Washing Dishes in the Backcountry

August 19, 2010

If you’re a guest at somebody’s house, it’s rude to leave food scraps scattered behind you. The situation is no different in the backcountry—except that your hosts are the wildlife, the wilderness, and its waterways. Treat them with respect. Don’t leave any food waste behind. Know how to wash up appropriately after a meal, and why you should care in the first place.

Wild Waters, Wild Life
Poor dishwashing and improper food disposal affect wildlife, water sources, and the experiences of other visitors. “Human food is a wildlife attractant,” notes Ben Lawhon, education director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics in Boulder, Colo. “And if wildlife is attracted, they will come in and create problems.” Alex DeLucia, AMC’s Leave No Trace program coordinator, concurs. “You’re impacting the eating habits of wild animals by allowing them to associate people with food. There’s a real cost associated with such food carelessness. Problem animals can damage your gear in search of dinner and they may have to be relocated or even killed if their behavior persists.”

Click here for more on Leave No Trace principles and LNT Master Educator courses.

Poor dishwashing methods can also contaminate backcountry water sources, especially if you’re using soap. And though many food scraps break down quickly, they don’t biodegrade fast enough in high-use areas. “Nobody likes to maneuver around banana peels and pistachio shells,” DeLucia observes.

Full Stomach, Empty Plate
One of the most common mistakes people make is preparing too much food. “The very first thing is to properly plan your meals,” Lawhon explains. If you cook too much, there’s only one proper way to dispose of uneaten food: pack it out. If you’ve consumed all of your meal, focus on mopping up every last morsel. Lick off your plate. Use a tortilla or piece of bread to wipe the pot clean. If there’s anything left when you’re done, scrape the remains into your garbage. The goal is to have as few food scraps as possible left to clean.

Hot Water, Clean Dishes
Start the cleaning process shortly after finishing your meal; dishes become harder to clean once food scraps have dried and encrusted your cookware. First heat a small amount of water in your largest pot. Take your dishes at least 200 feet away from any streams or ponds and use the hot water to wash them, taking care to keep the used gray water contained in one of your pots. A small sponge aids in the cleaning process, or you can simply use your hands (de-germ them first with some hand sanitizer). If you choose not to use soap, sterilize your pot by bringing water to a boil the next time you use it.

Love that Soapy Water?
If you prefer to wash with soap, look for biodegradable versions. Avoid any soaps that contain phosphates, a damaging pollutant found in many common household brands. “Use the minimum amount of soap to get the job done,” exhorts Lawhon. Even biodegradable soap contains chemicals not found naturally in the outdoors, he adds, but “ultimately it doesn’t present enough of an ecological concern to say don’t use soap. The real goal is to avoid getting it into water sources.” Soap-eating bacteria exist primarily in soil, not water; soap that makes it into streams and ponds will linger for years.

Strain, Drain, or Broadcast
Once the dishes are clean, you’re left with the used gray water. Before you dispose of it, strain out any remaining food particles and add them to your trash. Lawhon suggests using a bandana, panty hose, or a quartsize plastic bag filled with leaf litter (cut a hole in the corner to drain). Once the gray water is food-free, you’re ready to dispose of it. If you are in a less-traveled area, “broadcast” it by scattering it widely. If you’re in a heavily traveled area, consider using a sump hole to focus use, and scents, in one spot. DeLucia notes that most AMC backcountry campsites in the White Mountains have a designated cooking and cleaning area, including a spot for draining your gray water. If you’re a true zero-impact diehard, you can even drink your (non-soapy) gray water. “We don’t have a stance on that,” Lawhon laughs. “But if people want to go to that level, go for it!”

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