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How to Wash Dishes When Camping

Most folks simply do not know how to wash dishes when camping. In the age of the automatic dishwasher Scouts have little to no idea of how to hand wash dishes at home let alone on a camping trip. At campgrounds and even at camporees I still see people washing dishes underneath a community water spigot or, even worse, in a stream or lake.

Good dish washing technique is important to maintaining healthy Scouts, (especially on extended trips) and minimizing our impact in the wild. Once Scouts are instructed in proper dish washing they find it relatively easy, even enjoyable.

Standard 10-12 quart plastic dish pan

The Gear – Each of our patrols have a set of three plastic dish pans, biodegradable dish soap, a dish towel, a dish brush, a nylon scrubby pad and Steramine tablets in their patrol boxes.

First things first – The first habit to develop is putting a pot of dishwater on the fire to as soon as the meal is served.  Once the meal is done the dishpans are laid out and a four step process begins:

1. Pre -Cleaning – Full Stomachs and Empty Plates. Everyone is responsible to bring their dishes to the wash station as free of food as possible. Scouts need to learn the habit of eating every scrap of food possible, putting a little water in their bowl, cup and plate, rinsing their utensils and drinking the rinse water. Yuck! – that sounds gross but it’s not a huge deal, saves a lot of water, and reduces the amount of dirty water that needs to be disposed of.

2. Hot Water Wash – The first dishpan is filled with hot water and a small amount of biodegradable soap like Campsuds (a small amount is about ten drops – if more is needed it goes in a drop at a time.) Scouts generally use way too much soap and leave a lot of it on the dishes fouling the rinse water – once they learn to use just a few drops of soap (you can always add more but you can’t take soap out once it’s in the water) and to drain this soapy water off the dishes completely they’ll have a better result.

Wash the least dirty dishes and work towards the dirtiest. The dishes go in a few at a time and are scrubbed with a dish brush. Before they head to the next step they are drained carefully to eliminate as much soapy water as possible.

3. Hot Water Rinse - The second dishpan is filled with hot water only. The drained dishes go in for a thorough rinse to remove all the soapy water.

4. Sanitizing Soak - The third dishpan is filled with water (it can be any temperature) and two Steramine tablets. They stay in this dishpan for a full minute fully submerged in the sanitizing solution, drained and laid out to dry.

Some sources recommend using liquid bleach in the sanitizing water, I do not. People tend to use way too much bleach ( you need only one teaspoon for a gallon of water) and Scouts handling liquid bleach is a recipe for disaster.

Pots and Pans – Once all of the plates, bowls, cups and utensils are washed and sanitized the pots and pans are next. Instead of the pots going in the dishpans some of the water form the dishpans go into the pots, but only enough to get them clean. We do not try to clean the exterior of sooty pots and pans – there’s really no need to do this,  just brush off loose soot and clean the inside of the pot.  A scrubbing pad may be needed, and that pad should stay in the pot- not in the dishpans. If the scrub pad gets really grubby rinse it out  with some clear water. Pots and pans go through the same four steps as the dishes – during the sanitizing step the solution needs to be swished around to sanitize the entire inside of the pot.

Especially greasy pots and pans need to be tested before they are rinsed – rub a finger inside the pot if there’s grease there you will feel it and you need to wash it with soapy water a second time. As pots go through the four steps don’t pour the wash water back into the dishpans, strain it and broadcast or pour it into the sump.

Rinsing the dishpans – Strain and broadcast the soapy water in the first pan, rinse the first pan with rinse water from the second and broadcast or sump the rinse water. Pour the sanitizing water from the third pan into the rinse pan and let it stand for a minute, then transfer to the soap pan and let stand for a minute before sumping or broadcasting the sanitizing water.

Disposing of dishwater – Strain the dirty water using a dishtowel, piece of screen or a quart-sized plastic bag full of leaves with a corner cut out of it to remove as many food particles as possible and put them in your trash. Carry dishwater and rinse water away from your camp and at least 75 steps from any streams or lakes. Give the water a good  fling with a long sweeping throw to spread it over a large area.

Another option is creating a sump hole. Dig 6 to 8 inches deep and 3-4 inches wide 75 steps from streams or lakes, use a piece of window screen to strain out any food particles and add them with your trash. Fill the sump when you are done.

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