I often see a lot of posts about the struggles of cleaning dishes while camping without water.
I feel your pain.
See, I’m a big fan of desert car camping, and water is usually premium.
Even with the resources, washing dishes without water is more convenient and weight-saving than the price.
And in the guide below, I’d like to share the top eight techniques I use to wash dishes while camping without or with little water.
- Pater towel & vinegar
- Wood ash/soil
- Disposable plates
- Pot liners
- Foil wrap
- Clean cloth
- Spray bottle and sponge
- Morning Dew
The good thing with our tips is they allow you to wash dishes while camping without needing a fancy rinse sink, plumbing, or greywater setup.
And more importantly, you save on your water usage.
Method 1: Paper Towel & Vinegar
The paper towel and vinegar method is usually my go-to when I don’t have running water in my camp.
- Paper towels
- A spray bottle full of vinegar
- Spray your dishes with vinegar
- Wipe the dirt and food residue using the paper towels
- If it doesn’t get clean on the first attempt, repeat the process until your cookware is clean
Now, I often get bashed for using paper towels because of their cost. Some environmental-conscious campers also think the paper towels aren’t friendly to the environment.
I hear you.
But here’s the thing, the towel and vinegar method is extremely effective and convenient. Plus, if you fold the sheets, you could do the job using only a few paper sheets.
Of course, paper sheets aren’t environmental-friendly, but so is driving your RV. I always try to make up for that in other ways.
The other plus with this method is that vinegar is usually cheaper than your regular soap dish, so it’ll save you a lot if you’re on a budget.
On top of that, vinegar has strong antibacterial properties, so it does a great job cleaning and destroying the existing bacteria and germs in your plates and camp dishes.
Vinegar also doesn’t have a strong odor/taste, or rather it doesn’t stick at least.
The vinegar technique has proven, time and time again, to be a life-saver on our camping trips.
Our typical camping meal consists mainly of greasy and sticky food particles, including bacon, sausages, hash browns, and chicken.
After every meal, we simply spritz the vinegar on the pan and wipe. Depending on the amount of food prepared, we sometimes use 10 t 15 sheets of paper towels.
But you can stretch on the paper towel if you eat out of the pan (family-style).
The biggest benefit is we’re left with all our 5-gallon water storage in our RV for consumption. And when we’re camping with my partner, the cold water storage can run us for 4-5 days.
Disposal of the paper towels is also super easy. We simply dry them out and use them for kindling to start a camping fire. Nothing goes to waste!
Method 2: Using Abrasive Stuff
Our second method may seem counter-intuitive, but rubbing your camping dishware with abrasive stuff such as wood ash, sand, or kosher salt is an effective way to clean up while on the trail.
Of course, I’m guessing you’ve heard or are at least concerned with how hygienic this method is.
But tell you what?
The wood ash and sand scrubbing methods have been used for centuries to clean cookware.
If you’re still skeptical about it, I found this video of a woman in rural India using ash to scrub her dishes.
Step-by-Step of Using Wood Ash to Clean Camping Dishes
Here’s a detailed guide on how I use ash to wash dishes.
The description is a bit wordy, but it’s easier done than said.
Before you start cleaning using ash, it’s important to determine the ash conditions.
First, your cooking ash shouldn’t contain any residues from plastics or other trash. In short, the ash should only be from organic and natural materials, free from toxicity.
I’d recommend that you only use pure wood ashes. If you think your campfire is contaminated with unwanted and plasticky debris, consider building a new fire pit for pure wood ashes.
The other important thing with wood ash is that you should prefer hardwood tree ash over softwood ash.
With that said, let’s get into the basics of washing dishes with wood ash:
1) Allow your fire to burn out completely to allow safe extraction of the wood ash
2) Add a few cups of ash into your dirty camping cookware. Don’t mind the charcoal debris because they’ll even help with scrubbing.
3) Add just a few drops of olive oil to form crude soap. (Not necessary)
4) Start scrubbing your cookware, starting with the dirtiest dishes. It’s important to have gloves or clothing to help with the scrubbing.
5) Wipe the ash debris using a clean cloth until your camping cookware is free from ash and dirt.
If you feel the wood ash technique is tedious, you could use kosher salt to scrub your utensils.
It uses a similar principle to wood ash. It’s abrasive and will scrub away the dirt.
Another popular and convenient method is the long grass/dried leaves.
I’ve used the long grass to prewash and remove most of the grease, sticky sugar, and melty cheese on my camping cookware.
You could also bring with you a trimmed-down scour sponge. It has the same effect as the wood ash or long grass trick.
If done correctly, the abrasive technique will leave you with the cleanest dishes; your aluminum pots and tin plates are clean as a whistle.
The good thing with this technique is that most of the resources are free in the wild and readily available.
Method 3: Use and throw Dishes (Disposable Plates)
The paper plate method isn’t a cleaning method but one of the popular camping tips to save you from doing dishes while camping.
