Doing the Dishes

Whether you’re backpacking or car camping there comes a time when you have to do the dishes. It seems like a simple thing, and it is, but there are a few things to consider. You must not contaminate creeks and lakes with your food waste and soap. And discarding food near your campsite can attract unwanted forest visitors.

Cleaning supplies

Cleaning supplies, all the dishwashing and trash handling we need for a typical Backpacking trip


Through trial and error, we’ve come up with a process and a kit that we bring for both car camping and backpacking that gives us everything we need to clean our pot and bowls.

In a quart sized Ziploc freezer bag we pack the following:

  • 3 half sheets of paper towel
  • 3 bathroom sized trash bags
  • 1/2 of a Handi-Wipe
  • 1 tiny bottle of dish soap (it’s a repurposed Visine bottle)
Cleaning Supplies

Cleaning Supplies, unpacked and ready for use

And here’s our method of washing the dishes.

  1. Eat as much of the food as possible. Use your spoon to scrape out every last bit.
  2. Go at least 500 feet from your campsite to do the dishes.
  3. Rinse the dishes with water, loosen any stuck bits with your spoon. Discard this water by flinging or dispersing the waste water over a large area at least 50 feet from any waterway.
  4. Using as little soap as possible (1 drop is plenty), wash all dishes using soapy water and the Handi-wipe.
  5. Discard the wash water by dispersing as above.
  6. Rinse dishes with clean water. Do NOT rinse in a creek or lake. Dish soap, even trace amounts, isn’t very kind to delicate fish gills.

If we’re camped far from water and have a limited water supply, we use a paper towel or leaves to wipe out the pots. Of course you should either burn or pack out your paper towels. They are cloth and will not disintegrate in time even if left exposed to the weather. If you keep the messes small, they’re easier to clean up. We don’t tend to cook with messy food for just this reason. Our favorite method of cooking is Freezer Bag Cooking and that doesn’t create any dirty dishes at all. Also, we tend to eat from our pot a lot.

We always start using a small trash bag for every little bit of trash at the beginning of our trip. This includes toilet paper, food wrappers, gum, and even dental floss. When we make camp the bag is always tied to a branch or put on the lantern post so that everyone knows where to put their trash and the bugs stay out of it. Also, the bag always goes up into a tree at night with the food so that friendly neighborhood critters can’t leave us with a mess. (Not to mention ruin all our food.)

What do you think?