When living completely off-grid, without either running water or corporate electricity, I wash clothes by hand and that’s okay. One way to maintain a good attitude about hand-washing laundry is to stay on top of it. Facing a mountain of dirty laundry with no washing machine can stir up feelings of dread, so I do it in small batches on a regular basis. I’d rather head for a laundromat when confronted with a big pile of stained and stinky laundry. Days are coming, however, when that won’t be an option, but you can bet things will still keep getting dirty. So wherever you are in your strategy to get out of Babylon, or if you find yourself in a survival mode situation, you may benefit from some of my off-grid laundry experiences.
When it comes to living at an off-grid camp, the fewer trips to town the better, so here is what I’ve done about the inevitable laundry. Rather than letting dirty clothes pile up where they take up space, mildew if they’re moist, and make an inviting shelter for rodents, I put them directly into a four or five gallon bucket to soak in saved bath water and laundry soap. When the bucket is full, it’s time to deal with it. Yes, saved bath water. Don’t be alarmed. If you find yourself in a water hauling situation you will probably start reusing water just like me and my off-grid neighbors have for years. Use common sense though. Don’t keep water containing feces or animal fat sitting around. Animal fats or meat scraps not fed to pets, or feces from diapers and such are best burned or adequately buried. Obviously, if the bath water is starting to resemble a cesspool because the whole family has taken turns in it like people did in the good old days, that won’t do either. You might substitute dish rinse water in that case.
In summer, I save on fuel by setting the bucket in the sun during the warmest part of the day. Draping a black bag or cloth over it will cause more heat to absorb faster. On colder days I heat water on a stove or an open fire.
I have no idea what happened to my washboard, but this works even better: For tougher items like jeans, the socks your kids used as shoes, and other things that are very dirty, lay them on a peeled log or a board and clean them with a scrub brush, adding soap as needed.
I can be happy while washing laundry by hand because I know it contributes to my self-sufficiency and freedom. I could be working at a soul-sucking job or be a slave to somebody else’s schedule rather than checking out the forest and listening to the crows cawing while I’m scrubbing dirty clothes. And, like I said, incorporating this task into the ongoing camp chores in small increments greatly helps avoid the laundry day blues. If you’re going down to the creek to bathe anyway, you can even wash that day’s dirty clothes right then and there and be done with it.
After scrubbing an item, I slosh it around a bit in the wash water, then wring it out and put it in another container with handles and a strap attached so I can sling it over my shoulder and carry it down to the creek. There I rinse the clothes, wring them out and hang them up back at camp. Don’t worry. I try not to get soap in the water. We need to keep the fish happy too.
Wringing clothes out by hand is laborious when it comes to jeans and other heavy or large items. The task is more fun with two people; each one grabs an end and twists, an activity that kids can help with and usually gets them giggling. If you’re on your own and the weather is decent, don’t worry about wringing things out as if you were a machine. It’s not going to hurt to hang your laundry on the line and let it drip a bit. Just make sure your clotheslines are nice and taught because the extra water weight will cause them to sag a lot.
If you’ve got the funds, then consider a hand-cranked wringer that will squeeze the water out of your laundry for somewhere between $250 and $1,200. The high-priced models come with a little stainless steel sink. When I checked a few years ago on Lehman’s, the basic style cost $150 and they were out of stock, so if you want one, you had better jump on it due to sporadic supply chain disruptions. I would advise scouring people’s reviews before deciding on a brand. The main features to consider are workmanship, cost, weight, and how bulky of an item can be run through the rollers since there is definitely a limit. It might be tempting to get one of those cool-looking vintage models; just make sure it’s still solid and that the rollers aren’t worn out because it might be hard to replace parts for those older styles.
Washing Clothes with Melted Snow
I have often melted snow for wash water, enough to clean a load and rinse it twice. I’ve heated the water in a galvanized wash tub (the kind you can sit it) on the wood stove, or a large pot over an open fire. A 20-gallon stainless steel stock pot is my preference for a hot water reservoir. If you add one of these large pots to your preps and dedicate it to water heating, you will appreciate it in the long run. In the old days, when the pots were often made from cast iron, people would boil the water, throw their laundry in, stir it around, and carefully fish it out with a sturdy stick. Boiling your laundry in a large pot is still a reasonable option if you have anything that needs to be sterilized. Not your woolens of course. Those should be washed in cold and laid flat to dry on a towel. A large enamel water bath canner will work as a hot water ‘tank’ for a while, but they tend to chip, rust and develop tiny holes eventually, so they’re not reliable for long-term off-grid survival.
