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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Mopping-Up Operations

Cleaning Up in the Backcountry —
Laundry Day!

By Tamia Nelson

August 7, 2007

I'm often amused by the glossy catalog photos of canoe and kayak campers. Their boats and gear are pristine. Their cookware gleams. Not a single carefully styled hair is out of place on their heads, and their clothes would pass muster in any office, at least on casual-dress Fridays. Real life is different, of course. Paddling is good clean fun, but you can still count on getting pretty darned dirty when you do it. Let's count the ways. There's thick muck on boggy portage trails. Clinging gumbo on riverbanks and lakeshores. Suspended silt in streams and surf. Pine pitch on firewood. Carbon black on your cooking pots. Oozing blood from bug bites and bramble scratches. Grease from fishing reels. And spilled food at every meal. Add the salt and sweat from a hard day on the water, and you've got a recipe for a mighty busy laundry day.

That said, dirty clothes aren't a big problem on day trips and weekend adventures. You can just bag 'em and wash 'em when you get back. Expeditions are something else, though. And as the days go by, the difficulties mount. Hard-chargers and old woodsmen may boast about wearing the same pair of socks for two weeks, but the rest of us find filthy clothes both oppressive and demoralizing. After all, what's the point of washing your body if you've no clean clothes to change into?

Good question. But there are few laundromats to be found in the backcountry. You could bring along something like the little Wonder Clean™ Washing Machine, I suppose. The ad copy says that it's "ideal … for apartment dwellers, campers, hunters, [and] RV owners …." This boast could be right on the money, too. The little hand-cranked Wonder is no bigger than the propane tank on a gas grill, and it only weighs five pounds. Still, five pounds is five pounds, and every pound grows heavier with each step along a portage, particularly when the trail starts to climb. Luckily, there are lighter, more compact alternatives, and best of all …

The Gear's Right at Hand

In fact, your hands are an integral part of the solution. Call this the Armstrong Washing Machine. It's not high-tech, but it sure beats pounding your clothing on the rocks in the river. All you need are a makeshift washtub, some soap or detergent, and a little elbow grease. Some bailers make good washtubs — if they're big enough, that is — and large cooking pots can also do double duty on laundry day. Folding buckets work OK, too. (Be sure they're not too quick to fold under pressure, though!) And your washtub doesn't have to be a tub. A dry bag makes a pretty fair washing machine. Even large Ziploc® freezer bags (or their store-brand counterparts) can be pressed into service, as can the extra-large, heavy-duty storage bags that are now making their appearance on HyperMart shelves. You've got plenty of choice in the soap department, as well. The catalogs are full of camping soaps, some of which claim to work in cold salt water, surely the toughest challenge of all. But I find that liquid dish detergent does a fine job. Decant it into a small plastic bottle with a tight cap, then — belt and suspenders, right? — seal the bottle in a plastic bag, just in case. Bring more than you think you'll need. You won't use much to wash a single load (a teaspoon is probably plenty; experiment at home to see how much of your favorite is enough), but it's a pain to run out on a long trip.

That's it. You're not likely to forget your hands, are you? Now you're ready for …

Wash Day

Admittedly, hand washing clothing is something of a lost art, but if you've ever watched a washing machine do its stuff, you know the drill. Wash your clothes. Now wring out as much of the soapy water as you can. Then rinse in clean water. Wring out again. Rinse again. Wring again. Dry. A couple of caveats: If you don't use too much soap to begin with, you may be able to get by with a single rinse. And don't take "wring" too literally. You can wring sturdy cottons, but it's better to squeeze the water out of most woolens and synthetics — without twisting. Plus it's great exercise for your hands. Do enough loads of laundry in camp, and you'll never again worry about hanging onto your paddle, no matter how wild the rapids.

