WASHING CLOTHES IN SURVIVAL OR PRIMITIVE CONDITIONS
A washing machine is another of those devices that modern man seems to think he can’t live without. Yet, for the vast stretch of human history, there were no washing machines. People just washed their garments with hot water and soap and worked them by hand until they were clean. Sometimes, smooth rocks were used; sometimes not. In fact, it was often just cold, running water in the stream and no soap at all.
I once lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico, while attending a daily language school. I lived downtown in a tall hotel at which many other students stayed. Each day, I walked a few miles to my language school, across town and up in the hills.
I would walk down into a canyon through which a river flowed. This canyon was the poor district, and the people there lived in little, square adobe houses in which the windows and doors were merely openings in the walls. Every day, I’d see how all the people washed their clothes in the stream, usually with rocks. It took me a few minutes to walk through the area, and I always tried to see what all the people were doing.
It was already hot in the morning when I went to school. The young children were mostly naked, and the women had the clothes stretched out on flat rocks. The clothes had already been soaked in water, and the women were rubbing parts of the clothes with small rocks, presumably to take out stains. (Later, I was shown the types of rocks used: They were oval shaped and fit into the hand, and although they looked smooth, their surfaces were actually rough, like fine sand paper.) Some used a type of decomposed granite, and others worked with sandstone. Then, they laid the clothes out on the stones to dry in the hot afternoon sun. When I walked home from school, I’d often see them removing the dry clothes.
Clearly, a washing machine is not vital to life. But it was invented because people wanted and/or needed more time to do all the other things in life they deemed far more important than washing clothes by hand. Clothes are so essential to our daily life—whether in the urban jungle or in the remote outback—that I am often surprised how little attention is given to clothing and fabric selection in so-called “survival manuals.”
I HAVE HEARD OF VARIOUS SO-CALLED SHORTCUT WAYS OF DOING LAUNDRY, BUT MOST OF THEM DON’T REALLY GET YOUR CLOTHES CLEAN.
NATURAL FABRICS VS. SYNTHETICS
Anyone who has ever washed clothes knows that some fabrics clean up better than others, and stains from certain substances are harder to remove than others. In general, from a survival standpoint, I regard cotton and wool (and other natural materials) as superior to any of the man-made synthetic fabrics on the market, with only a few exceptions. Yes, it’s true that polyesters will last longer and will hold up better to rugged abuse, including being washed by stones, but overall, I believe the comfort and breathability of natural fabrics far outweighs the benefits of synthetics.
When you’re out shopping for clothing, try to think long term. Will this garment hold up to rugged use? Will I be able to sew it if it tears? Does it have a lot of pockets? Would I be comfortable wearing this if I were suddenly stuck in some disaster and had to wear it for the next two weeks? In addition, read the labels that tell you how to clean the garment. And those “delicate” garments that should only be taken to a dry cleaner? Perhaps you really don’t need those.
PRACTICAL SURVIVAL SKILLS, SUCH AS WASHING YOUR CLOTHES BY HAND, ARE NOT JUST FOR THE HOMELESS, SQUATTERS OR DESTITUTE, LOW-INCOME PEOPLE … SURVIVAL SKILLS ARE EMINENTLY PRACTICAL, ALL THE TIME, EVERYWHERE.
OK, your clothes are dirty, but you don’t have soap or water. Now, what? Many times while practicing survival skills in the desert, we’d remove our clothes, shake them out and lay them in the sun for a bit. After that, we’d turn them inside out and lay them in the sun for another hour or longer. Then, to keep ourselves clean, my mentor showed us to simply do a dry scrub with a natural bristle brush, which removes dirt and takes off dead skin cells. It might sound like torture, but you really feel refreshed after doing this.
Eventually, you’ll get to some water, and you’ll want to wash your clothes. Let’s begin with soap.
A bar of soap is easy to carry. So many people these days are practicing self-reliance skills (such as soap-making) that you should have no trouble finding a local source of homemade soap. Try local farmers markets—or try learning the soap-making process yourself. It’s really not that hard.
If you don’t care for bar soap, just use some liquid detergent and carry it in your pack in a plastic squeeze container. Make sure you twist the lid on tight and maybe even pack it in a zippered plastic bag.
