How to Wash Dishes While Camping

This post may contain affiliate links.

We share our tips and tricks for cleaning dirty dishes while car camping in the front country.

Nobody likes washing dishes when they’re camping. It can be an unpleasant chore and vexing challenge all at once. With no dishwasher, no sink, and limited water, it can be a real pain to do dishes while camping. Nevertheless, it has got to get done. So what is the best way to clean up after a meal? Glad you asked…

This problem is near and dear to our hearts because few people hate doing dishes more than we. (And we have to do A LOT of them.) The key is to develop a process. While washing dishes will never be fun, with the right information and few pieces of gear, it can at least be minimally annoying.

If the campground you are staying at has designated dishwashing facilities and drain water basins, by all means, use them. But most campgrounds do not. Do NOT wash your dishes in the bathroom sink or at the drinking water spigot. These areas are not designed to handle food waste.

For the most part, you should plan on washing your dishes at your campsite. Below we go through a detailed step-by-step process for accomplishing this.

Equipment needed to set up a camping dishwashing station.

Equipment Needed to Set Up a Camping Dishwashing Station

‣  (3) Sinks – These can be collapsible camping sinks like the ones shown above, nestling plastic bins, just regular mixing buckets. Doesn’t matter what they are so long as they hold water and can fit your dishes inside.

‣  Sponge/Brush – Either one will work, but you’ll need something to scrub off any caked on food that sticks to your plate. For cast iron, we use a special swatch of chainmail.

‣  Biodegradable Soap – Standard dish detergent can be really hard on the environment, so you will want to pick up some biodegradable soap instead. Biodegradable soap needs bacteria in the soil in order to properly break down. So keep it at least 200 feet away from any natural water source, otherwise, it will be just as damaging as detergent.

‣  Sanitizer – You can use a capful of bleach or a sanitizer such as Steramine. Bleach is more widely available and likely already sitting in your cupboard, but Steramine is more effective against viruses and claims to be gentler on the skin.

‣  Metal Strainer – You’ll need a strainer to remove solid food wash from your gray water.

‣  Chamois Cloth – Some super absorbent cloth to accelerate the drying process.

How to Wash Dishes While Camping (Step-by-Step)

1. Clean Plate Club

Making the right amount of food and finishing everything on your plate makes washing dishes a lot easier. Be sure to get an accurate assessment of everyone’s hunger level before the meal so you can figure out exactly how much to cook.

2. Prep Dishes

When you are finished with your meal, remove as much food from your dishes as possible. The more food (and sauce) you can scrape into the garbage, the easier it will be to clean the dishes. Use utensils or a single sheet of paper towel to clean your plate as much as possible before putting it the queue to get washed.

3. The Three Bucket System

This process gets your dishes and cookware as clean as possible while using the least amount of water. We use collapsible buckets, but you could also use cheaper plastic bins too.

Also, we HIGHLY recommend washing with warm water, as it makes the entire process easier and vastly more enjoyable. We boil a pot of water and cut it with cold water to get something close to warm bathwater temperature.

How to wash dishes while camping using the three bucket method.

‣  Wash Sink – Fill this sink a ¼ of the way with warm water and a few drops of biodegradable soap such as Dr. Bronner’s or Campsuds. Start with the cleanest dishes first and then progress to the dirtiest dishes last. Once the item is entirely clean, shake off any excess suds back into the sink, and proceed to the next step.

‣  Rise Sink – Fill this sink a ¼ of the way with warm water. When the dishes come out of the wash sink, they get dunked in the rinse sink water here. If the dishes aren’t quite clean or have excessive suds on them, send them back to the wash sink. After this rinse phase, the plates should be completely free of soap.

‣  Sanitize Sink – Fill this sink a ¼ of the way with warm water and your sanitizing agent (the amount will depend on how much water you use – the generally accepted ratio is 2 teaspoons bleach or 1 Sterimine tablet : 1 gallon water). Dishes coming out of the rinse sink should get a brief soak in this sanitizing bucket. While the soap cleans the dishes of food debris, the bleach water will ensure it is completely disinfected. This step is especially important if at any point your cookware, cutting boards, knives, etc came in contact with raw meat. But if you had a bowl of vegetarian chili for dinner, this final disinfection step might not be as critical.

