How To Properly Dispose Of Dishwater When Camping: Safe Tips

by Julie | Last Updated:   April 11th, 2022
How To Properly Dispose Of Dishwater When Camping: Safe Tips


When one thinks of camping, one thinks of all the fun and adventures that come with it. Not, all the nit-picking details of packing, setting up the campsite, cleaning and washing dishes, all the other small, yet important things that surround each camping trip. Camping is a great hobby and something that everyone should try at least once to know if they like it.

Just remember to be respectful of the environment and considerate of the people who will use the same campsite after you. Leave No Trace education is important because they teach you principles that not only will improve your experience camping as well as others but will maintain the environment so that it can continue to be safely used in the years to come.

Environmental impact is an important aspect of any outdoor recreation, so having the proper education will help you to better understand the purpose of why campsites and campgrounds all have signs and postings asking you to properly dispose of your trash, leftovers, and dishwater properly. Take care of the space you are using, it will improve your experience and decrease the negative impact, and the possibility of wildlife getting too close.

So, we are here today to talk about just one of these seemingly minor things. Which is how you dispose of dishwater when camping. You’ll be cooking every day of your stay and will be using water to cook and clean, so you’ll want to know how to properly dispose of it when you’re done.

Where and How To Properly Dump Dishwater When Camping?

Let’s just jump right into it why don’t we? First, we will discuss the ‘where’ when it comes to disposing of the dirty dishwater. Unlike at home, you are likely to not have a running sink when you’re camping. Most campgrounds might have a designated sink where you can go to wash your dishes or you can even use a bathroom sink, but not everywhere has that luxury.

The use of a specified sanitizing bucket is a good way to wash dishes at the campsite too. You have to make do with what you’ll have prepared and packed. This is again another reason to take your time to meticulously plan and prepare. When disposing of dishwater you must be 200 feet away from any water sources. This decreases the impact on shorelines and prevents polluting the water sources with leftover waste. Remember we want minimal impact on the environment!

Now, there are two main ways to dispose of dirty dishwater and greywater:

  1. Dig a Sump Hole: this is a 6 to 8-inches deep hole at the edge of your campsite 200 feet from any water source. At this depth, most animals won’t be able to detect trace amounts of food. Ideal places for a sump hole are between the roots of a large tree, rotted log, or tree stump. You use a small strainer, wire screen, or mesh to strain the larger food particles from the water. This way you can through away the food remnants into a sealable plastic bag to put in your trash. Slowly pour the water so you can catch all the food scraps on the strainer.
  2. Broadcasting: this is a technique usually used when brushing your teeth, as well as when you’re finished washing dishes. Again you’ll need to be 200 feet from any water source and you will effectively throw the water from your pot or bowl in a fanned arc. This way the dirty dishwater will evaporate much faster and is spread over a wide area. This also allows the smaller soap and food particles to break down faster.

If you want to know more on where and how to properly dispose of dishwater when camping then you can check out the Leave No Trace principles article here:

Dishwashing While Camping Using Leave No Trace Principles

It really isn’t as bad as it sounds to wash dishes in the great outdoors. Everyone does it a little differently and has discovered their own tricks that make it a little easier, but the fundamentals are still the same. You may be wondering how you can get clean water to wash your dishes with, and that is actually quite easy.

Speaking from my own experience, we would use some of our leftovers already purified drinking water after finishing a meal to clean dishes. You can pour some of it into the largest pot and boil water in it to help sanitize that. Then use the hot water in small amounts to pouring into your dinner bowls or plates. That’s when you’ll need a little bit of Dr. Bronner’s soap and scrub pad or sponge, and some good ol’ fashioned elbow grease to scrub out all the food bits.

This greywater that is created is clean water that just has bits of food scraps, oils, and soap in it after you’ve done your cleaning. You can properly dispose of it in a sump hole and/or broadcast it away from the campsite.

Always ensure you are away from the main campsite because you don’t want to attract animals, especially bears. That is why you seal up any large food particles into a ziplock bag after you’ve strained dishwater through the strainer at the sump hole and before you broadcast after a final rinse. You can towel dry dishes, or let them drip dry, you can air dry plates pretty easily as well.

This may sound like a whole procedure, but you’ll soon find it’s just like any cleanup routine when you’re back at home. The environment and your tools are just a little different because there certainly aren’t dishwashers while camping!

Check out this video to see how they wash dishes for some true backcountry camping:

What Soap Is Safe For Camping?

The goal is to minimize environmental impact and not disrupt the complex ecosystems where you are camping, so using biodegradable soap is a must. You don’t want to use any kind of soaps that might have hazardous chemicals for the environment in them.

