Clean Dishes Without Soap

Everybody knows that to wash dishes properly you need three things, soap, hot water, and an abrasive to scrub with.But when you're in the backwoods you may find yourself without one or all of these things. A few tips from the Old Timers will help you to make do with what you've got.


When you've got greasy pots and a campfire, but no soap

  1. Heat some water. If it's from a natural source, boil it if possible.
  2. Remove any chunks of solid matter from the greasy pots. Leave a small amount of grease.
  3. Toss a good handful of clean wood ashes into the pots, and pour in some hot water. Stir it thoroughly and let it sit for a few minutes. While it's sitting, the hot water is dissolving Potassium Carbonate (K2CO3) from the ashes. This makes a strong alkali solution. The alkali water then reacts with the fatty acids in the grease to make soap.
  4. Scrub the pot. The ashes act as an abrasive. If you need more abrasive, add some dirt.
  5. Rinse the pot, and your hands in clean water. You don't want to leave soap or alkali water on your pots or hands.

When you've got nothing but dirt

  1. Find some sandy gravely dirt, with no bugs or organic matter
  2. Toss a handful into your dishes and scrub vigorously, using it as an abrasive.
  3. Wipe them thoroughly clean. If all the food matter is gone, there won't be much for bacteria to cling to. If you do have a nearby stream, rinse them and dry them thoroughly.
  4. The next time you cook, heat the dishes up to sterilize them either before or during the cooking.


  • For stuck on food, put water from your own source or a stream in the pan and boil over an open flame. This will loosen the stuck on food, making it easier to scrub off. A thick piece of bark works well as a scouring tool.
  • Make sure you wash them carefully once you get home.
  • Set aside special dishes to be used only for camping.


  • Alkali water can be very harsh on your hands. In extreme cases, it can cause chemical burns just like an acid. Use gloves if you've got them, or a stick to do the scrubbing, and rinse your hands thoroughly when you're done.
  • Use a fast moving stream, avoid stagnant water which is more likely to contain parasites.
  • When using stream water, dry it off your dishes thoroughly and heat them if possible before reusing them.

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