I don’t shy from using paper plates, even at home, because the only house chore I can’t stand is doing s dishes.
I’ll do anything to get out of them and avoid them.
The paper plates seem like a God-sent option and by far the easiest way of maintaining a clean and hygienic camping environment.
You simply use and trash them, saving the need for washing dishes or anything.
Trashing the paper plates is also easy since I simply throw them in the fire, then sit back and watch others scrubbing their plates.
However, paper plates have their drawbacks too.
For example, I still need to carry with me regular plates, especially when I need to cut meat. Cutting steak on a paper plate is worthless.
While the plates are lightweight, their weight could add up, especially over longer trips. It makes backpacking more fatiguing.
You can’t also cook on paper plates, so unless you’ve packed food, you’ll still have to clean your cooking pot and frying pan.
Nonetheless, paper plates are an incredible option, especially if you loathe washing dishes.
I’d suggest you choose the biodegradable options.
If you’re not using them for kindling fire, you can bring the use plates home and compost them.
But if you plan to burn the plates, exercise proper safety precautions.
While they burn and kindle fire well, they also create plenty of lightweight cinders floating out of the fire. If not checked, the cinder can burn your tent or are a legitimate cause of forest fires, especially in dry areas.
Plus, the paper plates are usually coated with some form of plastic, which remains in your ashes. So, don’t mistake using this ash to clean your other cookware.
Method 4: Pot Liners
The pot liners are a step-up version of the paper plates method.
It’s another great way to avoid doing the dirty camping dishes.
The pot liners are plastic liners that wrap inside or on the top of dishes.
If you can find one, a parchment paper will do just fine.
I usually put a “hat-on-hat” parchment paper, lining it up with my plates. I like to give the paper a little downward crimp along the edges of the plate to keep the paper in position.
The benefit of this method is that it saves your dishes from getting any dirt and, consequently, saves you from the need to use water.
Plus, the parchment paper is affordable and much cheaper than most camping detergents.
Finally, it’s a convenient method. It doesn’t require any skills to use and is simply hassle-free.
And when you’re done using the parchment paper, you simply chuck it into the fire.
Most of these papers have a plasticky content, so you shouldn’t use the ash debris to clean your other cookware.
Another drawback with this method is that it won’t save your cooking dishes from getting dirty. You still need to clean them.
Method 5: Using a Foil Wrap
If you love baking or cooking steamed potatoes, you know how handy a foil wrap comes.
I’ve always used aluminum foil wraps when baking, especially pizza bagels. I love this method because it saves me from getting any mess on my cookware, allowing for an easy clean-up.
Aluminum foil is particularly a great option because it has nice heat conductivity.
Plus, aluminum foil used to wrap food maintains nice moisture, and since it’s impervious to water and solids, it cleans up nicely.
Using aluminum foil will save your pots and pans from getting dirty since you can use it on a direct open fire with your choice of food wrapped in it.
And once the food is ready, you don’t even need the plates or dishes. You can also eat the food while it’s still in your foil pack.
The only problem with preparing your food using foil wrap is that it sometimes takes a bit longer o cook, especially if you’ve thick chunks of meat.
And depending on the type of food you’re cooking, you might find that some sticks more often. For example, I can’t broil with foil.
But the bottom line of using foil paper is that it’ll save you from the unnecessary need of having to use and clean your camping cookware and dishes.
Method 6: Using a Clean Cloth
Water is needed if you truly need to wash camping dishes, but if you need to clean them up, it’s not hard, especially if you’ve a cloth with you.
On our last trip to Canada, we camped for five days, and over the period, we didn’t want to damage the pristine water source without dish cleaning.
We also wanted to keep the weight down, so we cleaned our dishes using a cloth.
The trick to using this technique is to lick the plates and dishes clean.
But licking isn’t the most hygienic way, so you can use a finger to wipe the plates down.
My favorite trick for wiping the plate down is using bread. The bread soaks up all the sauce and remaining food soup. I like the bread method because it offers a free dessert, and I love a baguette.
Alternatively, you might also save some of your cooking soup and use it to rinse the dirty bowl and then drink it.
Take a clean cloth and wipe off your plate.
A spit will help get the tough and stuck bits out.
However, this method won’t forever. It’ll save you for a couple of days, but you’ll ultimately need to clean your dishes.
We used this technique for the five days we had been in the wilderness and didn’t experience any ill effects.
It would be hard to get all the food particles off your dishes; eventually, the dishes may start getting gross with your mess.
But for a few days, it should be perfectly fine.
Method 7: Spray Bottle and Sponge
Our seventh method uses water, but in small amounts.
- Spray bottle
- Sponge dish scrubber/Scrub pad
1) Get the sponge dish scrubber wet with biodegradable soap
2) Spritz your cookware with hot water
3) Scrub the dirt off your plates with the scrub brush and soapy water
4) Shake the excess suds and rinse the plate with some water
5) Wipe it dry with a clean towel/cloth
The benefit of this method is that it doesn’t consume much water. It only takes a few drops of warm water.
