I have been trying to get my weight down on longer backpacking trips. I have already taken to buying very strong soap and using very little, but I was wondering is there something I can replace the dish soap with that will still clean whatever I cooked in that can be made/scavenged in the wilderness?

  • Have you tried Dr. Bronner's Soap? It's really concentrated and it's totally organic/natural. Great stuff. I use it to wash not only dishes but also myself (LNT style of course.) It comes in several varieties and not too hard to find these days. Sometimes you just need some soap, even after doing all the things mentioned below.
    – montane
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 3:18
  • If you're not frying with oil, you don't need soap. Commented May 19, 2023 at 1:35

5 Answers 5


What I do is carry a small microfiber cloth. First I rinse my dishes, then I swish with a small amount of boiling water (usually left from our post dinner coffee), and wipe with the cloth. Voila, clean dishes.

Sorry I missed the part about "found in the wilderness". Given that just skip the cloth and use the water ;)

Another note. If the above method will not clean your dishes, then you should first look to changing other things in your efforts to hike light. Cooking when backpacking light should not involve any methods which require significant "elbow" grease when cleaning up. The same goes for dishes. We carry super light silicone bowls because they are the easiest for us to clean.

  • Back when I trekked at Scout Mecca (Philmont) we had to be very conservative with soaps and waste. We had to eat all in our bowl, then put a little water in the bowl/pot and scrubbed it clean then either dumped that or drank it. Unless you're going to in the wilderness for many weeks that should be fine. Being absolutely clean on the trail is generally not a top priority.
    – Patrick
    Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 16:10
  • 1
    @Patrick -- Yeah, I generally drink the water as well, though mostly because I have thing about not pouring nutrition and calories I might need onto the ground :) Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 17:16
  • @RussellSteen - What do you do to clean that microfiber cloth after it gets really nasty? Or does it get nasty?
    – montane
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 23:08
  • @manoftheson -- Dunno, it's never gotten really nasty. Commented Jan 22, 2013 at 15:07

Yes you can. And more to the point, you should (save weight, and leave no trace).

I have not found a backpacking cooking mess that could not be cleaned with a combination of (in this order):

  1. Tongue
  2. Finger
  3. Water + Finger (drink it -- truly "Leave No Trace" (its not as bad as you think))
  4. Snow (when available)
  5. Pine Needles / plant leaves / grass stalks / other "soft" natural scrubber
  6. Sand
  7. Small gravel
  8. Large Rock

Granted, the last 3 might not be the best idea on your fancy teflon-coated pots (but why are you using those anyway? Meet my old friend stainless steel)

Note: the omission of 'soap' is not accidental.

Bonus tip: Coffee grounds do a mean number on bacon grease.

An addendum regarding soap: NEVER use directly in a body of water / creek. Even "biodegradable" soap needs the enzymes found in soil to break down. Wash dishes (and you) well away from any water source. (Unless on a major river where 'dilution is the solution to pollution')

  • 1
    I like the pine needle solution Commented Sep 21, 2012 at 18:57
  • 3
    +1 for stainless steel. Put a lit back on the pot with a little water in it and the steam will usually shift any food remnants. Then use a small bit of pot scourer. Done. Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 15:29
  • 1
    A handful of sand is amazingly effective :)
    – Ryley
    Commented Jan 24, 2013 at 20:44
  • +1 for stainless steel, but +2 for titanium. It's just as durable as stainless steel (can be scrubbed with a steel scrubber or -- a rock), but weighs much less. Commented May 19, 2023 at 1:37

A long time ago, before people had consistent access to Lye or any of the oils we use in soap now, they made it out of what they had on hand. A common one would be wood ash and rendered animal fat ( tallow ).

There's guide on eHow on making said soap, but it appears to not only be time intensive ( rest time of over two months total ), but also involves hauling around a quart of tallow and your simple lye that the process generates.

There are likely simpler ways to do this that wouldn't take as long given the majority of the process is about waiting for the soap to cure in the mold into your desired shape. The recipe could also likely be greatly scaled down to reduce the needed materials to enough for your trip instead of a quantity of soap bars for home use.

The main problem I see here is that you would still need to bring your lye mixture with you even if you made use of camp fire ashes to bind it together, plus any environmental side effects of this soap.

You alternate to this is likely going to be elbow grease and steel wool.

  • 3
    I'm just not sure crafting ash or lye soap in the wilderness is at all practical. Really ash is just used because it has lye in it (one of the early american industries was burning timber for ash to sell the lye to europe). Crafting lye soap is a temperamental and dangerous process which I would not recommend anyone undertake far from emergency services. Short of the zombie apocalypse that is... Commented Sep 21, 2012 at 0:01
  • I entirely agree - it was just about the only alternative to elbow grease and pre-made soap that I could find, though.
    – Kogitsune
    Commented Sep 21, 2012 at 16:02
  • A steel scrubber works better and lasts much longer than steel wool. Commented May 19, 2023 at 1:36

Use Campsuds or something similar, don't bring household soap into the wilderness. The surfactants and phosphates in household soaps will cause more damage to the water supply than the biodegradable soaps like Campsuds.

  • Good sound advice, but not an answer to my question. Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 16:41
  • You can use campsuds to clean your dishes. That is what I use. Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 17:58
  • OP wants something that can be found / made in the wilderness to use as a cleaning product rather than to be brought along - not which product they should use.
    – Kogitsune
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 19:49
  • 1
    Even biodegradable soaps should never be used directly in a water source. They need the enzymes in the soil to properly break down.
    – Lost
    Commented Sep 21, 2012 at 14:56

I use "Wet Ones" instead of soap (if there's no convenient place to bathe). There's not a lot of weight advantage, but they're good for washing yourself in the tent. Since they are antibiotic, they're also handy to clean cuts, scrapes, and spoons.

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