just to be cautious. Getting sick while in the wilderness is avoidable, but all the right measures must be taken. 

Some people already treat their water with bleach and may have it readily available. If not, a small capful of bleach will make sanitizing dishes a breeze. Mix some bleach in with warm water and give your washed dishes a quick soak to kill off any germs that may be lurking around. 

Sinks

Sinks aren’t going to be found while camping, so you need to bring your own. This means bringing a wash bucket, or three, along with you for the ride. Sure, you can get away with washing with a single wash bucket, but the three wash bucket system is well-known for being the most optimal method of washing. 

There are plenty of options to still save space and bring a bucket along. There are collapsible buckets that can be stashed in the car without taking up much space at all. These make dishwashing a cinch but aren’t entirely necessary for the system. If water is short, the buckets help to conserve water and reuse it over and over. 

Strainer

A strainer or a screen is necessary to get all of the small food bits out of your gray water before dumping it appropriately. Without a strainer, you’ll likely miss many chunks of food and end up feeding the wild animals, attracting them to your camp. Attracting animals is dangerous for everyone.

A mesh screen works well for this purpose. It’s lightweight and easily carried along with you. This will leave you with dirty dishwater, but no food bits for local wildlife to feast on.

Washcloth and Towel

A small washcloth or towel makes a great addition to the backcountry kitchen. This can help get everything dry quickly, as well as help to scrub off any residue.

Putting dishes away dry greatly reduces the number of bacteria that can grow in between meals. It helps a lot if it’s not a super sunny and warm day so the process can be quicker and the time-to-tent is shorter. 

There are small microfiber towels that are perfect for this. They absorb a huge amount of water but don’t weigh much when dry. 

Where to Wash

Most campgrounds will have a lot of signage regarding their policy around dishwashing. If you’ve found yourself at a site with outdoor sinks, these are great for filling up your washing basin but aren’t typically a good option for doing the dishes. The bathroom sink is tempting, but stay away.

The best place to wash dishes while camping is at, or near, your campsite. This keeps the mess from building up at a single sink and allows for everyone to have the space to properly do the dishes. Make sure the dishwashing happens away from any water source, and away from where the tents are set up. 

A camping dishwashing station will be perfect.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Prep Cooking Pot

Once your meal is fully cooked and dished out, it’s time to start cleaning (yes, already). Filling the dirty pot with water and placing it back over the fire is a great way to start the dishwashing process. This ensures that the dishwater is warm, but also helps food to come off the surface of the cooking pot. 

If you can, use another pot to get more boiling water while you eat. The more hot boiling water there is, the easier washing dishes will be. It helps break down the grease and food chunks, plus it feels so much better on your hands than ice water. 

Scrape Off Food

Just like at home, get rid of any food that’s left. Most campers will look for clean plates. It’s hard to watch food go to waste when you’re camping, so try to not make anyone watch you throw good food away.

Scrape food into a trash bag that will be kept with the remaining food, or disposed of in a dumpster. Try to get as much food as possible to keep your dishwater as clean as possible. 

Fill the Sinks

Here’s where the three-bucket system (rinse sink, wash sink, sanitization) comes into play. Fill up your sinks, one with just hot water, one with hot water and soap, and the final with sanitizer (or bleach) mixed in. Having these setup and ready to go will be easy to go from the wash, to rinse, and finally to the sanitizing station.

Wash, Rinse, Sanitize

Starting with your dirtiest dishes first (so the food doesn’t stick over time), get to scrubbing. Start in your warm (cold water doesn't work) and soapy water, which is the washing station. The soap and warm water help to get any food off before you keep moving on.

Next up, go to the rinse bucket. Getting rid of the soap and any clingy food happens here so that the dish can be properly sanitized. There shouldn’t be any food residue left over after the rinsing step. 

Finally, dunk the dish into the sanitizing station. Give it some time for the bleach to do its magic (maybe 5 seconds), and move on. 