There are endless bar and liquid soap choices these days, so a lot has to do with your personal preferences. However, if you’re going to be making do in the backwoods, do your best to bring along the purest soap you can find so you’re not polluting the water or the soil. Read the ingredients. Avoid coloring agents and non-natural perfumes.
Here are some of my preferences: When carrying bar soap, I will bring along a bar that was homemade by any of my half-dozen friends who regularly make their own soap. Sometimes, I carry Fels Naptha laundry bar soap. For liquid detergent, I might carry Basic H, a completely biodegradable soap (but it is pricey). And almost as good: Ivory dishwashing liquid and the Seventh Generation soap line.
SOAPS FROM NATURE
What if you didn’t have the time or opportunity to plan ahead? You’re just out somewhere, stuck; and among many other things, you need soap. What can you find in nature for soap?
In fact, there are various soap plants found all over North America that have been used for generations by Native Americans and pioneers. You can begin your research into your local soap plants by inquiring at native plant societies and the botany departments of local colleges.
As an example, many (but not all) leaves of the yucca plant can be shredded, rubbed with water and produce a saponin-rich soap. This soap is excellent for washing clothes, sheets, diapers, your hair, your body, your dog, etc.
Fruits and flowers of the widespread Ceanothus genus (mountain lilac) have long been used as soaps just by rubbing them between the hands with water.
Once, while backpacking for a week in Sequoia National Forest, one of my hiking partners, Jojo, introduced me to another way to stay clean. Each day, we took a swim in the river, although we had no soap. We’d been handling pine needles to make shelters, and we had tar sap and dirt all over our hands and arms. Jojo found a little oval rock, smaller than a golf ball, whose surface was flat but rough like smooth sand paper. He showed me how to rub my skin with the rock, and the pine sap came right off. (Ever since, this has been referred to as a “Jojo stone”)
IN FACT, THERE ARE VARIOUS SOAP PLANTS FOUND ALL OVER NORTH AMERICA THAT HAVE BEEN USED FOR GENERATIONS BY NATIVE AMERICANS AND PIONEERS.
WASHING BY HAND
I learned to wash my clothes by hand when I didn’t have a washing machine. I took one or two small items with me into the bathtub (I took baths, not showers) and hand-washed each item while in the tub. This required approximately 50 to 100 hard squeezes and some twists and agitations to get the clothing item clean, and then it would be hung out on my “solar clothes dryer.” I began to enjoy that process. It wasn’t long before I never took any more trips on my motorcycle with a full load of laundry to a laundromat. On rainy days, I hung my clothes indoors or in a covered area where they’d dry by the wind, as I saw the Amish do in rural Ohio.
There are many hand-washing devices that can be purchased at Lehman’s, Real Goods or Amazon; for example, the scrub board. Personally, I have never cared for this device and never found it useful. But the fact that it is still being sold must mean some people do find it useful. You can often find these at second-hand stores.
There is also a device I have seen advertised that essentially comprises a toilet plunger and a 5-gallon plastic bucket. This can be easily made at home: You buy a plastic bucket with a lid and cut a hole in the lid so you can put the handle of the plunger through the lid. You add your dirty clothes, water and soap into the bucket, and plunge away! This has its adherents, and it’s not that hard to do, although I find I can get my clothes cleaner just by washing them by hand. A bucket certainly helps when washing clothes in a primitive setting, but I don’t find that a plunger is all that essential.
I have heard of various so-called shortcut ways of doing laundry, but most of them don’t really get your clothes clean. These ideas include such things as adding laundry, soap and water to a plastic bucket, securing the lid and then rolling it around for a while. Maybe; but probably not. There’s really no substitute for just getting in there and washing your clothes by hand.
It might happen that you need to “do laundry,” but you don’t have any soap. Just washing your clothes by hand in water is better than nothing: Agitate the clothes and work each piece until you see the water getting dirty.
For a stain, you can try what I’ve tried on occasion: I start with a somewhat oval stone, usually smaller than a golf ball. Get one that is smooth but with a surface that feels like fine pumice. Use the stone to gently rub out the stains in your garments.
