The three-pot method: This is how to wash dishes at a campsite

Wash, sanitize, rinse.

With the three-step dishwashing system, you can finish camp dishes in no time. That means you’re back to having fun faster.

Here’s how to wash dishes at a campsite, courtesy of the BSA Fieldbook (pages 91-92) and the 13th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook (page 308).

What you’ll need

  • A dishwashing spot that’s at least 200 feet from any sources of water
  • Hot water (Pro tip: start heating your wash water before you sit down to eat)
  • Three plastic tubs
  • Biodegradable dish soap
  • A dish brush/scrubber or two
  • Hot tongs for dipping plates and spoons into the hot rinse
  • Bleach or sanitizing tablets
  • Ground cloth, towel, mesh bag or lightweight hammock for air-drying

Before you begin

Get your dishes as clean as you can before placing them into the wash pot. That way you won’t overwhelm Pot 1 with food particles.

Note: This may involve scraping and literally licking your plate clean. At Scout camp, this is perfectly acceptable behavior.

Pot 1: Wash pot

Add a few drops of biodegradable soap to hot water. Your instinct will be to use more soap than you actually need, so use sparingly.

Pot 2: Cold-rinse pot

Place a few drops of bleach or a sanitizing tablet (like Steramine) into cold water.

Pot 3: Hot-rinse pot

Fill the final pot with clear, hot water.

After you’re done

  1. Hang or place utensils and dishes to dry
  2. Dispose of soapy wash water 200 feet from any water sources. Filter out food particles, and put those in a plastic bag to throw away. Then spread the water over a wide area.

Also worth noting

  • Though the Fieldbook recommends the three-pot order above, other Scouters (and, indeed, my own Troop 1776 growing up) believe in a different order:
    • Pot 1: Soapy wash pot
    • Pot 2: Hot-rinse pot
    • Pot 3: Cold-rinse sanitizing pot
  • Minimizing dishwashing time starts with menu planning. Meals that use one pot and few food-prep utensils will leave less mess afterward.
  • Scouts should use as few dishes and utensils as possible. One bowl, one mug and one spork will be all you’ll need for most meals.
  • Here’s a look at the Boy Scout Handbook guidance on the subject:

Now it’s your turn

So that’s how to wash dishes at a campsite. What tips or advice can you offer for campsite dishwashing?


Photo via this site, where you can learn to make a holder for your dish tubs.

50 Comments

  1. I always try to get the morning dishwashing duty. There’s little more comfortable than to plunge your hands into warm soapy water after a cold night in camp. Just make sure that the greasy bacon pan gets wiped clean first.

  2. Steramine is worth looking into. I ordered a bottle of 150 tablets for just over $8. Put two in the sterilize stage. Easier to handle and store than bleach.

  3. The Eleventh and Twelfth Editions of the Boy Scout Handbook (the only ones I have right at hand) list the order as:
    ◾Pot 1: Soapy wash pot
    ◾Pot 2: Hot-rinse pot
    ◾Pot 3: Cold-rinse sanitizing pot
    There seems to be a conflict between the Handbooks, which the Scouts are most familiar with, and the Fieldbook.

    • Page 308 of the 13th (and current) edition lists the order as: (1) Wash pot. (2) Cold-rinse sanitizing pot. (3) Hot-rinse pot.

      I’ll update the post to include that info.

      All of that said, I grew up using the order you mention.

      • I am looking at a 13th edition Scout Handbook that has the same graphic that you posted, but the text is different:

        1. Wash pot. Hot water with a few drops of biodegradable soap.
        2. Hot-Rinse Pot. Clear Hot Water
        3. Cold-Rinse Pot. Cold water with a sanitizing tablet or a few drops of bleach to kill bacteria

        Did this information change mid-publication?

      • Yes I also found that same contradiction between the Handbook and Field Book. The Camping Merit Badge books says to use the cold sanitizing pot last.

  4. One would think that the people that write the Handbook would those that write the Fieldbook would get together on simple things like this. Page 308 of the Boy Scout Handbook:
    1. Wash pot. Hot water with a few drops of biodegradable soap.
    2. Hot-Rinse Pot. Clear Hot Water
    3. Cold-Rinse Pot. Cold water with a sanitizing tablet or a few drops of bleach to kill bacteria

    I know this can be done either way, but one would think that the BSA wouldn’t disagree with themselves within their publications – could be confusing for the youth…

    • I don’t disagree. But I believe the preferred method was discussed first (sanitizing rinse comes in bucket #2, clear rinse in #3). I wish the blog clarified that and didn’t seem to equivocate. It may be that I’m wrong and the order is ‘optional.’ I do understand the rationale of the latest method: Scouts ingesting sanitizer from improperly dried dishes = a bad day.

