Learn How To Wash Dishes While Camping With or Without Water

What’s fun about washing dishes any time and especially when camping? When camping, it can be challenging to find an open sink, enough water, and the right type of dish detergent, but it’s a chore that must be done. You can’t just leave dirty dishes sitting around a campground to attract bugs, small animals like chipmunks and mice, or larger animals like bear. There are ways to keep your campsite cleaned up. Don’t think that washing dishes when camping is a chore, think of it as part of your environmental responsibility.

How do you wash dishes when camping?

If you have access to water, the three bucket method is best. Simply make this first bucket for washing, the second for rinsing and the third for sanitizing with a light bleach and water mixture. If you are camping and have no water acces, simply pack alcohol wipes. You can clean and sanitize all at once. Alcohol wipes are both affordable and light-weight.

Make your dishwashing chores more appealing by taking several steps. You can also break up the dishwashing chores and assign different tasks to different people. Assigning steps will make dishwashing go faster. There are also different techniques you can use when cleaning up your dishes. Some campgrounds offer dishwashing facilities, but never use the camp water faucet to clean up after meals. There are also different ways to clean up your used dishes when you are camping, and some of these ideas don’t use water.

What to Keep in Mind when You are Doing Dishes

Location. Keep your dishwashing equipment and work at least 200 feet away from any natural water sources. Even if you use biodegradable products, damage can be caused by delicate environmental surfaces.

Sinks. You can use collapsible camping sinks purchased in any sports or camping shop, or just bring plastic containers that are large enough to hold water and a dish or two.

Sponge/Wash Cloth. You need something to scrub off the caked-on food that sticks to plates. Cut small multi-use sponges up in small squares, so they don’t take up too much room.

Biodegradable soap or detergent. Standard dish soaps are very hard on the environment. So instead of using your regular supermarket brand, use biodegradable detergent.

Sanitizer. It can be useful to use a capful of bleach or a specific sanitizer like Steramine. Bleach is widely available and works well. Steramine is just as effective and gentler on your skin and to the environment.

Metal Strainer. A strainer is necessary to remove solid food waste from gray water. You don’t want to throw out gray water and have pieces of food land on the ground for bugs and animals.

Dishcloths or chamois. You need to dry your dishes before storing them away in camping boxes. A superabsorbent cloth like chamois can work well when drying camping dishes.  Puttin your dishes away wet can cause bacteria to grow on the surfaces.

After meals,  scrap as much leftover food from your camping dishes as possible. Place leftovers in a plastic bag and toss into provided trash cans or pack out your trash, including leftover food.

Bucket System For Cleaning Dishes While Camping

A three-bucket system works well when washing you camping dishes. Use collapsible buckets or cheap plastic bins. Wash your dishes with warm water. Warm water will make the end process more enjoyable and much easier. Boil a pot of water and cut it with cold water to get the proper temperature.

Washing Sink. One bucket will be the washing sink. Fill this up ¼ the way with warm water and a few drops of biodegradable detergent. Start with the cleanest dishes first and then go on to the dirtiest dishes last. Once the dishes are clean, shake off excess suds and go on to the rinse sink.

Rinse Sink. Fill the rinse sink 14 of the way with clean, warm water. Dunk your washed dishes into the rinse sink and make sure the dishes are completely free of soap.

Sanitize Sink. Fill the third bucket ¼ of the way with warm water and your sanitizing agent. Dishes coming out of the rinse sink get a brief soak in the sanitizing bucket. The bleach water ensures that your camp dishes are completely disinfected. You may not think this step is important, but if your cutting boards, knives, or cookware comes in contact with raw meat, you will need to make sure it is disinfected.

Dry your dishes with a clean towel, or you can let them air dry if you are planning on using the same utensils for the next meal.

Dispose of gray water by throwing it over a broad area at least 200 feet away from camp. Spreading gray water over a large surface minimizes the impact on the environment.

