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Washing dishes when camping can be a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right supplies and a solid plan washing dishes outdoors is easy (and dare we say maybe even enjoyable?). We’ve pulled together our best ideas and favorite gear to show you how to wash dishes when camping with some simple tips that make dishwashing quick and painless.
How to Wash Dishes Camping, A Step-by-Step Guide
The process for washing dishes when camping can be broken down into five simple steps. These can be used for many types of camping, or anytime you don’t have a sink available for cleaning dishes while camping.
Some campers swear by the 2- or 3-bin system for cleaning dishes at the campsite. One bin with soapy water for washing dishes and a second basin with clean water for rinsing. Sometimes the 3rd basin of really hot water is used to sanitize dishes.
We like to keep our gear to a minimum, so while the steps below are for using just one basin, we’ve added notes for anyone who wants to try methods that use multiple basins.
Step 1: Gather Your Supplies
In order to wash dishes outdoors, you’re going to need the following supplies: dish soap (ideally a biodegradable option), water container(s), scrubber or sponge, and finally something for drying your dishes.
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Click here to jump to a full list of recommended supplies
Step 2: Clear Bits of Food From the Dishes
The goal of washing dishes in the great outdoors is to minimize how much water you use and to get every scrap of food disposed of properly to avoid attracting critters to your site (like bears!). To prevent your soapy water from getting too dirty to get your dishes clean, start by removing any food scraps from them first.
If you can’t get everyone to clean their plates, bread and tortillas are great to use as sponges to clear food into a trash bag instead of the washbasin.
Step 3: Prepare the Wash Basin
Heat a pot of water over the campfire or camp stove. Fill your washbasin with hot water and mix with enough cool water to avoid burning your hands. Add the dish soap, vigorously swishing the water around with your hand or cooking utensil to get the bubbles going and soap distributed through the water.
Step 4: Sanitize, Soak, and Wash
We drop in the forks, spoons, and any other dishes that need to be sanitized first. Let those sit in the hot soapy water while you clean the rest of the dishes with a sponge or dishcloth. We like Swedish dish clothes for camping because they are reusable but also biodegradable.
Soak extra-grimy dishes for a few minutes before scrubbing them clean.
Dishes that need sanitization, like those used for raw meats, can be placed in the third basin of extra hot water before washing.
Step 5: Rinse and Dry
If using multiple basins for washing dishes when camping, dip the dishes into a basin of clean water before stacking to dry. Otherwise, once the washing in soapy water is done, empty the dirty water (see tips below for how to do this) and refill with clean water for rinsing.
If you have a dish drying rack, now is the time to bust it out. Stack clean dishes on the drying rack so excess water can drip off.
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Use a clean, dry towel to dry all your dishes and get them ready to put back into your totes. Air drying is not recommended. While waiting for your dishes to dry, dirt and leaves tend to get on the clean dishes. If you have a lot, they can topple over into the dirt.
Step 6: Finishing the Job of Cleaning Dishes While Camping
Finish up the job so you are ready for your next outdoor meal. If you haven’t already done so, dispose of the greywater from your washbasin.
To do this properly, toss the water to “spray” over as much area as possible, and at least 200 feet from any water source or camping area. Dumping the water in one spot can damage the growth of little plants, but distributing the water can actually help them grow.
Supplies for Washing Dishes When Camping
You’ll need the same basics that you use at home for washing dishes when camping.
Containers for Holding Dishes and Water
1-3 wash bins or other containers to hold dirty dishes. Everything from buckets to totes will work, but we do love this collapsible basin with an integrated drying rack for washing dishes when camping.
If a designated wash station is available at the campground, your favorite dish soap will work just fine. Otherwise, make sure to use biodegradable dish soap, like this one here.
Sponge or Dish Cloth for Scrubbing Dishes
The same sponge or dishcloth that you use in your kitchen works just fine for cleaning dishes while camping. We prefer dishcloths for the campground, however, because they dry faster between uses.
An Absorbent Towel for Drying
Have a few of these so you’ll always have a towel ready to go while the others are hanging to dry.
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Some meals leave stuck on food that is extra difficult to remove. Add a scrubber to your dishwashing gear to help tackle the tough stains.
Dish Rack for Drying
This is optional but can be worth adding to your camping checklist. A dish rack will keep piles of clean dishes from falling into the dirt while you work through the piles of dishes. Find a collapsible version to easily pack away into your gear.
Clean Water Container
Transport water from the campground water source to your campsite with a container that will hold at least a gallon. We use a 5-gallon water container for drinking water, but will often bring an empty (and clean) milk container.
The Best Tips for Cleaning Dishes While Camping
Make this dreaded chore easier, safer, and more efficient with these tips we’ve learned over the years. These will guide you to bringing the right gear and keep your family and the environment happy and healthy.
- Enlist help from everyone in your group, including the kids. It’s a great time to get little ones helping with dishes that aren’t breakable!
- Get creative with wash basins if you’re trying to save space with your camping gear. We love the collapsible wash basin, but often just repurpose our tote that holds everything we need for making coffee. You can even use a small, leakproof cooler bag instead of the bin if wanting to save space in your pack.
- Don’t have a scrubber for stuck-on food? Gather a handful of sand or dirt from the campsite, which is naturally abrasive and great for the tougher jobs.
- In a pinch, dishes can be cleaned with sanitizing wipes if you don’t have access to water at the campground.
- Make sure you dry your dishes completely before packing up after your camping trip. This will prevent mold growth if you store your gear away in totes at home.
- Even if you have plenty of dishes, utensils, and cooking equipment, wash your camping dishes after every meal. If you wait too long, food can harden onto your dishes, making them more difficult to clean.
- Avoid raw meats when you can so you don’t have to worry about proper sanitation.
- Properly dispose of greywater (used dish water from washing or rinsing) by “spraying” water at least 200 feet from any water source or camping area. Dumping the water in one spot can damage growth of little plants, but distributing the water
- Use biodegradable dish soap when washing dishes at your campsite, or anywhere without a drain.
- Check the campground amenities ahead of your trip. Some have a designated dishwashing station. If you’re staying at a campground with one, then you can skip out on packing some of the gear, like biodegradable soap (regular dish soap is fine) and extra wash basins.
What are your favorite tips for washing dishes when camping? Let us know how you tackle this chore in the comments!
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