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How to Wash Dishes While Camping

You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t love camping, but there’s a good chance you don’t love washing dishes while camping? I don’t know anyone who does.

A stack of dirty camping dishes ready for washing.
The best part of camping isn’t washing dishes, is it?

If you are the camp chef in your family, the first thing you need to do is establish a little dishwashing rule.

This is how it goes — whoever cooks the meal gets to relax while the rest of the crew takes care of the clean-up.

For our family, this rule has been in place since our kids needed a step stool to reach the sink, and it helps so much to have the whole family pitching in when we’re camping.

With or without helpers, it’s still important to know how to wash dishes while camping. It’s easy but significantly different than washing dishes at home.

Having a camping dishwashing station is the key to a quick and painless dishwashing process.

We’re going to dig into our much-tested dishwashing routine, followed by a bunch of tips to make the process as easy as possible, whether you’re camping with your extended family or on your own.

Dishwashing While Camping Using Leave No Trace Principles

Have you heard of Leave No Trace?

We try and follow these principles whenever we’re camping, whether we’re living it up in a rustic cabin, staying in a front-country campground, or roughing it in the backcountry. You can read more about Leave No Trace principles in the link above, but I’ll summarize the bit that applies to washing dishes when camping.

  • Cook only the food you will realistically eat. Unless you have a cooler to preserve leftovers for the next meal, dealing with uneaten food is a pain. Cooking the perfect-size portions takes practice, but the goal is to cook enough food to feed your family without any left over.

    If you do end up with leftovers, scrape your pots and pans into your campground dumpster. If you’re in the backcountry, you’ll have to double bag it and pack it out. Leaving food near campsites attracts animals and encourages them to seek out humans when they are hungry. This rarely ends well for the wild animal that has now become a campground pest.
  • Wash camping dishes at least 200 feet away from streams, lakes, or other water sources. Dirty dishwater can quickly pollute streams and lakes, even if you use biodegradable camp soap. Many campgrounds will require you to wash your dishes at your camp, not in common areas, and to do that you’ll need a camping dishwashing station (we’ll talk about that more below).
  • Dispose of dishwater properly – Campgrounds will often have a sink or greywater disposal area to dump your dirty dishwater, but if not, strain your greywater and disperse it at least 200 feet away from your camp, trails, roads, and water sources.
Wilderness Wash by Sea to Summit.
Photo credit: Sea to Summit
  • Use biodegradable camping dish soap – No Dawn dish soap, or any other products with polluting sulfites. We have tried lots of different types of camping dish soap over the years, but our most recent favorite is Wilderness Wash, which is made by Sea to Summit. We use just a few drops to wash the dishes, and we also use it to wash clothes and dirty hands. I usually buy a 3 oz. bottle at the beginning of each camping season, and it will often last through the summer. Also, the bottles are 100% leak-proof (very important) and reusable.

Create an Awesome Camping Dishwashing Station

Our camping dishwashing station that we use when we are car camping.
A terrible photo of our camp dishwashing station

Our camp dishwashing station comes with us on all of our car camping adventures and canoe trips, plus many short multi-day hikes.

When we’re backpacking, we often wash our dishes with just one small, portable bucket, and sometimes we wash our dishes with leaves and dirt (for real), and just use our collapsible dishwashing for the final rinse.

If you’re curious about how to clean di ashes while camping without water, the video below is a good overview (we didn’t make it) I

t shows how to wash your dishes with dirt, although I wouldn’t rinse my dishes with bottled water as the video suggests.

How to wash dishes while camping without water

What to Pack in Your Camp Dishwashing Station

Two collapsible buckets or plastic tubs. You’ll need a bucket for washing dishes and one for rinsing. If you do mostly car camping, you can get away with any plastic tubs that will nest together and hold water.

If you think you’ll need something more portable for hiking and backpacking, opt for lightweight, collapsible buckets that will fit handily in your backpack. These Sea to Summit Kitchen Sinks are lightweight, portable, and come with a small stuff sack. You can get them in three sizes based on your needs.

We use one of these portable sinks for washing dishes, and then we hang the rinse water from a tree in this Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Folding Bucket. This thing is so useful — a folding bucket that fits in the palm of your hand!

We like to have the rinse water set up all the time so we can use it as needed, and if we left it on the ground, the dog would knock it over or fill it with dirt and fur.

Rope. If you want to hang your rinse water, you’ll need a good piece of rope or paracord. This is also a good time to practice your knots

A washcloth and towel. We really like using quick-dry microfiber cloths for both washing and drying. It’s always tempting to leave the camp dishes out on the picnic table to dry, but we feel so much better when we just dry them and put them back in our camp kitchen.

A pot scrubber. Eventually, you’re going to have to clean crusty food off of your favorite camping pan. Get a pot scrubber with nylon bristles on one edge (to protect non-stick surfaces) and a rubber scraper on the other.

A strainer. A small strainer is awesome for capturing food from your dishwater before you toss it into the woods. It’s important to do this because if you’ve got food mixed into your dishwater, it will certainly attract animals.