Have no Sinks?

Backpackers dread doing dishes. Cleaning involves finding water, stepping away from camp to scatter the wastewater, and being environmentally responsible. Backpackers are not lazy, but they might need to ration water since there may not be an abundance of water around camp. They could just pack up their dirty dishes and carry them out, but that is not sanitary.

Make up a pack of dishwashing supplies or carry it in your cooking gear. Cut a dual scour and soft sponge into square and store in your pack. Once you are done eating, add water to the largest pot you have or use your pot carrying bag. Many of today’s backpacking cook sets are lined with a waterproof material and intended to be used as a sink.

Add a drop of the biodegradable soap to your sponge, and use soap sparingly. Wet the sponge and clean each item with the dampened sponge. Add a splash of water from the pot to rinse your dishes. Wipe any your dishes dry with a bandanna or towel.

Scatter your dishwater and food particles around your camp area. Don’t pour it in a single area. Keep gray water away from rivers, lakes, or streams.

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Washing Dishes without Soap or Water

You may be in an area where water is scarce or when washing dishes would attract wildlife. It might be snowy and cold when you are camping, and washing dishes would be a challenge. The best thing to do is to remove food residue from your dishes and utensils before packing them up. Wipe the sides of your dishes with bread or a tortilla.

The easiest way to clean your dishes without water is unscented baby wipes and alcohol wipes. They are easy to store and light-weight for backpackers to carry. First, wipe down the dishes, removing all food particles with baby-wipes. Follow up by using alcohol-based sanitizing wipes, and you are good to go.

You could even make this easier by using alcohol wipes and skipping the baby-wipes completely.

You could also add olive oil to cook water to make clean up a breeze. The oil added to your cooking water makes it easier to clean up if you do not have a coated pan.

You could also add water to the pot, swish it around and drink it. Seriously, this sounds gross, but if you are low on water, drinking the leftovers in your pot will give you added calories. Then, wipe the pot dry.

Use wood ash from your campfire. Combining water and ash makes a mild alkali, and when combined with the leftover fat present in food particles, ash becomes almost like soap. Put the ash in the cooking pot, add enough water to make a paste. Use the paste-like you would soap and clean your pots and utensils. Use a small sponge and rinse with clean water.

Boil water over your fire. Once the water is boiling, dip your utensils and dishes into the boiling pot of water for a minute or so to kill standing bacteria.

Wipe dishes dry without using water. Eat as much of your food as possible. Scrape your spoon around every nook and cranny and eat it or put it in a paper towel. Wipe everything clean with a cloth. If you dry the pot thoroughly, it will remain relatively clean since most bacteria require moisture to multiply.

You can always use eco-friendly pot liners to keep the pot clean. Pot liners can add extra waste, but the idea is to use it in a cooking pot, eat the food out of it, and toss out the liner. Most pot liners are made of food-safe plastic that is manufactured to withstand boiling temperatures. Try this:

Put the cooking line in your pot and boil water.

Place dry food in the lined pot


Remove the liner

Place in your gear where you stow your garbage.

Carry out.

Do be careful when using pot liners, however. You could tear the liner with your fork or spoon, and now your pot is dirty.

As a final idea, if you hate the idea of doing dishes on a camping trip, stock up on paper plates and plastic throw-away utensils! Using paper products isn’t the best environmentally friendly way to do your dishes, but cleanup would be quick and easy, and “lazy” campers love paper plates.

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Rickie Arms

Hi, I'm Rickie Arms, owner of Glampingorcamping.com. I am so invested in writing the best and most informative articles for you that I went out and bought a travel trailer just so I could write about it for you. I spend just about all of my off time both camping and glamping so I can share everything I have learned and will learn with you. I have spent my whole life camping and over the last 10 years, I have spent a large amount of time checking out glamping experiences with my wife and kids as well. Thank you for coming by and we hope to see you back here getting great information in the future. Rick Arms-

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