Contrary to the rumors, travelers are not a bunch of filthy vagrants. Well not always. This is how I wash my clothes when traveling around the world for extended periods.
Living out of a backpack doesn’t lend itself to a stylish & extensive wardrobe. So when I explain to others that I own 2 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of shorts, 4 t-shirts, 2 collared shirts, and a sweater, the next question is usually “what do you do about laundry?”
Actually it’s surprisingly easy to keep everything clean.
There are 4 different laundry techniques I use with great success:
Each has its benefits and disadvantages, which I’ll describe in fascinating detail below!
This ingenious technique involves a large heavy-duty ziplock bag called an Aloksak. Renowned for its durability and waterproofness, the bags are able to withstand underwater pressures down to 190 feet deep for two weeks! But it’s also lightweight and easy to pack. They come in many sizes, but for laundry I use a 16″ x 24″.
I also use the Aloksak for storing my dirty (smelly) clothes. To wash with it, first dump in a pinch of detergent (small packets are available for pennies), fill with hot water, and mix everything up for 5 minutes with your hand. Imagine the oscillating action inside a washing machine.
Finally, zip up the bag and allow your clothing to soak in the soapy water for another 10 minutes. To rinse clean you can either refill the bag with fresh water, use a sink, or my personal favorite method, get naked and jump in the shower with them!
The sink approach is pretty simple also. Plug the drain of a sink, add soap, fill with hot water, and hand-wash your clothes. It’s one of the most popular ways for backpackers to clean their garments.
There’s even a universal drain plug specifically made for travelers. But a rolled up sock or washcloth works too, especially when it’s wrapped in a plastic grocery bag. Rinse your clothes in the sink when done.
Coin operated laundromats can be found all over the world, usually in larger towns & cities. Sometimes hostels or guesthouses will even have a few machines. This method is pretty self-explanatory. Many will often have WiFi, and it’s a great place to meet women. Double bonus!
My favorite laundry ladies can wash a load of clothes in under 8 hours! But a 24 hour wait is more common. Washing clothes in many foreign countries is as easy as strolling down the block to drop-off your stinky shirts & shorts at someone else’s house.
Depending on the country, most neighborhoods have a small (or large) family-run laundry operation based in their home.
Your clothing is weighed on a scale to determine price. Sometimes you can choose between machine drying (quicker but more expensive) or line drying in the sunlight.
Because I don’t own mountains of clothing, I usually get to know the laundry lady & her family pretty well with weekly visits. Maybe twice a week if they happen to own cute pets.
If you’re washing clothes with the Aloksak bag or sink techniques, finding a fast & efficient way to dry them is key. When it’s sunny out, and your guesthouse or hostel has a clothesline outside (often on the roof), line drying in the fresh air only takes a few hours.
But if the weather is bad, or you’re forced to dry them inside, here’s a little trick I use to speed things up.
Find a dry towel, lay it on the bed, place a garment on the towel, and roll it up tight. The dry towel will suck out some additional moisture, allowing your clothes to dry faster when hanging inside on a rope or travel-friendly elastic laundry line.
To help reduce the amount of laundry I do, it’s common for me to re-wear pants & shirts until they start to smell. In fact right this moment I’m wearing the same clothes I wore yesterday. My friends Dave & Lauren, who are sitting right beside me, didn’t notice. Most people don’t notice.
Wearing your clothes over and over again is actually the space traveler’s preferred method too!
In a recent interview with The Guardian, celebrity astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield explains that in space, water doesn’t behave the same way as on Earth. So using it to wash clothes doesn’t work. Up there astronauts wear clothes until they fall apart.
I wouldn’t recommend that method down here on Earth though. ★