How Do Backpackers Wash Their Clothes? | Hikers University

One of the most common questions backpackers get asked is "how do backpackers wash their clothes?" because the popular belief is that we don't.

As a backpacker, hearing people being judgmental and assuming that backpackers don't wash their clothes on a trail can be a hard pill to swallow. Therefore, setting the record straight is crucial!

Backpackers have different ways of washing clothes while traveling, including the plastic bag method, the sink method, the laundromat method, and the laundry services method. Another technique some backpackers may try for washing clothes is using a lake or river to do the job.

When I first thought about backpacking, I was deterred by the idea of not having good hygiene in the outdoors. However, with time I realized that it's just a myth, and if you aren't afraid of using unorthodox methods to get by, you can stay clean and wash your clothes while backpacking.

Although I got over my inhibitions of not being able to have clean clothes on a trail, many don't and give up on backpacking altogether. To help those beginners who wish to start their backpacking journey, I decided to put together this guide that will go over all the ways one can wash their clothes when gallivanting the wilderness in-depth.

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How Do Backpackers Wash Their Clothes?

Before I get to the washing tricks and tips for backpackers, let's first discuss the best clothing options you should pack for your backpacking trips.

Traveling light is one of the first guidelines novice backpackers get when beginning their outdoor adventures. This means they cannot carry too many clothes or any other item for that matter so that they can move around with a little more ease.

Naturally, if you have a giant bag overloaded with goods, you will have a difficult time lugging it around while exploring the wild on foot. Therefore, not packing too much stuff is critical for a successful and hassle-free backpacking trip. For this reason, backpackers choose miniatures of most essentials that will last them for one journey. However, one cannot do so with clothing.

You cannot pack mini-sized clothes for obvious reasons. Simply put, the size of garments often poses a weight problem for travelers. So, what does that mean? Do you take just one pair of tops and bottoms for an entire excursion? Doing so is certainly not the cleanest option. This is where lightweight moisture-wicking clothes come in and take backpackers out of their conundrum.

When packing clothes for a backpacking trip, you should choose fabrics that are lightweight and dry up quickly so that when you hang them up for drying, they don't take a lot of time.

Examples of such materials include synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester and natural fabrics such as wool.

Synthetic fabrics are better than some natural materials as they are lightweight, easy to carry, and moisture-wicking. On top of that, they are much more affordable than most natural garments.

 Contrary to synthetic materials, wool is a suitable fabric to take on backpacking trips. It keeps you warmer more than any other cloth. However, there are cons to packing woolen clothes.

Firstly, they can be a little heavy to carry, and they can cause allergic reactions on the skin. Rashes, irritation, and burning sensations are common skin responses to woolen outfits. Simply put, they are not the best choice of clothing for people with sensitive skin.

Bringing the right clothes on a backpacking trip is a must if you want to get by without inconvenience. IF you have lightweight, fast-drying outfits, you can wash them easily and not wait for an awfully long while for them to get dried.

As mentioned above, there are several techniques for washing clothes while backpacking. I will discuss each of those here in detail.

The Plastic Bag Method

One of the most commonly employed techniques of washing clothes on backpacking trips is the plastic bag method, especially when there are no facilities available within a close radius.

For this laundry routine, you need to carry a large, recyclable, thick plastic bag with a ziplock to secure all the items inside. You can use whichever size bag that works for you. The only thing you need to remember is that once you have added your clothes, water, and detergent into the bag, the upper half of it should be empty to give you space for squishing.

The Process

Take the zipper bag and fill half of it with warm water. If you have a canister stove, you can heat up the water to use it for washing because hot water is better at killing germs and cleaning in general.

However, if you cannot arrange hot water, you can use regular-temperature water and pour it into your plastic bag.

Add a detergent tablet (or whichever form you have available, i.e., powder or liquid), and seal the pack. Shake the package to create suds to ensure that your mixture is ready to clean your clothes.

Open the zipper bag and put your dirty laundry in before sealing it again. Once you have closed it, give it a good shake and squish the clothes around to allow the detergent to get everywhere.

