It’s not always possible to access a washer and dryer, laundromat, or hotel “fluff and fold” service, and knowing how to quickly and effectively handwash clothing in a sink can be a vital skill on the road. Below, I explain how I keep my clothing clean during months of long-term traveling with a minimalist travel wardrobe.
The following instructions for handwashing clothing go far beyond just a simple refresh: With the right care, your clothes will come out just as clean as if they had been washed in a commercial washer.
Laundry: The Worst Part of Minimalist Travel
The one-bag travel style is a minimalist method of travel, but “one bagging” inevitably means having to deal with laundry more frequently. In fact, washing delicates is almost a daily practice when I’m traveling with my plus size capsule travel wardrobe.
Although I love the freedom and spontaneity that traveling with just one bag allows, the unavoidable task of doing laundry while traveling is a hurdle that I have had to learn to navigate. Over months of travel, I’ve practiced and perfected my method for hand washing laundry in a sink.
In this article, I wanted to share some of my best tips for handwashing laundry in a hotel, hostel, or Airbnb.
Pro Tip: Travel with Easy to Clean Fabrics
If you can, create a packing list with your limited access to laundry washing resources in mind. If you plan to travel to places where in-unit washers or laundromats are plentiful, you might not need to alter your packing list by much, but if you are traveling on a budget or in less tourist-centric parts of the world, then laundry facilities or services might be harder to come by.
Planning for easy washing also frees up time for adventuring in your destination city. When I’m traveling with just a few outfits, it’s hard to justify spending hours at a laundromat just to wash a half-load.
Purchasing and packing travel clothes designed for easy handwashing is one way that I save time and money while ensuring that my clothes can be fresh and clean even during busy travel days.
Fabrics that are hard to hand wash and dry: garments made from cotton, poly-cotton blends, and any thick knit fabric* (*quick-drying wool is an exception)
Fabrics that are easy to hand wash and dry: wool, tech fabrics labeled as quick-dry, stain-resistant fabrics, etc.
If you know that you’ll be doing a lot of sink laundry while you travel or backpack, then purchasing easy-to-wash clothes is a worthwhile investment. Good travel clothing literally resists stains (my favorite travel leggings seem impermeable by either spills or dirt).
Cotton blend knits, in contrast, can be difficult to wash clean and slow to dry. Both wool and modern poly-blend tech-fabrics easily wash clean with basic soap and dry within hours – even in humid environments.
Packing Laundry Essentials
Plenty of travel bloggers recommend buying laundry detergent in your destination country, however, it can be difficult to find good options. Typically, the package sizes that detergent is sold in are not traveler-friendly- after all, who wants to carry a bottle of laundry detergent from lodging to lodging as you travel?
Finally, a solution to the travel laundry detergent problem: Laundry detergent sheets are dissolvable sheets of laundry soap that weigh only ounces and can easily be torn or cut into portions just right for either a full load in a commercial laundromat washer or just a sink basin of delicate fabrics. You can even make your own detergent sheets using my DIY tutorial.
Laundry sheets are, for now, a special order product- but an easier to find alternative is to travel with chunks or shavings of a laundry-detergent bar.
25 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for laundry detergent to be sold in bar form – users would use a grater to add just the right amount to their wash. Although a bit harder to find these days, Fels Naptha Laundry Bar is one brand still available in many grocery stores and hardware stores.
Before you head out on your travels split the bar into chunks with a sharp kitchen knife and take only what you need. When you’re ready to do laundry while traveling, Grate, shave, or rub off the amount you need to wash your clothing in a sink or washing machine
Even though I travel with only a carry-on bag, a stretchable, adaptable clothesline always makes the final cut and comes with me.
When traveling with minimal clothing, getting clothing dry quickly after being hand-washed is every bit as important as the washing process itself! Travelon’s Twisted Elastic Clothesline requires no clothespins, you just insert fabric between the twisted lines, and tension holds items in place.
With multiple methods to affix the clothesline to surfaces indoors or out (including two good suction cups) this clothesline has been far more helpful than I expected it to be.
String or Twine
As much as I love my travel clothesline, it doesn’t work for every situation. Sometimes a longer span or lack of points to attach the ends leaves me in need of another way to hang dry clothes. Enter, the humble length of cotton twine.
Just trust me on this, and cut a 10-15ft section of basic cotton twine and pack it away somewhere out of the way (I keep mine under the lining of my suitcase). I’ve NEVER taken a trip where I didn’t end up using my length of twine to solve some problem on the road.
Many travelers carry a portable clothing washing bag called a Scrubba. This waterproof sack (which can also serve as a stuff sack to keep dry items dry) can be filled with clothing, water, and detergent and used as an agitator to wash clothing.
Personally, after a brief test, I returned my Scrubba, although I could see where it could be helpful for many travelers. For me, keeping my packing list as minimal as possible helps me travel with more freedom – and I’m happy to exchange doing laundry by hand in the sink for that freedom.
Best and Worst Soaps to Use for Hand Washing Laundry
Plenty of travelers set out with good laundry-intentions, regularly handwashing undergarments in a sink with the most convenient soap- hand soap. Unfortunately, hand soap is one of the worst soaps you can use to hand wash laundry in the sink.
worst: hand soap
sort of bad: shampoo
okay: Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap
good: detergent, shavings from the bar of laundry soap, or laundry sheets
Hand soap, which is formulated to remove dirt and leave hands not too dry, doesn’t do a good job of removing body oils from soiled clothing. In fact, hand soap can deposit residue on clothing that leaves it just as dirty, less breathable, and covered with a thin layer of crud that will attract and capture oil and odors.
