Another successful evening outdoors is usually followed by everyone's favorite thing - a nice hot meal by the campfire. Whether you bring Michelin star quality culinary capabilities or simply enjoy a fire-roasted weenie, cleaning up after yourself is not only important for your health, but for the health of the environments you are cooking in.
Nature is full of scavenging creatures and your food scraps could upset the balance of the ecosystem by drawing in excess scavengers, which will in turn be followed by their natural predators. If the food is not naturally there you should do your best to make sure none of the food you ate remains. Depending on how and what you're cooking, some items may be safe to dispose of naturally, such as extra fruits and vegetables, but other items like proteins and starches should most definitely be entirely eaten, or properly disposed of to prevent upsetting the ecosystem.
I'll be talking about some of the common camp cooking items and how to clean them so you can keep your equipment fresh for the next use, while helping to maintain the careful balances of nature.
If you're using a camp stove system you likely have pots and pans that you are using to cook with. Most backpacking style cooking gear is going to be non-stick to help with cleaning, but some of the traditional steel cooksets do not have any such coatings. Both can be cleaned the same way - simply fill the pot or pan with water and place it back on your heater until the water reaches a boil. Using your eating utensils, you can scrape any excess scraps to make sure the sides and bottoms are completely scrap free.
You'll be left with a rather unappetizing slurry of water and whatever scraps remained. To dispose of this you'll want to dig a small hole in the ground - referred to as a sumphole - for you to pour your wastewater into. Straining your slurry with a paper towel to catch larger food scraps is a good idea, as you want as minimal of an impact as possible. Once you've poured your wastewater in, cover this back up to mask the odors and make it more difficult for wild animals to identify. A good sumphole will be about 6-8 inches deep, and dug at least 20 feet from the shoreline. Doing this as far away from the water source as possible is key to preventing natural soil erosion from pulling your wastewater into the clean freshwater source before it's had a chance to properly decompose.
For lovers of Cast Iron pans - these are among the simplest to clean at a campsite. Wiping the pan dry with a towel, simply set it back on the heat and let the fats and oils burn off, seasoning your pan in the process.
If you're at an organized camp site just use the trash disposal that's available in those parks. There is no need to make your cleaning process more difficult if you have facilities available to you.
I am not a fan of disposable cutlery or plates, especially in camping, as they generate excess trash that you then have to carry out with you. Again, if you're in an established camp site this may not be as large of an issue, but consider using reusable utensils and plates as they are more sustainable options. That being said, you'll want to clean off your utensils in-between each meal to reduce the growth of harmful bacteria.
For eating utensils the simplest way is mentioned above - using it in the process of cleaning your pots and pans. The boiling water will help sterilize the utensil, followed by wiping off any excess moisture before storing it.
Plates will be a bit more difficult, as there is usually going to be oils from your meal that stick to it. Personally, once I am done with my meal, any excess oils are poured back into my cooking vessel, so I can clean them using the process above. Anything that won't come off easily will need to be cleaned off with a damp cloth, and then dried off before storing it away.
Any dirty rags or towels used in cleaning can be stored in food storage containers you brought out with you. As you cook, you'll have empty containers which can be reused to store your trash until it can be properly disposed of. You already made the space for those containers, so may as well continue reusing them!
General Cleaning Rules
Cleaning at your campsite is going to be very different from at home. Mainly the lack of soap and running water will prove difficult for those who are not experienced in camp cleaning. While it may be tempting to use a nearby stream, river, or other fresh water source to clean up, this is definitely a bad idea and frowned upon. This practice can pollute local ecosystems and cause problems for the wildlife who depend on those water sources. It's fine to pull water from those sources for cleaning, but never dump any wastewater back into the source. The use of standard dish soap is also bad practice, as those suds do not degrade naturally and can poison the plant life in the area. Biodegradable soaps do exist, so if you plan on bringing soap for cleanup, make sure it's of the natural variety that won't cause issues for wildlife.
Finally any packaging, such as food wrappers or plastic, should be picked up and packed away to be disposed of later. Full deep cleans of your equipment can be done once you're at home, but the important thing to remember is that 'clean' is relative out in the woods. I wouldn't panic over small scraps and bits you just can't seem to get rid of out there - but doing the best you can with what you have will always be the best practice you can apply.
As readers of these posts will know, always bring extra food and water on these trips. The extra water comes in especially handy if you're not near any water sources but need to clean up a bit.