Learning how to wash dishes while camping may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s actually more involved than you might think. If you’re an environmentally responsible camper, then you take the “leave no trace” philosophy very seriously, which means you need to be extra careful about how you dispose of your food waste and dirty water.
Why you shouldn’t wash your dishes in the lake, river, or stream
The first thing to remember is that you should never wash your dishes in a natural water source, like a stream, river, or lake. This can introduce harmful bacteria and other pollutants into the water, which can be detrimental to the local ecosystem.
But that’s not all. If food particles wash up on shore when you’re done, they can attract animals looking for a free meal, which can lead to dangerous confrontations.
And finally, since you wouldn’t drink unfiltered water directly from a nearby water source, why would you clean your dishes with them? It doesn’t take much for contaminants to find their way into your dishwater, which means they’ll end up on your dishes and potentially in your food too, the next time you use them.
So how do you wash your dishes while camping? Read on to find out.
Backcountry camping and dishwashing made simple
Dishwashing in the backcountry doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t need a ton of bulky supplies.
Here are the three items we always bring:
10-litre Sea to Summit collapsible kitchen sink
The Sea to Summit collapsible dishwashing sink is amazing because not only does it hold 10 litres of water (plenty for washing a day’s worth of dishes), but it also collapses down to virtually nothing when you’re done using it. We find that it doubles as a great tool for putting out the campfire at the end of the night!
If you’re not interested in getting one of these nifty collapsible sinks, a big plastic bowl will do just fine. As long as it holds water and fits your dishes, you’re good to go.
GSI Outdoors dishcloth
You could use any regular dishcloth, but we love GSI Outdoors’ dishcloth for a couple of specific reasons. First, it has a scrubby side and a soft side, which comes in handy for different kinds of cleaning. Second, it has a handy clip that you can use to clip it onto your clothesline so it dries quickly.
We like to thread the clip through the hand of our Sea to Summit collapsible sink and then clip it around the clothesline so that both items get to dry out nicely.
Campsuds all-purpose cleaner
When it comes to washing your dishes while camping, it’s important that you use a biodegradable soap. Regular dish soap can be harmful to the environment, so look for something that’s specifically designed for use in the outdoors.
Campsuds is a great option because it’s all-natural, biodegradable, and phosphate-free. Plus, it’s very concentrated, so a little goes a long way. Since it’s really an “all-purpose” cleaner, you can use it to clean your clothes and body in addition to your dishes.
A couple of other things you might want to bring along:
- If you don’t have access to clean, filtered water, you’ll need to boil your water or filter it using something like a gravity filter.
- You may want to bring along a small dish towel for drying.
Your step-by-step guide to washing dishes while camping
Step 1: Scrape as much food waste off of your plates or out of your bowls, pots, and pans as you can and into the garbage. You don’t want any unnecessary scraps floating around in your dishwater.
Step 2: Fill your sink with clean water, but not all the way (to save room for rinsing). If you’re in the backcountry, you may need to bring the water to a full rolling boil for at least one minute to kill any bacteria, or filter it using whichever water filtration device you brought along on your trip.
Step 3: Add a small amount of soap to the water and mix it around to create suds. Optionally leave your dishes to soak if there’s a lot of caked on food waste—for as long as an hour.
Step 4: Wash one dish at a time, using the scrubby side of your dishcloth for anything that’s particularly stubborn. Be careful not to spill any of the dishwater while washing.
Step 5: Once you’ve scrubbed one of your dishes, take your water bottle with clean, filtered water in it and rinse it over the kitchen sink so it catches the water.
Step 6: Optionally use a dish towel to dry the dish or set it aside in a clean area (like on big, flat rock) for it to air-dry.
Step 7: Repeat steps 4 to 6 for all remaining dishes.
How to dispose of dirty dishwater while camping
Now that your dishes are all clean, it’s time to dispose of the dirty dishwater. But you can’t just dump it anywhere.
Remember, there are food particles in that water. If you dump it somewhere too close to camp, you risk attracting animals or polluting nearby water sources.
For this next part, you’re going to need a trowel (a small shovel). We just use the one we bring along for going to the bathroom in the backcountry.
Step 1: Take the dirty dishwater and carefully walk 200 feet (about 70 steps) away from your campsite and any water source, making sure not to spill any of the water. If you have the Sea to Summit collapsible sink, this is super easy to do because it has two carrying handles.
Step 2: Carefully place the sink down on the ground and dig a hole six to eight inches deep, or about the length of the trowel.
Step 3: Dump the water into the hole and if your sink is super dirty, you may need to go back and get your water bottle to rinse excess food particles off over the hole. Same goes for your dishcloth.
Step 4: Use the trowel to cover the hole back up.
And that’s it! Now you can return back to camp knowing that you’ve disposed of your dishwater properly and aren’t attracting any unwanted critters (or polluting the surrounding ecosystem).
Camping and dishwashing FAQ
Can I use baby wipes to wash my dishes while camping?
Unscented baby wipes (or alcohol wipes) can be really effective at cleaning dishes and they’re much easier to pack out than a sponge or dishcloth. The downside is that they create more waste than necessary. Make sure you dispose of them properly in a trash bag.
Can I use hand sanitizer to wash my dishes while camping?
For dishes that aren’t very dirty, you probably can. Hand sanitizer is quite effective at killing bacteria. Just squirt a little bit on your dishcloth or sponge and scrub away. Be sure to rinse the dishes well with clean water afterwards, though, as hand sanitizer can be pretty drying on your skin (and dishes).
Is it ever okay to wash dishes in a nearby body of water?
That depends on a lot of things. Ideally, it’s not recommended for the reasons stated earlier in the article. However, if the water source is very clean (like a fast-moving stream) and you’re mostly just rinsing a few dishes with barely any food particles on them, it’s probably fine.
Do I really need to boil or filter the water first?
Yes, you definitely should. Even if the water looks clean, there could be harmful bacteria lurking in it that could make you sick. Boiling water for at least one minute or filtering it will kill any bacteria and make it safe to use.
Can I bring dish soap from my kitchen to wash my dishes while camping?
No, you should never, ever wash dishes with regular dish soap in the wild. It’s really bad for the environment as it can pollute water sources and attract animals. You should only use biodegradable soap. Campsuds isn’t the only kind available, but it’s one of the most popular among camping enthusiasts.
Do I need to clean my dishes immediately after eating?
That depends on how long you’re planning on staying at your campsite. If you’re only there for a night or two, it’s probably not necessary to wash your dishes immediately after every meal. You can just wait until the end of the day and do one big dishwashing session. However, if you’re camping for an extended period of time, or if you’re planning on leaving your campsite for more than an hour, it’s best to wash your dishes as soon as possible to prevent attracting animals.
What if I can’t dig a hole to dispose of the dirty dishwater?
If you’re in an area with very dry, sandy soil, it may not be possible to dig a hole. In that case, your best bet is to just walk even further away from camp (ideally 400 feet or more) and dump the water on the ground. Be sure to disperse the water as much as possible so it doesn’t pool up in one spot.
Can I just wait until I get home to wash my dishes?
If you’re going on a super short trip, like a one-nighter, then you can probably get away with just scraping as much food off of your dishes as you can into the trash and then packing them away. However, if you’re spending the night with dirty dishes, make sure you pack them away with your food and hang them all together in a tree so animals can’t get to them.
Washing dishes while camping doesn’t have to be a huge pain, but it does have to be done carefully and with respect to the environment (and the animals that call it home).
Do you have any other good tips for washing dishes while camping? Let us know in the comments below!
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).