      It’s worth noting that I’m generally thrilled when the patrols wash their dishes in any order without prompting from an SPL or, worse, an adult. Except that time I discovered a patrol using the “one-pot method”: nominally washing their dishes in very soapy water and then air drying.

  5. The Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov) and the Food and Drug Administration (fda.gov) have help sheets for washing dishes and food preparation. Especially relevant to our scouts is advice for “boil water emergencies” … which matches the BSA Field Book (soapy water, then bleach water, then clean rinse).

    The handbook seems to be an aberration. Expect revisions.

    In any case, this is an opportunity to teach your boys a little health literacy. Show them where they can go to discover the best practices. Maybe a hike to your county’s health department would be worth a visit.

  6. Having grown up in scouts, and being an ASM now, I still really, truly don’t understand what the big deal with teaching boys to wash dishes by this method. I feel like the extra step of sanitizing is good in theory, but with the advent of anti bacterial soap and boiling water, I feel like the sanitizing step is unnecessary. My opinion only. If you wash dishes by hand at home, like is done everyday at my firehouse, it is a 2 step process. I have never heard of anyone that uses bleach of sanitizer at home. I feel like guiding scouts to learn things that will serve them well in the real world and adulthood is better for them in the long run. Just my 2 cents.

    • We do have more ways to kill germs than ever before.
      I would encourage everyone to stay away from the antibacterial soaps. The regular stuff is antibacterial enough … especially if you’re dishes are in hot water!

      Home is a bit different than camp. That’s why the recommendations from the CDC make the most sense. But, I don’t think there are any good estimates of food-born illness rates from using one method or the other.

    • I always dipped in hot water only and never looked back, and I’m still alive! But, seriously, we ought to be following government standards, since that lessens liability and takes advantage of pooled studies. Yes, standards change. And so should standards in scouting. That is a life-lesson worth teaching.

      However, I strongly advocate against any antibacterial soaps being used. This not only contributes to bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and pollutes our environment, but some people – like me – are allergic to such substances. For me, it dries out my skin creating cracks and bleeding. First, this opens me up to bacterial infection; second, a second wash later on with triclosan causes blisters to form inside the wound. So I am careful to use my own soap, or to rinse-only if I don’t have regular soap or if I can’t tell.

      On the other hand, carrying around bleach – particularly on a hike – can be dangerous. Boiling water as a sterilization method isn’t a bad idea, but can be impractical (especially on hikes) as it uses up precious resources fuel and water. And there’s always that specter of liability: if you don’t do it, and someone gets seriously sick, you’re on the hook.

    • I agree – don’t use 3 at home, but do for dish washing in restaurants. I get the question often on why that is and have yet to find the answer. If anyone knows, please let me know.

  7. @ Sean Wood … You note an interesting point that nobody uses the extra step of sanitizing at home. I know I never have, nor have I known anyone who does. However, there a re a re few very significant differences between home and camp. First the camp environment tends to expose us to higher levels and wider varieties of dirt & germs than we would encounter at home and second (and perhaps more important) the larger number of people living in close proximity and in more primitive conditions. A camp environment creates increased risk for disease transmission. Primitive bathroom facilities and multiple people handling both food and eating utensils increase the chance that a disease pathogen may have an opportunity to spread. Even in the cleanest of camp environments personal and group hygiene requires more effort than if you were at home, and let’s be honest, many people, particularly youth but also some adults, just don’t always make the extra effort. The 3-pot cleaning method serves as a risk reduction tool to address these concerns.

  8. It seems the world has lost its mind. Now how do I dispose of the toxic chemical I have introduced into my wash water. I.e. Sanitizer. I grew up in scouts and now I am the scoutmaster. My scoutmaster lasted 45 years camping. He showed us to properly wash dry and put away the dishes. We only used two buckets. The same ones I use now to teach each boy the proper way.

