The Easy Way to Wash Dishes While Backpacking

Few pleasures compare to devouring a hearty camp meal at a scenic campsite after a long day of hiking. But once your stomach is full of delicious food, what’s the best way to clean the dishes? 

Like most aspects of backpacking, washing dishes doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s not going to look like washing dishes at home in your kitchen, and that’s perfectly fine. A simple pared-down system will do the trick, allowing you to breeze through camp chores while doing no harm to the natural environment around your campsite.

In this post I’ll share tips for keeping meals and dishes simple so you have less mess to clean up in the first place. If you’re a backcountry chef who enjoys more complicated cooking, I’ll explain how to wash your dishes responsibly while protecting fragile natural surroundings. Lastly I’ll share important practices for safe dish washing in bear country, and any time you want to avoid attracting animals to your food scraps (which should be always).

Though it might seem complicated or odd the first time you try it, washing dishes while backpacking is actually quite simple, or at least it should be if you’re doing it right. Read on to learn how.

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Simple Meals = Fewer Dishes

The best way to make cleaning dishes easier is to use fewer dishes. Most dehydrated or freeze dried backpacking meals, like Backpacker’s Pantry and Mountain House, are “cooked” by simply adding hot water and waiting a few minutes (with the bag inside an insulated cozy if you want to get fancy). This means there’s no dirty pots or pans to wash, only the bowl and utensil you used for eating. Easy peasy! 

This delicious chili mac ‘n cheese was cooked by adding boiling water, so there’s only one dish (this bowl) to clean at the end.

Some backpackers take this even further and rehydrate their meals in the pouch they came in, or in a ziplock freezer bag if the meal is homemade. Eat directly from the pouch with a long-handled spoon (yes, the long handle really is key). At the end of the meal, simply zip up the bag and add it to your trash stash. The only thing that needs to be cleaned is your spoon! Cleaning dishes while backpacking can’t get any easier.

If you fancy yourself a backcountry chef and like to cook more involved meals, your dish washing routine will be a bit more involved (but still easy). Read on!

Eat ALL the Food

Most hungry hikers don’t need to be told this, but clean dishes start with empty dishes. Avoid leftover food by planning your meals in advance and packing the right number of calories. This is a big topic in itself and depends on metabolism, daily mileage, length of trip, and more. For me personally, a dinner of around 500 – 700 calories is the sweet spot on a challenging backpacking trip. Less and I’m still hungry, more and I have trouble stuffing it all in my stomach.

Meal planning can be hard to get right if you’re new to backpacking or cooking for a large group. If you do end up with extra food in your pot or bowl, you need to pack it out. You can use a bandana to strain out the water so the food scraps don’t weigh as much (see Leave No Trace below), but it’s important that you pack out the food instead of leaving it behind to attract animals and disturb the local ecology.

Preparing backpacking meals in many plastic bags
Meal planning can require work and precision, especially if you make DIY meals (shown here: prepping for a thru hike on the Arizona Trail). But it’s worth the effort to make sure you have the right amount of food.

Hot Water Rinse Method

I’ll tell you a “dirty” secret that’s not actually dirty: many backpackers don’t actually “wash” our dishes! We rinse and wipe them, let them dry, and let the subtle remains of the previous meal serve as “seasoning” for our next. Oatmeal with essence of mac ‘n cheese, yum. :)

Here’s how I do it. After eating a rehydrated meal from my bowl and scraping it clean with my spoon, I add a splash of hot water. When heating water for rehydrating meals I always leave a bit behind in the pot for this purpose. You could use cold water in a pinch, but hot water cleans grease and grime more easily and is more appetizing to drink (yup, see next paragraph).

After a bit of swishing and scraping with a spoon, I drink the rinse water, and you should too. If that sounds gross, I hear you, but I promise you’ll get used to it. After all, it’s just what’s left of the food you already ate. Why waste the calories you worked so hard to carry?

If you want to be fancy, wipe out the bowl with a bandana after rinsing. On a long trip rinse the bandana every few days and dry it in the sun so it doesn’t get smelly.

What About Soap?

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned soap anywhere yet. Is this a glaring omission? Nope! After my first few backpacking trips I realized dish soap was unnecessary and stopped carrying it.

