This post may contain Amazon affiliate links, where we earn money to support the site from any purchases. You can read the full affiliate disclosure here.
This seems to be one of the most frequently overlooked areas in prepping resources I find online. It’s easy to forget, but extremely important. We can see from history how drastically the rate of illnesses declined with a modern understanding of hygiene and access to improved sanitation. This entails a variety of aspects — keeping yourself clean, keeping your cookware clean, keeping your clothes clean, and more. As I’ve pointed out in other sections, we have to have extra caution in emergency situations where medicine may not be readily available because what may be easily treated under normal circumstances won’t be then.
So what all do you need? First, you need to get some practice washing everything by hand. We are spoiled in the modern day with dishwashers and clothes washers and dryers. Sure, most of us have washed dishes by hand, but what about clothes? Have you ever needed to wash and dry an entire outfit (or more) without the aid of modern technology? Maybe I sound like a broken record, but it’s a record worth repeating. If you get some experience doing everything manually, you’ll be better prepared to make your own list of the supplies you want to have available to you.
A note on liquid soaps/detergents: A lot of us are used to liquid shampoo, conditioner, dish soap, liquid detergent for our clothes, et cetera. I personally try to avoid liquids as much as possible with my preps. If something happens and the container gets cracked or spills then you have a gigantic mess at the worst time to have to deal with one, plus the loss of all the product for future cleaning needs. While these things can be stored in ziplocs to contain any messes, you still risk loss of product and a pain in the neck. The better option (I think) is to get as much as possible in bar form, put that in ziploc to protect from external moisture in between uses. There are some quality options available as bars and I’ll mention a number of them below for you to look into.
I think most of us may need to simplify our routines considerably when preparing for personal hygiene. No fancy hair products, perhaps limited tubes of deodorant, but you do need to be able to get clean.
- Soap Bars
- Shampoo Bars
- Hair ties
- Sharp scissors and/or a razor (safety razors are a good option, or stock up on some from a place like Dollar Shave Club)
- Chap Stick
- Washcloth or two
This is probably the one thing where I will cling to liquid soap the longest. I believe there are bar soap and powder detergent options, but as of writing this I have not yet tried them personally so can’t recommend any. Zote soap (mentioned below) has an unscented version that may be a good bar soap alternative to consider if needed. (This is an interesting article on washing dishes with regular soaps before modern dish detergent.) I have had liquid dish soap spill on camping trips though so you can be sure I always keep it stored in ziplocs as mentioned above — it’s an awful mess otherwise.
- Dish soap
- Wash cloth and/or dish scrubbies
- Small dish towel for drying
Ah, a topic with so many options. I’ve done my share of washing by hand after using cloth diapers in an apartment with no on site laundry. (The following is about washing laundry by hand only, as the soaps that I suggest for it are not particularly effective for use in machines.)
First, the soap options and tips.
There are lots of laundry soap options you can pick up online or at your local Wal-mart. In the modern day they are intended to be used as a sort of spot treatment/pre-wash but are also good if you need to wash by hand.
TIP: The downside of laundry soaps is it can be difficult to get all the soap to rinse out cleanly sometimes. If you have difficulty, use of hot water in the rinse or a bit of vinegar can help any remaining soap to release from the fibers.
Zote – This is my personal favorite laundry soap (I get the white bar in the white and blue packaging). It has a light, clean scent and minimal ingredients. It doesn’t use extra fragrances to make your clothes smell all flowery after being washed like we are used to in modern detergents, but I like that because I don’t need those scents and it also makes it easy to quickly tell if the item has some soap in it that hasn’t released from the fibers yet. If I can still smell the Zote, it needs rinsed better. It’s also cheap! I do not buy this online because the price on Amazon and similar tends to be higher but if it’s simply not available near you at all then you can certainly do so. I typically can go to Wal-mart and find it in the laundry aisle for around $0.97 per 14.1 oz bar. Also, because the bars are so big I usually slice them into three or four pieces before use. The smaller pieces are more manageable and I feel like the soap lasts longer because only what I need is getting wet (just like if you let your personal soap bar sit in water in the shower it won’t last as long).
