- Buyer's Guide
A Beginner’s Guide to Washing Clothes When Traveling
One-bag travel offers plenty of benefits. But by necessity it forces you to pack less and be smart with your packing choices. Depending on the length of your trip, you might end up needing to wash items during your travels. And even if you bring a larger clothes selection with checked luggage, some items may still need to be washed mid-trip.
This may initially seem like a hassle. But with some planning and a few suitable supplies on hand, it can be a fairly quick and efficient process. And one that will ultimately let you pack less while still traveling for extended periods of time. If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve got you covered with this beginner’s guide to washing clothes whilst traveling…
Picking suitable travel clothing
Doing laundry on your travels doesn’t have to be complicated. But it does take at least some time. So the less you need to do it, the better. Now we’re not advocating venturing around with dirty, smelly gear. But picking clothing items that are designed to thrive in travel situations will help keep your laundry requirements to a minimum.
Packing clothes that can be worn at least a couple of times before they need to be washed is helpful. Underwear is the exception here – keep it fresh each day, folks! Keep an eye out for materials that resist odors, wick moisture, offer breathability, are wrinkle resistant, and that ideally come with stain-resistant finishes if possible. Materials like merino wool offer a lot of these features, though regardless of what you pick you need to consider how these fabrics can be washed. Do they need a special soap or delicate treatment? Do they require hand washing only? All easy enough to work around, as long as you’re aware from the start.
Another key tip, try to pick quick-drying fabrics. These are handy if you can’t afford to wait a long time for laundry to dry. Sometimes you might not be able to avoid bringing certain garments but you can give yourself a helping hand with at least a few that are travel-friendly.
It’s also worth noting that while merino wool is pretty much a traveler’s dream, thicker garments can take a long time to dry. So you might want to opt for thinner wool items to cut down on drying time. And if you can, try to avoid clothing with a lot of cotton in it. Generally, the more cotton it has, the slower it will take to dry and you might notice a weight penalty compared to other materials. Synthetic fabrics will dry faster than cotton. And with the world of travel clothing really heating up, new fabric blends are regularly being developed that offer a host of features to help keep your laundry down. So it’s worth keeping an eye on established travel clothing brands and perusing crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter to see what brands are coming up with.
If possible, avoid packing heavy or bulky items that might take longer to dry. Lighter items generally tend to dry faster and you can layer clothing items to keep warm, while leaving particularly bulky outer layers at home.
Once you’ve gathered a selection of travel clothing, why not test them out before your trip? Wear them for a week or a few days and see how they perform and hold up in day-to-day use. You’ll get a fairly good idea of how long you can wear them before they need to be washed. If they work well, keep them on your packing list. If they don’t, consider swapping them out for another item.
What laundry supplies to use
Before you purchase any laundry supplies, make sure you check the washing guidelines on each of your travel clothing items. Some fabrics might be fine with a variety of laundry options, while others might require specific products (for instance, detergents specifically designed to wash wool).
Here are a few options you may find helpful. And remember, numerous brands will offer variations on the below, so a quick Internet search or visit to your local outdoor or travel shop will likely offer up suitable alternatives if desired.
If you’re after an easily portable option for all fabrics, even delicates, consider something like the SinkSuds Liquid Laundry Detergent. Suitable for use in sinks, wash bags and washing machines, this option provides individual packets that are lightweight and easy to store in luggage.
Another liquid option is the multipurpose Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap, which comes in various scents. This serves as a multipurpose cleaner that can be used on your clothes, your body, as shampoo, for dishes and more. Pretty handy all round for travel purposes.
You could also go with a gel detergent such as Dr Beckmann Travel Wash, which comes in a travel-friendly 100ml container. Or stash a few Tide Travel Sink Packets in your luggage which will take up minimal space.
Wool and delicates:
If you want to wash wool and other delicates, you can go with an option such as Woolite Delicates which is suitable for both machine and hand washing. Simply decant the amount of liquid you’ll need into a smaller, travel-friendly container (which you can label if desired) and leave the larger bulky container at home. You might also like to try something like Eucalan No Rinse Delicate Wash or Kookaburra Wash. Additionally, you can use sprays such as the The Laundress Wool & Cashmere Spray to freshen up clothing between washes.
