Useful Tips for Washing and Drying Clothes while Backpacking

How do I wash my clothes when I'm travelling for a year?

We're so used to throwing our gear in a washing machine then the tumble dryer that the thought of washing by hand while travelling is something that maybe hasn't crossed your mind.  But if you plan to travel for longer than a week then it is something that will need to cross your mind.  If you have read my other blog about what clothes to take, you will probably realise that I only take enough for a week regardless of how long I am travelling and I wash and rewear my gear until it's no longer usable.

Washing by Hand

Here are some handy tips for washing on the road some of which I learnt from my grandmother.....

Timing is important.  

Washing your clothes regularly by hand will mean you always have clean clothes and your pack won't end up smelling.  However, if you are only staying in a place for one night you probably won't have time to dry your clothes, so put them in a dry sack and seal it up, so the smell doesn't get to your other clothes, until you have time to wash and dry it.


So what if you don't have a sink! or even if you do...

  • Take your clothes in the shower with you and stomp on them with your feet like your were pressing grapes.
  • Put your dirty clothes in one of your large drysacks and wash them in there.  Agitate them with the soap and leave to soak for 10 minutes and then rinse.
  • A friend of mine suggested this tip.  If you are on a long road trip, do your washing while driving.  Put your clothes in a bucket with a lid that closes tightly - very important!  Add some water and detergent, close it and drive.  Seemingly you will find that the driving motion agitates the washing just like it was in a washing machine. 

What washing powder/detergent/soap should you use?

  • You can buy laundry sheets which are light, don't spill and can be cut down if only doing a  small wash.  But the downside of those are that if they get wet, which may happen since you'll be mucking around with water, they will clump together and become useless.
  •  Bar Soap - Yes a plain old bar of soap.  It's dead cheap and kept in a plastic sandwich bag will  probably last you a year and it can be carried in hand luggage.  Leave it out to dry for as long as possible after using it before putting it back in its bag and it won't get so messy. Oh and you can even wash yourself with it.
  • You can always decant some washing powder from home and put it in a sandwich bag but there's always the chance that you may have to do some explaining to customs officials about the white powdery substance in the plastic bag.


Ideally hanging your clothes outside to dry is the best option.  It's worth asking at your accommodation if they have an area where you can do that.


  • Wrap your wet garments in a towel, squeeze and twist the towel with the article(s) in it - assuming it's not a delicate silk shirt or something like that and then hit the towel with your hand as hard as you can.  This will absorb much more water, which means you can just hang it over the shower rail or the back of a chair without it dripping.
  • If you are on a road trip, hang the washing up in the car using a bungee or rope.  We have a little Bongo campervan and I hang the washing across the front windscreen at night or during the day if we are parked up.  I use an elasticated bungee which I hook onto the handles above the front doors.  If we park facing the sun, it dries them quicker and keeps the sun from making the van too hot.
  • Humidity can be a problem in some countries.  If you are in a hotel room, use the fan in your room or ask for one at reception.  If you have air conditioning, hang them near the air conditioner.
  • If you are in a backpackers get the bottom bunk because you can use bits of the bed frame to hang your stuff on especially if you only wash a couple of things at a time.

Things I have found really handy -

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  • A universal plug - although if you don't have one, a sock or a pair of pants scrunched up will stop most of the water running away in the sink.
  • A clothes line or dental floss.  Dental floss is incredibly strong and can be used for repairing tents and anything else that undergoes a bit of stress.  But it can also be used as a clothes line.  It takes up very little room, is extremely light and comes in handy tangle proof little packs of 25m or 40m.  Some clothes lines don't even need pegs but they are no use for heavier items like fleeces.  
  • Paracord.  Really strong colourful paracord will have multiple uses when travelling from emergency pack repairs to a wilderness survival fishing line.  It's a thin nylon rope which you can buy in one of these paracord bracelets but you'll need to be good at your cobra knots to get it back into a bracelet again.

    • Clothes pegs - also really useful for sealing half open bags of food, e.g. dried fruit, that you're carrying around in your bag. It's good practice to always make sure things have more than one use. You can buy special plastic ones but really just a few from home will be fine.
    • Nailbrush - great for using with your bar soap to get those stubborn stains out and much kinder on your clothes than a scrubbing brush.
    • Drysacks - absolutely essential.  I even have one in my everyday bag - they are just so useful.

    I have used all these methods at one time or another except for the sealed bucket on a long road trip but I'd love to know if you've tried it or any other tips you have come across washing and drying while travelling.

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