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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Mopping-Up Operations

Cleaning Up in the Backcountry —
After the Meal is Over

By Tamia Nelson

November 22, 2005

In the 1958 classic On Your Own in the Wilderness, Bradford Angier's wife Vena had some advice for women who accompanied their husbands on wilderness trips: "Relaxing is one thing," she chided, but "letting yourself go [is] another." Ouch! It's not exactly the feminist manifesto, is it? After all, if your hair gets dirty and your elbows and knees are blackened with engrained grime, you can live with it. And if your pants are caked with dried mud, only your image will suffer. Frankly, this sort of thing worried Vena far more than it does me. Still, there's another way to read her words — as a pointed reminder that good housekeeping is as important in camp as it is back home. Here's one place where Vena and I are in complete agreement. You won't find me ignoring dirty dishes for long. Leftover food in pots and pans is an open invitation to all sorts of uninvited guests, and not every camper enjoys waking to find a hungry bear having a midnight snack at her expense. Of course, it's the critters you can't see that are the real threat, the microbes that thrive on food waste. Nothing can spoil a trip faster than a bout of dysentery, and even mild indigestion can ruin an otherwise perfect day. That's why it's important to keep…

A Clean Kitchen

Always. Eating from bowls that still harbor the remnants of yesterday's stew is asking for trouble. And unless you live entirely on hardtack or energy bars, you'll dirty a few dishes with every meal. Sometimes you can get by with a swipe of your hand and a quick rinse — after making a cup of tea or coffee, say — but that's the happy exception. Usually you need to wash up, just like you do at home.

Few people enjoy washing dishes, obviously, but someone has to do it. Of course, if you're on your own it's Hobson's choice. You are that someone. And most couples will have worked out the ground rules for sharing chores long since. So, too, will larger family groups. Parties of friends who are traveling together for the first time, however, may want to establish a formal rota, with each person taking on the dirty job in turn. If you're all good cooks, you may decide to rotate the cooking chores, as well. (The only ironclad rule? Never expect the cook to wash up!) A cautionary note: To avoid confusion, it's best to agree on the rota before leaving for the put-in. Then, once you're under way, the duty cook and dishwasher simply establish a field kitchen every time you set up camp. The dishwasher will need a few tools to do his job efficiently, but it's not a very long list. He'll want a large pot (for heating water), a second pot or folding basin (the dishpan), mild detergent (or soap), a dishcloth (coarse nylon mesh works well), rubber gloves (paddling with cracked hands is no fun!), a scouring pad or scrub-brush (don't use these on coated pots), and a net bag (why dry dishes by hand when the breeze will do the work?).

Now comes the hard part. With the proliferation of automatic dishwashers, doing dishes by hand is becoming something of a lost art. And even folks who regularly do the washing-up at home will have to adjust to a sink without a hot-water tap. To be sure, water's seldom in short supply on a paddling trip, but clean, fresh, hot water is often scarce. Whether you rely on a wood fire or a camp stove, you'll want to conserve. Fortunately, you won't need gallons of water to wash the dishes. Total immersion is not a requirement.

OK. The real work starts when the meal's over, or a little bit before. Fill your large pot with water, cover, and put it on the flame. If you've already treated the water, you'll only need to heat it till it's warm. If not, however, you'll want to bring it to boiling. Then you'll have to let it cool down, or risk a serious scald, and burns are no fun in the backcountry. The moral? Pretreating the water saves fuel (and time). It could also save your trip. Now pour a couple of inches of hot water into your dishpan. (Replace the cover on the large pot to keep the remaining water warm.) Add detergent — but do so sparingly. If you use too little you can always add more, but if you add too much, you're out of luck. And you'll also need more rinse water. Not good.

Hungry paddlers usually empty all the cooking pots and scrape their plates clean. If your companions' appetites have failed them, though, you'll need to do this job first. (Dispose of food waste well away from camp, and at least 150 feet from any water source. If regulations permit, shallow burial is probably the best method. Treat garbage like human waste, in other words, but never dump it into an established privy!) Now it's time to get your hands wet. Conserve both water and suds. Don't splash, and be sure to leave the dirtiest dishes — usually the cooking pots — till last. As dishes are washed, stack them to one side of your work area. When everything has gone through the suds, empty the dishpan far from your camp (in the same place you disposed of any food waste). Next, rinse each item in turn with clean, hot water dipped from the big pot, allowing the rinse water to drain into the dishpan. That way, you can recycle it if needed. A clean cup makes a good dipper. Just dribble a small stream of water over the soapy dishes.

