I just came back from a backpacking trip in an alpine area. I was cleaning some kitchen items (pot, spork, pan, etc) with some remnant food particles that were coming off. I use a very small amount of baking soda or campsuds to clean with.

I know to stay at least 200' away from water sources, and not to put food particles near camp because of increasing unwanted visitors (bears, bugs, mice, etc).

Does it matter beyond that though? Are there some places that are better than others? Vegetation versus sand? I default to rocks (big ones) because it's generally cleaner to set down wet cookware while working it and I function under the idea that food particles out there in the open on a rock will be quickly munched up.

3 Answers 3


I think you have the right idea. Leave No Trace principles (and wilderness permit regulations in many areas) dictate that washing be done at least 100 feet from camp, trail, or stream.

If there's some soil nearby that would be the best spot, because there'll be higher activity from decomposing organisms there which will break down any tiny bits of food you may wash out. Avoid impermeable surfaces like granite slabs, because your rinse water will run off and end up contaminating a much larger surface area than if it can percolate down into a permeable material.

As you mention, large, clean, flat rocks nearby can make organization easier, but I would try to avoid accumulating food particles in the open to get "munched up". Too much food accumulated in one place is more likely to attract animals than a bunch of small particles dispersed in the soil, and you don't want to attract animals to your camp.


Following strict leave no trace principles, you're already doing a pretty good job. Where you can improve is to use no soap, small amounts of biodegradable soap are acceptable, but you can clean your dishes with just hot water. When you're done scrubbing, it's best to strain your scraps out of the water and pack them out with the rest of your garbage, then either dig a small cat hole to pour the waste water down, or better yet fling the water out in an arc to disperse it as small water droplets over a greater area.

If you've dug a latrine area, you could also dump your dish waste in there, but do not dump your scraps in an outhouse. You can pour your dish water out in an outhouse, that's actually helpful, but don't put anything solid in an outhouse unless you're pushing it out after first digesting it. Someone else dug that hole, it's very rude to fill it with anything except what they dug it for.

It's not good to bury anything in sand, because sand is technically a system, not a layer of soil. Soil decomposes, sand does not, sand actually flows, albeit extremely slowly, but all sand eventually ends up at the bottom of the ocean where it eventually lithifies into a new sandstone layer, but I digress...

If you bury your scraps, treat them like the rest of your human waste, bury them in soft soil (under some nice rich humus, right in the 'A' horizon of topsoil, or right on top of the 'B' horizon of subsoil), but try not to disturb any vegetation. Avoid rocks, gravel and sand. Your waste will just end up down stream in the next runoff if you try to plant it in anything but soil.


Consider using freezer-bag cooking. You boil your water in a pot, then pour it into a freezer bag with your food to cook. Advantages:

  • No dishes to wash.

  • Zero environmental impact.

  • Makes it easier to avoid backpackers' diarrhea, which the evidence shows comes not from contaminated water but from hand-to-mouth contamination from your hiking partners.

  • 2
    Thanks Ben, but I'm moving away from add-water-to-bag foods a bit. There's a time and a place for them and I still use them, but my meals tend to more closely resemble what I eat at home and as such there are some (small titanium) dishes to do sometimes.
    – Eric
    Apr 29, 2015 at 15:13
  • 6
    I would not say there's 0 environmental impact. The environmental impact of boil-in-bag meals is that you're using a non-reusable foil packet for every meal.
    – nhinkle
    Apr 29, 2015 at 16:52

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