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How To Wash Dishes While Camping? 9 Easy Steps 2023

Nobody likes washing dishes (at least, I don’t know of anyone), especially while camping. It’s inconvenient and messy, but it’s an essential task that helps keep your camp clean and hygienic. Whether camping in the backcountry or a developed campground, it’s important to have a plan for washing dishes and to follow Leave No Trace rules to minimize the environmental impact. 

Let’s face it, cleaning dishes might not be your favorite task when camping, but you can’t avoid it. That’s why I will give you a better solution to this problem. In this article, you will learn step-by-step how to wash dishes while camping, along with some very useful tips.

How To Wash Dishes While Camping (Step-By-Step)

Before I start the step-by-step process of washing dishes outdoors, it is extremely important to mention that you should never do the dishwashing at rivers, lakes, or streams or set up your dishwashing station near the water storage.

Because the wastewater will contaminate the whole water storage and will not remain biodegradable, remember, biodegradable soap needs soil to break down into harmless constituents. So, if you dispose of it directly into the water storage, it will harm the environment.

The key thing about outdoor dishwashing is to develop a uniform and simple process so you can get over it in no time and spend the rest of your time enjoying the great outdoors. Let’s get to the step-by-step procedure of washing dishes while camping.

1. Clean Plate Club

The first step of this process is more relevant to cooking than dishwashing. The key here is to reduce the amount of waste resulting in more convenient and quick dishwashing activity.

The first thing you can do in this regard is to cook the food in the right quantity so that everyone finishes their meal and you have less waste to handle. Please do not risk cooking extra food as we sometimes do at home.

If there is still any food left after everyone has eaten, you can keep it in the resealable storage containers and place it in the cooler. 

2. Prep Dishes

The goal here is to scrape off any burnt or leftover meal with the help of a pan scraper. Then it is recommended to also use paper towels for removing any oil and other food residues. Remember, the more preparation and dry cleaning you do at this stage, the easier the next steps will be. Also, it will reduce water consumption, and you will only need a little water to do the job.

3. Wash & Rinse

It is the step to thoroughly clean your dishes with the help of dish soap and water. I will show you how to wash and rinse your dishes with minimum water. I have been using collapsible buckets for easy storage and portability. Still, you can use any plastic container as long as storing it and carrying it to the campsite is not an issue.

 4. Wash the sink

Fill the sink with warm water and add two to three drops of biodegradable soap. The relatively clean dishes should be done first, followed by the more dirty ones. 

Use a sponge or scrub brush to clean the dishes and remove them from the sink. Shake off any soap residue left on the dishes into the sink. Once the dishes are completely clean, move over to the rinse sink. 

5. Rinse the Sink

Dip the dishes in hot water filled in the rinse sink. Hand Wash the dishes thoroughly in this water and check if the dishes are clean and free of soap. If you find any stain or oil left on any item, take them back to the rinse sink and repeat the process.  

6. Sanitize (Optional)

Sanitizing cookware is cleaning and disinfecting it to remove harmful bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms. Sanitization is important, especially if you have cooked something like raw meat. High temperatures like boiling water can destroy bacteria causing foodborne disease. But it isn’t easy to get in adequate quantity at the campsite.

You can do the following things if you need to sanitize your cookware. 

  1. If boiling water is available at your campsite, fill the rinse bucket with boiling water and soak the dishes in it for at least 60 seconds.
  2. You can also use sanitizing tablets such as Steramine and soak the dishes in them for a while before letting them dry.
  3. Common household bleach is also a sanitizing agent and can disinfect cookware cost-effectively.

7. Dry

It’s important to ensure that cookware is dry before storing it to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. You can use a dry rack to let them air dry or a clean towel to hand dry them. Collapsible racks are easily available, compact when packed, and lightweight.

An important thing to consider is to always use a clean towel for drying dishes. The towel should not be used for any other purpose. Otherwise, there is a risk of transferring the germs onto the cleaned cookware.

