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When going camping on a multi-day trip, how do you clean metal pots, metal silverware and plates (for metal or ceramic)?

The solution that came to mind was to bring dish soap and a sponge. However:

  • It adds bulk
  • The dirty sponge will dirty up everything else in my backpack
  • Drying and cleaning the sponge when done takes a long time
  • Dumping soapy water in the wilderness is bad for the environment (and often against the rules)
  • In many areas (such as deserts) water is limited, and park rules say you should conserve water (and using up a lot of water to first wash, then rinse, then wash the sponge seems like a waste)
  • In other places, clean water is not readily available. If I just rinse my things with water from a random stream, then put them in my mouth/eat off them, won't that expose me to pathogens in the stream water?

I'm curious if there's a better solution to this than just using disposable items like paper plates and cups, plastic forks and spoons, and disposable aluminum foil cooking vessels (this also seems wasteful since you can easily go through a bag of each in a week).

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I like using a soap and sponge, but it's not the only solution. It is possible to cut the weight of a soap and sponge setup pretty significantly. Using a small scrubby like the one shown below works well and is much lighter. You can also take a regular sponge and cut it into a much smaller mini-sponge which is typically still fine for the duration of a backpacking trip.

scrubbies

Soap can be decanted into a tiny container, like the Nalgene 1-oz bottle:

nalgene tiny bottle

There are assorted biodegradable soaps which purport to be more environmentally friendly, although biodegradable soaps are not necessarily 100% environmentally friendly, especially if they end up in a water supply. The biodegradation typically only works in soils. If you're following LNT principles though, you should be washing over soils whenever possible as that will help prevent runoff into water sources and any tiny food particles are more likely to be broken down quickly in biologically active soil than in relatively lifeless dirt or rocks.


There are viable alternatives to soap and water though. One method which is fairly effective is to just clean with a bit of sand/grit to get the mechanical agitation required to remove food, then rinse with water as normal. This method may not be adequate though if your dishes have been used with meat. You can use a small amount of rubbing alcohol as a disinfectant after rinsing; the alcohol will evaporate very quickly.

Choice of cooking equipment can also affect how difficult it is to clean. Food will come off of non-stick pans easier than it comes off of some other materials, and making sure not to burn your food will also prevent the much more difficult cleaning which comes from that.

Pre-rinsing can also greatly reduce the amount of cleaning required. Putting a bit of warm water in your bowl and using your spoon to get gunk off the edges and bottom, then drinking (if you can bear it!) the soupy mixture which results gets more of the food in you and less to clean up.


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. You should also do all cooking and cleaning at least 200 feet away from any stream, trail, or campsite.

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    Baking soda makes a great cleaning agent and is much easier on the environment. – Eric Jun 13 '15 at 15:01
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Nhinkle gives an amazing answer here, but I wanted to add an option which we quite often use, which is to soapy wash less often throughout the day. This will depend on what you cook / eat / water supply etc however.

For example when camping we often eat, packet noodles, porridge, beans, packet soups, couscous etc from our cups or mess tins. My point here being that what you choose to eat will have an effect on how dirty your pots pans etc become. Routinely, even at home, I will reuse a glass for a few drinks throughout the day without cleaning it. We do similar camping.

Because packet noodles and the like actually don't leave a lot of grime in a mess tin or cup, you can get away with a quick rinse right after you finish, I don't even use a brush or sponge, just wipe around the tin with my hand and chuck the water away. No soap needed. It will not be sparkling dishwasher clean but it will be reusable throughout the day - ultimately then just clean thoroughly in the evening. This saves on soapy waste, but a rinse right after eating with just water can leave mess tins and cups good enough for the days use. Like I said, I reuse my cup a lot before washing it up, mostly it will only have water in anyway.

Obviously this won't work so well if you've cooked meats, as the grease will not come out without soap when only using cold water... However most grime will come up with hot water if you've the time to boil some up and use a bit of elbow grease.

Also try microfiber cloths as I find these dry out really quickly compared to regular sponges and dishcloths and I find they can clean just as well as a sponge.

Definitely avoid disposable items as you'll find you'll carry more than you need to and will have to recycle them afterwards. Not so good for the planet!

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