How to Do Laundry on a Backpacking Trip

I didn’t plan to do laundry on my two week backpacking trip along the John Muir Trail.

That’s right. Two quick-dry tees. Two sports bras. Two longsleeve shirts. Two pairs of pants. Two pairs of socks. Two pairs of underwear. Two weeks of hiking. Zero days of laundry.

I didn’t plan on doing laundry until I discovered the true stench potential of the human body — more specifically of my human body. It was quite impressive and even made its mark on my puffy jacket. My socks more closely resembled crispy tortilla chips than cloth. My pants seemed to have dirt permanently rubbed into the fabric. And I won’t even mention my unmentionables.

This is when the wise words of a man I met on the trail known as Mr. Clean really sank in: It’s nice to have clean clothes.

If you agree, read on.

How to Do Laundry on the Trail

Clean clothes backpacking

  1. Place dirty clothes in a gallon Ziploc bag. You might need multiple bags or need to do multiple loads.
  2. Add water to the bag from a nearby stream.
  3. Add a few drops of Dr. Bronner’s soap (or a different biodegradable brand).
  4. Seal the bag and rub both sides, rotating the bag as you do so. This process might feel a bit like kneading pizza dough. Try not to get hungry. Continue for several minutes.
  5. Walk at least 100 feet from any water source and dump the dirty, soapy water.
  6. Return to the stream and add fresh water to the bag.
  7. Seal the bag and begin the dough kneading process again.
  8. Dump water at least 100 feet from water sources. Optional: Repeat steps 6-8.
  9. Ring water from clothes (100 feet away from water sources).
  10. Hang clothes to dry.

Simple, right? To really get the most out of doing laundry while backpacking, follow these extra bits of advice.

Use a sunny zero or nearo day

If you tend to hike from sunrise until sunset, wait until a zero (no hiking) or nearo (some hiking) day. You’ll need the power of the sun to ensure your hiking clothes will be dry the next day.

laundry backpacking

Rotate clothes wisely

Your clothes are going to get smelly no matter what. So why not wear one outfit several days in a row? This way when you decide to wash the starting line-up you can wear the clothes you had previously benched. And they won’t be smelly.

Don’t plan on washing your clothes while backpacking? This rotation method is just as important. Slipping into clean clothes halfway through your trip will be a luxurious treat.

Pro Tip: Try to reserve specific clothes for sleeping in. Wearing damp, sweaty clothes is uncomfortable and can make for a cold night.

Wash underwear more frequently

Even a semi-clean pair of underwear can improve your mood significantly on the trail. This is especially true for ladies, and especially especially true for women using the drip-dry method of peeing in the woods. (Guys — consider yourselves lucky that you don’t need to sit and hike in your own urine.) Do a soap-free wash every few days. Even a quick rinse in a body of water can help you feel fresher and more human.

Do you wash your clothes on the trail? What’s your clothes cleaning method?

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