A Step-by-Step Guide: How to Wash Dishes While Camping

How to wash dishes while camping? Make your kids do it! Our kids when they were younger washing the camping dishes in the woods.
We love when the kids do the dishes!
  1. Crack a beer — or another indulgent beverage — and prepare your easy camping meal.
  2. After you plate up the food, but before you eat, fill your cook pot with water and let it sit near your campfire (on the edge of the grill works if your fire isn’t too big). This will make your dishwashing water tolerably warm. It will also keep the food from sticking. If you used your frying pan, add a bit of water to that as well and let it sit.
  3. Enjoy your awesome camp food. This is obviously the easy part, so relax!
  4. When dinner is over, fill up one bucket with cold rinse water. If you are anything like my husband, you will have done this upon arriving at camp.
  5. Add a few drops of ultra-concentrated biodegradable dish soap to your second bucket and fill it halfway with cold water. Add some of the hot water from your cook pot.
  6. Convince your kids to wash the camping dishes.
  7. Add the silverware to the soapy water to soak. Now immerse each dirty dish one at a time, starting with the cleanest dishes and moving on to the cookpots and dishes with stuck-on food.
  8. After washing each dish, dip it in the clean rinse water.
  9. Hand it to the designated dryer, or if you are flying solo, stack the clean dishes on a rock, stump, etc., where they’ll stay clean.
  10. Dry the dishes with your microfiber towel and put them away until the next meal.
  11. Disperse your bucket of rinse water 200 feet from your campsite. Spread the water far and wide to minimize the impact. Ignore this step if your campground has a designated disposal area for dishwater.
  12. Now strain your soapy water into your empty bucket and disperse it in the same way.
  13. Throw away your food waste from the strainer, or pack it out.

A Few Tips for Making Dishwashing While Camping Easier

A plastic tub full of camping dishes for washing.
Sometimes we use a plastic tub as our sink when we’re car camping

Nobody really wants to spend time washing dishes while camping, and over the years we’ve been able to streamline our system by following a few simple tips:

Go vegetarian. We find that cooking meat just makes a mess and attracts animals. A greasy pan quickly mucks up the dishwater, and then the pancakes end up tasting like burgers. We almost always cook vegetarian while camping. For meat, we bring jerky, pepperoni, and tuna fish, which is usually eaten straight out of the pouch.

Use bread to clean your plate after eating. Isn’t this the best use of bread anyway? You can sop up all the delicious sauce, soup, or flavoring to make washing easier.

Don’t burn your camp food while cooking. You know what they say about an ounce of prevention and all that. When you’re cooking your camp food, don’t take your eyes off the pot. Add more water than you think you need and stir frequently. A burned pot is the worst when camping.

Please don’t use disposable tableware. Believe me, I know it’s tempting, but as outdoor lovers, you owe it to our one and only earth to tread lightly and reduce your impact. Washing up isn’t that bad!

Don’t let the thought of washing dishes while camping keep you from enjoying the outdoors. Once you have a system in place, you won’t think twice about it.

Got any tips to add to our post? Drop us a comment below!


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A collage of photos of people washing dishes while camping. Text overlay: How to wash dishes while camping.
Tara Schatz sits with her two dogs, Gatsby and Flynn.

Tara is a freelance writer and travel blogger with a passion for outdoor adventures. She currently blogs at Back Road Ramblers and Vermont Explored, where she shares travel tips, adventure destinations, and vacation ideas for the wanderer in everyone.

Karen

Tuesday 17th of March 2020

Great information here. I like to end with one more bucket of water with a little bleach in it for sanitation especially when in a group. Thanks for emphasis on LNT.

Tamika

Saturday 20th of May 2017

Mess bags. Everything for one person in one bag that they are responsible for. Hang your mess bags from a line to dry, use that same line to dry wet clothes. Wiping your dishes before washing is a biggie. If you don't have a strainer, use a bandana. We've done a lot of camping as a family in a camper and in a tent, and a lot of camping in tents as Girl Scouts.

Tara

Sunday 21st of May 2017

We don't use individual mess bags, but it's a great idea, especially for large families.

Jeric Danao

Friday 31st of March 2017

This topic may just be those articles that must gain more attention! Lmao, I couldn't stress this important factor especially when it comes to camping. Not to mention, glamping (glamorous camping) - same outdoor activity that has that extra umphhh! Thank you for sharing this.

Esther

Friday 10th of March 2017

Thank you for sharing this article. I remember when I was young my mother always let us do the dishes even at camping as I get older, I understand her. lol! Anyways, we do the same thing whoever cooks gets to rest and those who don't, needs to do the dishes. Thank you for letting others teach the right way not to leave traces. Amazing, keep it up!

Tara

Friday 10th of March 2017

Thanks, Esther - My kids actually enjoy doing the dishes in the back country - unless the water is cold, then they complain a bit...

Paige W

Wednesday 8th of March 2017

I'm seriously always so inspired by your posts about camping. Cooking food you'll eat is so huge! I have been camping before where my friends cook dinner and there's enough for an entire fleet! I've never heard of the biodegradable soap! So cool! I usually just wing it with water and a really good scrub. I'll have to check that out.

Tara

Thursday 9th of March 2017

Thank you so much, Paige! That means a lot. The Camp Suds are fabulous! We even used it as a shampoo one weekend when we forgot ours. Worked like a charm.