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06/16/2015 by Brian Eagen

3 Ways to Clean your Camping Dishes

Kitchen hygiene (or lack there of), and the corresponding bathroom hygiene, provides the greatest potential for illness while on a trip. For these reason it is SUPER important to maintain clean hands and clean dishes. Now, I'll qualify this statement by saying that "clean" is a relative term. Don't go into the backcountry expecting to maintain the same level of traditional personal and equipment cleanliness. While it is possible, it isn't necessary and could cause an increased level of impact on the environment and would definitely take a lot of time.

To put it another way – a seasoned outdoor adventurer treads the fine line between maintaining a high level of personal hygiene while also embracing the fact that the outdoors is a dirty place.

Clean hands are an easier one; just make sure to use soap and water after each bathroom use and before doing anything with food. Use a dedicated hand washing dromedary bag and biodegradable camp soap for large groups. Smaller groups or individuals can just pour water from their personal bottles. A small nail brush will help keep underneath your fingernails clean, or just clip them before the trip starts.

Washing hands with a dromedary bag

A clean dish, on the other hand, requires a slightly more involved approach. Here are three of my favorite ways to keep your dishes clean (1 for car camping and 2 for backpacking).

For Car Camping: The Dish Line

Back at home, you probably use a dishwasher, or you fill up your sink with soapy water and then rinse them off. The Dish Line approach perfectly mimics this process and is a very good way to keep your food tools clean. Here's how it's done:

Before leaving on your trip, find three washtubs. The size you will need is determined by how large your group is. In general, I find that 3, 12-liter tubs work very well. You can find them at stores such as Target, Home Depot, or on Amazon. Bring along a sponge with a coarse scrubbing side as well as a dish soap and a small container of bleach. You'll also want to find a sump screen, which is used to collect small food bits from the water. A 4" diameter wire mesh strainer works well for this.

When it's time to do dishes, start by heating up 4 liters of water. Each bin is going to serve a specific purpose: a wash bin, a rinse bin, and a bleach bin. Fill each bin so that it is 1/3 to 1/2 full of water -- the water in the wash bin should be pretty hot. Sprinkle a few drops of soap in the wash bin. You don't need very much. Likewise, in the bleach bin pour in a TINY amount of bleach. Don't over do it with the soap or it will get too sudsy, and don't over do it with the bleach or your dishes will taste like bleach. The sponge goes in the wash bin.

Dish line set up

Great! Now you are ready to get the dishes clean. Begin by scraping out any leftover food bits into a trash bag; this helps to keep your wash water clean. Recruit a few helpers; one person per bin makes this process go really quickly. Send the dishes down the line – scrap out the food, wash it thoroughly, dip it to rise, dip it to bleach, then set it out on a clean table to drip dry.

Don't pour out the water yet, we are going to use it to clean out the bins and make sure we aren't spreading food bits all over the place. Grab your sump screen and the wash bin and find a highly impacted area or a fire ring. One person should hold the sump screen while the other pours the dirty water through the screen. All the little bits of food will be collected and can then be thrown in the trash.

Now take the rinse bin and pour it into the now empty wash bin, this process is called marrying the bins. Use the sponge to wipe down the sides of the wash bin to clean off gross food rings. Pour the rinse water that is now in the wash bin through the sump screen. Finally, pour the water from the bleach bin into the rinse bin then into the wash bin then finally through the sump screen. Knock the food out of the sump screen into the trash. Now you'll have super clean dishes and clean dish bins ready for their next use. The whole clean up process shouldn't take more than 10-15 minutes with a few people helping out.

For Backpacking: The Water Guzzle OR Bowl Lick

Backpacking takes a different approach to kitchen clean up. It's uncommon to have enough pots to have a dish line set up, though not impossible. One of the biggest concerns when cleaning up food in the wilderness is to not be leaving traces of food everywhere (even little bits). Leftover food accumulates over time causing local wildlife to become conditioned to a human presence, along with being unsightly for future campers.

For group dishes, begin by heating up about an inch of water in the pot you used for cooking. Use a course green scrubbie to wipe down the inside of the pot. You can use a drop of biodegradable soap to help cut through the grease. Use the same water to clean up any group cooking and serving utensils used -- it might help to do this first so that your water isn't as gross. Dig a sump hole at least 6 inches deep; pour the water from the pot through a small sump screen into the hole. The sump screen should capture all of the food, then can be knocked clean into a trash bag. Let the water soak in, and then cover up the hole.

There are two good options for personal dishes; the type of bowl you are using determines the approach you use.

One approach is to pour a small amount of water into your bowl. Put a lid on top if you have one and give it a really good shake. If you don't have a lid, use your spoon to scrape out the inside of the bowl. Once all the food bits have been cleaned off, take a quick swig and drink down the water. If you are totally grossed out by that (remember, it's all food you just ate), then you can use a little hot water and tea to flavor the food water. This is actually a really good way to clean your bowl.

Another approach is to just lick the bowl clean. This works really well for foldable or rounded edge bowls (I use a Orikaso Fold-Flat bowl which are hard to find now).

Either way, make sure to clean your bowl RIGHT AFTER you use it. It is so much easier to do if you don't wait, especially for food like pasta and oatmeal.

Both of these approaches keep your personal dishes quite clean if done thoroughly. I generally heat up water and use soap once a week on personal dishes to give them a more "traditional" cleaning, but it really shouldn't be necessary.

Wrap Up

The main takeaway is that you shouldn't be leaving any left over food bits scattered across the ground, while also maintaining a clean set of dishes to promote good hygiene.

Do you use any of these three methods to clean your dishes? If not, what's your approach?

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