How do you wash your dishes?

The romance of camping in the great outdoors can be brought back down to earth with dirty dishes. Doing the dishes while on the road is necessary, but not very fun. Unless you are lucky enough to have a trailer that is hooked to campground water and a galley sink, you will find yourself hauling water and washing dishes out of a plastic pan. We've set up our own dish washing system when we go camping that seems to work for us. We do have one rule: whoever does the cooking, doesn't have to do the dishes.

Our dish pans do double duty as a holder for dish towels, garbage bags and a cast iron frying pan.

Because we don't have a galley sink, we use two plastic dish tubs to wash our camping dishes. We sometimes use water from the supply we brought with us, but most of the time we just grab water from a local water source: a camp spigot, a creek, lake or river. We boil the water on the stove or the fire pit and either take it off when it's lukewarm or mix some cold water with it so we don't burn our hands.

We've noticed that we need more water to rinse dishes than to wash them, so we put about a third of the warm water into one pan and the rest into the second pan. We then use a sponge and very little dish soap to wash. Silverware and less dirty dishes go into the wash tub first; our greasy dishes will get wiped with paper towels and will be washed last. After rinsing, we place all the dishes on two dish towels spread on our pop-up table or on the picnic table. That's one thing I've noticed about teardrop camping: you can never have too many towels. I am also very picky that everything should be dried and put away before we go anywhere. I really dislike a messy campsite.

This is a wonderful sink setup from Debbie and Randy Pontius of Northern Nevada. The water is sprayed from a metal hand pump.

So what if you don't have access to a lot of water or you don't like to wash camping dishes? On some camping trips, we've exclusively used paper plates or my friend Nancy's spray bottle technique. When we teardrop camp at Burning Man, we have to bring all our water with us, and there's no reason to use it for washing dishes. I don't particularly like the waste of paper plates, but we will use them for our basic meals and then put the plates in the public burn barrels that dot Black Rock City.

The spray bottle technique is just a simple spray bottle from a drugstore filled with water and dish soap. We leave it out in the sun to warm up then spray it on our dirty dishes and wipe off the food with a paper towel or a cloth. This doesn't work so well for very greasy dishes, but for simple cleaning, it saves a lot of time and effort.

Because most campgrounds or public parks don't like you tossing your dirty dish water on the ground or (please don't) in a fresh body of water. You will need to dump your dish pans in a pit toilet or outdoor sink. In fact, parks like Yellowstone, will have enclosed sink areas where you can wash your dishes without fear of bears sniffing around at your leftover bacon and eggs.


  1. This is very useful. It's always been a struggle to do dishes while tent camping, I expect it to be no easier with a trailer - ours won't have a sink, either. I'm against disposable dishes when I can help it. The spray bottle idea seems really great and definitely worth trying. The observation about needing more water for rinsing than washing is also dead on.

    P.S. We expect our trailer to get started being built early next spring. I will be blogging about it, with pictures. And although my blog is in Polish, pictures are international. I will let you know when things start moving in case you'd like to follow the progress.

    1. Thank you Aneta. Yes, doing the dishes is never my favorite part of camping...even though I do like eating off of them. Congrats on your new trailer! Do you live in Poland? It would be interesting to see what is being built over there.

    2. No, I live in central NY, and the trailer (Camp-Inn) will be built in WI. That should be a fun road trip, nearly a thousand miles :).

  2. Happy New Year. I tried out your friends idea of the spry bottle while at Death Valley last week & it worked out well, thanks for the idea. Had great weather while there nights were in the 40s & days into the 70s with only one day of wind, wind & more wind. We didn't get a chance to make it into the NV area but had some great hikes at the Racetrack, Mesquite Dunes and around Dante's View.