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How to Wash Dishes While Camping

There’s no escaping dish duty, even when you’re camping. But follow these cleaning guidelines—even if there’s limited water—and get through those dirty pans and sticky spatulas before you can say s’more.

5 min read

When it comes to doing dishes on a camping trip, some people say, “There’s clean and then there’s camping clean.” But truth be told, even when clean water is in short supply, it’s possible to get your forks, knives, plates, and pots pretty darn respectable. It’s all about the right system and tools. Rally the dish duty troops and get cleaning done immediately after each meal (to keep critters at bay). Here, the step-by-step process you’ll need to ace your camping cleanup.

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Step 1: Prep dishes and pans.

When meals are finished, scrape off as much food as possible from bowls, plates, and pots/pans with a scraper. For stubborn, burned-on bits in pots and pans, scrub with an abrasive brush. When all scraps are gone, use a paper towel to wipe off oils, sauces, and any last crumbs. The idea is for dishes to be as clean as possible before you begin to wash them, so your “sink water” lasts longer. You can also boil a little water in the dirty pan for a few minutes to help soak off stuck-on food faster, or use the brush cover to ladle hot water into your dirty pan.

Step 2: Set up sinks.

Ideally, you want a two-sink system: one sink for washing dishes, one for rinsing them. Camping sinks are great (especially collapsible ones), but a plastic bin works well, too. For the washing sink, heat up water in a pot on the stove (you don’t need a lot; about a quarter to a half inch in the sink is enough). Warm water speeds up the dishwashing process and makes it more effective. Once water is warm, pour it into your sink and add a few drops of biodegradable soap; too many suds are hard on the environment. Fill your second sink with a similar amount of room temperature water.

Step 3: Wash.

With a sponge or cloth, wash the cleanest dishes first, progressing to your dirtiest dishes. This will keep your dishwater doing its job as well as possible for as long as possible. Still have stuck-on food? Use a cup to ladle in hot water while you scrub to loosen up any tough bits.

Step 4: Rinse.

Once dishes are washed, dip them into your second sink (aka the “rinse sink”) to clean off suds. If you have only one sink, wash dishes as described above, then pour water over them to rinse. Catch rinse water in the same sink.

Step 5: Dry.

Dry dishes with towels or let them air dry in a sunny spot spread out on a towel or table. Either way, make sure items are fully dry before putting them away to prevent bacteria growth.

Step 6: Get rid of dishwater.

Pour dishwater through a colander or strainer to strain out food bits. Toss those in the trash. Combine all sink water (from wash and rinse sinks) into one container. Some campsites have designated places for disposing of dirty dishwater. If not, pour water out on the ground, dispersing it over a larger area rather than pouring it all in one spot. This lets the water seep into the ground more quickly and doesn’t overwhelm any single location. Make sure to empty sinks well away from bodies of water (at least 100-200 feet) as the soap and germs can contaminate water sources.

Step 7: Tackle the stove.

Before you wrap up your trip, take time to give your stove a good clean. Wipe down the stove’s surface with a damp cloth or sponge and a little soap; remove burned or dried-on food with an abrasive pad. If needed, unscrew or gently pull off the burners to clean or brush them off with a wire brush, then wipe off the stove surface underneath. Let air dry.

No water?

No problem! Scrape off leftover food bits as mentioned above to remove caked-on particles. Wipe dishes “clean” with a cloth or paper towel before packing them up.

Now that you’ve tackled the cleanup, check out these ideas for taking your camp kitchen to gourmet levels.


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