Cleaning Up in the Backcountry
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
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
for apartment dwellers, campers, hunters, [and] RV
." 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
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
filter if you have to) on the stove or over
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
paces) from any water source.
Rinse cycle(s) over? Then you're almost done. It's time to
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
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