While merino wool clothing may require more gentle treatment than other travel items, its odor-resistant and antibacterial properties mean it can go for longer between washes than a lot of other fabric types. So unless you’re getting really sweaty and dirty while wearing it, it can help keep your laundry to a minimum. Plus many wool items are suitable for washing on a gentle wool setting in a washing machine if one is available. However you choose to wash wool, don’t use hot water. Stick to warm or cooler water as hot water can damage the wool and potentially cause it to shrink. Also avoid wringing out wool items when washing, as this can damage them too. And when it comes to drying larger items, lay them flat rather than hanging them to avoid stretching and dry wool items away from direct heat.
Laundry sheets and leaves take up minimal luggage space thanks to their flat forms and compact storage containers. And if you want to, you can store just the amount you need in a ziplock bag for even more compact packing. A few options you may want to consider include the Lifeventure Fabric Wash Leaves, the Sea to Summit Trek & Travel Pocket Laundry Wash, the Travelon Laundry Soap Sheets, or the Finzy Washer Sheets. Just remember to handle them with dry hands when removing them from your storage container!
Solid soap bars:
Solid soap bars are a good option if you don’t want to worry about luggage liquid restrictions. Check out options such as the Purex Fels-Naptha Laundry Bar and Stain Remover or the Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Bar Soap (like the liquid option, it’s available in a range of scents and can be used on your body or hair). Another hair, body and laundry multipurpose option is Friendly Travel Soap.
Body soap or shampoo:
In a pinch body soaps and shampoo can double as laundry detergent for a lot of clothing (again, check the labels), allowing you to keep packing to a minimum. Additionally, your accommodation may provide complementary soaps and shampoos you can use to wash clothing.
If you need to remove a stain but don’t want to wash the garment, you can try a stain remover product such as the Tide To Go Instant Stain Remover Liquid Pen. Compact enough to store easily in luggage or a day bag, it’s a potential quick fix without having to resort to doing laundry.
Alternatively you can spot clean the stain area using a soap bar or liquid detergent and some warm water. The trick is to gently dab rather than scrubbing the stain hard as this will force it into the fabric fibers rather than removing it.
There are several options for washing your clothes during trips. But they fall into two main categories: washing them at your accommodation or finding an external source such as a laundromat. As mentioned above, however you choose to wash them, always check the washing guidelines on the individual clothing items. With that in mind, let’s delve a little deeper into the first option.
Your accommodation may have a washing machine or offer laundry services (for example, some hotels may provide this though they’ll likely charge a fee for this service). And bear in mind, you don’t have to stick to one accommodation type for your whole trip. You can plan a mix of locations and accommodation for your travels and ensure at least one of them offers a washing machine, laundry services or a nearby laundromat. If these options aren’t available or you simply want to wash clothing yourself, you’ve got a range of methods to choose from.
Some helpful hints: whichever method you choose, treat washing clothes like washing dishes. If you have an assortment of cleanish and dirty items to get through, wash less dirty items first if you’re restricted in water and/or cleaning supplies. Otherwise consider doing separate washes if warranted. And if you’re using a sink or bag of some sort, give the clothes a few minutes to soak with your detergent of choice to assist in the washing process. Also don’t go too wild with the detergent. A little tends to go a long way and the more you add, the more rinsing you’ll need to do.
In the sink:
Washing clothing in the sink sounds pretty straightforward. But there are a few things to consider. First, is there a plug? It might sound odd but not all sinks come with plugs (or the plugs don’t seal properly). If you find yourself in this situation you can try to make your own plug using a sealed small plastic bag filled with a cloth or small item of clothing. You could also roll up a pair of socks to create a makeshift plug you can wedge in the drain hole. Alternatively you can bring a universal plug or sink stopper with you.
Use warm water rather than very hot water to avoid the risk of colors running (not to mention, you obviously won’t be able to hand wash if it’s too hot). You should follow the instructions on your chosen detergent but in general you’ll add it to the water, then move your clothes around in the sink for a minute or so (you may want to scrub particularly dirty items and add more detergent to them if required), and leave your clothing to soak for a few minutes. You shouldn’t need to leave clothes to soak for longer than ten minutes in most cases. Rinse and wash again if necessary (unlikely unless clothes are particularly dirty), otherwise continue rinsing until you’ve removed any trace of detergent and your rinsing water is clear. You’ll probably need to rinse two or three times at most, assuming you didn’t use a lot of detergent.
