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During my early years of backpacking, I was a total budget traveler when it came to certain things… like doing my laundry on the road.
I could see the value in getting a load of laundry washed in a machine.
However, when that load of laundry was looking to cost me $9 or more, I completely shied away and proceeded to wash the necessaries in the sink until I could get a cheaper deal.
So, over time, I became a bit of a pro at hand-washing my clothes – a skill I still use today while traveling with a minimal travel wardrobe. For others looking to do the same, here is a list of some of the essential (and non-essential) pack items that make it all possible.
The Hand-washing Essentials Quick List
Won’t My Clothing Be Less Clean If I Hand-Wash?
A common misconception people have is that hand-washing clothing is not as effective as machine-washing. They stay away from hand washing clothes on their travels because they are worried that their clothes won’t come out as clean and fresh, or they may not be able to get stains out properly.
This leads to overpacking.
All a washing machine is really doing is agitating your clothing in soap and water. Which is exactly what you are doing when you hand wash your clothes! Although perhaps not to the same extent and for a shorter period of time.
But you can still absolutely have sparkling clean clothing from hand-washing.
If you are worried about your clothing not being as clean when hand-washing, you might want to soak your clothes while you’re out exploring for the day and then wash them in the evening when you get back to your accommodation. This can lead to a more effective wash.
You could also choose to buy one (or more) non-essential hand-washing items (we discuss these later in the post) like a travel washboard or a Scrubba Wash Bag. These can make your laundry on the road even more effective and give you some peace of mind that your clothes really are getting clean.
These are the items I take with me on every trip. They are the essentials for doing your laundry on the road. If you’re packing light, make sure you save space for these items!
A Sink Plug
Some travelers say this is a worthless item because the sinks will already have a stopper or they can just use running water to clean the clothes (and therefore don’t need a sink full).
You can never really assume there will be what you expect there to be when you travel overseas.
Maybe you want to soak your clothes for a while because they got really dirty. Maybe you want to conserve soap by having a sink of suds to work with. Perhaps you have to use the tub.
You never know what to expect when doing laundry on the road. So a sink plug, one that works with multi-sized drains, is a great asset for those looking to hand-wash.
A helpful tip from one of our readers if you find yourself without a sink plug, is to use a plastic bag to block the drain. Not as effective as a plug but it will do in a pinch!
A Stretchy Clothesline
It’s one thing getting your clothes clean, it’s a whole other story getting them dry. You don’t want to be stuck wearing damp clothes because you ran out of places to hang them to dry in your hotel room.
A clothesline rope will obviously do the job, but how are you going to hang things? Are you going to carry a set of clothes pegs in your backpack around the world? Chances are you won’t be. With that in mind, I recommend a stretchy, braided clothesline that allows you to hang clothes in the middle of the rubber bands. No pegs needed!
Also, the stretchy lines allow you to stretch in some of the most unique locations, like from the side of the bed to a locker door. You might also want to bring a carabiner clip to give you some extra options for attaching the clothesline.
An option for those drying clothes without a clothesline is to hang items over chairs or the edge of the bed. But let’s be honest, your clothes won’t be drying as quickly. Sometimes you’ll be lucky and your hostel will have a communal line, or they may even have those drying racks in the bathroom (I love those).
To make drying your clothes on the road even easier, you might want to take a look at some of the best fabrics for travel clothing. Fabrics like merino wool or Tencel are known for their quick-drying properties.
Not all detergents are created equally.
You could easily use any old brand to wash your clothes in the washing machine, but hand contact with some detergents may irritate your skin. I suggest grabbing a tube of concentrated hand-washing detergent in advance. The little packs of Woolite or non-liquid detergent sheets are also good to pack in your bag.
Otherwise, look for sensitive skin or hand-wash friendly detergents at the local market.
Check out my review of the Sea to Summit laundry products.
$4.33 ($1.44 / load)
$27.95 ($0.22 / Load)
$4.96 ($1.47 / Fl Oz)
If you’re packing extremely light and don’t want to take a single-use product for doing laundry on the road, opt for something like Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap which can be used as a soap, shampoo, AND detergent (among many other things as well).
