Skills Series: How to Do Your Dishes in the Backcountry

Ten Sleep, WY: Dirty dishwater and food scraps can pollute our rivers, lakes, and streams, which is why Leave No Trace always recommends doing your dishes at least 200 feet, or 70 big steps, away from any water sources. Even biodegradable soaps can take between six months and several years to fully break down in water environments. In that time, they contribute excess nutrients to water sources and alter pH balances, both factors that are critical for healthy waters.

The one-bucket wash system is perfect for backcountry situations when your group has finished a one-pot meal. If you're in a larger group consider using the four-bucket wash system for increased sanitation. If you're in a frontcountry campsite, use dishwashing facilities if they are provided. Alternatively, overnight backpackers can consider packing out their dirty dishes to wash at home.

Materials Needed: Scraper, sponge or scour pad, small amounts of phosphate free and unscented biodegradable soap, a dish bucket or pot, a drying towel, a strainer, and a trash bag. 

Step One: Collect your water from the water source and carry it 200 feet away. Leave No Trace never recommends doing dishes in water sources. Filter or boil your water before doing your dishes to maximize sanitation.

Step Two: Scrape your dishes free of all food scraps and pack these scraps out in your trash bag.

Step Three: Using minimal amounts of soap, scrub your dishes clean. Use warm water to rinse your dishes free of any soapy residue, then dry your dishes. 

Step Four: Strain out your food scraps and dispose of the dirty dishwater by broadcasting or depositing in a cathole 200 feet away from camp and water sources. Pack out your food scraps to avoid attracting wildlife to your camp. 

Find alternative strainer options here.

Enjoy Your World. Leave No Trace.

Leave No Trace's Donielle Stevens and Aaron Hussmann are part of the 2017 Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Program that provides free, mobile education to communities across the country. Proud partners of this program include Subaru of America, REI, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Deuter, Thule, Klean Kanteen, and Smartwool.