Fels Naptha – Another common laundry bar choice. It’s only a 5 ounce bar but that’s a harder bar while Zote is a softer consistency so they may last a similar amount of time. I prefer Zote, but this is a solid choice as well. You can expect to find it at your local store for around $0.97 as well.
Next, the methods.
There are a few different tools you can use to make washing by hand easier and more effective. Whether they are necessarily needed depends in part on just how grungy you think they may get.
Elbow grease – Washing by hand, in an available sink or other body of water. Perhaps the most labor intensive, and even more so to get everything truly clean. Each item needs to be washed one at a time, and same when rinsed. You can get things reasonably clean this way though, especially if you take it up a notch by investing in a washboard.
Washboard – Cue visions of Little House on the Prairie. Washboards were effective, though hard work. If you have a particularly grungy item, running it over an item like a washboard is going to make it easier to work all the dirt and gunk out of the cloth. They may be slightly bulky, but are at least fairly flat so can be slid easily behind other supplies for storage.
Wet bag – I actually did an experiment on this and it was… mediocre. I went to the store and bought a good, thick wet bag from the camping aisle that was sturdy enough to hold water. I then filled the wet bag with several clothing items, some soap shavings, and warm water (warmth helps the soap dissolve). I folded over and clipped the bag shut and proceeded to knead the contents of the bag from the outside like kneading bread, working the soap and water through the cloth repeatedly to get it clean. I then opened the bag, drained out the water, and filled with fresh water for rinsing before repeating the process. It worked okay-ish in a pinch but I wouldn’t want to trust it to clean something particularly soiled unless it was just to do a preliminary clean until I had the chance to wash them properly. At the very least a wet bag is a good item to have to put wet and/or dirty clothes in until washing to protect the rest of your gear.
Bucket and breathing mobile washer plunger – This is what I used for cloth diapers in the apartment and remains one of my favorites although the tools would be a bit bulky to travel with. A good five or six gallon bucket can be used for storing or transporting supplies in between use and then just emptied long enough to wash clothing. The Breathing Mobile Washer resembles a hard plastic plunger with numerous holes in the internal plastic of the plunger head. Those holes push and pull water and soap through as you move it up and down, resulting in a more efficient clean. It’ll run you about $25 and allows you to wash more than one item at once and do so effectively. I’ve gotten some truly grungy clothing clean this way, and the bucket/plunger method is also requires less water than you might think. There are similar products with a different design or with the plunger portion made of metal — the former I have not tested, the latter I would avoid due to potential of rusting, sharp edges, and (if not thick enough material) of bending.
There are other devices I’ve seen in the design phase or just out of my price range, so I’ll eventually add to this list as I find other options that I feel are viable.
Finally, drying the clothes.
Pretty straight-forward, huh? Just hang on a line or drape across a bush or chair and let it dry? I do have a couple of notes and tips on this though.
First, having to dry everything is greater reason to avoid puffy fabrics. What do I mean? A moderately thick fleece or wool is going to be easier to dry than a big puffy coat. A thinner quilt or wool blanket is going to be easier to dry than a thick, fluffy comforter. Think layers in everything you do, because the layers can be spread out individually during washing and drying and will be much more efficient (plus layers tend to trap heat better anyway).
We don’t think much of drying a sleeping bag or comforter in an electric dryer usually. If we can fit it in there, then we can just select the appropriate option and walk away and it’ll be done when we get back. But when you are manually washing clothing and blankets one of the hardest parts is actually in the attempt to wring all the excess water out before drying. The less effectively you wring out excess water, the longer it is going to take to dry, and wringing the water out of bulky items is much harder than you might realize. If it’s just a towel or blanket, you can just twist and twist and twist until most of it is out and it’s not a huge deal (just a pain in the neck). But if you repeatedly use twisting to wring out your clothing you will soon find that the fabric stretches in odd ways and soon it no longer fits you the way it used to. If you don’t want it to become misshapen, the safest thing is to scrunch it up together and squeeze. It won’t get as much out but your item will last longer.
It used to be that people had mechanical wringers to do this for them but they aren’t particularly cheap now and even the options I know of that are inexpensive are still bulky and not particularly well suited to prepping. So, really, do yourself a favor. When you are selecting the clothing, blankets, and other cloth items for your preps try to avoid bulk and think layers. Your hands and wrists and arms will thank you later if you ever have to wash them by hand.