In a pinch, shampoo made for human hair works much better to hand wash laundry than hand soap. Shampoo, which is designed to break down oils and not leave a residue, works differently from hand soap.
Although shampoo doesn’t produce the deep clean that detergents intended for laundry do, shampoo it’s perfectly okay to use shampoo to refresh clothing between laundry cycles.
Plenty of backpackers and international travelers use Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap to wash laundry (and hair, dishes, teeth, and just about anything else!) on the road. In fact, the unscented baby soap version linked above is it’s what I used to do laundry in the sink of my hotels and Airbnbs for much of my travels.
The main drawback of using Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap is the additional weight that liquid soap adds to luggage. While the soap is effective, the high water content means that travelers carry less product with more weight than a dry version of laundry soap.
As discussed above (click here to review), there are many forms of dry detergent available for travelers and backpackers to use while doing travel laundry. Bar soap packs ultracompact, and even powder detergent can be simple to pack and carry in small amounts.
How to Wash Laundry in the Sink: Step-by-Step
Now that we have discussed the best way to pack for and plan for doing laundry while traveling, here’s a simple step-by-step guide to washing laundry in a hotel, hostel, or Airbnb sink basin while traveling.
Total Time 15 minutes
1. Fill the sink halfway full with warm water.
Although modern detergents in commercial washers now work equally well in cold water, you should use warm or hot water for doing laundry in the sink. The heat of the water can help compensate for the limited agitation of handwashing compared to a washing machine.
2. Add soap or detergent and stir
Add the detergent to the hot water before adding your clothing. Mixing the soap into the water before adding clothing helps to get the soap distributed across the surface of the fabric. If you are using bar soap shavings or powdered detergent, agitate the water to combine and dissolve.
3. Add clothing to the sink
Now, add clothing but don’t overfill. To get the best results, you’ll need enough room to slosh and squeeze fabrics without overflowing the sink. A partially filled sink also allows more room for water to move – essential for cleaning.
4. Let clothing soak in the sink for 5 to 10 minutes
Some of the cleaning action of good detergent is passive – that means you don’t need to actively be agitating during the entire process of hand washing. A brief soak can give the detergent a chance to break down oils. Taking a quick break in the middle of your sink laundry can actually result in cleaner clothing.
5. Squeeze and Agitate
Now agitate: squeeze your hands into the basin of soapy clothing and begin squeezing, releasing, squeezing, and releasing. Rub one fabric surface against another fabric surface, then shift slightly and repeat. This re-creates some of the agitation that a machine washer would apply to clothing during a wash cycle.
Don’t wring or handle your clothing to roughly, but ensure that water is moving in and out of the fabrics – taking with it dirt and oils.
Drain the sink and squeeze excess water out of the clothing.
7. Squeeze and agitate for 1 to 2 minutes in clean water
Repeat the washing cycle, this time with clean water (that should turn a bit murky as the detergent is removed from the clothing). Drain the sink again and squeeze excess water out of the fabric.
8. Continue rinsing
You may need to refill and drain the sink several times before the soap is fully removed. When stopped up water rinses clear, you’re ready to progress to drying your “load” of sink laundry.
- hot water
- soap or laundry detergent
Drying Hand Washed Clothing:
Use this method to dry hand washed socks, underwear, and other clothing ultra-fast:
- Squeeze all of the excess water out of the freshly washed clothing. Avoid wringing – especially with natural fibers like wool.
- Lay each article of clothing flat on a towel and then roll the towel up (with the clothing inside) like you are rolling up a carpet rug.
- Now, take the towel roll and twist it tightly. Untwist, and then twist in the other direction.
- Unroll the towel and you will find that much of the moisture in the clothes transferred to the towel.
- Now, hang the partially dry clothing from a clothesline or repeat the towel wring with a fresh, dry towel to remove even more moisture.
- After rolling tech fabrics in the absorbent towel twice, many tech fabrics will be ready to wear immediately or within an hour. Most other fabrics will be dry by the following morning.
Alternate ways to dry clothes
In addition to the rolling method described above, you can also utilize heat sources to try your laundry.
While clothes hung too close to heaters can be a major fire hazard, there are ways to safely use a heat source to dry clothing – such as using a towel warmer to dry clothing or hanging freshly washed clothing on a folding chair or hanger that is placed 2 to 3 feet away from a heat vent.
A final tip on washing clothes on the road
Although this article has covered best practices on handwashing laundry while traveling, there’s one travel laundry washing practice we haven’t discussed: the shower wash.
When it comes to small everyday essentials that need washed almost daily, simply taking the item into the shower with you when you bathe can be an effective way to do a quick wash of smaller garments like socks and underwear.
Using the pressure from a showerhead – especially if there is a massage setting- and the shampoo already present in your shower can be an easy, effective way to wash small items of laundry while only adding a minute or two to your daily routine.
How do I hand wash clothes in a hotel using bar soap?
Avoid using bars of hand soap to wash clothing. Bar soap designed for hand washing contains a high level of fats and oils (it binds the soap into bar form and leaves a residue that moisturizes hands). These oils make bar soap ineffective at removing body oils and odors from clothing. Instead, grab the shampoo! Unlike bar soap made for hands, a hotel’s complimentary shampoo should do a decent job of washing clothing, removing body oils and odors, and washing clean without a residue.
Although this tutorial does recommend detergent bars for frequent travelers, these bars are compacted detergent, not hand soap, that are specially formulated for clothing.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a plus size, one-bag traveler, and journaling it all on WanderBig.com