Lastly, put the freshly-rinsed dishes in the net bag and hang them under the tarp to dry. Then make one more trip to your dump site to dispose of the rinse water, swirling it around as you pour it out to remove any food residue clinging to the sides of the dishpan. A preliminary swipe with the dishcloth may be necessary. (Pots are easier to clean than fabric basins.)

That's it. You're done. Almost. Some items will need…

Special Handling

Avoid using steel wool or other harsh scrubbers on coated cookware. (A few cynics suggest that you should also avoid heating it, but that's probably going too far. I wish you better luck with non-stick coatings than I've had, though.) If, like me, you prefer to rely on seasoned cast iron, you'll also want to go easy on the elbow grease. Abrasive cleaners and long immersion are both no-nos. Don't leave cast iron to air dry, either. Instead, dry it with a bandanna or towel and oil it lightly after each use. (With cooking oil, not 3-in-One®.) Treated carelessly, a cast-iron skillet will soon be a rusty mess. Given a little TLC, however, it can serve several generations. I still use my grandparents' cast-iron Dutch oven. It's now on its second century.

Wood-fire cooks — and users of some alcohol and kerosene stoves, as well — will have another problem to deal with: soot. It's a challenge that seems to call for the…

Black Arts

Fire-blackened pots have exercised the ingenuity of outdoor travelers for a long time, and many swear by a coating of soap, liberally applied (to external surfaces only!) before cooking. I've tried this myself in the past. It worked, but it sure seemed like a lot of trouble. So I no longer bother. Now I concentrate on getting the inside of my pots clean and leave the sooty outside alone, contenting myself with an occasional swipe of the dishcloth to remove any loose flakes or clinging pine needles. In time, the carbon hardens into a sort of varnish. It may even improve the heat-transfer performance of the pots. But it will still soil anything it touches, so each pot or skillet goes into a heavy plastic bag before being stowed in the pack.

If soaping your pots doesn't appeal, but you'd like to restore the showroom shine between trips, try scrubbing the varnish with a paste made from baking soda and water. With time (and effort), your cookware will sparkle like new.

Anything else? Well, I suppose I ought to say a few more words about a subject I hinted at earlier:

Camp Sanitation

There's more to good housekeeping than doing the dishes. To minimize temptation and discourage nocturnal raids on your larder, all food should be hung high or, better yet, stored in "bearproof" plastic drums. (Some camping areas already require backcountry travelers to carry these food safes. More will soon follow suit.) And any spilled food must be scraped or burned off grills and other implements. Food waste, including fish guts, bones, and scraps, should be disposed of in the manner stipulated by regulations. Sometimes shallow burial will suffice, if the burial site is at least 150 feet from your camp and any water source. More often, though, you'll be required to pack all food waste out with your other trash. Use sturdy plastic bags, and then double them. A reminder: Garbage is an attractive nuisance, too — an open invitation to unwanted dinner guests. Hang it or store it in a hard plastic drum, just like your food.

But what about the old practice of burning garbage in the campfire? It's now discouraged, and for good reason, although a quick glance at any popular campsite will show you that the message hasn't gotten through to many folks. Fire risk is one problem. The proliferation of plastic and metal-foil packaging is another. The simplest course — and arguably the best — is just to wash any cans and other rigid containers and pack them out empty, along with every plastic and foil envelope. (After all, you packed them in full, didn't you? They're a lot lighter now.) Sturdy plastic garbage bags are a must. Then, if you have room at the end of your trip, why not bring out a little more than you carried in? There's plenty of opportunity. The backcountry is littered with monofilament line and six-pack rings, for example, and both are hazardous to wildlife. It's their home, after all. You're their guest. And a houseguest who leaves his room cleaner than he found it is always welcomed back.

You wouldn't eat from dirty plates and bowls at your dining-room table, would you? None of us would. So why put up with them in camp? Particularly as the ER isn't just a phone call away. Of course, not many people enjoy washing the dishes, and the job isn't made any easier when your kitchen is miles from the nearest tap. Still, a little planning goes a long way. Camp housekeeping doesn't have to be a burden. Besides, there's usually a great view right over the sink!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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