Some great biodegradable camp soap options are:

These are good biodegradable soaps for washing dishes while camping. They are not only good to wash camping dishes, but for washing your dirty hands, you can use them to wash clothes, and for a shower. A lot of these soaps have multi-use. Be sure to pack some so you are well prepared for your next camping trip!

Can You Use Non-Potable Water To Wash Dishes?

Non-potable water is water that hasn’t been treated or purified. So water straight from a pond, lake, or stream. Never trust the water that you haven’t treated, especially when it comes to cooking and eating utensils. It is always better to be safe than sorry. Using untreated water is just leaving you open to unnecessary risk, so it is best to follow the proper sanitizing cycle to ensure you have the cleanest dishes when eating or drinking.

Besides using cold water isn’t the greatest when doing dishes. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury, but if you are able to heat the water, it is much better to scrape out and wash dirty dishes. It loosens everything up better.

How To Reduce The Amount Of Dishwater Produced?

Don’t overthink it because the answer is quite simple. Just use as little water as possible. It really doesn’t take a lot to wash dishes. A little water and some dish soap go a long way. Especially when you already scrape out the solid waste into your designated trash bag.

You can use the water leftover from a couple of your water bottles and that will limit how much water you use on each item. You’ll want to save some as rinse water as well once you finish washing and have properly disposed of the dirty water. You can dump the soapy water into a sump hole.

Don’t forget to wash bottles for your drinking water as well. You can leave some of the water in them and just add soap and scrub them out a bit. You want to keep everything clean and sanitary when camping.

Key Insights & Takeaways

Doing dishes while camping is not nearly as much of a procedure as you think it is. You find the rhythm pretty quickly and it’s helpful in a large group when everyone works together to clean all the dishes rather than leaving it to one person, which usually happens at home.

The disposal of dirty water, soaps, and food scraps is very important because the food waste could attract animals to your campsite. And if you and others aren’t conscientious of disposing of the dirty water and gray water properly they can quickly pollute streams. This is also why you want to use biodegradable soap because you don’t want to accidentally pour hazardous chemicals into the earth using the wrong kind of soap.

Using the sump hole and broadcasting methods 200 feet away from any water source is the Leave No Trace way of minimizing the human impact on the environment while you’re camping.

As far as it goes for equipment to wash dishes, you don’t really need much, but when camping with a larger group or staying at a campground for a while, packing collapsible buckets and a collapsible drying rack could be quite helpful. It certainly would improve upon the ease and comfort of washing dishes in your makeshift washbasin.

These tips and methods can be used for any kind of camping whether you’re pitching tents in the backcountry or car camping.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I wash dishes with untreated water?

This is not recommended. You don’t want to take the risk of using untreated water from a lake, pond, or stream. The utensils you use for cooking and eating need to be properly cleaned, dried, and sanitized so that you don’t end up with an avoidable illness. Giardia is not a fun thing to experience and it may not take just drinking unpurified water to get it, but by just cleaning your dishes with untreated water you’re leaving yourself open to the risk.

Don’t trick yourself into thinking that just because you’re using soap, will miraculously mean everything will be clean and fine. You never know the bacteria that could be in a water source. Be smart and be safe!

How do you dispose of greywater when camping?

You can use the methods we mentioned above: broadcasting it or using a sump hole. Gray water is purified water that has oil, food particles, soap, sometimes hair, and whatever else in it from washing your dishes. You can easily dispose of it in a sump hole using a small strainer to catch any of the larger particles of food scraps. Or if it is mostly just the water then you can broadcast it away from your camp where it will evaporate outdoors faster.

How do you wash dishes while backpacking?

When you’re backpacking in the wilderness you tend to take even more of a minimalists approach to most things. Everything is about conserving weight. Fortunately, you really don’t need much to wash dishes while camping. All you really need is treated water (your drinking water), biodegradable soap, a small sponge, and a towel to dry dishes.

You won’t have as much to clean either, just your cooking pot, utensils, bowl, and water bottles to clean out. It goes a lot faster than you think as well. Remember to have a sump hole dug away from your campsite and is 6 to 8 inches deep so you can dispose of the water. Using a square of the screen, mesh, or straining over the hole to catch larger food particles is ideal.

I was fishing before I could walk and it's been a family tradition for centuries. Fishing is my life, or at least as long as I can remember. In the Lake Champlain International Fathers Day Fishing Derby, not only have I won first place twice but also third place! Also, in addition to majoring in Wilderness Recreation Leadership, I also happen to be a licensed camping, hiking, and hunting guide for NY.