How to Wash Your Clothes While Traveling

Travel Tips
Hanging laundry is a common sight around any budget traveler accommodation!
Hanging laundry is a common sight around any budget traveler accommodation!
Because you have such a small wardrobe, doing laundry by hand in your hotel is a regular part of traveling. There are some tricks for drying them, too.
Getting Dirty  |   Timing  |   Where to Wash Your Clothes  |   Washing  |   Rinsing  |   Drying  |   Using a Clothesline

A lot of hostels will provide laundry service (the cost is usually per kg) or there may be laundry service nearby. Depending on where you are, it will either be laundered in a machine and hung dry or hand-washed and hung dry. Clothes dryers are pretty uncommon. You will typically get a better clean this way so it's good to do every month or two if you're on a very long trip.

But in between luxury splurges on having someone else properly wash your clothes for you, you'll be doing hand-wash in your hotel as you go. It might sound a bit dreadful, but you get used to it and it just becomes part of your routine. You'll even develop your own style, whether it's wearing your clothes in the shower, washing a couple of things each day in the sink, and even how you determine what is finally deemed unwearable.

This also gives you one of those unique opportunities you find while traveling to really appreciate things you may have taken for granted at home. There's nothing like when you come home and get to properly wash your clothes! The stuff gets so CLEAN!

Based on years of doing laundry abroad, which in itself can be an interesting cultural experience, I have put together my recommendations on how to keep your clothes clean(ish) as you travel the world.

Getting Dirty

Wear your clothes until they are crawling away. Well, of course you don't want to be a stinky traveler but wear your stuff more than once! One traveler told me that her "going out clothes" were something she didn't hike all day in and fall down in the mud. LOL

Keep your dirty socks and undies in a separate stash in your bag since those are the things you won't be re-wearing (...?), and keep all your other dirties stored properly (folded or rolled) in case you need to wear them in a pinch (which happens somewhat often). I have been using the Eagle Creek Clean Dirty Cube in lieu of a small laundry bag and I love it. One side is for clean, one side for dirty so this is where my undies, bras, and socks all live.

A rinse in the sink can do wonders and you don't have to take the time to do a full wash.

Timing

Consider doing quick-wash or even just a rinse in the sink as soon as you take something off or in the evening before bed so you have some reasonably clean stuff to wear in between "major" laundering. If you had a sweaty day, a rinse in the sink can do wonders and you don't have to take the time to do a full wash. You can even just wash the problem areas for a super quick stop-gap. This really extends the "cleanish" life of your clothes!

Be strategic in your laundering. Look ahead to when you will have a least 2 nights in one location (I find that works best for me). That way you can do your laundry after you check in or early the next morning and have time to let it fully dry before you need to pack it back up again. Hopefully your clothes are all quick-dry fabrics! If not, you will need to allow extra drying time.

If it's rainy season and you're drying your clothes outside in the sun, you'll have to be very careful in your laundry timing. Pay attention to what time of day it starts raining (i.e. in many tropical climates, it might be sunny all day before getting a downpour in the afternoon) so you can get your laundry done and dried before the rain comes. Otherwise you end up in a never-ending cycle of trying to dry your clothes, them getting rained on, leaving them out again, rain again, wet for days, now musty, need to re-wash.

Where To Wash Your Clothes

Washing Machine

Certainly if your lodging provides a washing machine or special sink, go for it. You have no idea in any given country what their local laundry process is. I have seen (and not always fully understood how to properly use) multi-sectioned sinks in Central America, oil-drum-esque washing machines in Egypt, manual-automatic-combo machines in Costa Rica, and various wash basins of all sorts.
We had to have someone show us how to use this washing machine in Egypt.
We had to have someone show us how to use this washing machine in Egypt.
Big wash basin in Zimbabwe.
Big wash basin in Zimbabwe.
An open-air public
An open-air public "laundromat" in Guatemala.

Portable Washing Machine

Sounds pretty cool, right? Yes, they are but they will take up room and weight in your bag. There are different types, from sink agitators to scrubbing laundry bags. I have to say that I was hesitant to get on board with the laundry washing bag, but after trying it out, I'm a fan. See Scrubba Laundry Wash Bag - A First Timer's Review.
Scrubba portable laundry washing machine bag.
Scrubba portable laundry washing machine bag.

