Cleaning clothes while traveling is pretty easy. Put clothes in container, fill with water, add soap, swish around, rinse, hang to dry. They might not be sparkling, but they’ll be clean enough.
There are, however, a few things you need to know to avoid spending half of your trip fretting over dirty laundry.
I don’t care what other people say. Soap is soap. Shampoo is soap. Dish liquid is soap. Laundry detergent is soap. You can go buy a bottle of Tide Ultra and haul it with you, if you really must. But I recommend something smaller and easier to rinse. Try a bar of soap, dish soap, shampoo, shower gel. It doesn’t really matter. Soap is soap.
It is much easier to wash a shirt and a pair of underwear every night than it is to wash everything in your bag in one go. Trust me. Make a ritual of washing a few things just before you go to bed.
Cotton is cheap and synthetic quick-dry-uber-sport shirts are expensive. After about the tenth time walking around in damp shirts, you’ll know why they are worth their weight in gold.
Cotton, although comfy and cheap, dries very slowly. Sweat will stay trapped between the shirt and your body. Synthetic materials like nylon and polyester will “wick” the sweat from your body so it can evaporate. This keeps you warmer in chilly or windy weather, and keeps you cooler in the tropics. Generally, synthetic clothes are also easier to clean and retain stanky body odors far less than cotton.
Because I’m cheap and lazy, I take both cotton and polyester clothes. When I’m in a place without a clothes line, or short on time, I wash and wear the quick dry clothes.
You don’t need a big washing sink to do laundry. In fact, most times a sturdy bag will be easier. We’ve used all types of containers to do washing in. Even coolers. Use what is available.
Some places laundry isn’t allowed in sinks or showers. Make sure you respect the rules and do washing where it is permitted. Don’t be the guy that leaves piles of underwear in the kitchen sink.
I think there is a secret cult of travelers that go around stealing sink plugs from every hostel and campground on the planet. I bet they are planning to use them to create a laundry death ray. I don’t exactly know how, but I don’t have a better explanation for all the missing sink plugs. Bring your own if you really need one. I use one of my husbands’ socks. (Shhhh, don’t tell him).
Don’t go stuffing a bunch of damp clothes in your backpack for the day. Wet clothes packed in a dark warm place will grow mold. Not only will they smell wretched, they’ll also start to show spots. Ever tried getting mold stains out of a shirt? Better to just buy new clothes.
Wear damp clothes if you can, or hang them on the outside of your pack until they are dry. If you must, pack the wet clothes in a sealed plastic bag inside your pack. At least that way the mold will be contained.
Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of ways to dry clothes. If you are overlanding it’s probably worth packing a clothes line with. (Charlie Bronson’s always got rope). Otherwise, forget it. There are lots of places to drape clothes around hostels and hotels. Just make sure they don’t drip on important things.
If you’re in a place that comes with a towel, use it to help soak up water in your clothes. Lay wet clothes on the towel and roll the two up together and squeeze. If you’re packing that towel, it’s pretty much pointless.
The easiest way to deal with the mounting laundry problem is to dirty fewer clothes. Wear things two or three times, or if you’re in the bush, five or six is perfectly acceptable. Don’t change clothes several times a day. Don’t wash clothes that aren’t really dirty.
Sometimes it’s worth the extra cash. Hit the Laundromat, pay the hotel, find the old lady landlord and just hand over the money and pile of stinky stuff. It’s ok.
You’ll have to do a bit of research depending on your destination. In Asia we found that laundry services were excellent, and less than a dollar per kilo. However, in Europe, laundromats can set you back fifty bucks easily.
On long overland trips, we find that it’s best to wash a few items a day ourselves. Once a month or so, we hand over everything to a machine, or a nice lady, and get a proper washing.