How To Wash Dishes While Camping

How To Wash Dishes While Camping With Little Or No Water

Last Updated: June 8, 2022

Camping can teach you many valuable skills, even how to wash dishes with very little or no water. 

Every meal that you cook on a camping stove or campfire is going to involve scrubbing the pans, cleaning the utensils, cutting boards, and cutlery.

You won’t have a sink and a steady supply of freshwater to clean your dishes. 

You’ll have to use the water that you have brought with you for drinking or cleaning yourself, keeping in mind to conserve as much as you can. 

In this article, I have shared tips that I personally use to clean the dishes with very little water and sometimes no water. 

Let’s get started!

3 Best Ways To Wash Dishes While Camping

Water is vital when you’re doing activities outdoors.

But being out in the woods doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a hot meal. 

There are a number of ways to save water when doing the dishes in the wild. 

Here are my 3 favorite ones:

1. The 3 Bucket Method Of Cleaning and Sanitizing

If you are tent camping or car camping then the 3 bucket method will help you wash dishes efficiently with less water. 

Here’s the list of items you will need

  • 3 collapsible kitchen tubs
  • Dish rack
  • 1 small scrub sponge
  • 1 fine mesh strainer
  • 1 small dish towel
  • Paper towels or tissue paper
  • Garbage bags
  • Biodegradable liquid soap
  • Vinegar
  • Spray bottle (optional)

Steps to clean utensils when tent camping or car camping

Step 1: Assign a spot for dirty dishes
Assign a spot for dirty dishes

When you are camping with family and friends, you are bound to miss cleaning a dish or two because your crew forgot theirs in a tent or next to a campfire.

That’s why it’s important to assign a spot for your dirty dishes and instruct all the members to bring their dirty plates and spoons to that very spot when they are finished eating. 

Pro Tip: Before going on to the next step have a quick look around to see if all the dirty dishes are in one place. We all have that one person in our group who chooses to ignore the instructions. 

Step 2: Scrape off the food

Now that you’ve finished eating, scrape off the tiny bits and pieces of food particles attached to the dishes with a spoon or spatula.

Collect all the food particles in a disposable garbage bag and seal it, so that it does not attract wild animals to your campsite.

If any food has dried on the plates or utensils, let it be. You can soak them in water when you start cleaning the dishes. We will come to that part in the next step. 

Pro Tip: Don’t let your dirty dishes sit for a longer time as it will increase your cleaning time. Scrape off the food as soon as you are done eating and wipe your spoon and plates with a paper towel or tissue paper. This will clean the grease, sauce, or whatever is left on your plates and spoons after scraping. This way you will be able clean the dishes quickly with less water.  
Step 3: Setup the camping dish tubs
Setup the camping dish tubs

Fill tub 1 with warm water and add a few drops of biodegradable soap. Give it a good mix. 

Fill tub 2 with plain warm water. You can also use cold water. Your choice. 

Fill tub 3 with cold water and add vinegar to it. This solution will act as a sanitizing solution. 

Step 4: Being cleaning the utensils

Tub 1: Use tub 1 with soap and water solution for cleaning the dishes. Wet the scrub sponge with the solution and scrub the dishes to clean them thoroughly.

Once you’ve gotten rid of the food debris and grease, it’s time to give everything a rinse so that there’s no leftover residue. 

Pro Tip: Start will the dishes that are less dirty. This way your water will stay clean for long. 

Tub 2: Now use tub 2 to rinse the dishes. Dip the dishes in plain water, rinse and get them as clean as possible. Make sure no soap bubble remains on the dishes.

Tub 3: Give your dishes a final dip in the sanitizing solution (water and vinegar) and arrange them in the dish rack for drying.

If you are in a hurry you can use a kitchen towel to wipe the utensils dry.

I prefer wiping with a kitchen towel, to avoid dirt, twigs, or leaves from sticking on my wet and clean utensils.

And don’t use a towel that has been used for drying other things—like yourself. 

You don’t want to go transferring bacteria from one place to another! Once you’ve dried everything and pack it away in its proper place.

Pro Tip: Skip tub 3 completely. Instead, fill a spray bottle with sanitizing solution (water and vinegar), and use it to sanitize your dishes. This is another way to conserve water. 

