[NOTE: I’ve blogged all these “how-to” posts before, but am gonna re-run them on occasion, since folks may have missed them, and many of them have been updated or expanded since they were first posted.]
The easiest and most direct way to deal with dirty laundry, of course, is a simple trip to the laundromat. With a handful of quarters, I can do an entire load of laundry while working on my laptop, listening to MP3s, or whatever.
For nearly all “dirty laundry”, though, the problem is not that the clothing is actually “dirty” in the sense that it is stained or has actual dirt or grime on it. Usually, it has simply been sweated into so much that it’s beginning to get ripe. So the actual goal is to disinfect, kill the bacteria, and eliminate the odor, and the best way to do that is with plain ordinary chlorine bleach as a disinfectant.
So unless I have a lot of laundry to do or I have pieces that are actually muddy or stained, I avoid the laundromat, and instead do all my laundry a little bit at a time right in the van.
In my backpacking days, I would launder my t-shirt by putting it in a large ziploc baggie with some water and some liquid soap, and clip this to the outside of my pack. As I walked along, it would swish around like a little bitty washing machine and was then ready to be rinsed in water and hung up to dry.
Some van-dwellers have adopted a larger version of this same basic process, using a five-gallon bucket and a bathroom plunger. Fill the bucket with water and add your laundry. Then add just a dash of chlorine bleach (if you use too much you will bleach the colors out of your clothes) and/or liquid soap. Thread the handle of the bathroom plunger through a small hole in the center of the lid and place this onto the bucket with the plunger inside. Pumping the plunger up and down for a few minutes agitates the laundry, while the chlorine disinfects everything and also bleaches out some of the surface dirt.
I use a slightly more technological version of this process, in the form of a small hand-cranked washing machine that I got online at Amazon. It is big enough to do five or six pieces of clothing at once, so if I keep up with it, I can run a load through it every 7-10 days and always have clean clothes. And unlike the laundromat, which takes a couple hours, the hand-operated machine works in just three minutes.
So at laundry time, I go into the Walmart and get a gallon jug of water and pour it in the washing machine with a dash of bleach. Then I stuff the laundry in, screw on the lid, and crank the machine for three minutes. I can then remove the clothing one piece at a time, wring the water out, and hang it up to dry (I have a number of hooks on the walls of the van specifically for hanging laundry.) Since the chlorine evaporates away, I don’t have to rinse them. T-shirts dry in just a few hours, and jeans are usually dry by the end of the day. The dirty wash water gets dumped outside. I always do laundry early in the morning so I can be out of the van all day while everything is drying; chlorine vapors are no fun to be in.
Another simple short-term solution is to use sunlight as a disinfectant. If you just hang your clothes outside in the sun for a few hours, you can take advantage of Mother Nature’s “solar laundry”. The sun’s rays will kill the bacteria and evaporate all the oils and perspiration, leaving your clothes with that country-fresh aroma that all liquid detergents promise. This is a quick and easy method to use if you are boondocking and need to save water.
If there is light dirt on the clothing, I can usually get it out with a dash of liquid soap—I use the same biodegradable camp soap that I use for washing up in the sink. After three minutes of swishing around, I dump the dirty sudsy water, add another gallon of clean water, and rinse for three minutes. Then wring and hang up to dry.
If that doesn’t handle the dirt, then it’s off to the laundromat.