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How Do Backpackers Wash Their Dishes?

As much as I love to cook, I absolutely hate washing dishes while I’m backpacking. Doing dishes in the backcountry can be a serious pain without easy access to running water. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around it, so you’ll have to find a way to clean up.

How do backpackers wash their dishes? Rinse out your pot/pan after cooking and immediately start boiling a pot of water. Turn off the heat after the water starts boiling and give yourself 15-20 minutes to eat allowing the water to cool. Wash off your dishes immediately after eating and use biodegradable soap and a sponge to gently clean each item. Rinse off your dishes with boiled water and pour the wastewater in a shallow hole away from water sources.

Cleaning your dishes in the backcountry can be a pain, but it’s not bad once you get a method down. Keep reading to learn a few simple tips to make cleaning dishes easier.

How To Wash Dishes While Backpacking

As much as I love to cook, I absolutely hate doing the dishes. It’s even more of a pain with limited access to water on the trail. There’s no getting around doing the dishes on long backpacking trips, so how can I make washing dishes easy?

It’s all about planning your meals to avoid waste and prepping the cleanup process while your eating dinner. Everything else boils down to common sense and using boiled water to prevent contamination. Just make sure you pickup a bottle of biodegradable soap (campsuds is my favorite) so you don’t kill off the local flora/fauna.

  1. Plan Meals: Plan out your meals to avoid leftovers. I like to individually package everything to make meal planning easier. Bring prepackaged food like energy bars to supplement your meals if you’re still hungry.
  2. Eat Everything: Make sure you’re a member of the clean plate club. Eating everything on your plate makes cleanup easier since you don’t have to deal with waste. Plus you’ll be less likely to attract animals to your campsite.
  3. Boil Water For Cleanup: Boiling water for cleanup serves 2 major purposes. It kills off the bacteria to avoid contamination and makes cleanup easier since the waters warm. Just make sure you wait 15-20 minutes or until the waters warm to the touch.
  4. Use Biodegradable Soap: Regular dish soap will kill everything it comes into contact with. So you’ll want to use biodegradable soap to avoid killing the local wildlife. Personally, I carry a 2 Oz bottle of Campsuds because it’s cheap. Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash is thicker so it’s easier to use, but it’s more expensive.
  5. Rinse Off Your Dishes After Soap: Make sure you rinse off your dishes after cleaning up with soap. This is really important to mention since people tend to get lazy with limited water. The water doesn’t even need to be hot. You can run the water through a regular backpacking filter if you run out of boiled water.
  6. Bring A Sponge and Towel: Rinse off your dishes and use the sponge to clean the gunk off. Let it all air dry and use the towel to dry everything off before loading up your pack. Hang the towel on the back of your pack if it’s really wet and store the sponge in a ziplock bag with your food. Make sure you store the sponge with the rest of your food if you’re using a bear bag/canister.
  7. Get Rid Of Waste Water: Dig a small hole away from camp and at least 200ft away from surrounding water sources. Biodegradable soap shouldn’t damage the environment, but you don’t want to contaminate water sources.

What Do I Need To Clean Dishes On The Trail?

You really don’t need all that much equipment to do your dishes on the trail. Use the pot you cook in to boil water, biodegradable soap, sponge to clean, and a towel to dry. I’ll go into more detail, but you really can’t screw up.

  • Pot: Most backpackers prefer a 700-900mL pot for one person. The Toaks Titanium 750mL pot is lightweight and the perfect size for most backpackers. Stanley 24oz Kettle is a cheaper option, but it’s much heavier. GSI Outdoors 1.1 Liter boiler is a good size for 2 people and it’s big enough to store your propane tank and small camping stove like the MSR Whisperlite.
  • Biodegradable Soap: Some people use regular dishwashing liquid, but that kills the local wildlife. Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash is probably the best biodegradable option, but it’s pricey. Campsuds is a little runny, but it’s much cheaper and available everywhere.
  • Sponge: Any cheap sponge will work to clean off your dishes. Squeeze all the excess water out of your sponge and store it in a small ziplock bag.
  • Microfiber Towel: A small microfiber towel is perfect for drying off dishes and it serves many purposes on the trail. I buy the cheap ones from harbor freight. They’re the perfect size and only cost like $2 for a pack of them.

Do I Need To Use Hot Water?

You don’t technically need to use hot water, but the water does have to be treated to kill off bacteria. Lots of people think heating up water for cleanup is a waste of fuel, but I think it’s worth it since it makes the doing dishes much easier. Plus nobody wants to get their hands cold.

Plan Your Meals

Planning your meals to avoid leftovers is crucial on long backpacking trips. Prepackage everything in ziplocks so you don’t end up with leftovers. Plus it’s much easier to ration food so you don’t accidentally run out.

Remember that you burn lots of calories hiking so you’ll need bigger meals. I like carrying Clif Bars to snack on and supplement meals when I’m hungry.

Planning out your meals also helps you avoid waste. Cleaning up a clean plate is so much easier since you don’t have to deal with scraping off extra food.

Find a Campsite Near A Water Source

Try to find a campsite that’s near a water source. After a long hike, the last thing you want to do is lug water all over the place. Water will likely be the heaviest thing in your pack. Hauling in your own water for dishes is a terrible plan.

Just make sure you get rid of greywater 200ft away from any water source. You don’t want to accidentally contaminate water sources with waste water. It can cause serious issues with local wildlife.

Start The Cleaning Process Immediately After Dinner

I like to start boiling an extra pot of water immediately after finishing up with dinner. That allows you to finish cleaning up immediately after dinner. You’ll have enough time to eat dinner while the water cools and you can get the cleanup process out of the way.

It can be tempting to hop in your sleeping bag to relax after dinner, but you don’t want to wait until the food dries and crusts up on your plate. It’s so much easier to clean up when the foods still fresh.

Scrape Remaining Food and Pack it Out

Try to eat everything on your plate so you don’t have to deal with scraps, but you’ll eventually make way too much food. Scrape up any remaining food into your trash bag that you’ll be packing out. I like to scrape food into separate ziplocks to avoid leakage, but it can go straight into your trash bag.

Get Rid Of Greywater In A Small Hole

I like to do all my cooking/dishes away from camp to avoid drawing in animals. Planning where to cook makes cleanup so much easier. Just make sure you’re 200ft away from surrounding water sources.

Dig a small 6-8 inch hole like you’re digging a cathole for human waste. That’s where you’ll dump all your greywater and it’s also the perfect time to use the bathroom since the hole is already dug. Once you’re done washing up cover up the hole with dirt and gather up all your dishes to head back to camp.

Consider Ditching The Soap

This is really going to be a judgement call based on group size and what you’re eating. You probably don’t need to use soap if you’re going on a short backpacking trip. Cleaning off with boiled water is probably all you need to avoid bacterial growth.

It can take years for biodegradable soaps to completely dissipate into the landscape. That’s not a big deal out in the middle of nowhere, but it can cause serious problems in heavily populated camping areas. It can remain in the waterways for decades if you’re close to a water source.

Olive Oil In Water Can Make Cleanup Easy

Adding a few drops of olive oil to your pot before cooking can make cleanup much easier. Olive provides extra fat calories to your meal and keeps food from sticking to the pot/pan. I’ve done this with cheap pans that don’t have a non-stick coating and food sticking was minimal.