Ah, the great outdoors. You’re sitting next to your well-built campfire, eating a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon, and enjoying the wonderful sounds of nature. Life is good. But even as you’re relaxing, eating your delicious breakfast, the thought of washing dishes looms over you and threatens to ruin your happy and peaceful mood.

Photo by: Flickr user 3dpete

Dishes–everyone hates them. Even at home, when a dishwasher is near at hand, fretting about dirty plates can turn a good mood sour. Of course, the feeling is magnified when you’re out at a campsite where washing dishes is a little more difficult.

But fear not! We’ve got a few tips that will make cleaning up after a meal a stress-free activity.


Photo by: Rmrfstar

Before we discuss anything else, the issue of safety needs to be brought up. Although cleaning dishes may seem like a harmless activity, it can have an impact on the environment and, if done wrong, it can attract unwanted little creatures. So, that water spigot near your campsite? That should only be used for collecting water, not washing dishes. Also, any food scraps that accumulate throughout the process should be disposed of properly, in a designated trash can or in your camp trash.


  • 3 dishpans, pots, or buckets
  • hot water
  • paper towels
  • drying towels
  • tongs
  • soap–unscented and biodegradable
  • sanitizer–bleach or tablets


  1. Heat your water while your food is cooking or while you’re eating. It’s easier to clean dishes when food isn’t dried on them. Heat as much water as you need for your dishes.
  2. Pre-wipe your dishes with those paper towels you have on hand. When you wipe your plates with paper towels instead of simply scraping them off, you will likely avoid straining your gray water later.
  3. Set up your 3 pans on the ground or a picnic table, and lay down a drying towel at the end.
  4. Add some hot water and soap to your first pan, add plain hot water to your second pan, and add cold water with either a drop of bleach or a sanitizer tablet to your third.
  5. If you need to adjust the heat of the water in your first pan simply add some cold water, but remember: you want the water hot in order to kill bacteria!
  6. Wash your dishes with a sponge and soap water in your first pan. Make sure to

    Photo by: Flickr user Pat Eyler

    scrub well; you don’t want to have to repeat the process!

  7. Rinse your dishes in your second pan. Use your tongs to dip the dishes in the hot water so they can be completely submerged.
  8. Sanitize your dishes in your third pan. Simply dip your dishes into the cold sanitizer water for at least 20 seconds. It needs at least a full 20 seconds to completely sanitize the dishes. *
  9. Set your dishes on a clean towel so they can air dry. (Ideally they should air dry, but if you’re forced to towel dry them, just make sure you use a clean towel.)
  10. Combine all of your “gray water” (the dirty water left in all three of your pans), and clean your empty dishpans.

*Hint: if you’d rather not use bleach or sanitizer tablets, just boil your dishes in hot water before you use them to make sure you kill all bacteria.

Taking Care of Gray Water

If there is a central sink, designated for washing, dispose of your gray water there. If not, you will have to be careful about where you pour it out. If there are food chunks left in your water, you will need to strain it and dispose of the food in your trash. If not, you will need to take your water away from your campsite, other campsites, other people, and water. Once you are far enough away, spread your water out over a wide area, making sure not to dump it all out in one spot.

After you’ve finished disposing of your gray water, head back to camp, pack up your dishes and cleaning supplies, and get back to enjoying the outdoors!

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