How to wash dishes while camping

So you’re wondering how to wash your camping dishes?  Well… the simple answer is pretty much the same way you wash them at home… with some soap, hot water, and a good rinse.  Sometimes your water at home gets yucky you drain it and get fresh water.  Sometimes you have to let a super dirty pan soak. Sometimes you pre-rinse your dishes.  All these apply to wash dishes while camping too! 

The Quick Step by Step: “how to clean dishes while camping?”

  1. Gather your dish cleaning supplies: 3 buckets, soap, cleaning sponge, clean drying towels
  2. Fill bucket #1 with cold water, this is your pre-rinse bucket.
  3. Fill bucket #2 with hot soapy water, this is your wash bucket.
  4. Fill bucket #3 with clean water, this is your rinse bucket.
  5. Lay out some clean dry towels for an air drying station.
  6. Start by washing your cleanest dishes first, leaving the dirtiest to the end
  7. Pre-rinse, wash, rinse, set to dry.
  8. You might need to change out your wash water as you go if it gets too gross.
  9. When you’re all done dispose of the dirty dishwater in the manner most appropriate for your camping situation following leave no trace principles.
  10. Done!

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Diving deeper into the camping dish washing discussion  

If you’ve spent any time exploring the great outdoors, you know that camping is all about adventure, freedom, and getting a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. But let’s be real: hanging out in the wilderness doesn’t mean we can abandon cleanliness altogether. So, picture this: you’ve just finished a delicious meal under the starry sky, surrounded by nature’s symphony, and now it’s time to tackle the aftermath—the dirty dishes…. blech!

But fret not, my fellow outdoor enthusiasts! In this article, I’m here to share my tried-and-true tips on how to clean dishes while camping.  We’ll cover everything from prepping your dishwashing station to eco-friendly cleaning practices and efficient techniques that will leave your camp kitchen sparkling clean.

How you wash dishes will depend on your camping situation!

Each camping trip is unique, and your dishwashing approach will vary depending on factors like the duration of your trip, the type of camping you’re doing, and the facilities available at your campsite. Let’s break it down.

Short Weekend Car Camping / Camper Trip:  If you’re on a short camping trip, say a weekend getaway, you might actually get away without doing any dishes!  If you plan your meals in a way that will limit dirty pots and such, you might just be able to let the dirty dishes pile up and throw them in the dishwasher when you get home again!  

Large Group Camping: Paper plates? I do know that using disposable paper plates, cups, and utensils is popular for some campers. This is definitely not an environmentally friendly choice, and I do not recommend this solution. However, it is an option and perhaps for your particular situation, this is the answer. 

Camping with access to your own sink and hot water:  If you happen to have a camper with warm water and a sink, well, lucky you!  Your dishwashing set up is pretty much like it is at home.  

Camping at campgrounds with dishwashing facilities:  Some campsites actually provide a convenient station for washing dishes.  If you’ll be camping for a week or so you may even want to choose a site that puts you closer to this station.  

Backcountry or remote primitive camping?  If you’re heading into the wild without amenities, this is where you’ll need to be more resourceful…. this article focusses more on car camping and RVing.

Car Camping without access to easy dishwashing amenities:  This is specific camping situation I’ll outline below! So read on…  

Washing dishes while camping on a picnic table

The camping dish washing supplies

Soap: What’s the best camping dish soap?  

Most sources will tell you to use biodegradable dish soap.  Do know, biodegradable soap does not mean it is 100% harmless.  It means that 90% of the soap’s ingredients will biodegrade within 6 months of disposal.  And, really, don’t most soaps claim they are biodegradable these days?  What all this is to say is: just because it’s biodegradable soap doesn’t mean you can use it directly in the lake or you can dump your dish water into the stream when you’re done.

My suggestion for you is to choose a soap that has minimal chemicals and describes itself as biodegradable.  I also suggest you make sure that you are disposing of your grey water in the appropriate method for your location.  

READ MORE: This article is very comprehensive and thoroughly outlines the science of soaps and recommends some dish washing brands specifically for camping.    

Wash Cloths, Brushes, and Scrubbies:

I’m going to suggest you use whatever you use at home.  But, if you are looking for something new and fancy, you might want to find a wash cloth with a tab or tag that enables it to be hung up for drying.  I also like when my wash cloth has a bit of scrub power to it.  

Seems people have pretty strong opinions on what’s the best cleaning tool: a scrub brush, a double-sided sponge, a Scrub Daddy, a wash cloth.  So choose one that brings you joy;)

​You might also want to find something that will dry quickly, is easy to pack and transport, and is effective!

Wash bins, buckets, and water containers:

There are a lot of choices out there for these.  Do you want something that is double purpose – for hauling water and washing?  Or, do you already have a way to get water from the water source to your wash station and you’re just looking for containers to wash in?