  9. I follow the FDA and Sersafe way of doing it, did someone research the correct way to do dishes, you need to sanitize last . I do not want anyone getting sick!! Three Compartment Sinks –Pots, pans, utensils, and bar glassware are typically washed manually in a three-compartment sink. All sinks should be rinsed and cleaned prior to use. The first sink is for pre-soaking and washing. At least 110°F (as hot as you can stand) will help the detergent work. Before filling the second and third sinks, scrape any pots and pans that need presoaking and place them in the filled first sink. Those extra minutes in the hot water will help loosen the dried-on particles. Fill the second sink – the rinsing compartment—with warm water too (at least 110°F). Then fill the third sink – the sanitizing compartment. Measure your sanitizer accurately considering the gallons of water in the 3rd sink. Based on the sanitizer manufacturer’s recommendations and label instructions, use water temperature of 75°F to 120°F to sanitize. Do not rinse off the sanitizer. Air dry all equipment – do not towel dry.

    Sanitizer effectiveness is based on three factors: 1) concentration of the solution in water; 2) water temperature; and 3) contact time with the dishes. Sanitizers must be EPA registered. Test kits are required by the FDA Food Code and the regulatory agency that inspects your facility. Chlorine and quaternary ammonium sanitizers are the most common in food service. Chlorine-based sanitizers should be 50-100 parts per million (ppm’s) concentration and contact time is 7 seconds or more. Quaternary based sanitizers are usually 150 to 200 ppm’s concentration and 30 seconds contact time. All chemical sanitizers have pros and cons regarding characteristics such as kindness to skin, staining, smell, ability to work in hard water, effects on metal, and cost per use, so ask your chemical supplier to help you make the right choice.

  10. The FDA retail food code in section 4-603.16 Specifically says the rinse is done “after washing and before sanitizing” if using a 3-compartment sink (or “Alternative manual warewashing equipment equivalent to a 3-compartment sink.”).
    This is the procedure I was instructed to use at my high school’s cafeteria, a local fast-food place, and a sit-down restaurant. So I’m rather surprised to see the sanitation step listed as second. A quick on-line search shows sanitizing as the last step before air-drying is still the standard procedure for restaurants.
    The rinse comes before sanitizing to make sure the item clean and free from contaminants like soap or food particles.

  11. There is a blog already started months ago on this in the Bryan on Scouting Forums section. I believe that the Handbook is incorrect for the various reasons listed, including local health department requirements of wash, rinse. sanitize.

  12. IMHO, Julie is most correct. Her comments on sanitizers are important; I’ll add that, time, and cleanliness of the items going in the water affect the effectiveness of the sanitizer. Note, too, her comment on contact times in the sanitizer.

    I am a long-time commercial food manager and ServSafe instructor; I am also a realist. Boiling water sanitizing is not realistic. Anything to be sanitized using boiling water must be immersed for 10 minutes. That just isn’t likely to happen. The best you will get is a quick dip of part of a plate or utensil. On top of that, pots of boiling are themselves very dangerous.Use proper quantities of the proper chemicals. Any of the tubs with really hot water will dissuade effective immersion and/or washing.

    In practice, whatever goes into that first (wash) tub should appear to be clean (no food debris). Fouling the wash water is never a good idea. Paper towels or a wipe rag should be used to scrape the plates and utensils over a refuse container.

    To complete the process, items should be air-dried. Hanging mesh bags are good for that.

  13. We bought three different colors of dish pans as well:
    White – for suds-y water.
    Red – for hot (red hot!) rinse
    Blue – for sanitizing with blue Steramine tablets

    When we dispose of the water, we dump the white, then rinse the white one with the water from the red, then dump the white again. Then you rinse the red one with the blue sanitizer water, then rinse the white one with that (blue) water, then dump it again. You have three clean, rinsed, and sanitized wash basins.

  14. I’ve always used the Hot – Cold – Hot sequence. Two reasons:

    1) Having Hot as the final has the dishes air-dry faster
    2) Pot #2 is always going to get soap carry-over from Pot #1, and the occasional food particle. If dinner required multiple pots or your patrol is large (or if the person washing is inexperienced) you may well end up wanting to dump Pot #2 and replace the water in it in the middle of the wash cycle. Cold water is always more plentiful than hot water in camp.

  15. What are the BSA guidelines for greywater? A unit in the woods can either broadcast or use a temporary sump; a unit at resident camp uses an installed sump, but what about at council or district camporees? Several hundred folks in one location can have a big impact. Are there any guidelines to help with this.

    • This is a Leave No Trace “Best Practice” that we teach. In a camporee situation, portable sumps can be made using 5 gallon buckets. This may take several buckets for a troop or patrol for the weekend, depending on how much water they use. Using a PVC fitting, about 4 inches on one side to 3 inches on the other. Place a small paint strainer bag inside the fitting and over the larger edge. May have to hold in place with a rubber band. Cut a hole in the 5 gallon bucket lid, just large enough for the smaller end of the fitting to go in and place in the lid. Strain the dishwater into the 5 gallon bucket through the paint strainer. When finished, used a solid lid to seal to transport to a location where the water can be properly broadcast, or poured down a drain. The paint strainer bag can be cleaned out into a trash can then washed at home for re-use.