8. Search For More Dirty Dishes

When you have finished washing the dishes, ensure that everything is kept from your tent or anywhere else because it is extremely frustrating to find some more dirty dishes after you have wrapped up everything.

9. Consolidate Greywater

Now is the time to collect all the Greywater into one sink so you can dispose of it. Pour all the water from the rinse and sanitize the sinks into the wash sink. 

10. Strain Out Food Scraps

Place a fine-mesh strainer over an empty sink and pass all the Greywater through it. The filter will collect all the solid particles that came off during washing. Dump the solid waste in the garbage can (if available at the campground) or a trash bag you brought.

11. Dispose Of Greywater

Now you have left only the Greywater in one sink. Disposing of Greywater is a crucial step of the whole process because you need to be mindful of the Leave-No-Trace principles and the environmental impact of the waste. 

Here is what you can do!

There is probably a drain basin for greywater disposal if you are camping at a developed campsite. These points are usually marked, or you can contact the administration to know the location.

But if you are camping in a remote area, the proper method is to spread the Greywater onto the soil at least 100 feet away from any water source.

Create an Awesome Camping Dishwashing Station

The above camp dishwashing station can be used for camping expeditions like car camping, kayaking, or festivals. It is an economical, simple, and highly effective solution for dishwashing outdoors.

However, when I am backpacking or mountaineering, I only carry a single collapsible bucket for the final rinse of the dishes. Because you have to be mindful of the size and weight of your gear when backpacking, you may also be camping in an area where water is scarce. Moreover, the rainy or snowy weather conditions and freezing temperatures can make outdoor dishwashing very difficult for you. Usually, campers avoid using water in the above conditions and prefer other available options.

The Basics of Washing Dishes at a Campground

Some developed camping sites have dishwashing facilities, but those are rare. Also, washing dishes using washroom basins or drinking water faucets is inappropriate because these fixtures cannot handle food waste and attract bugs and other animals.

Also, washing dishes in these areas can contaminate the water supply and risk other campers’ health. Therefore, you have to rely on your portable dishwashing system, and I will show you how to set up and use one during camping.

It is also important to consider that the water from campground sinks or faucets is not potable, so you are advised to carry your water for drinking and cooking. Additionally, always pay attention to local laws and check with the campsite administration before cleaning or discharging any liquid in the campground.

Equipment Needed To Set Up A Camping Dishwashing Station

Setting up a camping dishwashing station is easy. You need the following equipment.

1. Sinks or Container

Your sink is now a sturdy bucket that can hold water for washing and rinsing dishes. You can have a collapsible sink made for camping, a plastic basin, or a container specifically designed for washing dishes. The sink size only matters a little because it doesn’t take too much water to get the job done. It mainly depends on how much luggage space you have. 

You will need a wash and a rinse sink to clean your cookware properly. Some campers also use a single bucket during dishwashing, but I need to be more comfortable with it. I use a 20-liter collapsible sea-to-summit sink as the wash sink that offers an adequate storage capacity and a very compact size for easy storage and portability.

It is durable, lightweight, and easy to clean, making it a convenient option for outdoor enthusiasts. You can use a collapsible bucket or any cheap plastic container for rinsing.

2. Pan Scraper

You will need a pan scraper to remove hardened or burnt food residue from the dishes before you rinse them. It is a must-have tool in your dishwashing station because you must do a lot of dry cleaning work to preserve water.

3. Paper Towels

Dishwashing paper towels come in handy to scrape off food and excess oil from the dishes. It will leave your washing-up water free from oil and scraps so that it can be disposed of on the ground with minimum environmental impact. Additionally, it makes the rinsing water less dirty, so you can use it to wash more dishes.  

4. Biodegradable Soap

A small amount of dish soap is needed to clean the dishes. It is recommended to use a biodegradable, organic dish soap which is less harmful to the environment than traditional dish soaps. The biodegradable dish soap breaks down into harmless components when disposed of in the soil.

