How to Do Laundry on a Road Trip Like John Steinbeck

by A Manly Guest Contributor on October 18, 2011 · 35 comments

in Travel, Travel & Leisure

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jeff More.

You’re packing for a road trip and you’re down to deciding how much clothing to bring. You could have a fresh change of clothes every day, but that adds up to a lot of space quickly, especially if you have multiple companions. You really would prefer to travel light, but that means either finding a laundromat and spending a stack of quarters and a few hours in town, or hand washing your clothes at camp when you could be kicking back and enjoying a foil meal instead.

Or you could just suck it up, not change, and reek a little. But really, you’re car camping, not backpacking, so why do that? What’s a man to do?

Here’s a tip I got from Travels with Charley (sadly missing from the Art of Manliness’ 100 best reads, but no one’s perfect), John Steinbeck’s 1962 travelogue documenting his road trip circumnavigating the Lower 48 with his French poodle, Charley, and how the American landscape had changed over his lifetime. The book is known for its series of poignant tales, but buried inside is a handy nugget on how to effortlessly have a fresh change of clothes on hand daily while on the road.

What You’ll Need:

  • 5-gallon bucket with lid (I use an orange Home Depot bucket)
  • Jug of clean water (Get a jug with a screw-on top, not a snap top. Trader Joe’s has a good one.)
  • Laundry detergent
  • Some utility cord or other improvised clothesline
  • Clothespins or binder clips (the duct tape of office supplies)

Here’s how it works.

In the Morning

“[I] put in two shirts, underwear, and socks, added hot water and detergent, and hung it by its rubber rope to the clothes pole, where it jigged and danced crazily all day.” -John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

When you’re breaking camp, throw your dirty clothes into your five gallon bucket. Fill up your bucket with enough water to cover your dirty laundry and put some detergent in there. I usually use a half load or less of powdered detergent pre-measured at home and stored individually in baggies (alternatively, you could get a squeeze bottle at REI for a dollar for liquid detergent) so it doesn’t get overly soapy, as you’re only doing a small load relative to what you regularly would do at home.

Secure the lid and place the bucket somewhere in your vehicle where it won’t tip over. Steinbeck hung his bucket from the clothes pole in his trailer. I have a wagon with a seating capacity of five and place the bucket behind the passenger seat.

As you drive along, every curve and bump in the road agitates the load, acting as the wash cycle as the contents slosh around. As you can imagine, the technique outlined in this article works better on winding roads than cruising on the high speed straightaways of the interstate.

At Lunch

“That night I rinsed the clothes in a stream, and you’ve never seen clothes so clean.” 

Steinbeck rinsed his clothes in a stream at camp, but depending on where you’re camping, there is a probability you may or may not have access to one (the Sierra Nevada in May has lots of running water–the Mojave Desert in November does not), but no worries.

When you stop for lunch, pour out the nasty gray water, pour in a little fresh water from your jug, and massage your clothes a few times, getting most of the waste water out. Refill the bucket one last time again with enough fresh water to cover your clothes and refill your clean water jug somewhere—campgrounds and gas stations are good options–remembering to keep ample water in your car in case of emergency.

As you continue on down the road, this acts as the rinse cycle.

At Camp

“Inside Rocinante I strung a nylon line close to the window and hung the clothes to dry. From that time on, my clothing was washed on one day of driving and dried on the next.”

If you decide to skip the rinse method above and stick to rinsing your clothes in a stream at camp like Steinbeck, be mindful if you’re at a populated campground. It’s best not to send sudsy water downstream to your neighbors, even if the soap you are using is biodegradable, as your neighbors may be using that same water to drink and cook with. Use your best judgment.

When you arrive at camp, pour out the water and gently wring out the clothes. Steinbeck let his clothes air dry over the next day, but if you have been wearing modern synthetic outdoor garments, you could speed up the process. Thick, heavy cotton clothes will dry the slowest, while thin synthetics like Patagonia Silkweight Capilene or Ex Officio travel underwear will dry the quickest. Wool socks fall somewhere in the middle, but, unlike cotton, will retain warmth and loft even if slightly damp.

Improvise a clothesline with some utility cord using a combination of your car’s oh-crap handles and/or baby seat attachment points, or any other secure points your vehicle has to offer. If you’re certain there will be no precipitation overnight, you could also rig up the line between some trees. As the ecology of most places I typically camp in the desert regions of California and the Southwestern states don’t lend themselves well to big trees, I don’t bother, but if it’s an option, a breeze will help speed things up. Secure your clothes using clothespins or binder clips.

Depending on ambient humidity levels, your clothes may or may not be perfectly dry in the morning, but if they’re not satisfactorily dry, no worries, leave them hanging in your vehicle and let them dry out on the next day’s driving just like Steinbeck did.

