How to Wash Dishes When Camping or Backpacking

Camping dishes stacked

I’m out in the wilderness having just finished a tasty meal but before I can sit back and relax I realize I’ll need to wash the dishes. One of the worst things in the world is leaving food on dirty pans and dishes. It can dry up like concrete to the point you’d be better off using a hammer and chisel instead of a brush or sponge.

If you’re like me you’ll want to wash your dishes when camping right after eating. After some research I found the following method works best:

  • Brush / scrape off and dispose of the larger scraps.
  • Use a brush and some water for the pre-cleaning, this usually gets rid of the worst of it.
  • Soak in some soapy water for at least 5-10mins. This will soften up the stubben bits.
  • Scrub with a sponge using the soapy water.
  • Let them air dry using a stand or propping them up against something

That’s great if you have all the tools you need but let’s take a look at some other methods I’ve found.

Washing dishes without water or soap

You won’t always have access to enough water for cleaning a bunch of dishes when in the wilderness. Below are some methods for cleaning with very little or no water or soap.

Wipe it clean with bread, a spare rag or you fingers

Bread: Make sure to spare your bread for last when eating. Use the bread to soak up all the sauce or left over soup.

Finger or Rag: Licking your dish clean isn’t the most hygienic thing due to the bacteria on our tongues. Instead use your fingers or a spare rag to wipe them down.

Leftover soup: Use a small amount of water to turn the dirty bowl/plate into soup and drink your bowls clean.

Washing dishes with wood ash

This one might sound a bit crazy but there is a method I found from Lifehacker to wash dishes with wood ashes. It might not be the cleanest method but if you have no other options this can help.

Ash has been used by are ancestors to produce a source of lye to make soap for hundreds of years.

Add a couple hand fulls of wood ash to the dirtiest pot. Pour in some hot water to make a paste. The mix of hot water and wood ashes creates potassium salts. This mixed with the fats from the pots and pans creates a soap. Use this soap to scrub the remaining pots, pans or plates. Then rinse them off with clean water.

Use foil wrapped food and pot liners for cooking

Foil Wrapping Food: There are plenty of tasty foil wrapped campfire food recipes out there. With some planning you can prep the foil wrapped food before you go camping. This will prevent the pots or pans from getting dirty in the first place.

Once cooked you can eat the meal still in the foil pack on top of a plate to also prevent them from getting dirty. There are some problems with this method as you’ll have some extra waste to dispose of. Depending on your situation and location this could be an issue.

Bag pot liners: are another option to prevent dirty dishes. They are plastic liners made specifically for cooking that wrap inside of pots. They claim to be rated for much higher temperatures that standard plastic, 400 degrees F.

They do have their issue though. I think Outdoor Herbivore sums them up well: “Until cooking bags are suited for direct heat, we don’t think a 60% failure rate is a good investment for avoiding dishes.”

Boy Scout Dishwashing Method

This is an efficient method made famous from the Boy Scouts involves using:

  • 3 plastic dish pans.
  • Biodegradable soap
  • Steramine tablets
  • A Strainer
  • Scrub pad
  • Dish brush

This is a lot gear so it’s probably not going to be viable for backpackers or lightweight campers. I can see it working well for RV campers though.

Pre-cleaning: Dispose of the larger left overs and rinse off plates, utensils and cups with a little bit of water.

Each of the three dish pans will be laid out in a row.

The first pan: Add a small amount of biodegradable soap and hot water. Starting with the least dirty first scrub and clean the dishes. Move on to the dirty pots and pans last.

The second pan: Add a smaller amount of hot water. Use this station to rinse. Make sure all the soapy water has been removed before adding to this pan.

The third pan: Fill with hot or cold water. Add two Steramine tablets and leave for at least 1 minute. You can use bleach instead of Steramine tablets however make sure you get the ratio correct, 1 teaspoon per gallon of water. Add the rinsed dishes to this pan and leave them to soak for more than a minute.

Minimalist Cleaning Methods

If your a lightweight camper and need to clean dishes you’ll not want to hoard tons of cleaning equipment with you. There are some methods above that can be used but here are some more minimalist methods recently I’ve discovered:

Micro Sponge and Soapy Water

Cut a standard sized sponge down to around an inch in size. It will weigh next to nothing when it’s dry and take up very little room.

Start by using the largest pot you have and pour some water in there heating it up over a fire. Once warm enough add some biodegradable soap and start cleaning. Once finished transfer the water from that pot into the next largest pot.

Even if your soap is biodegradable never pour dirty soap water into lakes or streams. Instead pour far away from them into the ground.

Cold Food Only Don’t Cook

In an effort to save weight and washing the dishes some backpackers no longer eat hot food. This might not be for everyone but it’s something to keep in mind.

Leaves and water

Backcountry Banter gives some good tips for cleaning a small pot with less equipment. The method involves using a small amount of clean water and some leaves to scrub off the excess food.