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How To Wash Dishes When Camping

The invention of the automatic dishwasher several decades ago meant that hand washing dishes would become a lost art.  And it did. In fact, some people have very little idea how to properly hand wash their dishes at home, let alone when camping.

In this article we intend to educate or re-educate you on how to wash dishes when camping. Although some campers have been seen performing the unhealthy practice of washing dishes from a community spigot or even in a nearby stream, here we will cover the proper way to handle this task to ensure that you and your family remain safe and healthy throughout your camping adventure.

Cleaning Camp Cookware: An Overview

camp cooking

Proper dishwashing technique is imperative when camping.  This is especially true on extended trips in which you plan to be away from most services for a couple of weeks or more.  Proper dishwashing technique will not only help keep you and your family safe and healthy, it will also minimize the impact on the environment.  Before we describe the products and gear you will need and how to set up your dishwashing station, here we have provided a brief four-step outline on how to wash dishes effectively when camping:

1.  Pre-Rinse

The pre-rinse stage of camp dish washing can be done with regular drinking water.  Do not use water from the camp spigot, as in many cases that water is not safe for drinking and thus should not touch your dishes.

To perform the pre-rinse step, every person in your camping party will use a little bit of his or her drinking water to rinse out their dishes and put them on the wash pile when concluded. Remember to bring along enough drinking water for both consumption and dish washing.

Everyone is responsible to bring their dishes to the wash station as free of food residue as possible. This means scraping off any left-on food into the trash before rinsing them. This step will not only save time, it will keep the dishwasher from getting fouled with nasty food particles.

2. Hot Water Wash

The first of the three dish pans you will bring along with you will be used for the hot water wash.  In this pan you will use very hot water (we will explain the “how” later in the article) and as little soap as possible to get the job done.  The cleanest dishes will be washed first, and the dirtiest dishes last. This will help keep the water fresh throughout the washing process.

When performing the hot water wash, always leave the greasy pots and pans for last.  In terms of the process, you will add just a few of the dishes at a time into the hot water wash pan, and continue this process until you have washed all the dishes.  Before the dishes head to the rinse pan they should be drained carefully to eliminate as much soapy water as possible.

Note:  When camping, it is not really necessary to clean the exterior of your pots and pans, as this part of the cookware never touches the food.  This will help save soap and make your job a little bit easier.

3. Hot Water Rinse

The second of the three dish pans you will bring along with you will be used for the hot water rinse. After the hot water wash, the person washing dishes should shake off as much soap as possible and place them into the hot water rinse pan.  By doing this, you can keep the rinse pan from filling up with soap.

4. Sanitizing Soak

The third and final dishpan will be used for the sanitizing soak.  Once the dishes are rinsed thoroughly they are placed into this third dish pan to be sanitized with the help of sanitizing tablets.  Dishes should sit in this water for a minimum of one minute.

people making camp food

Once all the dishes have been pre-rinsed, washed, rinsed and sanitized, they are then dried using a clean towel and packed away in preparation for the next meal.  All of the water in each of the three dishpans should then be strained, and any remaining food particles should be packed up into the trash and totally sealed.

When getting rid of the dishpan water, carry it at least 75 to 100 steps away from your camp and not near any streams, lakes, campsites, or trails. Give the water a good fling with a long sweeping throw to spread it over a large area. Broadcast the strained dishwater in a sunny area if possible so it will evaporate quickly, causing minimal impact to your surroundings.

What You Will Need

The list of things you will need to wash dishes when camping is fairly short but each item is very important to the process.  Here is a list of what you will need:

  • Set of three dishpans.  As we discussed above, you will need a set of three dishpans for the wash, rinse and sanitize portion of the dishwashing process.  These pans can usually be purchased as a set in home stores or camping-based stores.
  • Dish soap.  Dish soap is crucial to the washing process.  For this you will want to buy a bio-degradable dish soap that will not harm the environment.
  • Dish brush and nylon scrubbing pad.  Both a dish brush and nylon scrubbing pad can be useful for cleaning tough stuck-on food and stains.
  • Dish towel.  The towel will be used to dry the dishes after they are sanitized.
  • Sanitizing tablets.  Sanitizing tablets, also known as Steramine tablets, will prevent any food-borne illnesses as the result of improper cleaning.
  • Strainer.  Use the strainer to strain the dish washer after washing, removing any remaining food particles and disposing of them properly.

Heating the Dishwater

As we mentioned in the first section, both the wash and rinse stages of the camping dish washing process will require hot water.  Because of this, you should begin heating the water right before you and your party sits down to eat your meal.

This way, the water will be hot and ready to go when it is time to wash the dishes.  Once the meal is concluded you can lay out the dishpans and begin the four-step process we briefly explained above.

Setting Up Your Dishwashing Station

Finally, let’s talk about how to setup your dishwashing station. Once you have lined up your dishpans, you will need to prepare each of them for the washing process.  Here is what you will need to do:

First Dishpan

The first dishpan, which will be used for the hot water wash, should be filled with about two inches of the hot water you boiled.  If the water is too hot for you, you can always add a little cold water to cool it down.

Many people tend to add far too much soap to the wash water.  The problem with this is that too much soap can quickly foul the rinse water.  Learning to use just a few drops of biodegradable soap (you can always add more but you can’t take the soap out once it’s in the water) and to drain this soapy water off the dishes completely will always produce a much better result.

Second Dishpan

Hot water will also need to be placed into the second dishpan—the hottest water you can stand without burning your hands.  This pan should have more water than the first “hot-water-wash dishpan,” as more water will mean less soap buildup in the pan designed to rinse the dishes.

Third Dishpan

In the third and final dishpan the water should be about medium hot or any temperature you prefer.  Place one or two of the sanitizing tablets into the dishpan and slowly pour the water on top of it/them.  You may have to wait several minutes for the sterilizing tablet to fully dissolve, but once it does the water in that dishpan will help to sanitize the dishes and prevent the transfer of any germs or bacteria.  Once the dishes go into the sanitizing water they should remain there for about one full minute, fully submerged, and then laid out to dry.

Note:  Some sources recommend using liquid bleach in the sanitizing water, but this is not necessary. People may have a tendency to use way too much bleach (you need only one teaspoon for a gallon of water) and handling liquid bleach, especially for children, is not a safe practice, potentially causing more damage than good.

You can set the dish brush and the nylon scrubbing pad very close to the first dishpan in which you will do the hot water wash.  Place these cleaning tools on a clean, dry towel or paper towel and avoid putting them on a non-sanitary surface like picnic benches.  The drying towel, as well as the strainer should be set up to the right of dishpan number three—the sanitizing dishpan. Take care that your towel remains clean before the drying process.

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