4. Towel Dry

When the dishes come out of the sanitizing bucket, towel them dry with a hyper-absorbent shammy before putting them away. It might be tempting to air dry plates, but we’ve found it just prolongs the whole procedure. Hand dry your plates and get back to enjoying the outdoors faster.

5. Search For More Dirty Dishes

When you are finished washing the last dish, double check to make sure it actually was the last dish. There’s nothing more annoying than finding out that somebody forgot to bring their plate over after you’ve already broken everything down and dumped your water. Make sure you’ve gotten all the cookware too. (We’ve often cleaned everything only to realize we forgot the pot we cooked everything in!)

6. Consolidate Graywater

Once you’re sure there are no more dishes, it’s time to consolidate your gray water. Dump the sanitize sink into the rinse sink. Then dump the rinse sink into the wash sink.

7. Strain out Food Scraps

Place a large metal strainer over one of the empty sinks and pour all the water through it. This will separate out all the tiny food particles that came off during the wash. Empty this solid waste from the strainer into your garbage.

8. Dispose of Graywater

Now you should be left with a sink with all of your gray water. If you’re at a campground with facilities with drain water basins (they will be marked), use them. If not, the best way to dispose of greywater is to broadcast (essentially spraying it) it over a large area. This should be done at least 200 feet away from any water source. Spreading the gray water out over a large surface area minimizes its impact on any one spot and allows it rapidly integrate with the soil.

If you have any questions about how to do dishes at a campground or have any suggestions about how we could do it better, feel free to let us know in the comments below!

Camp Kitchen Equipment Guide
How to Stock a Camping Pantry
How to Plan a Camping Trip

LNT 2 Bucket Method
LNT 4 Bucket Method


Learn how to do dishes while camping, including the equipment needed to set up a camping dishwashing station.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Bleach is not very effective. Use what the health department recommends, the “blue tablets”. They are not all that blue, but they kill MRSA, HIV, and everything in between in room temperature water. One tablet per gallon of water, don’t rinse, and you’re good.

    Steramine Quaternary Sanitizing Tablets, about $8 for 150 tablets.

    1. Hi Walter,

      Thanks so much for the info about Sterimine! We haven’t come across that product before, but we’ve added it to the article. It seems like it would be a really good option especially if you’re camping with a large group or a group with kids.

      Really appreciate your feedback. Have a great weekend!


    2. I am a health inspector at a local public health department and the FDA food code allows chlorine (bleach) or quat sanitizer and both are equally effective. I recommend having test strips to check sanitizer concentrations.

  2. Great overview! We used a similar set up for 2-weeks on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon last year and the 3-step system is great.

    1. Thanks! We’ve found people can have strong opinions about wash dishes. (who knew!) I guess everyone needs to find the system that works best for them (without negatively affecting the environment) Glad you approve of the 3 bucket system!

  3. Hey there! I really love how you put together a short video showing the actual steps in your posts as I am a visual learner 🙂 I am interested to know if you use this same method for cleaning your cast iron? It can be a tough job even in the home kitchen so just wondering how you handle this in a camp kitchen. Thanks.

  4. this is such a nice article.i did many times in the Nepal mountain.

  5. I learned this system almost 50 years ago in Girl Scouts. Of course we didn’t have collapsible buckets or Steramine!

    1. It’s all pretty basic stuff. But when we see people washing their pots and pans in the bathroom sink, we just don’t know what to think.

      1. Hey, don’t think anything is too basic to share! I certainly didn’t know and am glad to know the correct process now! Many thanks!

  6. Is the bleach rinse necessary if you are using potable water to wash and rinse the dishes? Our campground has water at each tent site.

    1. It’s not “necessary” but it’s one way to fully disinfect. If you’re just cooking veggies, probably not a big deal. If you’re preparing raw chicken, then maybe it’s a good idea.

  7. Do you have to do anything to sanitize the sinks for next time? Pour the last bucket through the strainer into what?

    1. In theory, you could fill the sinks up again and add a touch of the sanitizer (either steramine or bleach) to clean them out completely. Since we are running on limited water, we typically just rinse them out. But if complete sterilization is a priority, then you could rinse out with the sanitizer.