Method 8: Morning Dew
Nature always provides, and you can use creative ways to find just the right amount of moisture to clean your dishes.
This method involves collecting moisture off the branches and leaves every morning. You could also leave your dishes out overnight to collect dew.
I prefer collecting the dew off the branches, but this needs one to have a container.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to collecting moisture from the leaves.
- Grab a container
- Locate branches or leaves that have collected moisture and cut them off
- Store the dewy leaves in a container to allow the moisture to run off and collect
- Use the collected dew to wash your dishes and dry them with a piece of cloth
- Alternatively, let them air dry before packing them
Cleaning Camping Dishes Without Water Using Leave No Trace Principles
I often camp in the Pacific Northwest, and most of the time, we’re expected to adhere to the leave no trace principles.
The leave no trace principles are a set of outdoor ethics created to promote outdoor conservation.
A common misconception about Leave No Trace is that it equates to carrying all your trash with you or leaving no trace.
In reality, it’s all about properly disposing of food waste and leaving Nature as it was.
LNT is trying your best to conserve Nature in the state you found and goes beyond what you leave behind.
For example, playing loud music in the wilderness is against the tenets of leave no trace, though you’re not leaving anything.
Now, when washing dishes without water in the wilderness, there’re a couple of LNT principles to keep in mind.
1) Cook food that you’ll eat
When preparing a meal, only cook enough for you.
Unless you’ve an efficient preservation method, dealing with leftovers is a pain.
In most cases, you’ll have to waste or throw away the food, which is against the LNT principles.
Dumping away food at campsites is likely to attract animals and encourage them to seek humans when they’re hungry.
2) Do you dish away from the water sources
It’s tempting to do your dirty dishes in rivers, lakes, streams, creeks, and other water sources.
But that’s bad for the environment because dirty water is likely to pollute the environment, even when using biodegradable camp soap.
If you’ve to wash your dishes near the water sources, I recommend doing it at least 200 feet away.
Alternatively, use the designated cleaning area to do all your dirty dishes. You can fetch water from the stream and clean them in the designated area.
3) Proper dishwater disposal is key.
Along with keeping a distance from the water sources is also necessary to properly dispose of your grey water.
Many campgrounds come with a rinse sink and greywater area for disposing of gray water.
If it doesn’t have, you could strain your water and disperse it further away from the water stream and in an ideal location.
Straining is necessary to remove as many food scraps as possible. The scraps should be dumped into the trash, not the ground or fire pit, especially if you’re in bear country.
Dumping dirty dishwater in the ground is fine, but try to disperse it as much as possible. The earth will drink it up.
While dispersing it, also try to find a spot that receives enough sunlight so it can evaporate the water faster.
4) Use biodegradable camping dish soap.
Finally, it’s a good idea to use biodegradable soap.
The biodegradable soaps don’t contain harmful pollutants that may wreck the natural composition of the water sources.
Washing Area Spots in Campgrounds
If you’re unsure of the locations to use to wash dishes while camping, here’s a list of spots to consider and those to keep away from
Bathroom sinks (Don’t)
While washing dishes in the bathroom sink is tempting, you might get in trouble.
Most campgrounds even state that it’s against the rules to wash dishes in the bathroom sinks.
The drains in these sinks can’t accommodate the food wastes and might result in blockage.
However, you can always take water from the wash sink and do the cleaning in another place.
Designated Camping Dishwashing station
You’ve hit the jackpot if your campground has a designated camping dishwashing station.
Most dishwashing facilities are designed to accommodate all types of cleaning, from dishes and camping gear to clothes.
The washing stations also have a proper drainage system to dispose of the dirty dishwater environmentally friendly.
Water sources aren’t to be used for washing dishes.
Doing so will pollute the environment.
What to Consider When Camping
Consider one-pot meals
My favorite one-pot meal is Martha-Stewarts one-pot pasta. It consists of sausages cooked over a fire and sweet potato stew.
It saves me from having to do a couple of different dishes and cookware. Even better, it’s filling and delicious.
Consider Veggie-heavy Dishes
It’s hard to recommend the veggie-heavy dishes since I love hot dogs and sausages over an open flame.
But the meaty meals are usually more challenging to clean, especially the raw meat and stuff.
Plus, the meat smells are likely to attract more wild animals.
Unlike the mushrooms and onions delicious meals that are easy to prepare and clean. You also won’t worry about the bears knocking on your tent for their share.
Consider Leave No Trace
I can’t overemphasize this again. Always adhere t the LNT when camping.
Take back with you everything you brought to the camp. Take care of Nature, so it can take care of you.
Washing dishes without water may seem challenging, but it’s easy.
It saves you from the hassle of rationing your water between cleaning and drinking.
Plus, you don’t have you worry about the sink faucets or other plumbing systems.
But in the end, you also need to take care of your environment.