After 4 to 5 minutes of vigorous shaking, unzip the pack and let all the now spoiled water out. Pour fresh water into the bag to rinse your garments before draining them again. Repeat the same process until you are sure that your laundry is clean.

Hang your freshly washed outfits on a tree branch. You can also stretch a rope between two trees and put your clean laundry on it for drying.

A few essential points to remember when employing the plastic bag method are

  • Don't add too much detergent because rinsing it would become a nightmare for you. Only drop a teaspoon of powder or a thin tablet into one batch of clothes.
  • Use biodegradable detergent so that when you let out the soapy water from the plastic bag, the soil doesn't get damaged and lose its fertility.
  • Use the plastic bag method for smaller clothes such as your underpants or shorts when in the wild, as managing those will be easier. However, if you need fresh clothes and have sufficient water, you may go all out.

Sometimes, we may come across hostels or guesthouses on our backpacking adventures. In that case, you can try the plastic bag method and when it's time for rinsing, place the packet in the sink or tub to let all the bubbly water out.

That said, if you have a washing machine or laundry service at the lodge you are staying at, you don't have to go for the plastic bag technique. However, if those provisions are not available, you can use a plastic bag as a bucket to soak your clothes in detergent water and rinse them in the sink.

The Sink Method

The sink method only works if you are staying at a cabin where you have access to a sink or basin. Typically, backpackers stop at lodges after a specific length of time to use some modern services.

So, if you stay at one, you can use the basin as a bucket and wash your dirty laundry.

The Process

Plug the drain of the sink and fill it with water. Once that's done, add detergent. Ripple the water to create a soapy mixture.

Next, put your clothes and rub them against one another to get all the grime and dirt out. When you feel they are clean enough, unplug the drain and rinse the soap away.

Wring your garments and hang them up for drying. If you don't have hangers for that, you can use metal rods in the window screens or a cloth rack. If you have access to an open area, you can even put your washed laundry there so that it dries quickly and you can be on your way.

The sink method can also be carried out in a tub. I suggest you go for the latter if you can as it will give you much bigger room for washing.

The Washing Machine OR Laundromat Method

As the title implies, the washing machine or laundromat method involves working with a piece of equipment used for doing laundry. It goes without saying that you can only employ it if you take accommodation at a guesthouse because otherwise, you cannot get access to a washing machine.

That said, sometimes you may not even get a washing machine at a hostel or cabin, particularly if it's not a recent construction. In that case, you can stick to the manual tub or plastic bag laundry routine.

However, if you are lucky enough to have an entire apparatus for doing laundry at your lodge, you should wash all of your dirty clothes. Doing so will make your life easier in the coming days as you will not have to worry about doing laundry for a little while, at least.

The Process

Using a washing machine is not rocket science, but sometimes you can run into hurdles such as having instructions in a foreign language. Yes, it can happen!

Many guesthouse owners may save money by putting washing machines made in a foreign country and not of any of the top brands. If you come across such a contraption, don't force it to work. Either ask someone from the management to help you or opt for the manual cleaning method.

The Laundry Service

This method of getting your laundry done is my personal favorite as it requires zero effort on my part. All I need to do is contact the people at the cabin I am staying in and ask them to wash my clothes. Of course, in this case, also, you need to be at a facility because nobody will do your laundry in the wild.

That said, it must be noted that laundry service is not too common at backpacking cottages and huts as most of those have the most basic facilities. However, if you are fortunate enough to land at an advanced place, you can outsource your laundry!

I don't think I need to get into the process of contacting the laundry service at your guesthouse, as you just need to ring up someone in the management and ask them what to do. Sometimes you may get a brochure with extensions to different services at the cabin you are in to contact relevant people accordingly.

The Waterbody Method

In this method, you need to be in proximity to a river or lake to have access to an unlimited water supply. Then you can use the same old plastic bag method to clean your clothes.

Don't soak your unclean garments or put the detergent into the waterbody as doing so will contaminate it. Instead, take out the volume of water you need and use it away from the river/lake.

I hope that reading through this guide must have eased some of your worries regarding doing laundry on backpacking trips. Now you can plan your outdoor adventures more confidently and experience the wilderness!


Peter Brooks

Peter Brooks

I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.

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