When you roll into camp after hiking all day with a 50-pound pack on your back, you look forward eating a hot meal and going to straight to bed. You don’t look forward to having to clean the dishes after finishing your meal. Washing dishes in the backcountry may seem like a burden, but it’s not. With a practiced system, it can be quick and easy.
So, how do you wash your backcountry dishes? You should wash your backcountry dishes by following “leave no trace” guidelines. Experts advise disposing dishwashing waste water 200 feet (or 70 paces) away from any body of water. Do not be tempted to wash your dishes in river water. Washing your dishes in rivers, lakes, or streams is harmful to the environment. Even biodegradable soap is a pollutant to water bodies. It creates an imbalance of nutrients and alters pH levels. Soap pollutants take anywhere from months to years to completely dissipate.
Practice Good Land Stewardship – Backcountry LNT Principles
First things first, it is best to practice Leave No Trace principles. The golden rule: leave your backcountry campsite in better condition than which you found it.
Tailor your backcountry dishwashing system to the environment you are visiting. Some backcountry sites have specific regulations about how to wash dishes and to dispose of food scrapes and greywater.
For example, if you are in the desert, consider washing methods which use little to no water. In winter environments, greywater and food scraps will freeze and attract wildlife. Digging a sump hole and burying your waste will help avoid wildlife conflicts.
Proactive Food Planning and Preparation Make Dishwashing Easy
Proper planning can make the dishwashing process easy. Plan meals that are nutritious, healthy, filling, and easy to clean.
- Portion planning is key. Plan your meals so that you are cooking the correct food portions at each meal.
- Plan one-pot meals. Add spices or sauces into individual serving dishes. You will have less to clean later. Even better, only boil water in your pot, avoiding having to wash it at all.
- Oil fats make washing dishes easier after your meal. Using olive oil or coconut oil when cooking keeps food from sticking to your pots.
- Consider cooking vegetarian meals in the backcountry. Meat can be greasy, hard to clean, and send smoke signals to wildlife.
- Be a member of the clean plate club. Soak up remaining food with a piece of bread, a tortilla, your finger, or lick the plate clean. If your portions are well planned, you won’t be left with unmanageable leftovers. If you do have leftovers, save them for tomorrow’s lunch or pack them out with your waste.
- A watched pot will not burn. Burnt food is especially difficult to remove from cookware. If you are not going to eat the burnt pieces, then pack them out, or throw them into a camp fire.
- Choose an easy to clean mess kit. Mess kits made of silicon are easy to clean, compact down, and are lightweight.
Why Even Bother Washing Your Dishes In The Backcountry?
The main reason to wash dishes is to avoid getting sick from bacteria like giardia, cryptosporidium, and Escherichia coli (E. coli). Harmful bacteria can cause very loose and unpleasant bowel movements.
Avoid attracting wildlife and pests to your campsite. Wildlife and pests have a very keen sense of smell. They will chew through and damage your backpacking gear to get your food. After washing your dishes well, make sure to hang or store any cookware or food away from your sleeping space (especially in bear country). Some backcountry sites have bear-bins or lock boxes to store food.
5 Easiest Dishwashing Techniques
1 – Be Environmentally Friendly – Wash Dishes Without Soap – Ultralight backpackers will likely go this route. They carry less weight and have a smaller impact. Backpackers on shorter trips also find this as an easy way to deal with dishes. The easiest method is to pour some potable water into your dishes. Use a sponge or your finger to whip down the dishes.
This mix of floating food particles and water is your greywater. Always properly dispose of the greywater (see below).
Boiling water in your pot as a great way to clean and sanitize your cookware. Boiled water cuts grease, disinfects viruses, and kills bacteria and pathogens that could make you sick. Dip your plate and fork in the boiled water to sanitize those too. Scrub your dishes clean with a sponge or your fingers. You can drink your greywater plain, or try mixing in a hot chocolate packet and enjoy an evening hot-drink.
2 – Wash Dishes with Biodegradable Soap. For longer trips or when hiking in a large group (especially a group with germy kiddos), use soap to wash dishes. It is more sanitary in the backcountry and the soap kills germs and disinfects. The best soap to use in the backcountry is biodegradable soap. Biodegradable soaps are usually concentrated and you only need a few drops of it to be effective.
