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  • Writer's pictureBasecamp Outdoor Gear Team

10 Tips and Tricks for Washing your Dishes Outside

How to reduce waste and save the environment one disposable plate at a time.

Yup, we're well aware that washing dishes by hand is a real drag. And washing dishes outside, at camp, is double trouble! Disgusting food particles stick to the pan. The dishwashing water cools down too quickly. And worst of all, it takes energy. Who has energy at the end of a long day spent outside??

A pile of pots and sauce pans
The pile of dirty dishes at camp always looks worse than it is

If you're reading this article, then I assume that you get just as tired as we do after a good meal. You have no desire to get up and wash dishes. But it has to be done. Would someone please invent a portable dishwasher!? Until that happens, we're here to give you some tips and tricks for washing your dishes outside quickly and efficiently.

Disclaimer: This article is written for car campers in unserviced campgrounds. If you're camping in an RV park, look for a dishwashing station. If you're backpacking, wipe your dishes with some sand and swish with a little bit of water.

Tip #1: Don't burn your food

Easier said than done.

Tip #2: Finish each meal with a slice of bread

Use bread to wipe up your pasta sauce or soak up the last drop of soup. Yum.

Don't have bread? As soon as you're done eating, use your fork or a spatula to trash any big particles left on your plate. Then use a dish rag to wipe any leftover sauce. You can do this with a paper towel if you have to (see Tip #5) but keep in mind that we're really trying to minimize the use of disposables here.

Tip #3: Heat up water for the dishes while you eat your dinner

You can do this in a frying pan or a sauce pan or both. Having the water already warm by the time you finish dinner will motivate you much more than not having prepared water at all.

Submerge any small dishes that would fit in the pot of warm water - like eating utensils and small bowls - as soon as you're done with them. While not necessary to the process, warm water makes it easier to remove stuck food and invisible oils.

If you're a big eater like me, start the stove when you get up for seconds or thirds or your final slice of bread. You don't want to waste fuel by starting the water too early!

2-burner stove and 2 pots
Heat up water in whichever pot or pan you have

What if I just used my biggest and only pot to cook chili or pasta with red sauce?

The longer you wait to clean the pot, the harder it will be to clean. Move any leftovers to a waterproof container and place in your cooler. Scrape out as much of the sauce as you can and lick your spoon clean. Then immediately wash the pot!

Simmer just a little water in the pot and scrape the sides with a spoon, fork, spatula - whatever - in order to unstick as much of the sauce as possible. Then wipe the sides with a reusable dish rag (or paper towel if you really absolutely have to). No need to use soap at this stage. Once clean, pour the water out responsibly (see Tip #6).

Tip #4: Keep the water warm during the entire dishwashing process

Keep your pot of water on the stove over low flame so the water doesn't get cold. There's nothing worse for your motivation than cold hands when you're in the middle of a task you don't enjoy.

Tip #5: Bring reusable dish towels from home

You need at least two towels, but obviously more is better. Designate one towel as a dish washing rag and the other as a dish drying cloth. I like to differentiate them by having small square rags for washing and larger rectangular cloths for drying. But you can do whatever you want because they are all interchangeable when they come out of the laundry.

We try to avoid any disposable items. But let's be real - we're lazy and we keep a roll of emergency paper towels and wet wipes in our camp kit. That being said, we use our paper towels sparingly!

When does it make sense to use paper towels? When your reusable dish rags get too dirty to reuse. Or if your mess is so large that you won't be able to rinse your dish rag, which will in turn attract animals. Bonus: You can safely burn your dirty paper towels in an established campfire ring in order to reduce your waste.

Tip #6: Make a hot chocolate

If you need to dispose of non-soapy water - such as from your recently wiped pot of chili - then pour it into your thermos and add your preferred hot chocolate powder. This is also a good idea for straining pasta water, though I will say it is an acquired taste.

metal cup filled with hot brown liquid on dirt and leaves
When dinner gives you a messy pot, make a hot chocolate

With soap water, you'll need to walk at least 200ft away from anyone's camp and away from any water source and toss the water out in a sweeping motion over a large surface area. Refer to this Leave No Trace article for more information.

Many dishwashing articles talk about straining your grey water prior to disposing of it. I think that if you wipe your dirty dishes well enough prior to washing them then there shouldn't be any big particles to strain.

The most ideal method of disposing of grey water is to keep it with you in a closed container until you find a city drain. But let's be real here. As much as we would love for everyone to leave no trace, this is easier said than done.

Tip #7: Use a portable shower and dish rack

It's definitely not required, but you could use a camp shower to rinse your dishes and then place them on a dish drying rack. This saves you from using too many dish rags. Also, a sun shower like the Sea to Summit Pocket Shower reduces the need to use propane. However, keep in mind that it takes a few hours in the sun for the water to warm up.

Tip #8: Don't waste your money on wash basins

Many companies make foldable plastic camp sinks that claim to help you better disinfect your dishes. This is true only if you wash your dishes appropriately. But are you really going to?

Using wash basins takes more time, more space, more water, and more energy than you might want to spare. If you don't wash dishes fast enough, the water in the basin will get cold very quickly. Plus, at the end of the wash cycle, you end up with a slimy tub of dirty water that you need to empty responsibly. And don't get me started on the size of the wash basins. What's the point if your dishes don't even fit?

If you have time, space, water, and energy, then by all means use the wash basins. If not, then don't waste your money on these. FYI a shower bucket could double as a dishwashing basin.

Tip #9: Buy concentrated all-purpose biodegradable environmentally-friendly soap

These soaps are magical! They do everything. In my opinion they work best for dishwashing and body washing. You can also use some of these soaps as shampoo and even toothpaste. You can bring a tiny container to Basecamp to get it refilled or buy a prefilled bottle. One of these biodegradable camp soaps is always available:

Quick disclaimer about these soaps: According to LNT, "Even biodegradable soap can linger a long time in streams and lakes." Please refer to Tip #6 for proper disposable of soapy water.

Tip #10: Stock up on the following cleaning items

  • Environmentally-friendly biodegradable concentrated liquid soap (see Tip #9)

  • Scrubby sponge

  • Dish washing rags

  • Dish drying rags

  • Pot and/or frying pan and/or up to three dish washing bins

  • Optional dish drying rack and portable shower

Or simply rent The Whole Enchilada kitchen kit from Basecamp

Feel free to contact us for more information. Happy dishwashing!

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