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I am looking to setup dish and hand washing stations for a group of folks in a fairly-wild woodland, in a car-camping summertime setting, for 2-5 days (depending on the occasion). Is stream water fit for cleaning hands, dishes, waste bins/buckets? Water used for cooking or drinking will be well-boiled or from a known-potable source.

I'm hoping the answer to the overarching question will satisfy these sub-questions:

  • Can stream water be used for washing dishes, cups, and hands, or does it need to first be filtered/purified?
  • What if that stream water is used in combination with biodegradable plant-based camp soap?
  • Does vinegar or bleach need to be added to the container full of washing water to make it safe?
  • Does temperature matter? If so, how much and what is preferable?

Emphasis on avoiding illness for a group of people with diverse outdoor experience/background.


This might be a tricky question because it probably depends so much on the river/water source. In this particular case, the stream I'm considering is one that flows well and pretty cold year-round, located in the Adirondack Park of New York. It's not in total wilderness but in a pretty remote area anyway.

I and others don't consider it potable without treatment, but I wouldn't expect to die from drinking it and wouldn't be surprised if I was perfectly unharmed by drinking from it for a weekend...though for that matter, I wouldn't be surprised if I was pretty harmed by doing so - yet to do any water quality test on it.

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    When car camping, just drive the water in from home (or the nearest potable source). – StrongBad Apr 28 '16 at 22:54
  • @StrongBad that is short but a fair answer - it's what I did this weekend, hauling a large water container full of tap water just to have some easy final-rinse water, hand-washing water, and drinking water (this tap ain't great but it won't make you [immediately] sick). – cr0 May 1 '16 at 22:44
  • Used tub w/ stream water for first rinse + rubbing grease out, tub w/ tap water and soap for sudsing, then tap from a spout for final rinse. – cr0 May 1 '16 at 22:47
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There is a far higher risk of disease from poor hygiene by those in the outdoors than the consuming stream water, let alone using it for hand and dish washing. By not using stream water directly, you introduce a level of rationing of water. This rationing is likely to encourage poor hygiene habits, and increase the risk of disease.

For washing hands, if washing in clean water and soap after toileting is deemed to make you hands safe, stream water and soap will make them just as safe unless the water has exceptionally high concentrations of harmful organisms (think why do you wash you hands after toileting).

Remember "Not clean till dry and clean", so hand washing facilities must be provided with hand drying (paper towels are best fro a large group). this applies to dishes as well. Have ample tea towels so you can always use clean dry ones (For a large group, each person should supply two - one for their personal dishes, and one to be used for cooking dishes).

If you cart water in in cars, you will need 4 litres of water per person per day provided you are careful and do not waste it. You will need closer to 10 litres per person per day if you want to be certain of good hygiene practice unless the group is used to strictly rationed water.

If you do want to play it safe, and do not want to cart portable water, for hand cleaning and dish washing chemical treatment is the most practical option. Filtering is effective but slow and expensive, boiling, also effective, is expensive in fuel and slow.

My preferred chemical treatment is sodium hypochlorite - active ingredient in many baby bottle sterilisers. Its safe to take a bottle out the liquid, fill it with milk and stick in in a babies mouth, its safe (as in a safe chemical and the biocide action is effective). Its also environmentally friendly (unlike chlorine based bleach), cheap and readily available. It is also on the WHO list of chemicals suitable for making water potable.

Easiest source to obtain and use is in tablet form (Milton is one common brand, one table sterilises 30 litres of drinking water in 15 minutes. For hand and dish washing, 1 tablet per 10 litres would not be too much). but its available powered and liquid.

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    +1 for 'higher risk of disease from poor hygiene by those in outdoors than consuming stream water, especially using it for hand & dish washing...by not using stream water, the element of water rationing can encourage poor hygiene habits.' That is what I was looking for. Weighing different alternatives and the extent they may call for more rationing is also helpful. – cr0 May 4 '16 at 12:42
  • Regarding your person preference - sodium hypochlorite is essentially chlorine based bleach isn't it? Specifically I'm wondering how this compound is more environmentally friendly - could you clarify that and/or add a citation? Thanks for recommendation anyway – cr0 May 4 '16 at 12:47
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    Although some house hold bleach only contains sodium hypochlorite and is suitable, they commonly add other chemicals (scents, detergents etc). As such, I do not consider is safe to refer to 'household bleach' as suitable for water sterilization or environmentally friendly when disposed in the wild. – user5330 May 4 '16 at 19:34
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In this post: How to clean cookware? which focuses more on equipment for cleaning (soap, sponge, sand, that sort of thing), one answer is directly related to this question (emphasis added):

Regardless of your cleaning procedures, you definitely should use purified drinking-quality water for at least the final rinse of your dishes. I always play it safe and use purified water for all dish washing, unless I specifically intend to boil water again in the same pot later for purification.