Getting Creative

Okay have a laugh if you will, but wait and see if you end up doing any of these! What is the saying "stinky clothes are the mother of invention"? Where there's a will, there's a way.
• Wear your clothes in the shower. This particularly comes in handy if your hostel disallows washing clothes in the sinks. ;)
• No hot water? Boil a pot in the common kitchen. You can even wash your clothes in the pot!
• You see it all the time, why not do it yourself ... wash your clothes in the river. I personally will only do it if I have biodegradable soap, but you see the locals doing it all the time.
River laundry in El Salvador. (Dirty) rocks or bushes make great drying racks!
River laundry in El Salvador. (Dirty) rocks or bushes make great drying racks!
Yep, I washed my undies in a pot of hot water! Don't worry, it was my own private kitchen. LOL
Yep, I washed my undies in a pot of hot water! Don't worry, it was my own private kitchen. LOL

Sink / Bathtub

Tried and true, doing laundry in the sink or bathtub wash is going to be your go-to. Sinks are a bit messier, but bathtubs can do a number on your back (yes, even when I was younger). For the most part, the steps and tips below are for this kind of wash.

Okay, so let's get to it!

A Few Things to Keep in Mind

• You WILL get the floor all wet under the sink
• At least one clothing item will fall off the line into the dirt
Doing laundry at my friend's house in Thailand.
Doing laundry at my friend's house in Thailand.
Sink and bathtub washing will just become part of your routine.
Sink and bathtub washing will just become part of your routine.

Sink / Bathtub Washing

Hopefully you have your universal flat or rubber sink stopper with you and with any luck you even have hot water. Many types of soap will work. I travel with a concentrated biodegradable laundry soap but have also used my body wash or the bar soaps you sometimes pick up for free along the way. Powdered laundry soap can usually be purchased at a local shop very inexpensively but if they don't sell it by the gram, you might be in for more than you want to carry.

Put clothes in sink or bathtub, fill the sink, adding soap as it fills. If you have any stains, put a drop of soap directly on the spot and rub that stain out. Agitate your clothes a bit (like a washing machine) then LET IT SIT for 15-30 minutes. This makes a big difference in how clean your clothes get. Slosh it around a good bit again and drain your sink.

Bathtubs let you wash a larger load of laundry and also give you the extra fun of "grape stomping" your clothes clean. ;)

Be aware that some hostels disallow washing your clothes entirely while others provide nice sunny laundry lines.

Rinsing

Pretty basic. I usually do a bold rinse under the running tap, squeezing and turning each item. Then fill the sink and swish the clothes around one more time to get out the rest of the soap. Then wring each item out before hanging to dry. Sometimes it can be a balancing act piling up your rinsed / need-to-rinse / ready-to-hang clothes on the side of the sink! Inevitably one of your ready-to-hang items will fall into the sink full of water.

Sometimes I'm worried about
Sometimes I'm worried about "ghetto-ing" up the place by hanging my laundry out. Then I realize everyone else is doing it too. Especially if they provide hanging lines like this.

Drying

It would be a rare occasion to have an actual clothes dryer to use. Many countries simply don't use them, and even less so in budget accommodation. So plan on hanging your clothes to dry. If your accommodation supplies a laundry line in the sun, use that!, otherwise you'll be using your handy little clothesline you packed. ;) Here's where you really see a difference in those quick-dry clothes you bought!

If you don't have a laundry line, then hang your clothes over chairs, on the bed, or even over bushes in a pinch. When one side is dry, turn them over to dry the other side.
Here's a great trick to get your clothes to dry faster, but you'll need to be able to spare your dry towel.

Lay your towel out on your bed and lay your clothing item on it (or puzzle-piece a few items on the towel). Now start at the short end and roll your clothes up in the towel. Press it and squeeze it, then unroll and hang your stuff. This gets a good bit of extra water out and saves drying time!
If you hang shirts upside down, you can avoid the pointy shoulder syndrome.

Using a Clothesline

• Try to hang your clothes by one end instead of folding them over the laundry line or they won't dry as quickly.
• If you hang shirts upside down, you can avoid the pointy shoulder syndrome.
• Drying your clothes inside out will help keep the sun from fading them too much and also keep any stray blowing dirt on the non-visible side of your once-clean clothes.
• Squeeze the excess water out of the bottom of your clothes whenever you walk by.
• For panties and tank tops, loop the panty or one of the tank straps over the clothesline and pull the rest of the garment through the loop. This will keep them from falling off the line. You can pin the other side if you need to.

Also see Timing above - don't leave your clothes out in the rain! If the weather turns, either move your clothes to a laundry line under a roof, or into your room.

If you are hanging your stuff in your room and have air-con or a fan, hang your clothes in the breeze. Be careful though about potential puddles underneath since it can make the floor super slippery.
A common sight for a budget traveler.
A common sight for a budget traveler.

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