The Effective and Eco-Friendly Way to Do Camp Dishes

5 Min. Read
An OARS guide does dishes in the dark on a Grand Canyon rafting trip
Photo by Dylan Silver

Whether it’s a multi-day rafting trip or a car-camping trip with family or friends, spending a few nights outside is one of the best ways to unplug from day-to-day stressors and live simply for a few days (or, better yet, a few weeks). And while it’s awesome not to have to deal with answering emails or managing the family’s activities, there’s one household chore that doesn’t disappear just because you’re cooking outside: doing the dishes.

Fortunately, whoever winds up with dish duty usually has a great view to enjoy while they get the job done. And while there are some environmental considerations to keep in mind for washing camp dishes, this relatively simple chore is a small price to pay for time spent outdoors. Here’s everything you need to know about doing camp dishes the eco-friendly way. 

An OARS guide prepares the dish station on a Tuolumne River trip
Photo by Dylan Silver

Bring a foolproof system

A decent dishwashing station makes cleanup easy for even the most involved camp meals. Seasoned river runners have various tried-and-true methods they swear by, but what really matters is that a dishwashing system addresses these three steps: 

  1. Remove excess food particles. The best way to go about this step is to have a designated food scraper and ask everyone to scrape their plates or bowls into the group’s trash after they’ve finished eating. 
  2. Clean. A plastic bin, bucket, or collapsible camp sink of warm, soapy water with a sponge or scrub brush is the way to go here. (For particularly messy or smelly leftovers—think tomato-based sauces or anything involving fish—you may need to heat up more water to get the job done.) 
  3. Sanitize. One of the most common causes of backcountry illness is improper food handling, so making sure communal dishes are sanitized is key. A second bin filled with a mixture of water and disinfecting agent will do the trick. If the weather conditions allow, finish by air-drying dishes.

Use environmentally-friendly products

Doing camp dishes the eco-friendly way means choosing soap and bleach alternatives that minimize environmental harm, ideally both during the manufacturing process and once they’re out in the world. There are numerous environmentally-friendly dish soaps (and hand and body soaps!) on the market, so depending on your budget and the length of your trip, you’ve got lots of options. 

For a variety of natural scents and size options, Dr. Bronner’s is a multi-use soap (also good for handwashing) that doesn’t contain synthetic foaming agents or dyes. Sea to Summit’s biodegradable Wilderness Wash is a little pricier and comes in just one scent, but its durable bottle and leak proof lid are worth the tradeoff. For a longer trip, a bottle of plant-based Seventh Generation dish soap is a great choice. To sanitize dishes, Seventh Generation’s chlorine-free bleach alternative is a good replacement for traditional bleach. 

A typical OARS kitchen setup with the dish table in the back.
Photo by Dylan Silver

Set up the kitchen with dishes in mind

After dinner, everyone’s top priority is relaxing, ideally around a campfire. You can get the group there faster by streamlining the dishwashing process from the moment you start setting up your camp kitchen. Placing a mat (or in a pinch, a towel will do the trick) below the area you’ll use to prep food, cook, and do dishes will make it easier to reduce the micro-trash and food particles you leave behind. If you’re just using one table, set out the bins and soap you’ll use for camp dishes so you can stage them as soon as you’re finished cooking; if you have a setup with two camp tables, you can get your dish station up and running while dinner is cooking. 

While you’re setting up your camp kitchen, be on the lookout for where you’ll dispose of your gray water after the dishes are done. In addition to scraping food particles off dishes, you’ll need to strain out any remaining food particles from the bin of soapy water and toss them in with the trash you’ll be packing out. (Throw a small mesh strainer into your kitchen box for this purpose.) Leave No Trace guidelines say that you can broadcast gray water or bury it in a six-inch cathole, as long as it’s 200 feet away from any lake or stream and your camp. However, on some river trips it’s appropriate to dispose of gray water in the river to limit the degradation of camps and protect the natural ecosystem.

An OARS guide washes dishes under string lights on a rafting trip in Utah
Photo by Colleen Miniuk

Set expectations with your group—and make it fun

As with any group activity, communication is key. As you’re setting out on your river trip or camping trip, make sure everyone in your group is clear about what constitutes trash (including micro-trash), any Leave No Trace guidelines specific to the area where you’ll be traveling, and what everyone’s responsibilities will be with regard to cooking and dishes. If everyone is on the same page, it’s easier to make sure dishes are being done the eco-friendly way. A few helpful hints: 

  • If everyone washes and sanitizes their own personal dishes, the burden is much lighter on whoever has dish duty that night.
  • Consider assigning dish duty for each night in advance, just as you might assign cooking duty or meal prep. That way, no one gets stuck volunteering every night. 
  • Some groups play a post-dinner game (or even plan ahead and play a game on the river) to determine who’s on dish duty. You can get creative with this—for example, whoever spots the most species of birds or spends the most time on the oars is exempt.
Portrait of Emma Walker and her dog on the river

Emma Walker

Emma Walker is the author of the book "Dead Reckoning: Learning from Accidents in the Outdoors." She earned her M.S. in Outdoor and Environmental Education from Alaska Pacific University and has worked as a raft guide, avalanche educator, and backpacking instructor around the American West.

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