How to make a camp washing machine using a paint bucket and plunger

Psst, Scouters. It’s summer camp season, aka the season of smelling your Scouts from a mile away. So here’s a tip to share with your Scouts or Venturers before camp.


When “what’s that smell?” becomes “oh, I think it’s me,” it’s probably time to give yourself — and your clothes — a quick wash.

Showers are a regular amenity at most Scout summer camps. Washing machines are not.

So why not create your own camp washing machine? With just five minutes and a couple of items available at your local hardware store, you can make a device that’ll leave your clothes smelling gloriously fresh. You’ll gain confidence, respect and the undying gratitude of your parents (and your tentmate).

Here’s how it’s done. 

What you need

  • A clean 5-gallon plastic paint bucket with lid
  • A new, clean plunger
  • Drill with properly sized drill bit OR sharp knife
  • Laundry detergent
  • Dirty clothes

Step 1: Drill or cut hole in the lid

The hole should be centered in the lid. Make it just big enough for the plunger to fit through. The goal: Some wiggle room but not so much that water splashes out at you.

Start small and gradually widen if needed. It’s much easier to make the hole larger than to make it smaller.

To cut the hole, use a hole saw bit, spade bit or a sharp knife.

(Obligatory safety note: Wear proper safety gear, be sure to ask for help using tools you haven’t used before, etc., etc.)

Step 2: Drill or cut holes in the plunger

It’s an important and often overlooked step when making a DIY washing machine: Cut holes in the top of the plunger.

By drilling or cutting six to 12 holes, agitation — the plunging process that gets your clothes clean — becomes much easier.

That’s because the holes allow water to flow freely and keep the plunger from buckling.

Step 3: Add water, clothes, laundry detergent

Fill the bucket with water, toss in those dirty clothes and add some laundry detergent.

Powdered detergent works best, and with such a small washing machine you won’t need much.

Step 4: Close the lid, and plunge

Agitate — plunge up and down — for several minutes.

Step 5: Rinse clothes and hang to dry

Be sure to wash out that detergent. Then find a place for your clothes to air dry — clothesline, tree branch, tent line.