Congratulations, you smell fresh! If you have any tips on how to do laundry on a road trip, be sure to post them in the comments section.

Keep the adventure alive!


Jeff More works and resides in Los Angeles, where the four seasons are mudslides, earthquakes, riots, and wildfires. He is an avid shooter of both firearms and camera, and celebrates his American heritage by playing the 5-string banjo. Check out his website at

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rich Ee October 18, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Great article on an efficient method of washing clothes. I will certainly adopt it where appropriate. I would like to comment on the statement “That night I rinsed the clothes in a stream, and you’ve never seen clothes so clean.”


Thank you very much.

2 Tommy October 18, 2011 at 7:17 pm

I guess this only works for trips where you will be driving nearly all the time (as opposed to driving a few hours between places you want to see).

Heck if I drove for a day in any direction around here I would end up at least one country away, possible several.

3 dave mckim October 18, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Why make it difficult ! Do your camping @ State Parks. All the facilities you need to wash & enjoy the grounds while clothes dry on a line.

4 Justin October 18, 2011 at 8:30 pm

We are not real men if we have not thought about a process and devised a tool to make that process easier. In my case, plunger-style hand washers such as the Breathing Washer, a bucket, and soap or detergent. I use the classic recipe for laundry soap with Zote, borax, and washing soda, and it’s far cheaper than anything I can buy in the store (there are recipes all over the net).

Throw clothes and soap (doesn’t take much) in the bucket, add cold water to cover them, let them soak for 10-15 minutes. Beat them with the breathing washer for 2 minutes or so, wring out, dump the water, add fresh water for the rinse cycle, then beat them in the rinse water for a minute or so, and you’re done. Line dry.

This is how I’ve been doing my laundry for years, the process doesn’t change even if I’m at home, out on the road, or in a hotel.

5 Gary Huber October 18, 2011 at 8:41 pm

One manly way to dry your clothes is to wrap them around you when you climb into your sleeping bag at night. Your body heat quickly warms them up, and in the morning, they are dry and warm. I used this method on a cross-country bike trip.

6 Chiot's Run October 18, 2011 at 8:49 pm

I so loved this part of Travels with Charlie. We were going to try doing this when we took a four week trip across the country with the tiny teardrop we built, but ended up chickening out. We stopped at a campground with a laundry twice and used their machines.

7 Chris October 18, 2011 at 8:52 pm

I would recommend against using a Firehouse Subs five gallon pickle bucket. They may be cheap, but they smell like pickles.

8 Thomas October 18, 2011 at 10:13 pm

I love this article.

I hate that you’re telling people to buy a squeeze bottle, a water jug and a bucket. You can recycle these.

Restaurants get great buckets that contain all kinds of things. Sometimes they’ll sell you one for cheap, or give you on.

Jugs are everywhere. An old laundry detergent jug will hold a few gallons of water and as for a squeeze bottle? Your hand soap bottle or dishwashing soap bottle will work.

Also, don’t rinse your clothes in a stream. The soap isn’t good for the water life!

9 the muskrat October 18, 2011 at 10:36 pm

This reminds me of doing my laundry in Iraq in 2003. Not so happy times.

10 Dan October 18, 2011 at 10:44 pm

This would’ve been perfect for driving the Trans Labrador Highway! Nothing to do but drive, and the road, though mostly straight, was full of bumps. Instead I rationed one outfit for four days till I got to Newfoundland.

11 greyD October 18, 2011 at 10:59 pm

This is awesome, you just solved the only thing that makes a long road trip uncomfortable for me.

12 greyD October 18, 2011 at 11:03 pm

and just to reiterate what others have said do not wash or rinse dirty clothes or put any soap in to the water systems. Practice “leave no trace” camping methods please!

13 Native Son October 19, 2011 at 12:38 am

While Steinbeck did do a fairish amount of laundry as described, he also availed himself of the same-day laundry at more than a few rather posh hotels during the trip.
Anyway, I really did enjoy the book, and what better way to see the country than in company with a bleu standard poodle named “Able Baker Charlie Dog”?
And I concur, don’t soap up any streams.
Of course, there’s the alternate method formerly practiced by one relative. He merely bought more clothing as needed and tossed the dirty underwear and socks.

14 Daren Redekopp October 19, 2011 at 8:06 am

On a parallel note, Steinbeck writes of his friend, Ed Ricketts in his “Log From the Sea of Cortez,” that “his clothes he just came by, and the coats were not likely to fit him at all. He was not in the least embarrassed by his clothes. He went everywhere in the same costume. And always he seemed strangely neat. Such was his sense of inner security that he did not seem ill dressed. Often people around him appeared over-dressed.” A telling anecdote of how the clothes do not make the man.

