How to Wash Dishes in the Backcountry

Properly cleaning dishes in the backcountry minimizes environmental impact helping to protect wildlife and ecosystems. It also helps to prevent troublesome and dangerous wildlife encounters. This post explains how to wash dishes and dispose of grey water following Leave No Trace principles.

The Problem With Soap

Soap is really bad for the environment. It contaminates water systems harming insects, fish, and other organisms. Even small amounts of soap create damage by breaking the surface tension of water. Lower surface tension means more harmful chemicals, like pesticides, are absorbed by fish. Change in water tension also harms insects, like water striders.

Additionally, soap destroys mucus layers that protect fish from bacteria and parasites. It can also harm and can kill fish eggs. Soaps with phosphates are especially dangerous for aquatic ecosystems as they cause algae blooms. Algae blooms lead to decreased availability of oxygen and light for aquatic life (flora and fauna).

This means that even eco-friendly and biodegradable soaps need to be disposed of properly. Unfortunately, many people do not understand the detrimental effects of soap on the environment and wash their dishes in waterways.

Choosing a Soap

Although all soaps are harmful to the environment, some are less damaging than others. When choosing a soap, pick one that is biodegradable. When properly disposed of, biodegradable soaps will be broken down by bacteria in the soil. This bacteria is not present in our waterways.

Avoid soaps that contain phosphates. Some countries, including Canada, have already banned the use of phosphates in soaps and detergents. So, it should be easy to find a phosphate free soap.

I use Dr. Bronner’s unscented castile soap. It’s biodegradable and you can use it to brush your teeth and wash clothes. There are other soaps that will work as well. Check out 99 Boulders’ post about the best backcountry soaps.

Attracting Animals

Besides contaminating waterways, improperly disposing of grey water and food waste attracts wildlife and habituates them to humans. This can lead to dangerous animal encounters or problems with mice or raccoons. This carelessness can end in animals being needlessly killed.

How To Wash Dishes in the Backcountry

Now that I’ve outlined the problems, let me explain how to properly wash dishes in the backcountry. You’ll need a scrub pad, stove, wash basin, strainer, soap, and a small shovel.

Begin by collecting water and heating it over your camp stove. As you wait for the water to heat, scrape any food bits from your dishes. Add a small amount of soap to your wash basin. Alternatively, consider not using any soap. Once you have finished washing and rinsing your dishes, strain the grey water to remove any leftover food. You can use a small wire strainer, cheese cloth, bandana, or pantyhose. Discard strained food chunks into a garbage bag.

Carry the remaining grey water 200 feet (70 paces) from your campsite and away from any water source. Dig a small 6-8 inch hole and dump the water inside. Cover the hole with soil. Bacteria in the soil will eventually dispose of the soapy residue. If you are unable to dig a hole you can “broadcast” the grey water. In other words, throw it so that it sprays across the terrain.

Remember to store your soap and dishcloth with your food bag. This will prevent bears, raccoons, and other wildlife from getting in your stuff and becoming habituated to humans.

That’s it! It’s very simple, but goes a long way to protect the environment and wildlife.

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