Whether you are camping at a campsite or elsewhere, hiking, trekking, or backpacking, washing dishes is always necessary, especially when your trip lasts several days.
I remember being quite flabbergasted as I was quite unsure how to wash dishes without running water.
In order to tell you how to wash dishes while backpacking, camping, hiking etc. we first need to go over what things you need to pack and take with you.
Wherever possible, you want collapsible items to save space and there are plenty of things that are specially meant for camping so that they are lightweight as well.
There are portable camping dishwashers available, but these can be pricey, bulky, and heavy and so they are not that practical. Read on to learn my easy and affordable method to wash dishes when camping.
What to Pack
The items that you will need for my preferred camp wash station are as follows. You may find that you prefer bringing along some additional items, and as long as you have the space for it then there is no reason not to.
It is important to note that you cannot use regular dish soap because it’s bad for the environment, and as every camper should know our intent is to leave no trace. In order for biodegradable soap to break down, there needs to be bacteria in the soil, so make sure that you keep it at least 200 feet away from any natural water source to avoid causing any harm.
You need something to wash your dishes in and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a bucket, nestling plastic bins, or a collapsible camping sink. Whatever you choose, you will need two; one to actually wash dishes in, and the other to collect gray water.
My favorite kitchen sink is a 20L one by Sea to Summit not only because it folds up very compact when packed, but also because it’s like a bag which makes it easier to handle and dry.
Collapsible Water Jug
On my camping trips I usually take a 2.5L collapsible water jug filled with water that is used for cooking and washing dishes. What I love about these jugs is the that the valve tends to be adjustable, so that you can decide exactly how much water you want or need flowing.
Foldable Pack Towel / Collapsible Dish Rack
Whether you intend on drying your dishes after washing them or leaving them out to dry determines which of these items you should take with you.
Not everyone has the time to leave their dishes to dry on a dish rack, and so a microfiber pack towel is the best choice. These kind of camping towels pack up very compactly and barely take up any space, can absorb a lot of water, and dry very quickly.
It’s quite likely that you will need some sort of sponge or brush to clean your dishes. My preferred choice is a Scrub Daddy sponge because it is ideal for camping. Unlike regular sponges, this one is specially formulated to be coarser in cold water and softer in hot water, and it is also antimicrobial meaning that it stops the growth of any microorganisms. In other words, this sponge won’t start to smell after multiple uses. It’s also very inexpensive, so you don’t have to break the bank just to get one.
You are going to need a strainer (ideally a collapsible one) in order to dispose of your dishwater when you’re done. So, bring one along for this step – you can read all about disposal near the end of this article.
After a lot of trial and error during my many camping trips, this is the method that works best for me for many reasons. Most importantly, I only need a few extra items to get the job done.
As mentioned earlier, I only use two containers for my method, but some campers prefer the more well-known three bucket system. One for washing, another for rinsing, and a third for sanitizing. This is only necessary if any of your knives, chopping boards, and cookware make contact with raw meat. To properly clean these items, they should be lightly soaked in the sanitizing bucket. You can use a Steramine tablet to do this, as it is non-corrosive and non-toxic – unlike bleach.
To begin, I start by unfolding my kitchen sink and filling it with enough water depending on how many dishes need washing. Then, I add some biodegradable soap, give the water a swirl to activate the soap and create some bubbles, and place every dirty dish inside. By grabbing the kitchen sink’s handles, I lift the bag up and swirl it a bit to really mix the dishes with the soapy water.
Afterwards, I place the sink back down and scrub all dishes with the sponge. As soon as each glass and plate has been washed, I place them to the side until I am done in order to rinse.
Once all the dishes have been scrubbed, I empty out the water from the kitchen sink into my gray water bucket. When possible, I place my water jug at the end of a table with the bucket on the floor in front of it.
By positioning the water jug in a certain way, I can have it flowing water into the bucket which then allows me to rinse all of the dishes properly. Thanks to the adjustable valve, I can have it so that only a small amount of water flows in order to not use more than necessary and still have plenty of water left when I’m done. Not only is this better for the environment, since we will dispose of our gray water properly, but it’s also beneficial because nobody wants to have a big mud puddle at the end of their table.
The foldable towel that I have folds into itself and comes in a little bag. The bag and towel connect by a clip, and the bag also has a carabiner which proves to be very useful for when we’re done.
What’s great about it is that it enables me to clip the towel onto a branch to let it dry. This is also the case with the kitchen sink, as it can hang from its handles – just turn it inside-out and give it a shake first.
The Scrub Daddy sponge can be hung as well, and extremely easily, by simply sliding a twig through one of its ‘eye holes’.
If necessary, you could bring along some rope in order to create a sort of clothesline to hang anything that needs to dry, but I always manage to find a suitable branch. It is a nice excuse to practice your knotting though.
If you’re staying at a campground, you will see facilities with drain water basins that are clearly marked. Otherwise, you will need to broadcast the gray water over a large area. Make sure to drain the dishwater first. Any food particles that are collected should be placed into a sealable plastic bag so that you can properly dispose of that later in your own garbage. Do not dispose of the food on the ground, seeing as human food is not natural for wild animals and it can disrupt their natural feeding cycles.
You can spray the dishwater onto the ground, on a wide area that is at least 200 feet away from any trails, campsites, streams, lakes, or other water sources. Spreading it out minimizes its impact while also allowing it to integrate rapidly with the soil.
When possible, do this in a sunny area so that the water evaporates quickly which will cause minimal impact on the environment.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you wash dishes at a campsite?
Some campsites have designated dishwashing facilities and drain water basins for you to wash your dishes. However, most campgrounds don’t – do not use the bathroom sink or the drinking water spigot to wash your dishes, as they are not designed to handle food waste.
The method that I have mentioned in this article is perfect whether you’re camping at a campsite or elsewhere, hiking, trekking, or backpacking.
Simply wash dishes in some sort of container with biodegradable soap, use a sponge or brush to clean plates and pots, and then rinse the dishes with running water from a jug into a bucket to collect the gray water. Remember not to dispose of any gray water near natural water sources, and to broadcast it as opposed to just pouring it on the ground.
What do you do with dishwater when camping?
Make sure to strain the dishwater before getting rid of it. Any food particles that are collected should be placed into a sealable plastic bag so that you can properly dispose of that later. You need to broadcast the dishwater onto the ground, on a wide area that is at least 200 feet away from the nearest water source, trail, or campsite. When possible, do this in a sunny area so that the water evaporates quickly which will cause minimal impact on the environment.
Is Dawn dish soap safe for camping?
Dawn dish soap is biodegradable and therefore safe for camping, but if not disposed of properly it can still be harmful to the environment.
What do I need for a 2-day camping trip?
For cooking and washing dishes, I find that a 2.5 gallon of water is more than enough when used sensibly. For drinking, around 2 gallons per person for each day of camping should be enough.
If you’re looking for an entire list of things to pack, check out this article about the 10 essentials of camping.