15 JimH October 19, 2011 at 8:18 am

Great ideas! I never heard of the breathing washer, I’m going to check that out and I will try the method next time I go. For a clothes line I know you can get a travel clothes line with hooks at each end, so it can be set up anywhere, and made out of twisted surgical tubing so that you can pinch the clothes into the line. And for times that you’re traveling even lighter, I suggest checking out; good advice on doing laundry when you have to carry everything you have…

16 Stefan October 19, 2011 at 8:19 am

When I was in Buenos Aires this spring I used a plastic bag from supermarket for washing my underwear and shirts. During my shower I wet my clothes and rug some soap on them. Then I put them into a plastic bag and pour some water in. After I tied a knot on the bag I frantically knead the bag with my hands or smashed it against shower walls. After 3-5minutes I took my clothes out, washed them again in clean water. Done.

17 JPR October 19, 2011 at 9:30 am

I would like to agree with the article and suggest rinsing in a stream. 1/4 cup of biodegradable soap in a stream is not going to hurt anything.

I mean can anyone tell me what is wrong with pooping in the woods (in a slit trench), throwing apple cores on the ground, and rinsing clothes in the stream? If we have any environmental scientists in the group, help me out!!!

18 Samuel Warren October 19, 2011 at 9:52 am


I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those things. I’m not an environmentalist, but I do pride myself of being a conservationist. I believe alot of the rules we’ve put in place for people server more to keep the beauty of the outdoors there for others. If one person throws an apple core on the ground, no big deal. If 50 or 100 people a day start doing it that really nice campground starts looking like a dump fast. So all I would ask is that after you’re done pooping in your slit trench, toss in your apple core and cover it up :)

19 Curtis October 19, 2011 at 11:55 am

I loved this article. I just read “Travels With Charley” over this past summer and finished on a week-long road trip from San Diego up to a music festival east of Seattle, WA with my girlfriend. I remember thinking how brilliant Steinbeck’s clothes washing technique is, but I did not feel the need to do any laundry on this short trip.

20 Ryan Grimm October 19, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I do pretty much the same..although in my case I use a toilet plunger and a 5-gallon bucket. I sit in camp and work the plunger while I talk or read. Gets the job done.

21 claude October 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm

If you use real soap flakes instead of a laundry detergent, is it ok to rinse in a stream? Im under the impression that real soap is relatively harmless to the environment. Thanks to any who respond.

22 CombatMissionary October 19, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Next time I MOB, I’m taking a couple of small buckets with screw-on lids. Throw in a mid-size river rock or two and you’ve got an agitator while you roll the bucket across the floor. Or maybe I’ll Tie some 550 cord to the door to the wall, and hang the bucket in the middle, so every time someone comes in or goes out, the bucket self-agitates.

23 Joe Roy October 19, 2011 at 10:14 pm

When my brother and I were traveling through Central and South America by motorcycle, we just showered with our clothes on, soaping them up well and rinsing while wearing them. It works better with quick-dry material, of course, but it kept us wearing clean clothes when all we could get was a shower at night. If needed, we would bungee them onto the outside of our saddle bags for some extra drying time… the locals probably enjoyed the sight of two KLRs cruising through with laundry flapping…

24 JeffC October 19, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Way, less detergent than you’re used to. Way, way less.

Use metal binder clips with caution: you could wind up with rust marks on your clothing.

Doing little inventive, self-sufficient things like this is part of the joy of traveling.

25 Brian October 19, 2011 at 10:55 pm

I second Justin’s recommendation for the Breathing Washer and want to point you to a company selling them and nifty portable drying racks, all American made:
If you need something bigger than a 5 gallon bucket, plastic storage bins make good laundry tubs. It takes much more water to fill a bin to proper depth than a bucket though.

26 RM October 20, 2011 at 6:15 am

Alas, Travels With Charley has been proven to be mostly fabrication. REASON Magazine ran a story by Bill Steigerwald who bought Steinbeck’s lie before research and an attempted recreation of the trip revealed Steinbeck spent most of the trip with his wife (and Charley) in hotels and motels.
“But after nine months of fact checking and 11,276 miles of drive-by journalism, I can tell you for sure that:

• Steinbeck was almost never alone on his trip. Out of 75 days away from New York, he traveled with, stayed with, and slept with his beloved wife, Elaine, on 45 days. On 17 other days he stayed at motels and busy truck stops and trailer courts, or parked his camper on the property of friends.

• Steinbeck didn’t rough it. With Elaine he stayed at some of the country’s top hotels, motels, and resorts, not to mention two weeks at the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove, California, and a week at a Texas cattle ranch for millionaires. By himself, as he admits in Charley, he often stayed in luxurious motels.

