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 simple tips that make dishwashing quick and painless.
Why Should You Know How to Wash Dishes Camping?
Washing dishes is an essential part of keeping a clean campsite. When there is food, no matter how small, near your campsite, it draws critters to your site. When they find any food, they stick around to look for more. Washing dishes when you’re camping is the best way to prevent animals like raccoons and bears from looking for food. It can also deter mosquitoes from hanging around your campsite.
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How to Wash Dishes Camping, A Step-by-Step Guide
The process of getting those dishes clean 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 hot water is used to sanitize dishes.
The steps below are for using just one basin to keep gear to a minimum, as we like to do. Still, we’ve added notes for anyone who wants to try multiple basins methods.
Step 1: Gather Your Supplies
Washing dishes when camping requires the following supplies:
- dish soap (ideally a biodegradable camping dish soap)
- container(s) to hold water
- scrubber or sponge
- a clean towel for drying your dishes
Step 2: Clear Food Particles From the Dishes
When learning how to wash dishes camping, keep in mind that the goal is to minimize water use and get all of the food residue disposed of properly to avoid attracting critters to your site (like bears!).
To prevent your soapy water from getting too dirty for cleaning dishes, remove any food scraps first.
If you can’t get everyone to clean their plates, bread and tortillas are great to use as sponges to clear food waste 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 to make warm water for dishwashing. Fill your washbasin with boiling water and add enough cold 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 other dishes that need sanitizing first. Let those sit in the hot soapy water while you clean the rest of the plates and other cookware with a sponge or dishcloth. We like Swedish dish clothes for camping because they are reusable and 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 plates and utensils into a basin of clean water before stacking them 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 onto the ground.
Step 6: Finishing the Job of Cleaning Dishes While Camping
Properly completing the job will have you ready for your next outdoor meal. If you haven’t already done so, dispose of the gray water 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 tiny 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 plastic tubs to hold dirty dishes. Everything from buckets to totes will work, but we love this collapsible camping wash basin with an integrated drying rack for washing dishes when camping.
Your favorite dish soap will work just fine if a designated wash station is available at the campground. Otherwise, make sure to use biodegradable dish soap, like this one here.
Sponge or Dish Cloth for Scrubbing Dishes
The same sponge or dishcloth you use at home works well in your camp kitchen for cleaning dishes while camping. However, we prefer dishcloths for the campground because they dry faster between uses.
An Absorbent Towel for Drying
Have a few absorbent towels, so you always have one ready to go while the others are hanging to dry.
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Some meals leave stuck on bits of food that are 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 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 bring the right gear and keep your family and the environment happy and healthy.
- Camping with your teens, or even younger kids? 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 washbasins if you’re trying to save space with your camping gear. We love the collapsible washbasin 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 excellent for the more challenging jobs.
- In a pinch, dishes can be cleaned with sanitizing wipes if you don’t have access to water at the campground.
- Dry your dishes thoroughly before packing up after your camping trip to 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 bits can harden on your plates, making them more challenging to clean.
- Avoid raw meats when you can so you don’t have to worry about proper sanitation.
- Properly dispose of grey water (the dirty dishwater 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 the growth of new plants, but distributing the water over an ample space does little harm.
- Use biodegradable camp 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. In that case, you can skip out on packing some of the gear, like biodegradable soap (regular dish soap is ok to use) and extra washbasins.
- Cooking in cast iron? Use hot water and a scrubber because soap will remove that beautiful seasoning you’ve worked so hard to get.
Now that you know how to wash dishes while camping, it’s time to put that knowledge into practice! These tips will help make this chore a little bit easier (and hopefully a bit more fun). Happy camping!
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