    2. I strain the wash bucket first and broadcast or dump it, then i ‘wash’ the wash bucket with the water from the rinse bucket. Once the rinse bucket is empty pour the sanitizing bucket into the rinse bucket, then strain the rinse water out of the wash bucket leaving the wash bucket empty, then take the sanitizing water in the rinse bucket and pour it into the wash bucket to sanitize that bucket now all of three of your bucket should be clean and sanitized

  8. Troy Gruetzmacher says:

    I’ve been using a very simple system for years that wastes very little water. Wipe off as much as you can with 1 paper towel. Then use a lab wash bottle to rinse. Wipe down with a clean paper towel with a few drops of soap. Rinse again with a lab wash bottle. Then dry.

  9. Overall, a really great tutorial. The only thing that I’d mention is that in all of my food sanitation certification training, we’ve been instructed not to towel dry dishes. Air drying is actually part of the final sanitation process. I do understand that camping is different than a commercial food setting, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of sanitizing, why not take it all the way? If you want to feel like you’ve put the dishes “away” without towel drying, throwing them in a mesh bag and hanging them up to air dry works for us!

    1. Since we are entirely self-taught, we haven’t taken any classes on food sanitation. We agree that toweling dry is probably less sanitary than air-drying. We haven’t heard of the mesh bag trick, which is probably pretty useful for breakfast and lunch dishes. Our issue with the dinner dishes is that the cool air extends the dry time well into the evening and we want to get things packed away before we go to bed so critters don’t come and check them out. Ideally, air drying is the right way to go, but often time we end up making a compromise between “clean” and “camping clean”

  10. at the end of each meal we used the sanitizing rinse to wash off the picnic bench/ table surface to remove any food or grease. It keeps the problems with flies or curious animals at a minimum.

  11. Great guide to the 3-sink process! I use this both in my work and my play. A couple of critical points from decades in restaurants and catering: It’s not just meats that can lead to food-borne illnesses. Tofu, cheeses, beans, even rice and potatoes will also support microbial activity. Also, if you have the time air-drying, especially in direct sun, is definitely much better than using a towel. I’m actually not a germophobe but also didn’t want to leave folks with false assurances.

    1. We’re going to be making some updates to this post shortly. This is one of the things we wanted to touch. Thank you for bringing it up.

  12. Another tip we’ve found helpful – letting our dogs clean up our plates before washing them! Typically we leave very little waste on the plates, and as long as it doesn’t include anything that could be harmful to them (onions, spicy foods), we find it helpful, and they love it!

  13. Great article! I’m wondering is there any dangers in disposing of the bleach/Steramine water into the nature? I often car camp in areas where there’s no gray water disposing and I’m wondering if it’s good to disperse it like you mentioned or if I should figure out a way to bring it back with me.

    1. Thanks for the question. The hope with the bleach/steramine is that it’s so diluted that it will have minimal impact on the surrounding ecology. This is also why the broadcasting dispersal technique is so important. The greater the dilution, the larger the area it is spread over, the less the impact. Obviously, zero bleach in the wilderness is ideal, so it’s a trade-off. If you’re in a super-sensitive area, then perhaps you can make the personal decision not to completely sanitize your dishes and just clean them with biodegradable soap.

  14. Abigail Parr says:


    Is there any danger of broadcasting your gray water in areas where bears live? In other words, will bears be attracted to any scents left in the gray water?

    Thank you!

    1. Bears are attracted to any scent left in the woods. Even food properly stored in a bear-proof canister, it will perk their interest. Since it is impossible to eliminate all smells, the main goal to break the “smells = food” connection. Broadcasting your wastewater will disperse the smell, but if you did a good job straining out any food particulates, there won’t be any food.

  15. Those nice collapsible basket/buckets are sold at REI.

  16. We use our gray water to put out our fire every night while camping.

    1. That’s a great use for your grey water The only thing to make sure you strain out any large scraps of food, which could have the unintended consequence of attracting animals to the campfire in the future. Otherwise, we think that’s a great tip.