Where and How Do I Wash My Dishes?

By Heather

One morning, while we were camping in Yosemite a couple weeks ago, a guy from the neighboring site sauntered over to me.

“Are you an experienced camper?”

Er… I guess? It feels weird to say. I went from hating camping two years ago to becoming someone who can maybe claim that she’s experienced at it. It still feels pretend. Especially since it’s not like I have any actual survival skills. Compass? What’s that? No, seriously. What is that?

But, okay, yeah. I went with it.

“Sure, I am. Do you need help?”

Fortunately, his question wasn’t related to survival but rather, how to do dishes.

It struck me that all the little bits of knowledge about camping that we have acquired over the last two years have become second nature. But once upon a time, we didn’t know a thing about camping.

This is where we’ll talk about what we’ve learned (and what we continue to learn). With that I present to you: Camping 101.

How do I do my dishes?

The short answer is: It depends.

Some campgrounds have sinks where you can do dishes. Housekeeping in Yosemite and Black Rock in Joshua Tree National Park are two of them. We call that a best-case scenario.

This, however, is not common. Oh, how I wish it were.

Most likely, you will have to do them yourself at your campsite. Please do not be an a-hole and do your dishes at the spigots. It’s dirty and rude to your fellow campers. The spigots are only for filling up buckets and such. Nothing else, and that includes bathing.



If you’re not an organization nerd, just feel free to skip to the next section. I’m going to talk about how we arrange our picnic table for the most efficiency. This is very, very exciting stuff.

Basically, one side of the table is for eating. On the other side, we have our five gallon cooler, two dishtowels looped through the handles, dishwashing and hand-washing soap on top. We keep one of the dishwashing bins under the cooler when it’s not in use for dishes to catch the run-off water. You don’t want a muddy mess under the table.

Also somewhere on that end of the table is the other bin, into which we toss our dirty dishes  throughout the day. When it’s time to clean them, they’re all in one place, all neat like.

What you need

To do dishes at your campground, you’re going to need:

  • Two dishwashing bins – one for putting the dirty dishes in, the other for rinsing
  • A sponge
  • Steel wool, for cast iron
  • A dish towel, for drying
  • Dishwashing soap
  • Water

Just like at home! Except dirtier.

Optional: If you want hot or warm water to clean with, fill up a pot and put it on a burner (such as this one – it’s what we use and love) to warm up while you eat. When you’re ready to do dishes, fill each of the bins with some spigot water and top it off with the warm water.

Now. Are you going to get them as clean as you do at home? No, you’re not. This is why we invented the phrase “camping clean.” It’s a level of cleanliness that rests somewhere between “home clean” and “squalor.” You need to get comfortable with this idea, because it’s just facts when you’re an outdoor type.

When you’re done with your dishes, dump the water, preferably a few steps away from you site.

Next, grab a drink and sit around the campfire.

Most of the time, this is all you need to do.

What about bears?

If you’re camping in bear country, the steps above are pretty much the same, with the exception of where you dump your dirty water.

Do not dump your dirty water anywhere near your campsite. It may be gross to you, but it’s a buffet to hungry bears.

Also – and I think this really should go without saying but you never know – don’t dump your dirty water near others’ campsites, either.

What if I don’t want to do dishes?

paper plates

This is where the fire comes in handy!

In the early camping days, we would bring a full slate of dishes: Plates, bowls, pots, pans, utensils. And we’d spend all night cleaning them after a meal. Lots of fun.

Then we got smart. Paper! Paper, people. When you’re done eating, just chuck it in the fire. Boom.

Granted, it may not be possible to get away with camping for an entire weekend and not doing a lick of dishes, but paper+fire=easier life.

And that’s what camping’s all about.