That author didn't provide any citation or reason however, aside from their own tendency to play it safe.

From the above question, with a group of people washing dishes and hands, purifying all water used for (final) cleaning could be a big task. I'm not sure if simply adding vinegar, baking soda, or bleach in some ratio is adequate to purify the stream water for cleaning things, or if it truly needs to be purified as if becoming potable (which those chemical treatments could do somewhat, but potable to me means filtering and a more careful chemical treatment OR boiling, both of which could be challenging on a group dish-washing scale).


What I ended up doing recently is hauling water containers (7gls) full of tap water just to have some easy dish cleaning / hand-washing water, and drinking water (this tap ain't great but it won't make you [immediately] sick).

Used tub w/ stream water for first rinse + rubbing grease out, tub w/ tap water and soap for sudsing, then tap from a spout for final rinse.

Pretty easy, just weight to bring in.

  • So finishing off the washing up by bring one pot to the boil and dunking the other items in it would seem like a good, cautious, idea. But for washing, the foul-tasting purification tablets I only carried for emergency use would be ideal. – Chris H Apr 29 '16 at 7:04
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    @ChrisH after the first dish is dunked, the boiled water becomes potentially contaminated. Pouring is better. – StrongBad Apr 29 '16 at 12:23
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    @strongbad I was assuming keeping it on the boil during rinsing. – Chris H Apr 29 '16 at 12:52
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    If you dont want to enter a discussion "necessary vs unnecessary" and decide that its necessary and act accordingly thats the most efficient way and bleach can do some of the job and iodine would do a better job (wont kill everything). That will throw a lot of chemicals around though. Boil works but can be a lot of stuff if your group is big. Might be easier to just invest in a gravity filter-purifier and always maintain a good quantity of water without chemicals from the beginning (cost is low for a big group and might be less chance of people messing up) – Erik vanDoren Apr 29 '16 at 18:09
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    The quoted material says "use purified drinking-quality water," as if purification is synonymous with potability. In many pristine backcountry areas, purification is not required for potability. – Ben Crowell May 1 '16 at 23:11
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Your question is essentially

Is stream water fit for cleaning hands, dishes, waste bins/buckets?

and then it becomes really an issue of volume as you have a party of people who you need to cater for.

The answer is it can be be, but likely not.

People take different perspectives on the risk of contaminated water. Compared to others I have met who have sourced at the same water sources as me, I tend to be overly cautious. But I have drunk water directly from running streams and it was likely the purest water I have ever had - icy cold and amazingly fresh. But I was very confident about the watershed that fed the stream, being fairly certain that there were no humans upstream and few, if any, animals. Given that you are going to an area that is reachable by car, I would suggest the answer is probably not.

So unless you are remote enough that no humans or few animals will be upstream, I would filter or bring water in.

There are a myriad of filter techniques/products around. For higher than one person volume, Lifestraw makes a Mission Pack and Family Pack. Both of these feed into the same straw-type device and are gravity fed, so with enough source water, you can fill it and then you essentially have a dangling tap of filtered water that anyone in the group can access. The last person to empty it does the refills :-)

These aren't cheap options but they are very practical. I personally use a Lifestraw Mission for my hikes (it is packable and lightweight) and when I need to filter from a water source, I scoop about 3 liters, rehydrate as much as I need, refill personal water storage and then dump whatever is extra.

As you are car camping, I would suggest the cheapest option is just to tank up as much as possible. But water is heavy and you will have a fixed amount without adding any filtering capability.

You may also be able to boil water. But it requires at least a minute of boiling to sterilize it adequately and water volumes for a group of people would require a lot of gas supply. Plus, it's a hassle process to do whenever someone decides that they need some water.

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    The "At least a minute" thing has been debunked many times. – user5330 May 4 '16 at 1:15
  • Not according to this answer outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/1117/… – timbo May 29 '16 at 0:47
  • The community voting system does not mean the highest is correct, it just means its the most popular. Ultimately this is one of the question that does not have a right and wrong answer. EPA has to account for lowest common denominator. I have witnessed people thinking a few bubbles is boiling. EPA guidelines are more robust then absolutely needed because people are stupid. – user5330 May 29 '16 at 5:13

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