I found some smaller rectangular buckets from the dollar store with handles and this is what we tend to use for washing. I really like our pails because we can easily move them around with water in them, they stack together for storage, they’re small, and they actually fit in a cupboard.  We even use one to collect the dirty dishes in throughout the day.  

These collapsible buckets are a very popular purchase for camping dish washing.  

TIP: You don’t need 3 special wash bins.  You can always use a large pot for one of your water bins! Or you can even empty out one of your plastic bins you packed your camping kitchen gear into and use that for washing.

Dish Drying Rack:  

I don’t think this is a necessary piece of camping equipment, but some campers have lots of storage space and enjoy the convenience.  So, if that’s you, then great!  I’d suggest finding one based on the storage space available for your dish rack.

I snuck this photo below of my campground neighbours hanging their dishes up to dry. No drying rack for them! And, they sure had a lot of pots!

Camping pots and towels hanging outside on a drying line

Drying Cloths:  

Now, these, I do consider necessary.  I like to lay out a clean towel (or the now dry towel that was used for another day’s washing) and strategically pile and stack all my wet clean dishes there for drying.  Alternatively, you can use a clean cloth to actually dry your dishes.  

Setting up your camping dishwashing station

Figure out where to set up your washing.  A picnic table is my preferred spot.  I’ve also use the tail gate on our truck. I’ve even laid a cleanish tarp down on the ground and set up my wash station there.  You’ll need space for a pile of the dirty dishes, your wash bins, and a relatively clean drying spot.  

If you are camping in a large area, choose a spot further away from your sleeping unit.  The food particles and splashes of dish water can attract curious critters and you’ll want to keep wild animals away from your tent or camper.  

If you are tenting, do not wash camp dishes in your tent. The smells can attract animals.  And, you also risk the chance of spilling a bin and getting your sleeping gear all wet!

TIP: It can be helpful to have your trash bag nearby.    

Basic Three Step Dish Washing System

1.  The pre-rinse: Using your hands or a paper towel, scrape food waste from dishes into your nearby garbage plastic bag. Then, dunk and swish your dishes into the first bin.  This will help remove any left-over food scraps and keep the wash bin cleaner.   

2.  The wash bin:  With water as hot as you can handle, wash and scrub off all the remaining food residue from your dishes.  If your wash water gets too dirty you might have to dump that and get fresh hot water.  

3. The rinse water:  Swish your clean dishes through the rinse water to get off any soap residue.  If you are really concerned, you can add a teaspoon of bleach to this water.  

4. Dry: Set your dishes to dry or dry them off with a clean towel.  

TIP: Start by washing your cleanest dirty dishes first.  Leaving your dirtiest dishes and greasy pans for last.

Three bins on a picnic table, one with rinse water, one with soapy water, one with dirty dishes soaking.

What do you do with that dirty dish water?

You should inquire about this for your particular location.  Many campgrounds will have a specific place they want you to dump your dirty water or gray water.  Often, it is recommended that you dump your wash water into an outhouse or a specific grey water drain system.    

If you don’t have a dump location, you’ll want to filter out food particles and put those into your garbage.  You’ll then want to walk far away from any campsites, about 200 feet, and 100 feet away from water sources, dig a hole and dump your water there. Alternatively, you can scatter it around.  Also, it is advisable to use minimal soap if you’ll need to dump it in the wild. 

Tips on cleaning your dishes while camping

1. Clean up as your day progresses.  Have a specific spot for dirty dishes and make sure the whole family knows where to put these.  

2. If you have particularly dirty dishes, let these soak before to washing.

3. Use hot water efficiently.  If you have a campfire for cooking food, also add your water kettle to boil water for your hot wash water at the same time.  Reserve your hot water for the wash bin.  You can pre-rinse and do a final rinse with cold water.  

Camping dishes stacked to dry on a red checkered picnic table cloth

Extra Mom Tip for the Rinse Water Bin

Save the water in this bin and let your littles wash their feet in it before bed!  Then, dump it on the campfire to make sure your fire is out for the night!

Washing dishes while camping FAQs

Can you wash dishes in the campground bathroom sink?

Generally, no.  This is frowned upon.  I don’t, however, see a problem with using the bathroom wash sink to get your hot water and bring it back to your campsite for washing if there isn’t a more appropriate location to get water. 

How do you wash dishes without water camping?

If you don’t have access to water while camping (or only have limited water), you can use a cloth or paper towel to wipe off your dishes as best as possible, wrap these in a plastic bag and wash when you do have access to water.  

​Is it OK to rinse dishes in cold water?

Sure, cold water will rinse the soap residue off your dishes. 

Now you know how to wash dishes while camping!

From choosing the right location for your dishwashing station to using biodegradable soap and considering the environmental impact, you’re well-equipped to keep your camp kitchen sparkling clean… or at least your dishes! Remember, while it may not be the most glamorous part of your camping experience, you need dishes for cooking and eating and them being clean is a bonus!  

Happy dishwashing, and happy camping 🙂

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