The process is simple, but we’re accustomed to a sink at home that we can do everything in. Washing dishes while camping is all about saving water so you don’t need to keep fetching it and then warming it back up. This system is the easiest, and most reliable, method there is. 

Dry Off

Before putting the dishes away, grab a towel (cloth, unfortunately, a paper towel won't cut it) and start drying dishes. This is an incredibly important step. Anything that is put away wet is a major risk for creating a space for bacteria to thrive. They love dark and wet places, which is exactly what the dishes will become if ignored.

Grab the towel you brought along and get the dishes as dry as possible before stashing them. If you’re lucky and have the sun, you can use the world’s natural dish dryer. Lay the dishes out and heat them up in the sunshine, then come back to dry dishes later on.

Consolidate Gray Water

All of your buckets are now filled with dirty water. This is another part that needs to be disposed of properly. It’s easiest to consolidate the gray water for the next two steps, otherwise, they need to be repeated. 

Strain Out the Food Scraps

Using the mesh screen (or whatever you fixed up), strain the gray water to get all of the scraps out. Throw the food scraps you get into the trash bag with all the other scraps you made before starting to wash. 

You can either filter the water through the screen into another bucket, or it can go straight into where you are disposing it. The fewer steps, the better, so I like to combine this step with our final one. 

Dispose Of Gray Water

Now, all of that water that was used for washing needs to end up somewhere. That shouldn’t be right outside of your tent, or in a single spot that can get swampy or become infested with critters. 

Check the local guidelines for how to dispose of dirty water. Many campgrounds will allow you to pour it down their drains or sinks, as long as you have strained it. If you’re in the backcountry, you need to dig a deep hole to dispose of it. 

Tips to Make Dishes Easier

Want to make your camping dishes a little easier? Follow these tips.

Cook only what you’ll eat

This makes it so much easier to wash dishes because you aren’t dealing with an excess of food. Not only is it wasteful to leave food behind, but it becomes heavy as you travel and isn’t the best way to use your energy.

Clean Your Dishes Immediately

It’s so easy to put dishes in the sink when at home and think, “Oh, I’ll come back to this later.” Unfortunately, there’s no easy out when camping. The dishes need to get done immediately or they’ll start to crust up and become a pain to wash. 

Washing dishes immediately while camping will be one of the best things you can do for yourself out there. It makes a massive difference that I don’t recommend figuring out the hard way. 

Use the Soaps Wisely

Even biodegradable soaps can be detrimental to natural habitats. A lot of small creatures that live in the water don’t like any toxins coming into the water, so we need to be incredibly careful about how we use soap. 

That means even considering leaving the soap behind. Thorough washing and sanitizing can be enough if you’re going out for a short period of time. 

If soap is necessary, use as little soap as possible. Often, these soaps are highly concentrated and we end up using far more than needed. Start small and only add soap once you’re out.

Avoid Cooking Raw Meat

Raw meat is typically not the best idea for camping. It’s hard to store, difficult to cook fully, and leaves a mess. When you do dishes, it’s difficult to make sure that dishes aren’t touching each other. If you’re cooking raw meat, that becomes incredibly important. 

The best way is to simply stray away from cooking raw meat. If you love the stuff, just be careful and wash thoroughly every time you touch it. 

Conclusion

You've learned how to wash dishes while camping. It's an easy one when you put the time and effort in. Use hot water over cold water, get all the food waste off the dirty dishes, use just a few drops of bleach and soap, air dry when you can, and get the cleanest dishes in the campground.

Hopefully, with this, you can get clean dishes that won't attract animals or leave any food particles behind. Don't ditch the delicious meals, just get your dishes clean and continue to eat well on your next meal.

Ian Standard is an outdoor educator and wilderness guide based in Anchorage, Alaska. Most recently, he worked part-time at Alaska Crossings, a wilderness program for at-risk youth, and is currently studying for a Master of Science in Outdoor & Environmental Education at Alaska Pacific University.
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