If you opt for soap, stay clear of your usual home brands (like Dawn dish soap) which are unsafe for the environment. Instead, buy unscented eco-friendly brands like Dr. Bronner’s, Campsuds, or SeaToSummit. An advantage of a soap like Dr. Bronner’s is its multi-purposeful. Use it to bathe, shampoo, wash laundry, wash dishes, shave, and as toothpaste – great for long trips and thru-hikers.
Adding a few drops of soap to a sponge or straight into your dishes will be enough to get the job done. Use the sponge or your fingers to scrub dishes clean. Make sure to strain out any food scraps before disposing of your greywater. Remember though, even biodegradable soaps are harmful, especially when used in bodies of water.
3 – Wash Dishes with All-Natural Wood Ash Soap.
If you have a fire pit at your campsite, mix ash with a few drops of water until it forms a nice paste. Use the paste as an alternative to soap. This concoction is abrasive and a mild alkali. Once the paste combines with the fat scraps from your meal, it acts as a soap of lye and fat. Rinse your plates with clean water.
4 – Washing with Nature’s Tools.
Use a handful natural materials around your cook site as a sponge – sand, dirt, bark, dried leaves, sticks, and pine needles (but try to use anything living!). Place them on and into your dirty dishes and scrub them clean. Repeat a second time if your dishes are especially grimy. It is best practice to throw your food-earth mixture into a fire.
Leaving food scraps and waste on the forest floor can attract wildlife. Make sure to rinse your dishes with clean water and dry completely.
5 – Save Time and Energy – Avoid Washing Dishes in the Backcountry.
Avoid doing dishes by eating meals straight from the made-to-cook backcountry meals packaging. Follow the instructions on the meal bags (which usually only require you to add water). Pack out the empty meal packaging. Only thing to lick clean is your fork or spoon.
Pot liners or freezer-bag cooking methods are the same as the made-to-cook meals. The difference is that you prepare the meals ahead of time at home. Each meal is in a separate plastic bag. While on the trail, pour water into that night’s meal, stir, and eat.
These bags are lighter, less messy, and most of the plastic bag materials are food-safe (PTFE or nylon). But they create waste, can leak, and only some can withstand high temperatures.
Made-to-cook methods are designed as one-time use products. Keeping them in good condition and washing them when you get home will allow you to reuse them trip after trip.
How to Dispose of Dishwater
It is important to correctly dispose of dishwater. Food scraps become an invitation for wildlife and pests to invade your campsite. And soapy dishwater pollutes the natural environment. Scrape your dishes to remove as much foods as possible before you soak or soap them.
1 – Drink your greywater.
This is no different than drinking a glass of water during dinner. It also reduces water waste, gives you those extra calories, and is a great way to continue to hydrate.
2 – Scrape and strain larger food scraps out of the dishwater.
Either eat or pack out food scraps. Scrape food scraps from the bottom of the pot with a plastic scrapper, a spoon, or a cooking utensil. Strain the scraps through a mesh screen or a bandanna into your waste bag.
3 – Sump holes and broadcasting.
After straining food scraps from the dishwater, dig a 6-8” sump hole, pour the water into it, and bury the water. Or broadcast the water by tossing the water widely in an arch to reduce impact. The bacteria found in most soils help breakdown the chemicals in soap. That’s why it is better to either bury or broadcast soapy dishwater.
4 – Dry your dishes completely.
Bacteria requires moisture to multiply. Dry your dishes completely with a bandanna, camp towel, or leave them in a clean place to air dry.
Washing you dishes in the backcountry can be efficient. It takes finding a system that works best for you and the environment you are exploring in. Keep yourself healthy. Keep your impact small.
Nadine enjoys writing about her love for wild places. As an environmental attorney and adventure writer, she is passionate about combining her legal and political expertise with her personal experiences to protect our constantly changing environment. Find her in the backcountry with her life partner and their dog running, mountain biking, skiing, and climbing.