Picture this. You’re happily backpacking through a huge forest, somewhere on public land in the western United States. You have all your necessary equipment strapped to your backpack, and you’re nearing the end of your backpacking vacation. The only problem is, your water supply is running lower than you expected.
You’re down to a half gallon of drinking water, with a full day left, and for obvious reasons, you’re wanting to keep it for strictly drinking. You build a fire and cook your ready-to-eat-meals, eh, you’ve had worse. After you finish eating, it’s time to wash your dishes. How do you wash dishes without water to spare? Below are methods you can use to clean dishes when there is no (or very little) water nearby. I’ll start with my favorite methods and work my way down.
Why It Is Important to Keep Your Dishes Clean
It is extremely important to get the food particles and residue off of your dishes when backpacking, or when in a survival situation. Leaving food particles and residue behind not only cause bacteria to grow on the dishes (gross) and get you sick, but the smell of the leftover food can attract carnivorous animals to you. When there is no water available to wash, there are still solutions you can use to clean your dishes. These items may be unorthodox for dish washing materials, but in a survival situation, it’s best to preserve your drinking water for better uses (like drinking).
Method 1: Using Rain Water and a Fire
This is the most ideal solution, as it’s the most hygienic and the easiest cleaning method. As a backpacker, I use this method quite often still to this day.
- Leave a container out to collect the rainwater, or dip water from a nearby stream.
- Build a fire.
- Boil the collected water in your largest (non-plastic!) bowl or pot to wash the dishes. This way, the boiled water will sterilize the dishes while removing any leftover food particles.
- Once the pot of water has cooled, carefully remove the dishes. If they’re still nice and hot, they should dry rather quickly.
A word of warning though, when you remove your hot pot of water from the fire, keep it out of your normal walking path in your camp. There’s nothing quite like tripping over a pot of nearly boiling water after dark and teaching the neighboring wildlife some new cuss words.
Method 2: Using Baby Wipes
This is my second favorite option. As a former long-haul trucker, I had to rely on this method a few times.
Once, I was picking up a load of onions straight from the farm in Prosser, Washington. It was cold, and there was a lot of snow and ice on the ground. It wasn’t long before I was stuck on the side of the road in some worse than normal snow for what turned out to be a long 7 day stretch.
During this time, I had to keep the truck running for heat, and I carefully rationed our food and water. Not knowing how long I’d be stranded, I used my stash of wet wipes to clean up my single bowl, plate, cup, and stainless steel utensil set. Even as a trucker with only 70 square feet of living space, I still stockpiled what I could, and boy was I thankful during that cold January week. By the time the 7th day rolled around, I was down to my last gallon, but thankfully, some road workers finally showed up. If I had wasted my precious drinking water on dish washing, my dog and I would have run out of the water by day 5 or 6. I know what you are thinking, but not the snow wasn’t an option. It was some of the dirtiest snow I had ever seen.
- Scrape off any large food particles into the trash or into a hole in the ground, and cover it up.
- Wipe down the plate as best as you can, making circular motions. The harder you press, the more saturated your plate will be, making it easier to clean up.
- Once the plate appears to be visibly clean, grab another wipe, and wipe it down again, this rids your plate of any remaining germs.
- If you have a towel or bandana, wipe the plate off. Otherwise, your next meal may have a light soapy taste to it.
Method 3: Using Grass or Other Foliage
Using grass or other nearby foliage as a means to clean dishes is a favorite of backpackers. Although you do have to be careful to make sure you aren’t grabbing a handful of a nasty plant that might cause you more problems than it solves (like poison oak for example). For this method, the more moist the grass is that you can find, the better.
- Grab a handful of grass and use it to wipe all the leftover food residue off your dishes. Pine cones, pine needles, and leaves are also really good alternatives for grass. If you are at the beach, using sand will scratch all of the residues off the plate.
- Wipe the plates with the grass, focusing on the parts where the food residue has collected.
- For stuck-on particles, you will have to scrub harder and from different directions.
If you ever get stickiness, such as tree sap, that’s hard to remove from yourself or your gear, sand and/or tiny rocks are excellent exfoliators. It may look like you’re just making a bigger mess, but once you wipe the dust off, you’ll be amazed at how clean your hands or gear looks.
Method 4: Using Wood Ash and (Just a Little) Water
For this alternative, you will have to use a little bit of your drinking water, but it should still save you a considerable amount of water if done correctly. The paste made from a small amount of water and ash from your campfire makes a great cleaning agent. Ash is also sterile so although it looks dirty, it’s about the safest thing that you can be cleaning with.
- Get some of the wood ash from around the fire.
- Put the ash inside of a cooking pot and pour just enough water to form a paste.
- Using the paste as “soap” and a little more of the drinking water, wash the dishes like you would normally.
- Wipe them dry with a small towel or bandana.
Method 5: Using the Morning Dew
If there is no water, then you can find creative ways to get just enough water to clean your dishes. This method relies on collecting the moisture off of leaves or young small branches that may have collected the morning dew.
- Grab a container.
- Find leaves or cut branches off of the tree.
- Put the leaves inside the container and let the dew run off and collect.
- Wash the dishes.
- Hand dry with a bandanna, or air dry before packing up.
Method 6: Using Dry Towels or Bandannas
When no water is available whatsoever, this is the last resort. It’ll mess your bandanna up and wont be the most sanitary. But believe it or not, just the act of vigorously rubbing a plates surface has been shown to kill most of the germs that are on a surface such as a plate. This small amount of friction creates heat that can kill pathogens. This method will remain mostly hygienic due to the fact that there is no water (or any moisture) in the process meaning that bacteria will not have a way to multiply.
- Use your fingers or a bandanna to wipe off excess food particles.
- Using your fingernails, scratch off any residue and wipe the dish again.
- While wiping, make sure to do so vigorously so as to cause a small amount of heat from friction.
Now you know how to clean dishes when there is no water nearby! Washing dishes is no one’s favorite activity, and it’s certainly not fun to do without the convenience of soap and water. Just remember, it’s better to ‘make do’ with dish washing, rather than face dehydration because of a lack of drinking water. If you’re not restricted by limited space, like backpackers or truckers usually are, then I would strongly suggest reading this article about the long term storage of tap water so you don’t ever get stuck having to use inconvenient cleaning methods.
What are your best methods for washing dishes without water (or with very little water)? Share your ideas in the comments below!