What’s the Best Way to Wash Camp Dishes?

No one wants to eat out of a grubby bowl. But is there a way to keep your dishes clean on the trail?

Photo: lucentius / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

No one knows gear like Backpacker. We’re sharing this story for free; get more expert advice on buying, using, and maintaining your equipment by signing up for Outside+.

Stupid question time: What is the best way to wash camp dishes without hauling extra gear and wasting water? Do you have to boil/filter the water used for cleaning? Are dishes detergents bad for the environment? How do you dispose of dirty dish water? —Aaron, North Berwick, ME

Actually, Aaron, it’s not a stupid question at all. I’ve seen people do atrocious things to wild rivers and lakes—like jump in with a bottle of shampoo. And soap labels are often confusing—does biodegradable mean I can wash my dishes in the river? Here are the highlights of proper dishwashing (Got to Leave No Trace for lots more details.)

All dishwashing (and body washing) should be done 200 feet away from any water source, because we need to keep even biodegradable soap out of rivers, streams, and lakes. (Fish don’t groove on peppermint-scented suds.)

Only use soap if you need to (for really greasy pots or on long trips, when serious grime buildup is inevitable). For the most part, hot water and a scrubby sponge will do the trick. Boiling dishwater before doing dishes would be the safest way to make sure you’re not scrubbing your pots with Giardia. But as for me, 99% of the time, I’m content with just getting it hot enough to cut the grease. Your call.

After scrubbing, strain your dishwater through a fine mesh strainer (or a bandana) and broadcast the wastewater. In other words, fling it far and wide. Then pack out the food remnants in your garbage bag.

How to Wash Camp Dishes Step-by-Step

  1. Get your soap and washing rag ready. Use a camping-friendly, biodegradable soap, such as Sierra Dawn Camp Suds.
  2. Choose your largest pot and fill it with water, or in the winter, with snow.
  3. Heat the water over your stove until boiling. If you are melting snow, add a little water from your water bottle to the bottom so to prevent the pan from scorching and to help it melt faster.
  4. Split the heated water between two pans and add a small amount of soap to one of the pans. Let the water cool enough that you won’t be burned by it.
  5. Wash each dish with the rag in the soapy water and then dip it in the second pan to rinse.
  6. Strain out any food particles and carry them out in your trash bag. Scatter the used water at least 200 feet away from streams or other water sources.

Genny Fullerton