How do you wash dishes without water?

Living without running water is pretty common especially in the off-grid community. There are easy ways to fulfill your water needs in the short term, but you will need to get creative in a long term scenario. One day the tap might run dry. Or you could be on the last leg of your hike and down to the very last half gallon of water. At that point you would want to conserve your dwindling water supply as much as possible because you need it for hydration. How do you wash dishes without water? Below you will find everything you need to know about cleaning without (or very minimal) water.

How do you wash dishes without water?
How do you wash dishes without water?

This is why it’s important to keep your dishes clean

It is extremely important to remove all of the food particles and residue off of your dishes when you are backpacking or in a survival situation. Food particles and residue can not only cause bacteria growth on your dishes that will get you sick, but the smell of leftover food can attract carnivorous animals. That is NOT the kind of company that you would ever want or need unless you’re hunting or intentionally trapping.

How to clean without running water

In an emergency when water is scarce, you may be able to use paper plates and cups for awhile, but this is not sustainable, it is wasteful (remember what we said above about residue smells attracting predators?) and depending on your supply, you will run out. You will need to clean dishes and more without water. Are you prepared?

Whether it’s for living a rustic off-grid lifestyle, camping, or surviving an emergency situation, doing dishes without running water is a good exercise for any prepper. Hopefully you have a supply of disposable dishes & utensils, paper towels, wipes, and castille or camping soap (if not, add those items to your emergency pack.) If not, here are some ideas and ways to clean without running water.

Doing dishes without running water

Method #1: Rain water and a fire

This solution is the most hygienic and easiest cleaning method. I’ve used this method many times while camping.


  1. Leave a container out to collect rainwater or collect some water from a nearby stream.
  2. Build a fire.
  3. Boil the collected water in a large pot (non plastic). Put your dishes in the pot. The boiled water will sterilize the dishes while removing leftover food particles.
  4. Once the pot of water has cooled, remove the dishes.

Once you’ve removed your pot of boiling water from the fire, make sure that it is out of the way from your normal walking path. The last thing you want to do is accidentally stumble over a pot of water in the dark.

Method #2: Wipe and scrape

Before you begin the dish-washing process, it is important to wipe and scrape all the food particles off of your your dishes. Don’t use a sponge because sponges naturally love bacteria no matter how clean they may look. says that your kitchen sponge harbors zillions of microbes and that cleaning it could make it worse. Instead of a sponge, use steel wool or a non-porous brush. You can also use baby wipes in a pinch if you have them on hand.


  1. Scrape off all of the large food particles and put into a closed trash bag or burry into a hole in the ground and cover up.
  2. Use circular, firm motions to wipe down the dishes.
  3. Once the dish appears clean, grab another wipe and repeat the process.
  4. If you have a towel or bandana wipe the dish off and dry it.

Here are additional ways to wipe and scrape the food particles from your dishes:

  • Baking soda: Baking soda can help cut grease on dishes, pots, and pans. Buy the cheap stuff from the dollar or discount store, sprinkle it on your dishes and allow it to sit and absorb, then wipe away the grease.
  • Salt. Salt has many survival purposes. It is an excellent abrasive that can remove stubborn food particles and grease from your dishes, pots, and pans. An added advantage is that salt can also help season your cast iron pans.
  • Spray bottle. Fill a spray bottle with water, vinegar, and hydrogen peroxide. This will work well as an initial first scrub.
    1. Vinegar. Vinegar serves many purposes for preppers. To clean your dishes, fill your spray bottle with a little water and vinegar and keep it handy to rinse your utensils and plates. Allow the solution to soak on your dishes.
    2. Hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is another ingredient that has many prepper uses. Another viable method to clean dishes without running water is to use hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle the same way that we used the vinegar above. See instructions for vinegar use.
    3. Rubbing alcohol. Another method similar to using vinegar and hydrogen peroxide is rubbing alcohol.

Method #3: Use grass or other foliage

Cleaning dishes with grass or other nearby foliage is a favorite among backpackers. You do have to be careful and make sure that you aren’t grabbing a handful of a plant that could cause you more problems than it solves (like poison oak or stinging nettles.) For this method, the more moist the grass or foliage is, the better it will work.


  1. Grab a few handfuls of moist grass and use it to wipe off all the remaining food residue from your dishes. Some good alternatives for grass are pine needles, pine cones, and leaves. If you are lucky enough to be near a beach, using sand will scratch all of the residue off of your dishes.
  2. Scrub the dishes firmly with the grass focusing on areas where the residue has collected.
Sap removal:

If you ever get tree sap or extra stickiness that’s hard to remove from your gear, sand, tiny rocks or gravel are excellent exfoliators.

Method #4: Use ash and just a little bit of water

For this method, you will have to use a tiny bit of your drinking water, but if done correctly, it should still save you a considerable amount of water. Using ash and water is a natural way to clean your dishes so if you happen to have some ash, use it! Be sure to use wood ash instead of soap at least 200 feet away from your water source. wrote this really good article called “Clean Your Cooking Gear with Wood Ashes.”

Did you know that ash is sterile?

That paste that is made from your wood ash and a small amount of water is an excellent cleaning agent. Although it looks dirty, ash is sterile and one of the safest things you can clean with.


  1. Collect some wood ash from around the fire.
  2. Place the ash inside of a cooking pot and pour just enough water to form a paste.
  3. Use the paste as a soap and “wash” your dishes the way you normally would rinsing with a tiny bit of water.
  4. Wipe them dry with a bandana or a small towel.

Method #5: Use the morning dew

If there is no water then it is time to get creative. This method relies on collecting the moisture off of leaves and branches that may have collected the morning dew.


  1. Grab your container.
  2. Find leaves or cut branches off of trees.
  3. Put the leaves into your container and allow the dew to run off and collect.
  4. Wash the dishes.
  5. Dry with a bandana or allow them to airdry before packing up.

Method #6: Use a bandana or a dry towel

This is the last resort if there is no available water whatsoever. It will mess up your bandana or towel and will not be the most sanitary option. Believe it or not, the act of vigorously rubbing a dish’s surface has been shown to kill most of the germs on the surface. The small amount of friction produces heat that can kill pathogens then wipe again.


  1. Use your fingers or a bandana remove all of the excess food particles.
  2. Use your fingernails to scratch off any remaining residue.
  3. Be sure to use vigorous motions to create friction and heat while wiping the dishes.


How do you wash dishes without water?

I think the biggest takeaway here is that it is important to have an emergency supply of water. That would be the ideal situation, but sometimes life happens and we may someday find ourselves in situations where water is scarce. At least now we have a game plan and a list of items to add to the survival kit.

Nobody really enjoys washing dishes and without the convenience of soap and water it can seem like even more of a struggle. At least now, you know how to clean dishes when there is no water nearby. Remember that it is more important to “make do with what you have” when it comes to cleaning dishes rather than using up your water and risking dehydration.

Have you ever washed dishes without water? Which methods are you interested in trying? Comment below to share!

See you soon!