My older scouts have learned the value of good dish washing in camp. But when scouts first cross over into the troop, it can be a challenge. At home, they probably just load their dirty dishes into an automatic dishwasher so this concept of hand washing dishes may be completely foreign to them.
I can’t count the number of times over the years I have told scouts to wash their dishes in hot soapy water and yet, I still catch them washing their dishes underneath a community spigot with cold water and no soap. Washing dishes in this manner will take longer, wastes a lot of water, creates an unsanitary area around the water spigot, and simply will not get the dishes clean or sanitized, creating health issues for campers down the trail.
I’ve even seen young campers just stack their dirty dishes, pots and pans back into their chuck box. I’m not sure if they just don’t realize they will have to wash them before they can use them again or they believe the chuck box works like their dishwasher at home and will just magically clean them. If we don’t catch it, sometimes the dirty dishes ride back home in their chuck box, which gets unloaded from the trailer and stored in the shed. When the chuck box is opened on the next campout, all manner of molds and germs have grown (see gross image below). We’ve had to throw away things like the wooden spoon below because we’ll never get them clean enough to be used safely. It’s a hard lesson sometimes.
Washing dishes in camp does not have to be hard nor does it need to take a long time. Here are some simple tips for good dish washing that will help you stay healthy and minimize the impact on the environment.
- I have an adjustable table that I can raise to counter height. I use it in my cook shelter as a prep and serving place. If you don’t have a table, you could use the end of a picnic table.
- A set of three plastic dish pans. Use tubs that are large enough to accommodate what you will need to wash, but are not so big that you have to boil gallons of water to fill them.
- Large pot with a lid or a large kettle for boiling water.
- Dishwashing soap (I prefer Dawn for its grease cutting abilities and it’s easy on the environment).
- Scrub brush, nylon scrubby pad, scrapers, etc.
- Small bottle of bleach or steramine tablets.
- Mesh bags and/or collapsible drain rack.
- Heavy duty trash bags.
- Rope for a clothesline.
Heat Your Water
Before you actually serve the meal, start a kettle or large pot of water on the fire or the stove. By the time you are done eating, the water will probably be boiling.
Set Up Your Wash Station
Clear one of your prep tables or the end of a picnic table and set out your dish pans and drying rack (if you’re using one). This is way more comfortable and preferable than setting your wash tubs on the ground and squatting while you wash your dishes (yes, I’ve seen my scouts do that).
Divide your boiling water between the wash tub (first dish pan) and the rinse tub (second dish pan). Top off each of these pans with just enough cold water to take the sting off. Keep the water as hot as you can stand it. To the wash tub, add a few drops of soap, and mix in. Fill your third dish pan with cold water and add just 2 steramine tablets or a little (and I mean a little) liquid bleach. You only need 1 teaspoon of liquid bleach per gallon of water. I usually start a second batch of water just in case my wash and/or rinse water becomes too dirty and I need fresh water. By the time you want to refresh the water, it will probably be ready.
Prep Your Dishes for Washing
Each camper is responsible for taking their napkin and wiping their dishes clean, getting off as much food residue as possible. With hungry campers and good food, this is usually not a problem. I’ve even watched scouts literally lick their plates clean. For the cook, there is no higher complement than that. Pre-cleaning your dishes as well as your pots and pans will keep your dish water cleaner, longer. Wipe or dust off any soot on your pots and pans.
Organize your dishes, pots and pans so that you are washing the cleanest dishes first and the dirtiest dishes last. Always save your greasy pots and pans for last. You can always make a fresh hot soapy wash and rinse.
Hot Soapy Wash
Everything gets a good scrubbing in the hot, soapy water. Run your fingers over surfaces to make sure there is nothing stuck on. Pots and pans that are greasy need to be tested before they are rinsed. Rub a finger inside the pot and if there’s still grease, you will need to wash it with soapy water a second time. Drain and/or shake off as much soapy water as possible so as not to contaminate your rinse water.
Hot Water Rinse
After all the soapy water has been drained off the dishes, submerge them in the rinse water. If you can’t completely submerge them, use a cup, bowl or your cupped hand to pour rinse water over the dishes. It is important to rinse off all the soap because soap residue on your dishes can give you diarrhea.
In the third dish pan, submerge dishes in the sanitizing solution for a full minute to sanitize them. From here they are loaded into mesh bags and hung on a clothesline or arranged in a drying rack to air dry.
Air drying is best. It is very effective and you are not using roll after roll of paper towels. You can also dry dishes using dish towels, but once the dish towels become soaked, it is difficult to get anything dry with them. You can hang them on a clothesline, but unless you have sun light and/or a good breeze, it can take a while to dry them. In addition, they need to be dry by the end of the day so they can be taken down and placed in one of your totes; otherwise, they will pick up condensation over night and be damp in the morning. If you are using dish towels to dry your dinner dishes, odds are the towels will not be dry before you go to bed. The two best methods for air drying are hanging dishes in mesh bags or arranging them in a drying rack.
Rinse Dishpans and Dispose of Gray Water
Now that all the dishes are clean and work surfaces have been wiped down, take a piece of cheesecloth and strain your wash water into a gray water sump. This is usually located at the community spigot. The food particles caught in the cheesecloth can be thrown into the trash. Using your rinse water, rinse out the wash tub. Finally, pour your sanitizing water from the third dish pan into the rinse pan and let it stand for a minute, then pour it into the wash dish pan and let it stand for a minute before pouring into the sump. If a sump is not available, you will need to carry your dish pans at least 75 steps from any streams, lakes, campsites, or trails. Fling the water with a long sweeping throw to spread it over a large area. Choose a sunny area, if possible, so it will evaporate quickly, causing minimal impact.
Dispose/Secure Your Trash
After dinner or after the evening cracker barrel, secure and walk your trash to the camp trash dumpster. You want to avoid leaving it in your campsite overnight because it will attract critters and they will easily tear open the bag and scatter trash as they rummage through it looking for food.
Start water to boil.
Set up dish washing station.
Pre-clean your dishes.
Wash cleanest to dirtiest.
Hot soapy wash.
Hot clean rinse.
Cold sanitizing soak.
Air dry in mesh bags or a rack.
Dispose of gray water.
If you follow these steps, washing dishes should go quickly and easily, and they will be safe to use for your next meal.
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