• Steinbeck rarely camped under the stars in the American outback. The campout in Alice, North Dakota, wasn’t the only fabricated resting place in Charley. Steinbeck also made up the very next night, when he said he slept under the stars in the evil Badlands as the coyotes howled. He couldn’t have done that, since that was the same night he was taking his hot bath in a motel in Beach, North Dakota.

• Steinbeck also fibbed about camping alone overnight on a farm near Lancaster, New Hampshire. When a local writer, Jeff Woodburn, innocently went looking for that farm and the Yankee farmer who owned it as part of a 50-year anniversary story, he discovered that neither had ever existed. What Woodburn learned was that in September 1960 Steinbeck had actually lodged overnight at the exclusive Spalding Inn, where hotel management had to loan him a tie and jacket so he could eat in the dining room.”

27 Darren October 20, 2011 at 10:24 am

I would advise against drying large quantities of clothes inside a vehicle if you live in a humid or cool climate. Over time the moisture evaporating off your clothes and into the vehicle can lead to mold problems especially if there is food remnants or crumbs . There needs to be a cross breeze to assist drying and vent out the humid air to help dry out the interior. Clothing that has been hand wrung dry will usually have enough leftover moisture to start dripping and this will cause water spots on the carpet and seat fabric. Drying inside a vehicle would be a last option for me, a string tied to the side mirror to a walking stick works very well for a drying rack plus it gets the added benefit of being sterilized by UV light from the sun.

28 Matt October 20, 2011 at 11:11 am

Don’t put your soapy water in the stream, even with biodegradable soap. Biodegradable soap only breaks down when it is in the ground. If you put soapy water into a stream you’ll just end up with an oily slick on the top of the water.
Dig a small cat-hole and pour your grey water in there.

Don’t throw you’re apple cores on the ground. It habituates animals to human waste and alters the ecosystem. Small animals begin to eat apple cores and stop eating whatever they normally eat. Or large animals, like bears, can learn that campsites are a great place to find food and start hanging around there.
If you eat your apple top to bottom instead of around the center, you can eat the core without even noticing. You can throw the stem and seeds on the ground.

29 Cody October 20, 2011 at 11:59 am

I agree with Rich, please keep your laundry out of our streams!

30 David W October 20, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Awesome piece! I just recently read Travels with Charley for the first time. I’ve been experimenting with laundry in the shower. It’s unusual, but once you get used to it, it’s saves me from laundry days. We will see just how sustainable it is…

31 m October 22, 2011 at 3:55 am

As a resident of Iraq for the last 4 years working for the US Army I have a lot of experience with this method and it is much simpler than described. You need a 5 gallon bucket and enough water to fill it 3 times. Loosely fill it with clothes and add 2 capfuls of woolite and 1 capful of bleach. ‘Stomp’ on the clothes in the bucket a while, rinse twice by more ‘stomping’ and hang up overnight. Socks may take more rinsing to get all the soap out for some reason. This will produce some of cleanest clothes you will ever wear.

32 Kay October 22, 2011 at 12:28 pm

A suggestion about when to add detergent, whether it be for the method described here or in a regular washing machine. Reverse the steps: first fill the bucket (or machine) with water, then mix in the detergent thoroughly, and finally toss in your clothes. That way the clothes are impregnated from the get-go with soapy water. Otherwise, they first get soaked with plain water which will act as somewhat of a barrier to the penetration of the detergent added last.

33 Andrew October 26, 2011 at 11:08 am

You know those kickball or soccer-style ice cream makers that you toss around to make ice cream? I wonder if anyone has ever thought about creating such an item for do-it-yourself-on-the-road laundry.

I can certainly understand the concerns about having laundry and mold stains in your car as you are driving, but I suspect if you put that into a 5 galleon bucket into a slightly larger container (or put it in the trunk of your car), you should be fine. Right?

34 Rick S. November 4, 2011 at 12:35 pm

No matter where we do our laundry it ends up in our streams!

When I was in the Navy I one of my units was MIUWU-208 in Miami. We did operations in the Gulf and spent weeks in the field. We would tie our clothes to the tent lines with laundry soap in the pockets and let the rain wash them. Other than that it was either wait to get back to civilization or use the ocean, which leaves a salt residue you REALLY DON’t want as it irritates areas of your body you don’t want irritated. The trick is to figure out how much soap to use and when the rains will come, but other than that it worked out pretty well.

35 Mary November 7, 2011 at 5:04 pm

I would recommend that you add a plunger washer to your list of the things you need. I have one of these tools and it makes laundry by hand a reasonable thing. It is still hard work though. I use it when I am camping.

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