Most people complain that it takes much too long to make water by melting snow, but when the only alternative is to haul it from elsewhere, it’s a real treat to have it delivered right to the door. There is a way to make snow melting more efficient, depending of course on whether it is dry and fluffy or moist and packed. Either way, the key is to start by heating however much water you can spare then adding enough snow to make slush. Every time it starts getting hot again, throw more snow into the pot. Don’t stand there and wait impatiently for the snow to melt. That’s akin to watching water boil. Go get something done meanwhile, and the next thing you know there will be plenty of lovely soft water in no time. If there is any kind of debris in there that bothers you, sift it out through a cloth.
Natural Clothes Drying
In summer I hang the clothes on a line outside to dry and am always thankful not to live in one of those places where it’s against the rules. Seeing and smelling my freshly hand-washed clothes on the line gives me a sense of satisfaction. Am I crazy? In winter, I try to find someplace to attach a clothesline inside or drape the laundry around the house to dry. I don’t have one of those folding racks. On a trip to Germany I was surprised to see that my dad’s modern high-rise apartment building included a large space downstairs strung with clotheslines where the tenants dried their clothes. Some people in the North Country hang theirs outside to freeze dry then finish it off inside. It actually works amazingly well.
Wringer Washer with No Running Water
I used an electric-powered wringer washer and a set of double sinks during a time when I had electricity but no running water. We would haul 50 gallons of water to the cabin the day before. In summer, the barrel was positioned in the sun for several hours. In cooler weather when the woodstove was going, I’d fill up a 20-gallon pot and set it on the stove the night before. With judicious use of water, there was just enough to do a week’s laundry. I had to reuse the water in order to get a week’s worth of wash done with 50 gallons.
The warmed-up water was poured into the washtub and the least dirty items were washed first.
When they were done I ran them through the wringer and dropped them into the first sink containing rinse water. I’d slosh them around a bit and run them through the wringer again and put them in the second sink of rinse water. The washtub water was usually clean enough at that point to be good for another load. After running the second load through the wringer and rinsing twice, I’d put the dirtiest stuff into the washtub for a prewash. When that was done, I’d leave those clothes in the washtub and drain the greywater out into 5-gallon buckets and carry it outside to pour on trees and such.
There was now semi-soapy water in sink one, and two loads of clothes sitting in the water of sink two. This was a good time to give them their final squeeze, and because the wringer was on a swivel, I could direct the water into the washtub so the dirtiest clothes would get some more water running through them. After closing the washtub drain, the water from sink number one was transferred to the washtub, the water from sink two was drained out and put in sink one, and fresh water was poured into sink two. That’s how it went until the washing was done. A bit laborious, but empowering, considering the 55-mile round trip to the Laundromat. By the way, I find having a good supply of 5-gallon plastic buckets with metal handles indispensable for this operation. The plastic handles tend to be a disappointment because they break too soon.
A few years back the ‘Wonder Washer’ was advertised on television infomercials. They were small portable containers for washing clothes without power or running water. I was hauling water at the time so decided to try one out. Clothes, special soap, and hot water were placed into a cute little oval plastic container. It’s not something you’d want to try to jam your coveralls into. The maximum bulk recommended by the company was two pairs of jeans, but one with a few added incidentals was enough. The ‘tub’ was sealed airtight and placed into a frame that attached to the kitchen counter with suction cups. Tumbling was achieved by turning the tub with a hand crank. Pressure from the motion and hot steam caused the air inside to expand, which purportedly forced dirt and stains out of the fabric. Wringing and rinsing were another matter.
The Wonder Washer was basically a good concept, but too small to be practical for a family. It also had a weak link: The plastic crank would soften from the heat, bend, and fall out of its fitting, rendering the entire gadget useless. I guess I could have rolled the tub back and forth across the floor, but I returned it instead. It could be a useful off-grid appliance if it was a bit larger, totally made from metal, and fastened to a table with clamps. The Wonder Washers sold today don’t mention the special soap. The description does note however, that the suction cups are there for “an aid and do not prevent against 100% of movement.”
Love That Dirty Water
When I’m done washing the laundry, I pour the greywater onto the garden. I know that’s shocking to some people, but they probably haven’t lived in the boonies without running water while trying to grow food. Every drop is essential under those circumstances. I’ve been advised it would be okay if the soap was 100 percent ‘biodegradable’ at a cost of about $25 per gallon, but if I can get a gallon from the Dollar Store (even though everything there costs $1.25 now) I’m stocking up on it. I never had a problem during all the years I poured commercial soapy water on my garden soil. It never made us sick, in fact the gardens flourished and we harvested lots of food from them. That might be due to the fact that I amended the soil with ashes and other things.
I’m not advising people to do what I do though, because pouring greywater on your garden is against the rules in most states. It is apparently a dangerous substance fraught with pitfalls, so the places where it is legal to use require some kind of an official system beyond simply carrying it to the garden in a bucket. The website OasisDesign.net is a longtime leader in greywater systems that are basic and inexpensive but complicated enough to keep the regulators in certain states satisfied. Check out the article, “Laundry to Landscape Grey Water System” for ideas. The associated Greywater Policy Center website looks a bit outdated but it’s still a good place to start learning the ins and outs of funneling greywater from the house to the garden, including studies, codes, sample permits, policies, health considerations, and stories about what greywater activists have done in an attempt to loosen up the rules. University extension offices are often a reliable source of information on how to manage greywater in your locality.