Now soak the plates and utensils with dried food in tub 1 and let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes while you do other chores. The warm water will soften the food so that it scrapes off easily with your plastic spatula or spoon.  

Step 5: Disposing of gray water

Filter out any food particles or soap scum first, as those can be harmful to the environment, even when you are using biodegradable soap. 

The best way to filter out these items is by using a fine mesh strainer. 

Use a large bowl or bucket to collect the gray water and scatter it at least 200 feet away from your campsite and water bodies (lakes, rivers, streams) or dig a cat hole 6 – 8 inches deep and pour the water into it. Cover the hole once you are done. 

This will allow the nutrients from the water to help nurture soil and wildlife in your area without harming them.

In most campgrounds and RV parks, there will be a designated dumping station for gray water disposal. 

The park’s management will set up a drain with a hose where you can empty your gray water tank. 

Some RV parks may have an area where you can dump gray water on the ground. 

It can be tempting to quickly get rid of your gray water after cleaning dishes, but it is against many federal and state laws to dump gray water into the ground anywhere other than a designated dumping station or dumpsite. 

Dumping gray water on the vegetation ground could cause damage to plants, animals, and even people. 

It could also pollute waterways, reservoirs, and groundwater reserves. 

Keep these points in mind while camping and check the regulations of the area where you will be camping.

2. The Spray Bottle Method

Washing dishes while backpacking can be challenging because you can not carry too much water or baggage along with you. 

That’s why the spray bottle method will be the most convenient way for you to do the dishes with very little water.

Here’s the list of items you will need

  • 3 spray bottles 
  • 1 small scrub sponge 
  • 1 small quick dry towel or dish towel
  • Paper towels or tissue paper
  • Garbage bags
  • Collapsible kitchen tub (optional)
  • Food plastic wrap (optional)
  • 1 fine mesh strainer
Pro Tip: Before heading out for camping make sure to:

1. Fill bottle 1 with biodegradable liquid soap and water solution
2. Fill bottle 2 with plain tap water
3. Fill bottle 3 with sanitizing solution (vinegar and water)
4. Label the spray bottles so that they do not get mixed up. You can also use different color bottles if you are too lazy to label them.

Steps to wash the dishes when backpacking

Step 1: Gather dirty dishes

Bring all the dirty dishes to one place so that you can clean them in one go.

Step 2: Scrape tiny food particles

Use a spoon to scrape tiny food particles in the garbage bag. 

Make sure that you do this as soon as you are done eating because if the dishes dry out they will be difficult to clean and you will end up spending more water than you should.

Step 3: Wipe the utensils with a paper towel

Wipe the plates, spoons, and other cutlery items with a paper towel or tissue paper so that it can absorb the grease and clean whatever is left.

Step 4: Scrub with a soapy solution

Spray soap and water solution on your utensils and scrub them with a sponge. 

After you are done scrubbing, spray plain water on the dishes and wipe them with a paper towel. 

Next, spray the sanitizing solution and wipe the dishes with a quick dry towel or dish towel or sun dry them (if you have time).

Voila! Your dishes are squeaky clean.

Step 5: Scatter gray water responsibly

While performing the above step make sure that you collect all the gray water in one of your utensils (the larger the better). You can also use a collapsible kitchen tub for this purpose.

Place the mesh strainer in the middle of the utensils so that all the dripping gray water passes through the strainer first. 

The strainer will separate tiny food particles from water. Toss the food particles collected by the strainer in the garbage bag. 

Scatter the gray water away from the water stream and your campsite (at least 200 feet away).

Pro Tip: Occasionally you can use food plastic wrap (when you are too tired and don’t feel like cleaning the dishes). Wrap your plate with a food plastic wrap and enjoy your meals. Once done simply fold the plastic wrap and toss it in your garbage bag. Spray sanitizing agent on your plate and wipe it with a dish towel. Make sure you do not serve hot food over the plastic wrap.

3. The Dirt, Wood Ash, Or Baking Soda Method

Wondering how to wash dishes when you go dry camping?

Well with this method you can do your dishes with no water (well, you will need a tiny bit, but that’s it).

