The doing dishes task is one of dread for many backpackers because cleaning often involves finding and collecting more water. And after cleaning, you have to walk a few more steps away from the camp area to scatter the waste water. Sometimes it is not a matter of laziness, but of circumstance. It might be that you are rationing your water because there is not water anywhere around you, and you don’t know where the next water source is. Other than hoping for rain, or packing up a dirty kitchen set, more options do exist.
We always encourage backpackers to use cooking equipment for hydrating food rather than stand-up plastic pouches. This list of tips should help you with the chore of cleaning up while backpacking.
How to Wash Dishes when Backpacking: the traditional way
When you have access to extra water for cleaning, the traditional way of washing with biodegradable soap may be best. As you are aware, water is a precious resource. Keep it clean by not contaminating it with your dirty dishes. Don’t dip your dishes directly in a water source. Toss any dirty water at least 200 feet (about 70 steps) from water sources. To make cleaning easier, prepare ahead at home. Cut a smaller sponge for cleaning and take a micro cloth or bandanna for wiping dishes dry.
- At home, make a one-third or smaller sized sponge by dividing and cutting a household scouring sponge into equal squares. The dual scour and soft sponge (as shown above) works well. A sponge is optional, but it is handy and takes up little space. Store the sponge inside your cooking gear. It should fit nicely inside one of the nesting style bowl/cups cook sets sold by MSR or GSI.
- Add water to the largest pot you have, or use your pot carrying bag – many of the modern backpacking cook sets are lined with a waterproof material to function as a sink. During the winter you can use snow instead of water.
- Add 1 drop of concentrated, biodegradable soap to the sponge. Use soap sparingly. And if you are thru-hiking, Bronner’s soap also works well for shaving and cleaning clothing.
- Wet the sponge by dipping it into the pot of water. Clean each item with the dampened sponge. Add a splash of water from the pot to each dish to rinse. Wipe away any leftover food residue with a bandanna or towel.
- Scatter dish washing water and food particles left on your bandanna by dispersing it around the wash area rather than dumping it on a single spot on the ground. Dispersing the wash water helps it to evaporate quickly and reduces the attraction for animals. Remember to toss away all gray water from nearby rivers, lakes or streams
- Dry everything thoroughly with a cloth or air dry. Squeeze excess water from your sponge to speed up drying and prevent bacterial growth. Most bacteria require moisture to multiply. It is always good practice to dry all utensils and dishes throughly before packing them up.
How to Wash Dishes when Backpacking: without soap or water
Sometimes washing dishes is unsafe when in areas that are known to attract wildlife. Sometimes water is scarce and washing up is not possible. In winter, when it is snowy and frigid, it might not be necessary. In these circumstances, the best thing to do is to remove food residue from all your dishes, utensils and cooking pots before packing them up. The best way to do this is to consume all those bits of foods (you need the calories anyway). Wipe the sides of your dish with tortilla, bread, spoon or finger. Some other possibilities –
- Olive oil added to cooking water makes clean-up a breeze. Add a single packet of olive oil or 1 TB when you boil your water. This provides extra fat calories to the meal and the oil makes it easier to clean up if you do not have a coated pan. We have tried this with a non-coated aluminum pan from an old Boy Scout mess kit and food sticking was minimal.
- Drink it or Sip it. Add some water to the pot, swish it around and drink. Soup! Seriously, this works fine if you are low on water or not near a source of water. Why waste food calories or water for cleaning when your body can use it?
- Dip it, but don’t Lick it. Have some spare bread or tortilla? Wipe the pot clean with a chunk of bread and you’ve got an instant dip. No bread? Some people may lick the pot clean (or let the dog), but we don’t recommend doing this since the mouth contains a lot of bacteria. Instead of licking the pot, wipe any excess food residue with a clean finger, spoon, or bandanna, and then air dry the pot or dish thoroughly.
- If you have a camp fire, use what is already available from nature – wood ash. Ash and water combine to make a mild alkali, and when combined with any leftover fat present from the food particles you want to eliminate, it becomes the basic composition of soap. Place the ash in the cooking pot and add enough water to make into a paste. Use the paste like you would soap to clean all your pots and utensils. Use a small sponge or cloth and rinse with clean water.
- If you do not have a sponge, use what is available on the ground. A handful of grass works well. Pine needles, leaves or pine cones can also work. If you are camping on a beach where sand is abundant, use the sand as an abrasive to clean dishes.