I tried washing the clothes with straight Borax once, because I thought of it as a natural cleanser mined in the Mojave Desert. But the amount needed to get things clean was not conducive to watering plants, which I found out the hard way when I poured the greywater into large planters with healthy crops of spring greens growing in them. Very little Borax is good for boron-deficient soil; too much will do them in. Come to think of it, I should try it on hoary alyssum, a noxious weed about which the county is always on people’s case.
If your soil is low on boron and you decide to correct the situation with Borax, the recommended amount is a solution of one tablespoon Borax dissolved in a gallon of water. I’m sure I had more than a cup in four gallons by the time all was said and done.
Sorry, I can’t provide instructions for making soap from scratch with lye and rendered fat or vegetable oil. I did attend a presentation about it at a local Seventh Day Adventist church, but all the materials the teacher used were store-bought and all her equipment had wires connected to it, so it wasn’t really up my alley. If you decide to apply laundry water to your garden, consider that various ingredients in your soap may create unintended consequences. If you’re relying on that garden to survive don’t pour stuff on there without experimenting first.
Mix Your Own Laundry Soap
I recently started mixing my own laundry soap and am looking forward to testing it on some plants. I make it with various combinations of washing soda, baking soda, pure Castile bar soap, and Borax. Those are useful items to store separately in bulk since they all have more than one potential use. Some recipes call for lavender and peppermint essential oils, but it doesn’t make much of a difference in the aroma, so I’d rather save the expensive oils for more effective purposes.
Homemade laundry soap can be made as a powder or liquid. Here are a few recipes I have tried in a standard top-loading electric-powered washing machine. They all do a good job.
DIY Powdered Laundry Soap Recipe
- 1 bar grated castile soap
- 2 cups washing soda (sodium carbonate)
- 1 cup baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
- 15 drops peppermint oil
- 15 drops lavender oil
Mix well and store in an airtight container. For a large load of wash, use about one-fourth cup.
Powdered Laundry Soap with Borax
- 1 bar grated castile soap
- 1 cup of Borax
- 1 cup of washing soda
Mix well and store in an airtight container. They say a heaping tablespoon works well in a front loader. I don’t have a front loader and use about 3/4 cup because any less just doesn’t seem like enough.
Homemade Liquid Laundry Soap
- 1/3 bar grated castile soap
- 11.5 cups very hot water
- ½ cup Borax
- ½ cup washing soda
1. Dissolve the soap in six cups of hot water in a large pot.
2. Add Borax and washing soda.
3. Stir until it thickens, about 15 minutes.
4. Stir in 5.5 cups water.
5. Cool and store in reused liquid detergent containers.
6. Shake before using.
Use ½ cup per load. There won’t be any suds, but that’s okay. Your clothes will be soft and clean and smell fresh.
The History of Laundry
For some entertaining reading about the array of ways people did laundry off the grid in the old days check out the illustrated History of Laundry on the Old and Interesting website. Mixing urine with lye for a cleanser was a new one on me!
lived simply off the grid without much money for years. There are a few principles and techniques I learned to keep the lifestyle from becoming the discouraging hell so many of our ancestors aspired to rise out of. I did it as an experiment by choice, which obviously went a long way toward engendering a positive attitude. One thing that can make a big difference on the happiness scale is staying a few steps ahead of all the camp chores whenever possible. You never know when an unforeseen situation will crop up and complicate your ability to take care of each day’s essential needs. Always have a stash of dry kindling ready ahead of time, don’t let the water reservoir go dry, keep your tools sharp, your firearms oiled, escape routes clear, and your camp clean.
There is no time for procrastination in an off-grid survival situation. Essentially, it’s a matter of thinking ahead and staying organized with the goal of maintaining safety and comfort, which includes water, food, warmth, and good sanitation. These are things you will be responsible for whether the grid is far away or down temporarily. There is no good reason not to have clean clothing, sheets, blankets, towels, and rags ready whenever you may need them.
The important thing is to have at least one plan, preferably more, about how you will meet your basic needs. Think about what you can do yourself without relying on others in case there is nobody there to help. I was living with some people on land that had no running water to the homes but there was a well on one end of the property. A woman there with two toddlers relied on her husband to deliver water to the house, which seemed like a reasonable arrangement. Nevertheless, she was often distraught because he would get sidetracked in town after work, drinking with his buddies for hours. She really needed a Plan B. When the system is not funneling essentials to you through pipes and wires, it’s important to plan ahead so you can stay satisfied.