Here’s the list of items you will need

  • Paper towels or tissue paper
  • Garbage bags
  • Baking soda (if you do not want to use dirt or wood ash)

Steps to wash the dishes when dry camping

Step 1: Finish your food

Once you have finished eating, pour a small amount of drinking water into your bowl or plate (or in whichever container you were eating).

Step 2: Scrape the walls and base of the bowl

Now use your spoon to scrape the walls and base of the bowl. (If you ate on a plate be careful while doing this step or you might spill water on the ground or yourself). 

This will dissolve the tiny food particles and grease stuck on the walls and base of the bowl. Drink the water. 

Your bowl is now somewhat clean.

Step 3: Fill the bowl with one quarter dirt
Fill the bowl with one quarter dirt

Now fill your bowl with one-quarter dirt from the ground.

Make sure that the dirt is dry.

Wet or moist dirt will make your utensils dirty instead of cleaning them.

You can also gather some dry leaves and twigs, crush them with your hand and add it to the dirt in your bowl. Give everything a good mix.

Step 4: Scrub with a spoon or your fingers

Now scrub the walls and base of the bowl with your fingers or spoon.

The dirt, leaves, and twigs will act as a scrubbing agent and clean all the grease and food particles from your utensils. 

Thow the dirt and fill your utensils with fresh dirt. Repeat if needed until your utensils are clean.  

Step 5: Wipe with a dry paper towel

Wipe the utensils with a dry paper towel or tissue paper.

Now pour a tiny bit of drinking water (15 to 20 drops) into your utensils and scrub the walls and base again with your fingers or spoon. 

Your dishes are now clean. Scatter the water on the soil and wipe your utensils with a dish towel or fresh paper towel.

Step 6: Sterilizing the utensils

Your utensils will sterilize from the heat when you cook in them the next time. You can also keep your utensils near the campfire so that the heat can sterilize your utensils.

Pro Tip 1: You can also use wood ashes from the previous night’s campfire for cleaning the dishes. (This is one of the oldest traditional ways of cleaning dishes). After you are done with Steps 1 & 2 above, simply collect the wood ashes from the campfire in your utensils and add a tiny bit of water to it to make a paste. Scrub the walls and base of your utensils and empty the ashes in a garbage bag. Repeat if needed. Once you are done wipe your utensils with a wet paper towel to give them a final clean.
Pro Tip 2: If you are not comfortable with dirt or wood ashes, you can pack baking soda to clean the dishes while dry camping. After Steps 1 & 2 above, sprinkle baking soda on your utensils. Now scrub the walls and base of the utensils with your fingers/spoon. Baking soda will scrape the tough grease and food particles from your utensils. Toss the power in your garbage bag. Repeat if needed. Once you are satisfied use a wet paper towel to clean the inside of your utensils for a final clean.   

Frequently Asked Questions

How to dispose of gray water and garbage when camping in a bear country?

Camping in a bear country can be an exciting adventure, but safety from bears should be your top priority. 

Bears get attracted to anything that smells – food, soap, toothpaste, scent, even rotten food, and smelly water. 

So while camping, washing dishes and cleaning up around camp should be done carefully and safely to avoid a dangerous encounter with a bear.

Here are some points to keep in mind when camping in a bear country:

1. Cook food at least 100 meters away from your campsite as the lingering smell of food around your campsite will attract bears.

2. Try to finish off all the food that you have cooked for yourself and the group and clean your campsite properly. Do not leave food trails behind for bears to follow.

3. Store food and other items that have smell in air-tight containers or bear-proof canisters only. 

4. In bear country, parks have bear-proof garbage containers. Toss your garbage there.

5. Dispose of gray water at the dumping station or far away from your campsite and water streams (at least 200 feet). 

6. Put all leftover food items in garbage bags right away. Keep these bags well-sealed and hang them from a high branch so that bears won’t reach them (do this only if you do not find bear-proof garbage containers). Hang the garbage between two trees (1 meter apart) and 4 meters high from the ground. But make sure to dispose it of properly the next day.

7. Do not dig a hole to dispose of the scraped food or garbage, bears can easily smell it.

8. Do not burn the leftovers, it will still attract the bears.

9. Wash your dishes immediately after eating. Don’t let them sit out overnight. 

Can I wash dishes in the river when camping?

