How To Wash Dishes While Camping: All Methods Considered


Washing dishes shouldn’t be complicated. But, life can make things complicated! Dishwashing while camping is no exception. I did some research on what resources are out there for washing dishes, and I put together this post with these multiple methods, and pros and cons to each one.

So how do I wash dishes simply and safely when I go car camping? To wash your dishes safely while car camping, you need a sterilizing agent such as hot water, and soap.

Washing your dishes simply is another matter. There are multiple methods, and we will go through each one and talk about their various advantages and disadvantages.

How to Wash Your Dishes (the technically correct answer)

Just like in your home kitchen, to minimize germs, you must use a sterilizing agent, and soap.

Sterilizing Agent: Hot Water

A safe and effective way to wash your dishes is by using very hot water ~around 170 degrees Fahrenheit. This level of heat is far too hot for your bare hands to handle, and thus if you wash by the book, you need sturdy gloves to wash your hands.

Soap

Soap is an incredible substance, which works by binding to water, and getting water to break its own bonds. Soap, helps the water to break down any food substances as well. Standard soap isn’t disinfecting your dishes, as much as it is pulling off the substances (food and germs) off of the dish. 

Summary

To clean and sterilize your dishes, both (very) hot water and soap are needed for the job. I know this seems obvious, but there are so many methods to wash your dishes that get cumbersome and complicated, and it helps me to remember the basics.

What Methods Are Used for Washing Dishes While Camping?

So, soap and hot water right? How hard can that be? Well, it is much more difficult to do when camping because you don’t have an automatic dishwasher. An automatic dishwasher has the hot water necessary to sterilize your dishes, as well as detergent (often imbued with antimicrobial properties), which you won’t be able to use out in nature.

When you are camping, and even car camping, hot water is difficult to come by. Thus, here are a few methods that are used to wash dishes while camping:

3 Tub Dishwashing

3 Dishwashing Tubs are used to wash the dishes.

  • Tub #1 is filled with soapy hot water used for cleaning the food off of the dish
  • Tub #2 is filled with cold water with a sterilizing agent, such as a bleach tablet
  • Tub #3 is filled with hot water for rinsing

Pros:

  • Arguably the safest dishwashing method

Cons:

  • Significant gear overhead
  • Uses a lot of water
  • May be overkill for most meal cleanup (no pun intended)

Dirt Washing

Instead of water being used as the cleansing medium to remove food from the dish, backpackers and car campers in desert locations trying to save water will sometimes use grass, dirt, and other organic material as a scrub brush to remove excess food from the dish and then using as little water as possible to rinse out the dirt. Boiling water can be used to rinse out the dish.

Pros:

  • Saves water
  • Minimal gear needed

Cons:

  • If no boiling water is used, then dishes are not sterilized with this method.
  • Using dirt and brush to wash your dishes works, but it isn’t convenient.

Anti-microbial wipes

You can also go the route of using anti-microbial wipes made for washing dishes such as these ones I found on Amazon. In this case, the sterilizing agent is within the wipe, and thus all that is needed is the wipe itself and water to rinse.

Pros:

  • Convenient
  • Minimal gear needed

Cons:

  • Not as well-tested as hot water
  • Sometimes your food still needs to be scrubbed if food is stuck on there
  • Water is still needed to rinse
  • Generates paper waste
  • Another thing to carry if you are backpacking, or pack (if car camping)

Overall, these wipes could be a big win!

Washing Within The Dish (the paper towel method)

Another option actually commonly used is just to grab some moistened paper towels, and wipe out your dishes directly. If antibacterial soap is used, this can kill some germs.

Pros:

  • Convenient
  • Minimal gear needed

Cons:

  • Does not sterilize your dishes at all if not using a sterilizing agent
  • If your food is stuck on there, then a paper towel won’t be enough.
  • Not as well-tested as hot water
  • Water is still needed to rinse
  • Generates paper waste
  • Another thing to carry if you are backpacking, or pack (if car camping)

The advantages are similar to the anti-microbial wipes if you use a sterilizing agent along with the paper towel.

1 Tub Dishwashing

Lastly, you can get by with 1 tub for dishwashing. If you use the 1 tub with warm water and soap to get off your food, and then emptying out the tub and pouring boiling water on your dishes, you can get the same sterilizing impact of the hot water without having to lug 3 tubs around.

Pros:

  • Not overly complex
  • Some gear, but not a ton required

Cons:

  • Probably not as effective as the 3 tub method for sterilizing your dishes.
  • Still requires some packing a tub specifically for dishwashing

Do I Need to Sterilize My Dishes?

This is a tough one, and I’m not an expert on germs on dishes, so I can only say my own opinion for my own camping. In my own opinion, true sterilization is not a requirement. I only can say that because most people do not go through the effort of thoroughly sterilizing their dishes, and most people aren’t terribly affected.

A study on food with dangerous pathogens and their survival on dishes and food showed that indeed, dangerous bacteria can be transmitted to dishes via contaminated dishwater, kitchen surfaces, and drying towels. The contaminated drying towels transferred the dangerous pathogens every time to the dish in the study. However, re-transmission of the dangerous pathogens from the contaminated dish to the food was rare.

If you make a reasonable effort to wash your dishes, a perfect storm of rare circumstances have to line up for a pathogen to be transmitted.

Another assumption from the discussion is that there are dangerous pathogens on your dishes in the first place. Germs are not all bad–just certain kinds. Killing all germs takes a lot of effort, and is almost impossible to do perfectly, especially when camping.

Since I can’t give advice on the matter professionally since it has to do with public health and I’m not qualified to do so, the only advice I can give is to do the best you are capable of to keep your dishes clean.

Tips for Making the Job Easier

Clean Your Dishes Immediately

By far, the most important thing you can do to make your dishwashing easier is to clean off your dishes as soon as you are done eating. If you brush off your food immediately, you are saving yourself from scrubbing, which is much harder to do well when camping without all of your kitchen tools.

Boiling Water Saves The Day

If you are cleaning a tricky dish, such as food stuck on your cast iron pan, boiling a tiny amount of water to spread on your dish works wonders to unstick your food.

Avoid Cooking Raw Meat

Many meats can be precooked so that you can grill them or warm them while camping without having to deal with the fuss of cross-contamination. Costco even sells precooked bacon. We just ate this today, in fact when we were camping this morning. Not only does this make your life easier since you don’t have to deal with nearly as much bacon grease, but it is safer since you’re not dealing with raw meat on your dishes or utensils.

Related Questions

  • Where do I dispose of grey water? After you are done washing your dishes, you can dispose of this “grey water” by dumping it in your campgrounds grey water disposal. Make sure to look up the rules for your campground for details. If this isn’t an option, the best you can do is to strain out all food bits, and spread out the gray water as best as you can away from water and campsites.
  • How to dispose of food waste when camping? Campgrounds usually have dumpsters or other disposal sites where you can throw away your food bits. Try not to let your food waste to go on the ground where animals can get to it. If you are camping in a remote area, then the best thing to do is to put your food in a sealable plastic bag (to avoid attracting animals) and pack out the food as you would the rest of your trash.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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