  16. Love the comment that plate licking is acceptable etiquette on camp.
    When I was a scout, we used the one pot (hot soapy water) method. The logic was that any small amount of dish soap added to the diet just helped keep the guys visiting the outhouse. I’m now a happy 3 pan user.
    Just a historical note that the ’83 world jamboree required a boiling water dip then air dry.

  17. As a scoutmaster in our troop we use the two pot method. If you use hot soapy water to wash them clean and then rinse them off followed by thoroughly drying them, you will not have any issues.

    2 years and we are still disease-free.

    In the Boy Scout Handbook they recommend but do not mandate the sanitizer.

    So there are people who honestly believe that because it’s outdoors we are exposed to more germs than what are inside the house?

    Silly 3-step users

  18. Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, family reunions. Every person has a numbered dunk back. I put a large canning pot to boil as soon as stove is done cooking dinner. Some goes into the hot soapy wash, then a cold rinse, then INTO THE DUNK BAG where they are immersed in the boiling water pot and hung to drip/dry. Everything is clean and ready for the next meal. Everyone keeps track of their plate, bowl, cup and silverware.

  19. The picture (and order) above are flat wrong. As noted above, they have already been corrected in a re-print of the Handbook. Since this blog will stay up for a long time, can you please correct the post above so that others don’t get the wrong idea?

    To some of the concerns in the comments above, the sanitizing agent evaporates entirely and is no danger to subsequent eaters. But trying to sanitize while there’s still soap residue on the plate will cause neither to work and will make you sick.

    All that said, the temperature of the rinse and sanitizing soak pots are not really all that important with the caveat that if you use steramine (which I highly recommend), the tablets need at least warmish-water to dissolve.

    My recommendation for steramine rather than bleach is based on the experience that corrosive liquids and pre-teen backpack contents are a bad mix. Bleach is cheap but tricky to carry safely.

  20. I kinda liked the 4 pot method the BSA was taught, and what the rest of the world uses, while a crew advisor at the 23rd World Scout Jamboree in Sweden. It proved to be very conservation minded and kept virtually 100% of the food particles OUT of the Wash bin

  21. I agree with the Wash – Rinse – Sanitize order. I spent 30 years in the restaurant industry, with 20 of those years as a certified food safety instructor and in charge of food safety for an entire 60+ unit operator. The most important reason to have the rinse in the middle is to remove all the detergent before going into the sanitizer. Soap tends to neutralize most sanitizers.

  22. Just a note: In our troop, we break down our wash station carefully, collecting water in a bucket before broadcasting. Wash water strained into the bucket first, after scrubby things go into the rinse pan. Rinse scrubby things and toss into the sanitizing pan. Rinse water goes into the wash pan to rinse it, then gets strained into the bucket. Then the sanitizing water makes its way down the chain before being strained into the bucket. Pans are turned upside down to dry, and everything is clean to go for the next meal.

    But don’t forget the most important part of staying clean when eating outside. Always have a separate hand washing station that everyone uses before they eat. We wait until everyone is done before grace and food.

  23. If you use the 1) Hot Wash Pot, 2) Hot Rinse Pot, 3) Cold Sanitizer Pot, you can add a dip cup to keep pot #2 clear of soap residue, last longer and keep pot #1 hot. After washing in pot #1, dip water from #2 with a cup or small pot and rinse the washed item over pot #1. This rinse carries soap residue back into soapy pot #1, keeping #2 clear. We refill #2 with hot water as needed. This then also introduces hot water back into #1 as you go. Use water sparingly as you rinse (which is a lesson about conservation of resources). The hot water refill saves on fuel for heating (it’s a small savings but, again, an opportunity to have them think about using resources wisely). Dunk for sanitizing in #3. Clean up the pots as Chester indicated (I like the color code).

    There are two things that can happen here: getting dishes done and teaching about using resources wisely (being thrifty, leave no trace principles). The hardest thing to get across is to clean off dishes before going anywhere near the dish station and I don’t mean dumping left-overs in the brush.

    Whatever the method, dishes (and other things we do) can be an opportunity to have the scouts THINK and make the connection between rattling off the oath and law at start of a meeting and applying it in practice. It’s a small aspect of the outdoor method contributing to the aims of scouting.