If you really must clean your dishes with soap – perhaps you’re cooking a more complex meal or are in a group situation where sanitation is important – please see the leave no trace guidelines below for how to use soap responsibly. Most importantly, use small amounts of an environmentally friendly soap and never wash directly in a water source.

If you have a need to wash dishes with soap while backpacking, you might also need some kind of scrubby implement. Whatever’s already in your kitchen will probably work, but this handy tool is designed for camping and combines a scraper and brush into one. You could also just use your fingers to scrub, like a true lightweight backpacking enthusiast.

Leave No Trace Tips

Washing dishes is one of the prime opportunities to reduce your impact on nature when backpacking. Here’s how. 

Use as little soap as possible, or none at all. As mentioned above, soap isn’t necessary in many cases and tends to accumulate in water sources, changing their ecology and altering delicate habitats of plants and animals.

Use biodegradable camping soap, if you must use soap at all. These soaps are designed to have less impact on fragile natural environments if used properly (see next point). It’s impossible to avoid impact entirely though, so use as little soap as possible – just a drop or two per dish.

Don’t wash directly in water sources, especially with soap. Instead, carry your dishes and water at least 200 feet from the water source and do your washing there. This allows the water to filter through the soil before rejoining the source, removing many of the pollutants from your soap and dishes. Good judgment is helpful here. Rinsing off a mostly clean bowl in a large, fast-flowing river may be reasonable, while dumping greasy cooking oil into a precious pool of water in the desert is clearly a bad move. 

Strain out any larger food bits before washing, and pack them out. For the remaining water, which will still have smaller food particles in it, either dig a hole away from camp and bury it (recommended in bear country) or sprinkle it around a large area away from your tent. The goal is to avoid attracting animals and habituating them to human food, which is how everything from rodents to bears become a nuisance and even a danger to hikers. Even ants can be a nuisance when attracted to your rinse water, so don’t do this right next to your tent!

Washing Dishes In Bear Country

When backpacking in bear country, cleaning dishes requires extra care. Just as you wouldn’t cook right next to your tent or sleep with your food, never dump food-contaminated wash water near your camp area.

Drinking your rinse water as I recommended above, though perhaps unappetizing, is the best strategy. It’s good for Leave No Trace and it won’t attract bears to your campsite – win win. If you must dump rinse water, wash your dishes 200+ feet away from camp (and from water sources), strain the rinse water thoroughly and pack out the food scraps, and bury your rinse water in a hole.

If you use the quick-and-dirty method of rinsing, drinking, and wiping, remember that your dishes still contain food scraps and should be stored with your food far from your tent. Ideally they should go in your bear canister or Ursack with all your food and scented toiletries. This is good practice anyway, but especially important if you’re playing fast and loose with dishwashing. 

Backpacking Cookware Recommendations

Before I wrap up, here’s an overview of my own backpacking cook setup. It’s a simple and lightweight system that’s served me well for thousands of miles, both solo and with my partner. 

Stove and Pot: JetBoil MicroMo (super efficient for boiling water, which minimizes the amount of fuel needed for longer trips)

Bowl: Sea to Summit X-Mug (collapsible and super convenient)

Mug: Snow Peak Titanium 450 (optional if you have a bowl, but nice for drinking and eating at the same time)

Spoon: Toaks Long Handle Spoon (long enough for eating out of freeze dried meal pouches)

If I’m solo and traveling fast-and-light I might opt for just the titanium mug as both my bowl and pot, plus a compact backpacking stove. Another weight-saving trick for solo hikers is to eat directly out of the pot you cook in, eliminating the need for a separate bowl.

JetBoil and collapsible mug on rocky desert ground

In Conclusion

Washing dishes, like many other aspects of backpacking, looks different on the trail than at home in “real life.” And that’s the whole idea! Part of backpacking’s appeal is the simplicity of trail life and the realization that we can get by with a lot less than we’re used to. 

We don’t need to haul everything and the kitchen sink — literally! — into the backcountry. Washing dishes while backpacking can be done very simply to make trail life easier and reduce our impact on nature, two goals every backpacker can appreciate. Bon appetite! 

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About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

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