Helpful Hand-Washing Extras
These items are super helpful but not a necessity. Bring one (or more) of them if you have space, are planning on doing laundry regularly on the road, or for some extra peace of mind if you’re feeling skeptical about hand-washing your clothing.
Drying your clothes goes much quicker if you use a towel to squeeze out all the excess water before hanging.
These shammy-type pack towels soak up water like no other. Simply roll up your wet clothes in the towel and then twist it, stomp it, and squash it. You will soon find that a lot of the liquid originally in your washed clothes is now in the towel – a towel that is quick drying and can be wrung out itself.
We also LOVE Turkish towels which make an awesome pack towel alternative.
Scrubba Wash Bag
If you’re very skeptical about how clean your clothes will be with just hand washing, you might want to invest in a Scrubba Wash Bag which claims to provide a machine-quality wash in just minutes thanks to the washboard in a bag design.
Plus, it’s easy to use. Simply add water, clothes, and detergent to the bag. Close the bag, deflate it, and then rub the clothes against the internal washboard for 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Then you just rinse and hang to dry as normal.
To make this even better, the Scrubba Wash Bag was designed with backpackers in mind, weighs only 5.3 ounces, and folds up pocket-sized, meaning you won’t have to compromise on packing light!
You can also simply buy your own travel washboard instead of the Scrubba Wash Bag.
Rubbing your clothes against a washboard acts as the agitation that you would normally find in a washing machine and is a very efficient way of hand-washing clothes. It’s especially helpful when dealing with stubborn stains.
It’s good to note that you may want to use a washboard sparingly on delicate items and fabrics like bras or tops with embellishments because the agitation can be a little rough.
It doesn’t matter how careful you are while traveling, you are bound to spill a drink, food, or countless other things on you sometime during your travels. While traveling, you often aren’t in the position to quickly wash items to get rid of stains. Your favorite shirt might sit with a stain for a few days before you get the chance to deal with it.
That’s where a stain pen comes in!
A portable, instant stain remover helps eliminate fresh stains on the spot. Keep it in your day bag for instant access when a spill occurs. To use, simply remove excess residue from the stain, press the pen onto the stain to release some solution, and then gently rub the pen across the stain to remove it. Easy!
(Just make sure the stain pen is compatible with your fabric first.)
Hanging Clothes Pegs
If you’re only planning on washing a few smaller items like underwear or socks on your travels, some hanging clothes pegs might be a good option for you. They can also provide you with more drying options if you’re planning on doing a lot of washing on your travels.
These pegs can hang on almost any surface making it super easy to dry your clothes. They do this with the plastic rope attached to each peg which you can loop around curtain rails, towel rails, and door knobs…the list goes on.
Hand Washing Tips for Laundry on the Road
If you’ve never washed your clothes by hand before (never mind doing it while traveling) here are a few helpful tips to get you started.
- If you only need a few pairs of underwear washed, why waste water by washing them in the sink? Simply wash them with you while you’re in the shower. This works for all smaller items.
- Don’t be tempted to leave all your washing for the last day. Wash as you go to avoid your clothes all being wet at the same time. Plus it will be quicker to wash a small load every second day than a big load all at once.
- Be mindful of the weather and humidity. When you’re in a hot and humid destination, things are going to take MUCH longer to dry. Make sure you pack enough essentials so that your clothes have adequate time to dry.
- Near the end of a trip, bags can sometimes turn into disaster zones. Keep track of which clothes are clean and which are dirty with packing cubes, pouches, or bags.
- If you have sensitive skin make sure to use a brand of detergent that you’ve used before or test it at home before you go to avoid any uncomfortable reactions.
- Hang clothing in a place with airflow if possible. This will ensure that your clothes dry as quickly as possible and are ready when you need them. Think across from the window in your room rather than over the shower rail in your bathroom.
- If you are using a sink, wipe or clean out the sink first. This way you ensure your clothes are getting as clean as possible.
- Soak clothing when possible to soften dirt and stains and make hand-washing more effective.
- Certain fabrics need to be laundered less frequently and dry quicker than others. Invest in travel clothing made from these fabrics to make hand-washing on your travels even easier.
Do you hand-wash your laundry on the road? What are your hand-washing essential pack items?