  24. One thing most commentors are missing is to consider the water quality and safety of the water used and being outdoors, the open dirty environment. Using a sanitizer dip last, with an air dry allows for possible use of accidentally contaminated water and can be more forgiving than using a clean water rinse. The rinse water or pot could be contaminated without being noticed. Air drying allows longest contact time with sanitizer, and complete removal of water. Drying dishes by towel can spread microbes from one dish or utensil or dirty hand to many dishes and cause illness outbreak. Antibacterial soap is not antimicrobial complete…sanitizers kill more than bacteria..triclosan and triclocarbon do not.

  25. The US Dept of Health clearly states the 3 pot dishwashing method as soap-rinse-sanitize.
    This is the way we do it. BSA definitely has a typo in this. It’s the method tried and true used for years.
    Sanitizer has little effect in pot 2 because it’s fighting the dish detergent and soap used. Some have stated that you rinse last to wash off sanitizer/bleach. This is false. The last stage is sanitizer as it’s the last time the dishes go into another environment of water. The sanitizer stays with the dishes during to drying time. (Do not worry its less ppm of chlorine then your tap water)
    It seems so many times since the William Hillcourt edition of the Boy Scout Handbook, that writers want to reinvent the wheel, and look like fools after.
    The US Army also uses the same method of field sanitation (or did before MREs came along).
    Restaurants and bars also use this Health Department mandated method, and have for years.

    Good topic. And when we find these errors in our handbooks and Fieldbooks, we need to bring it up so it can be corrected.

    Happy Scouting

  26. Once at summer camp, the staff handed out bleach tablets with instructions to use 1/2 tablets. Only after 2 days where all the Scouts had been lining up for the kaybos did the realize their mistake and revise to 1/4 tablets.

  27. I am new to my troop as a ASM but was in scouts when younger. Eage acout myself. Have been on a few camping trips already. I have been told that the troops cpoking gear get washed first as the boys will only do their own then disappear. If I remember when I was a scout we use to do our personal thing first then the troop gear Second. Can anyway agree or disagree with that. So when out with this troop I wash my gear after the trpop gear in the dirty water from the gear. Not what I consider correct but I’m one and new in the troops and not sure if that is correct. I am the only Eagle leader in the troop with a few Eagle boys which I haven’t seen on camping and a few of higher rank and they all follow the current situation. Clarify if possible. David

  28. As a servsafe food safety trainer and long time restaurant manager, I can tell you the order in the field book is wrong- no debating it. Dish soap neutralizes bleach and quat based sanitizers, so after the first couple of dishes, it’s as if you put no bleach in at all. Also, rinsing the sanitizer off rather then air drying reduces its efficacy greatly. Once it is dry, no bleach will remain, so there is no reason to rinse it away.

    • I always set up with the disinfect solution last. Most of it needs to stay in contact with the item for at least 30 seconds to a minute to kill stuff. Air drying is the way to go after the disinfect stage.

  29. With my troops we initiate the “no chunkies” policy. Plates licked or wiped clean of all food. If you are caught putting “chunkies” or sauce into the dishwater you must wash all the peoples dishes that come after you and the cooking pots. Scouts get very polite, and let someone with “chunky” plates go ahead of them and calling them out. It usually only happens once and the dish water stays fresher longer.

  30. Chlorox (the bleach company) also has a page with the procedure:

    https://www.clorox.com/dr-laundry/sanitizing-dishes-using-bleach/

    “The correct procedure for sanitizing dishes with Clorox® Regular-Bleach is to first wash and rinse dishes, glassware, and utensils. After washing, soak for at least 2 minutes in a solution of 2 teaspoons of bleach per 1 gallon of water, drain and air dry. Do not use on non-stainless steel, aluminum, silver, or chipped enamel. It’s important to wash and rinse the dishes first before applying the sanitizing solution because the organics coming off the dishes would react with bleach active, decreasing the concentration. 

  31. You want to sanitize last. As a surgical instrument sterilizer. I can tell you that sterilizing is last that way you don’t end up cross contaminating your dishes with possible infected water. making everyone who uses them sick. There’s no fun camping when everyone has food poisoning from contaminated dishes.

  32. The health department and serv safe (provides health department approved food handling training) both say hot wash, warm to hot rinse, last cold sanitize.

  33. This order is a huge error. In restaurants, it is required by law to use the 3 sink basin method if there isn’t a commercial dishwashing machine. The correct order, as required by health code law, is Hot wash first, Hot rinse second, Cold sanitize third.

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