5. Sponge or Scrub Brush

A good quality sponge is needed to wipe the dishes using dish soap. You can also use a scrub brush with stiff bristles. The scrub brush helps clean water bottles, jugs, and other containers where your hands cannot reach far enough for a thorough cleaning.

I use Scrub Daddy for my dishes because, unlike a regular sponge, it is specially formulated to be coarser in cold water and softer in warm water. So, it performs a good scrubbing function with cold water and is antimicrobial. It means that it is not going to stink after multiple uses.

6. Bleach or Water Treatment Tablets

To sanitize the dishes, you will need either a small amount of bleach or water treatment tablets. These items are easily available at superstores.

7. Towel or Drying Rack

A towel or rack is needed to dry the dishes after they are washed.

8. Fine-Mesh Strainer

A fine-mesh strainer is used to collect the solid particles from rinsing water before you dispose of them on the ground. You probably know that the disposing mechanisms for solid and liquid wastes are different. So, you need to separate the solid and liquid wastes. Solid waste can be disposed of in a trash bin or trash bags. 

If you are not camping in a developed campsite with waste bins, you must bring your trash bag. Nevertheless, a trash bag is an essential camping item that you should have for putting waste during camping and traveling unless you find a suitable place to dispose of it.

9. Potable Water Container

If you are camping in a remote area and do not have access to a water source, you will need to bring potable water in a container for washing and rinsing dishes.

How Do You Wash Dishes Without Water When Camping?

Let’s look at what can be done for washing dishes outdoors with minimum equipment available and without using soap and water. 

1. Paper Towels and Alcohol Wipes

A simple and convenient way to clean your dishes without water is by using paper towels and alcohol wipes. First, use the paper towel to remove any food residue and excess oil from the cookware. Then wipe them clean using alcohol wipes that also act as a disinfectant. 

2. Use water stream

Look for a water stream, lake, or river near your camp. You can use water from these sources to preserve your potable water storage. Suppose you use water from a stream, lake, or other natural sources. In that case, you should also disinfect the dishes by using sanitizing agents such as Steramine that are easily available at the stores.

3. Pre-Rinsing without using potable water

If you don’t want to wash your cookware with lake or river water, then only pre-rinsing the dishes in this water can also preserve your limited potable water for the final wash. Never wash up at the water source. Instead, fill the bucket with water and bring it back to camp. Rinse all the dishes in it and throw the wastewater over a wide area at least 100 feet away from any water source.

4. Boiling Water

If you have a campfire set on, you can boil water in a pot or bucket and soak all the dirty cookware in it for a few minutes. The hot water will disinfect your cookware and clean it to a large extent. You can then dry the dishes using a clean towel. 

5. Disposable Utensils 

The last thing you can do is to avoid camp dishwashing and bring disposable plates, cups, and utensils, or bring a set of dishes that are easy to clean and don’t require large amounts of water. It can be a good option for camping in remote areas where water is scarce, but there are more environmentally-friendly options.

A Few Tips for Making Dishwashing While Camping Easier

  1. Cook in the right quantity, so no leftover food is taken care of.
  2. Please don’t burn the food as it will make washing up difficult.
  3. Try to cook food that doesn’t make a mess and use a lot of utensils. For example, cooking meat is a time-taking process and makes the cookware dirty. I prefer cooking vegetables outdoors. You can bring pre-cooked meat and eat it straight out of the pack for your meat craving.

Final Thoughts: How to Wash Dishes While Camping

One of the simplest tasks at home, “dishwashing,” can be a mystery to new campers when presented with no running water, sink, or drain. Following the simple steps and tips outlined in this article, you can find the right way and show respect for the natural environment you are camping in.

Above is my preferred way on how to wash dishes while camping, which works fabulously for me. But of course, these are not hard and fast rules. You are welcome if you think of a better solution or want to make a few changes. I hope this has been helpful and if you have any suggestions or questions, please comment below.