It’s not safe to wash dishes in the river when camping because you could be accidentally poisoning the animals that live there. 

A small amount of soap (even if it is biodegradable) and food residue can have a devastating effect on fish and other wildlife.

If fish and other wildlife ingest the residue, it can damage their skin, disrupt their breeding cycles, and even cause death in some cases which in turn will have a negative effect on the overall ecosystem and potentially taint other people’s drink supply.

Even if the water is moving quickly enough that most of the suds are carried away by the current, there will still be some residue left behind. 

You might think it’s just a little bit of foam, but over time it can build up and cause problems for your local environment – not to mention, it’s illegal in many places to dump soapy water into rivers.

Instead of washing your dishes in the river, it’s best to bring along a small bucket or tub to collect river water in it to do your dishes and then scatter your wash water far from the river (at least 200 feet), so it won’t run back in. 

Do your part by cleaning everything as soon as you finish eating, so there isn’t much food left on the plates when you wash them.

Can I use cold water to clean the dishes when camping?

If by “cold” you mean the temperature of the water that comes out of your kitchen faucet, then sure, go for it. 

You can even use water from a stream or other outdoor source if you want. 

You probably won’t want to take the time to heat up water unless it’s pretty darn cold outside.

In a research report published by the Journal of Food Production, it was found that it does not make any difference whether you wash your dishes with cold water or warm water. 

Cold water and warm water both are equally effective in removing food-borne bacteria.

But if you are camping in freezing winter, then you can warm the water a little bit so that your hands feel comfortable when doing dishes. 

And while we’re on the topic, don’t try using too hot water on your plastic dishes. 

It’s not really good for your dishes and can warp them after enough use.

Can I wash dishes with lake water when camping?

If lake water is odorless and looks clean, you can use it to wash dishes, but make sure that you bring along a portable water filter. 

The filter will remove bacteria, protozoa, and other germs that may be present in the lake. It will also remove dirt, silt, and other contaminants. 

After filtration, boil the water before using it to wash the dishes. It will kill any other bacteria that your filter was unable to remove. 

If you don’t have a portable stove, bring along some iodine tablets or chlorine dioxide tablets and add them to filtered water before use. 

According to CDC, adding iodine or chlorine to filtered water is the most effective way to disinfect the water.

If you don’t have a portable water filter, then it’s best not to use the lake water for washing dishes. 

Also, do not wash the dishes in the lake, instead, collect water in a container or tub to clean your utensils and dispose of the water far away from the lake. 

If the lake water smells bad or looks murky, or there are any signs of algae growth in the water (green or brown streaks) then don’t use the lake water at all for cleaning your dishes.

Algae growth indicates high levels of bacteria and other contaminants present in the water.

Is rainwater safe for washing dishes while camping?

If you’re camping during the rainy season without access to a water source and bringing your own supply isn’t an option, you can definitely use rainwater for cleaning the dishes provided you take certain precautions.

Remember that rainwater is untreated and will have some contaminants from the atmosphere including bacteria from dust particles or bird droppings but the amount of these will be very small in the grand scheme of things.  

Keep the barrel or container under the open sky to collect rainwater or position a clean trap over a tree branch high enough and far away from hitting anything in between. 

The rain that hits your tent or other gear will likely pick up bacteria from these surfaces and any food particles left behind by birds and insects. 

Don’t use rainwater collected on your tent or gear to clean dishes or utensils.
Before using the rainwater, it would be best if you can filter it with a portable water filter.  

If you don’t have a portable water filter you can also use iodine or chlorine dioxide tablets to disinfect the water. 

Also, never leave the rainwater sitting in the container for days, it can lead to algae growth and other contamination. 

Final Thoughts

Cleaning your dishes while camping does not have to be hard if you plan your trips beforehand, make a list, and bring all the essential items with you. 

When you are out in the wilderness, it is important to keep things clean, so that you do not hurt the environment or attract wild animals to your campsite. 

We hope our detailed guide gave you an idea of how to wash dishes while camping. 

Are there any other ways to do the dishes while camping? Do share it with us in the comment box.

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