Just remember that you (and anyone else traveling with you) won’t be able to use the sink for other purposes while washing clothes, so time your laundry accordingly. And depending on where you are, you might need to give the sink itself a clean before using it for laundry.
In a dry bag or washing bag:
Dry bags aren’t only useful for keeping items dry. Since they’re designed to keep water out, they also do a great job keeping water in and can double as a washing bag. Simply add water (don’t completely fill the bag as you’ll need some air space for shaking the contents), your detergent of choice and your dirty clothing. Make sure you seal the bag securely and then give the clothes a few minutes to soak. You can then either shake the bag or open it and move the clothes around by hand for extra cleaning. Once you’re happy they’re sufficiently clean, empty the water and refill the bag to rinse the clothing. Repeat the process until all of the detergent is suitably rinsed away. It’s important to choose a dry bag large enough to fit your laundry items. Though you still might need to do more than one load depending on how much you need to wash.
There are a variety of brands offering lighter-weight and more heavy-duty dry bags depending on your requirements. The likes of OverBoard, Sea to Summit, Ortlieb or a simple Amazon search are all good places to start.
Alternatively you can use a specifically designed washing bag such as the Scrubba Wash Bag or the Allurette Wash Bag for delicate and hand wash-only items. Both wash bags feature an interior flexible washboard to aid in cleaning clothes. And their versatile designs can also serve as dry bags to keep valuable items dry or as laundry bags to store dirty clothing.
If you don’t have access to a dry bag or wash bag, you can create your own with a ziplock bag that should be able to handle smaller items such as socks, underwear or a t-shirt. You can also use a plastic shopping bag, which you can place in the sink and secure the handles over the tap to help keep the bag in place.
And if you’ve got the space to pack two dry bags or wash bags, you can use one for washing and the other for rinsing. This allows you to wash multiple loads fairly easily, rinsing one load while the other load is soaking.
In the shower:
If you’re a fan of cleaning efficiency, simultaneously washing your clothing when you shower is a good way to multitask. Multipurpose soaps that suit you and your clothing come in handy here, or you can simply wash your clothing with separate cleaning supplies. And if your clothing isn’t delicate and needs a fairly good scrub, you can place it on the shower floor and tread on it with your feet.
Find a laundromat:
Depending on your trip, finding a laundromat nearby might not be an option (such as small villages, wild camping in the mountains or stargazing on desert dunes). Even trekking across a city to get to one might be too time-consuming for your schedule. And of course, using one is going to require spending money that you might prefer to spend on other things. But if you’re happy to spend the time and the cash getting to and using one, it’s a good way to clean and dry your gear during your travels. Plus the trip to the laundromat offers the potential for good sightseeing and explorations along the way. A quick Internet search should reveal options (and if you’re set on this option, search beforehand to confirm you’ll be able to access one at your destination reasonably easily).
Drying your clothes
Timing is key
Drying your clothes while traveling requires forethought and preparation. Before you even begin washing your clothes, you need to be sure you’ll have enough drying time before you need to wear or pack them. One option is to wash clothing before you go to bed and leave it to dry overnight. This should work fairly well in warm, drier climates with quick-drying items. Ideally though, the longer you can leave it to dry, the better. So if you’re based somewhere for a few days, you can plan outfits ahead of time to ensure you have clothing to wear for a couple of days while your laundry dries.
However, sometimes you’ll be short on time or traveling during cooler months when clothes won’t dry as quickly. So if you need to speed things up, you can use a hairdryer or travel iron (either one you bring yourself or your accommodation may have one). Additionally, your accommodation may have a heater you can position clothes in front of. And if you’re traveling in your own or a rented vehicle, you may be able to string up a clothesline or use hangers near an open window to help dry clothes on the move. If push comes to shove and you’re in a warmer climate, you could simply wear the clothing if it’s still slightly damp. Your body heat and the surrounding air will help dry it as you go about your day.