- Clean your cook pot with plain water and a small sponge. Dried meals are already pre-cooked and should not leave much residue since you are only reheating them. Pour ¼ C of water into the dish and swoosh with the small scouring sponge you made from home (as shown above). Make sure you boil the water for the next meal and dip any utensils into the boiling pot of water for a few seconds to kill any standing bacteria.
- Wipe dishes dry without soap or water. Consume as much of the leftover food as possible by scraping your spoon/spork around every nook and cranny and inserting into the mouth. Now wipe everything clean. If you dry the cooking pot thoroughly by wiping it down with a bandana or camp towel, it will remain relatively hygienic based on the fact that most bacteria require moisture to multiply. Be sure to wipe everything clean and allow to air dry before packing it up.
- Use pot liners to keep the pot free of food. Although this option is slightly more eco-friendly than the stand-up pouches some backpackers use to rehydrate food and eat from, we mention pot liners last. Pot liners are our least favorite option because it creates extra waste and can leak. The idea of a pot liner is to place the bag inside of your cooking pot with the edge folded over the side. Similar to an oven bag, but designed for pots, it is made of a thin, food safe plastic (PTFE or nylon) that is manufactured to withstand high temperatures. You are using the liner to boil water and cook (i.e. rehydrate) your dried food so that your pot does not contact water or food directly, and thus stays clean. Here is how it works: 1) Put the cooking liner in your pot & boil water 2) Place dry food in the lined pot 4) Eat & remove the liner 5) find a place in your gear to stow the dirty food liner. We’ve tested this one thoroughly thinking it might be a solution for those of you that absolutely REFUSE to allow food to come in direct contact with your cooking pot. As much as we like the idea, it didn’t work for us after multiple tests. Backpacking pots are made to be lightweight from metals that are designed to heat up fast. This creates hot spots which can cause the high-temperature bags to develop small holes. Even though the bags we tested were designed to withstand up to 400 degrees F, it seems this rating is applicable for radiant heat rather than direct heat. When the bags are exposed direct heat (even at much lower temps) they can warp and tear. Another disadvantage is that the liners can tear when you are scooping out your food with a spork or fork. Have you had better results with liners?
Cleaning up with soap and water
The traditional way of cleaning is with soap and water. Soap is more than just a convenience, it also helps clean wounds, clothing, and yourself. Therefore, soap and water tend to be the number one choice for keeping everything clean in the backcountry. When water is available, you may opt for using a highly concentrated biodegradable liquid soap, such as Dr Bronner’s or Campsuds to clean dishes. Our personal preference is Bronner’s soap because it feels refreshing when used to clean teeth or skin. And if you are thru-hiking, this soap also works well for shaving and cleaning clothing – either on the trail or during zero days in your hotel sink. Plus, Bronner’s makes a nifty claim: a total of 18-in-1 magical uses, and the plastic bottle is always entertaining to read when you have time to spare.
On the other hand, there is a non-commercial alternative cleaning agent that comes in handy when you are in the woods: wood ash.
Wood ash as soap
Wood ash is a good solution if you have a campfire going. It is freely available, safe for the environment, and works well for cleaning. In fact, early Americans used wood ash as the lye, together with animal fat, to make soap. The basic composition of modern soap is still lye and fat. The difference now is that the lye is chemically produced from sodium or potassium hydroxide, and the oil tends to be plant-based rather than animal. Wood ash works as a cleaner because it is both abrasive and alkaline. The primary chemical constituent of burned wood is calcium carbonate, which is soluble in water, and trace particles that are not water soluble that come from the soil in which the tree grew, such as silica, copper, iron and other elements from the earth.
How do you use wood ash? Just collect the ash from a campfire. Add a few drops of water to make a paste and use it like you would soap. Don’t use it to clean yourself though – it is too harsh.
Disinfecting dishes without soap
What else can you do to sanitize? Boiling water is often sufficient for drinking water, cooking, and cleaning. If you are cleaning in the absence of soap or wood ash, boil water to disinfect any viruses, bacteria or other pathogens that may cause diarrhea if consuming from unsanitary dishes. The common microorganisms such as Giaradia and Cryptosporidium are sensitive to heat, so just bringing the water to a boil is often sufficient. Be sure to dip any utensils and dishes into the boiling water to sanitize.