However, don’t rub too hard, or you’ll damage the fibers of the fabric. Then, while the clothes are wet, hang them out on a line in the sun with the stain exposed to the sun.
DIY STAIN REMOVERS
You’re in the backcountry with minimal supplies, or you’re hiding out during a period of social unrest. You still want, and need, clean clothes. Yes, there are a million stain removers you can buy at any supermarket, but are there any stain removers you, yourself, can make?
Stains can be removed by a variety of methods, depending on the type of fabric and what caused the stain. And if you don’t have any of those commercial stain removers, you can use one of the tried-and-true methods that have worked forever. Your main ingredients will typically include water, sunlight, white vinegar, baking soda, borax, hydrogen peroxide, lemon juice and alcohol.
Simple Stain Remover: For a stubborn stain, while the garment is still wet from washing, spray some vinegar/water or lemon juice/water onto the stain, and place the garment in the sun so the stain is in the sun. The combination of the vinegar/water or lemon juice/water and the sun is often sufficient to bleach out the stain.
Homemade Stain Remover: Mix baking soda or borax in equal amounts with white vinegar. Scrub this onto the stain with an old toothbrush and wait 10 to 20 minutes before washing.
Homemade Spot Remover: Mix 1½ cups water, ¼ cup liquid Castile soap and ¼ cup liquid vegetable glycerin. Pour this in a spray bottle. Spray the stain as soon as possible, and then wash the garment.
Stain-removal Soak: Combine 1 cup water, ½ cup hydrogen peroxide, and ½ cup baking soda. If possible, soak the stained laundry in this overnight, or pour this mixture into your washing bucket, along with the stained clothes.
Ink Stain Remover: Try using alcohol. If you have an alcohol-based product such as a hand sanitizer, try rubbing the stain with that. If you have isopropyl alcohol, give that a try. Also experiment with liquor … on the stains, that is.
IN MOST CASES, YOU CAN IMMEDIATELY SEE IF YOUR SCRUBBING IS GETTING THE DIRT AND STAINS OUT.
WHERE TO WASH
If you’re in the backcountry, don’t wash your clothes in a stream. At the very least, think of those who might be drinking from this source further downstream. If you’re using only natural soap from plants you collected and you’re far into the backcountry, this might not be a big issue. Nevertheless, on general principle, you don’t want to pollute the sources of drinking water.
Instead, fill a bucket with water, and add your dirty clothes. It helps to soak the clothes for a while, even if just for an hour. Put your bucket in the sun so the water warms up a bit.
If you have a way to heat your water, add it to the bucket. If you planned ahead and purchased a solar shower, you can heat your laundry water in the sun and never have to make a fire. (Sometimes, a fire is not convenient, and if you’re in “enemy territory,” it might not be advisable).
When you’re ready to clean, you can go over the garment and scrub particularly bad areas with a brush and soap, a stone or whatever you have for this task. In most cases, you can immediately see if your scrubbing is getting the dirt and stains out. Then, just scrub the garment by hand. I’ve found that about 200 hand squeezes is sufficient for the average piece of clothing.
BY THE OCEAN
If you’re ever out at sea or stranded near the ocean, try to wash your clothes with fresh water as often as possible—salt, wind and extreme sea temperatures will wreak havoc on your clothes.
I found that I had a more “intimate” connection with my clothes after cleaning them by hand. And somehow, this reminded me of some of Thoreau’s commentary that we should learn to live better with less.
I learned what it takes to clean difficult stains and about the different fibers and textures of fabrics. I began to buy sensible clothing—always opting for wearability and practicality, and rarely because something was in style. Before I set out in the morning, I would often think, What if some disaster befalls me today and I am forced to wear these same clothes for days or longer? Would my clothes be comfortable? Could I move around easily and run in them? Will they be easy to clean? Gradually, I eliminated all clothing that no longer served my needs.
Refer to Christopher Nyerge’s book, How to Survive Anywhere (second edition, Stackpole Books, pages 124 through 127), for a complete comparison of fabrics. He is a long-time self-reliance and survival instructor and author of over a dozen books. Contact him via www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.