Remove excess water
The more water you can get out of clothes before you hang them up, the faster they’ll dry. After rinsing, you can squeeze out as much water as possible by hand. You may want to wring out more durable items, though keep in mind that wringing clothing might damage it depending on how delicate it is. Another option is to roll the wet clothing in a towel and then apply pressure with your hands or stand on the towel to squeeze out excess water which the towel should absorb. You may be able to use a towel from your accommodation or you can pack your own quick-drying microfiber towel or shammy towel. These towels are highly absorbent for their weight and tend to pack down small to store conveniently in your luggage. Check out the likes of Matador, Rumpl, Lifeventure, PackTowl or again a simple Amazon search (or your local adventure, outdoor or travel gear shop) if you’re keen to pick one up.
Positioning your wet clothes
If you can position your clothes in a ventilated area, it will really help cut down on your drying time. If you have accommodation with an outside drying area, check with the host or other relevant party ahead of time to see if you can use it. There may be an existing clothesline or somewhere where you are able to hang up your own travel clothesline. Alternatively you may be able to bring a plastic chair outside to hang items on (or in a pinch, hardshell luggage). Be cautious if you opt for help from a tree branch as this may stain your clothing and undo all your previous effort.
If you don’t have an outdoor space you can try positioning your wet clothes near an open window in your accommodation, in front of air conditioning, a fan or even a heater if one is available. Be careful not to damage items or furniture in the accommodation by placing wet laundry on them (a plastic chair should be fine but avoid wood or fabrics). If there are clothes hangers in the accommodation, you can hang the wet items on these before positioning the hangers on furniture or other suitable spots in your accommodation in order to prevent water damage. And obviously if there’s a built-in or self-standing drying rack on hand, you’re all set.
Coming back to travel clotheslines, there are many options available for highly packable, lightweight clotheslines you can store in your luggage and set up in your accommodation. Different designs will feature different attachment options (such as hooks, suction cups, Velcro or a combination of options). You may also be able to attach your own carabiners to the clothesline for added options. Depending on the design you may be able to secure the clothesline on bathroom walls, handles of doors or windows, between furniture pieces or outside on branches. If you want to keep your packing down, opt for a braided clothesline (such as this Lewis N. Clark clothesline, Flexo-Line or inexpensive Solotrekk washing line) that allows you to secure clothing to it without the use of pegs. Alternatively the beaded cord design of Sea to Summit’s Lite Line Clothesline also lets you leave the pegs at home. If you’re keen on pegs, you can find some pegged clothesline suggestions here. Another option is a folding peg dryer such as this one, though the bulky design makes it better suited when you have some space to spare, such as traveling with checked luggage or with a campervan or caravan. And stashing a trusty piece of versatile paracord or some dental floss in your luggage gives you the option to create a makeshift clothesline if required.
Additionally, you may like the option of inflatable hangers, which you can use to hang up dry and wet items alike as required. Useful if your accommodation lacks its own hangers and you won’t damage them with wet gear. And they help with air circulation to dry clothes faster.
If you’re not already using packing cubes in some form, give them a try. Use them once and you’ll probably be converted – and not only do they organize your gear, but they can double as laundry bags to store dirty clothing separately from clean gear. And as mentioned above, if you’re using a dry bag for laundry, it also serves as storage for dirty clothes – so you don’t even need to do a transfer on wash day.
Another useful trick is to opt for darker-colored clothing over lighter-colored garments. Get dirt or a stain on dark clothing and you won’t notice it nearly so easily as you would on white garments or other lighter colors.
Sometimes your luggage may start to take on some undesirable smells if you’ve been on the go for a while. You can combat these with a variety of options such as stashing a dryer sheet in your luggage, spreading a few drops of scented essential oil in it, spraying it with an equal mix of water and white vinegar using a spray bottle, and giving it an opportunity to air without any gear inside.
Hopefully the above guide will encourage you to get out there and not worry about getting a little mucky along the way. Sometimes the best travel fun comes with some sweat, dirt or stains and you’ll be suitably prepared to handle it all.
If you have any other useful travel laundry tips, help fellow travelers by sharing them below!
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