Can You Wash Dishes in Lake and River Water?


Campers and backpackers need to learn to improvise on the fly. Without access to fresh running water, we start to rely on natural water sources for all our handwashing and dishwashing needs.

Whether or not that’s actually a good idea is up for debate, but what else can you do with your dishes? You can’t just leave dirty dishes sitting around camp after a big meal. Is it safe to wash dishes with water fresh out of the lake/stream?

Is washing dishes in lake and river water safe?

You should really be careful when cleaning dishes and washing hands with natural water sources. Would you drink water straight out of a lake/river? I highly doubt it.

Lakes and rivers are surprisingly dirty carrying all kinds of bacteria and parasites. You have to think about all that animal feces, dead carcasses and general nastiness upstream.

So is it safe to wash dishes with lake or river water? Personally, I wouldn’t risk washing dishes that I plan on eating off of with non-potable water. You can wash off the excess food/waste for short term cleanliness, but make sure you rewash with boiled or filtered water before eating off those dishes.

It’s Usually Safe to Use Lake or River Water(Once Purified)

Whether or not it’s actually safe to use the lake/river water really depends on where you’re at. It all depends on what’s contaminating the water source upstream.

Would I feel comfortable drinking city runoff or water next to a manufacturing facility? No definitely not. Take personal safety measures into your own hands and bring along your own safe potable water. Camping out in the country you should be fine.

Generally speaking, if it’s safe to swim in the water it’s going to be safe to ingest after it’s purified. Keep an eye out for hazardous water notices and you might want to call the local wildlife agency for more info.

Safely Washing Dishes With Lake and River Water

In most cases, you’ll be fine rinsing off with non-potable water, but it’s not worth the risk of food contamination. Just take a minute to run your water through a gravity filter(my favorite method) or simply boil a pot of water on your camp stove when you’re finished cooking.

  1. Setup a small dishwashing station at least 200ft away from any water source. You don’t want to get dish soap into the water supply. Personally, I use Campsuds (On Amazon) biodegradable dish soap since it’s good for the environment, but a small dab of regular dish soap won’t turn you into an environmental terrorist.
  2. To save a bit of time start off by rinsing your dishes with non-filtered lake/river water. Get off all the excess food scraps and set them aside for further washing. Just set them off to the side so they don’t get used until they’ve been further cleaned.
  3. Run the lake or river water through some type of filter that gets rid of at least 99.999% of bacteria and protozoa. I personally prefer a gravity setup (like this), because you can get a lot of water fast. You can also use a Steripen UV Filter(On Amazon), boil water or just use cheap water purification tablets.
  4. Thoroughly wash the dishes using the purified water and a little bit of dish soap. Make sure you’re both away from any nearby water source and camp. You don’t want food scraps laying around camp drawing in animals.

Don’t Contaminate Nearby Water Sources

Setup your dishwashing station at least 200ft away from any nearby natural water source. This is going to protect the environment and keep contaminants and chemical runoff from flowing into the open waterways. You don’t want to infect the local wildlife population with food scraps, oils, grease and cleaners.

It’s also a good idea to setup your cleaning station away from camp. You don’t want to lure critters into camp. Nobody likes waking up to a horde of raccoons (or worse) scratching at their tent walls.

They sell fancy dish cleaning stations(On Amazon), but all you really need is a bucket to transport water and a flat surface. Just remember that a 5-gallon bucket filled with water weighs about 40lbs so you might want to take multiple trips.

Once you’ve found a spot to clean your dishes go to town following the cleaning method above.

What If I Don’t Purify My Water?

Honestly, if you don’t purify your water before cleaning off your dishes you will probably be fine. As long as you aren’t purposely ingesting unfiltered water the risk of illness is somewhat low.

As easy as it is to run water through a gravity filter, toss in a few purification tablets or turn on your UV filter it’s stupid not to just purify the water. Who wants to get a bout of diarrhea, nausea, and stomach pain without easy access to a toilet.

There’s a Small Risk of Water Contamination

Just remember that there’s always a little bit of risk when using natural water sources to wash dishes and sanitize gear. As long as you purify the water and wash everything you should be fine. It’s all about taking responsibility for your own safety and making sure you have safe clean water.

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