Water temperature isn't critical. Warm — not hot! — water works better than cold, but it isn't really necessary. In fact, many synthetics now specify cold-water wash only. Of course cold water in your washing machine at home isn't the same thing as cold water fresh from a mountain stream. Think body temperature. Heat a quart or two of the cleanest water you can find (use a bandanna filter if you have to) on the stove or over your cooking fire, and then temper it with clean, cold water until it's just the slightest bit warm to the touch. Or use a solar-shower bag to bring cold water up to body heat. That's plenty hot enough.

Your Armstrong Machine technique will depend on your choice of washtub, but the basic principle is the same for all. Agitation is what gets the dirt out. Begin by filling the washtub with clean water and adding soap or detergent. (A partner is a big help if you're using a dry bag — these tall bags tend to flop over as they fill.) Swirl your hands around in the water to mix the soap in. You should raise some suds with very little effort at this point, but if the suds flow over the lip of your washtub you've used too much soap: plan on a second rinse to get the suds out of your clothes, and use less soap next time. Now put your dirty clothes in the washtub, pushing them down and kneading them till they're thoroughly soaked. Don't overload. Leave a little working space at the top. It's easier to do two small loads than to re-wash a load that was too big in the first place, especially as you can often reuse the same wash water for several loads. That goes for rinse water, too.

Once you've filled your washtub, you're ready to begin. Agitate! If you're using a bucket, pot, or bailer, just swirl and squeeze soapy water through the dirty clothes. (Are you doing laundry for a big party, using a really big pot? Then you'll find that a rubber plumber's friend helps to work suds through the clothes.) If you're using a dry bag, however, you start by sealing the bag. In this case, washing is a hands-off operation. You won't be able to swirl and squeeze. Instead, simply knead the sealed bag while rolling it around in your hands. Again, it helps to have a partner, especially if you're using a large bag. Water is heavy! Keep agitating for as long as it takes to get your clothes clean — usually no more than three to five minutes. Then squeeze out the soapy water and rinse.

Some tricks of the trade: If your clothes are very dirty — let's say you took a tumble on a boggy stretch of trail — a preliminary rinse in clean water will save you a lot of time and trouble. You'll also need a work surface to hold your clean clothes between the wash and rinse cycles. A tarp works well, as does the bottom of an upturned boat. Lastly, never dump dirty water in a stream or lake. Locate your laundry room at least 150 feet (30 double-step paces) from any water source.

Rinse cycle(s) over? Then you're almost done. It's time to …

Hang Out

This is one of the original applications of solar energy. There were clotheslines long before there were dryers, and they work as well now as they did in our grandmothers' day. (Grandfathers didn't often do laundry back then, but times have changed.) Just string a line between two convenient points and hang your clothes out to dry. Warning! Wet clothes may be heavy, but they get lighter as the moisture evaporates. So unless you enjoy chasing your socks and underwear every time a gust of wind whistles through camp, don't just drape your newly washed clothes over the line. Peg them down, instead. You can find light plastic clothespins in most HyperMarts, and some outfitters sell plastic-covered wire clips that serve the same purpose. Or if you don't mind splinters, you can whittle some clothes-pegs from deadfalls on the trail. In any case, pick your laundry day with care, and keep one eye on the weather. Clothes dry best when it's warm and windy, with low humidity — in fact, you can often dry wet clothes underway on days like this, simply by stretching them over your gear and tying them down. Calm, humid days aren't so good for drying, however, and rainy days are worst of all. (I'll bet you're not surprised.) If you simply must do laundry in the rain, string your clothesline under a tarp. Don't put the line too near the fire, though — and never dry synthetics over the flames.

Paddling is good clean fun, but clothes get dirty fast in the backcountry. And not many paddlers like spending day after day in filthy rags. Luckily, though, it's easy to clean up your act (and your wardrobe). The Armstrong Washing Machine is the answer. All it takes is a makeshift washtub, a little soap and water, and a bit of elbow grease. So scrub your duds while you listen to the cheery chatter of chickadees. Laundry day was never this much fun at home!

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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