How to Hand Wash Clothes

In a SHTF scenario, electricity may no longer be available. Just one of the comforts that will disappear is having clothes laundered. Even if you are lucky enough to own lots of clothes, you will eventually run out of clean ones.

Good hygiene will be important in a post-collapse world. So when the power goes out with no guarantee of being restored, you need to know how to hand wash your clothes.

washing t-shirt by hand in wash basin
washing t-shirt by hand in wash basin

6 Reasons to Hand-Wash Your Own Clothes

Hand washing your clothes isn’t as painful and laborious as it sounds. It’s pretty simple, actually. With a couple of things and some muscle power, you’re good to go.

Let me point out the benefits of hand washing your clothes and then I’ll review equipment and instructions.

Cleaner Clothes

Hand washing your clothes piece by piece means you give attention to each one. This results in a more thorough washing. Clothes are then dried out in the sun. The outcome is cleaner and whiter clothes than you got with machine washing.

Less Soap Residue

Another advantage of hand washing is in rinsing the clothes. Each piece is rinsed individually by you rather than dumped together in a machine, which lets you be certain that there’s no detergent left in the clothes.

If necessary, you can choose to rinse multiple times until the water becomes clear. This produces softer clothes that are more gentle on the skin.

No Need for Ironing

If electricity is down in a post collapse scenario, then ironing is out of the question unless you resort to an old fashioned fire heated iron.

But with hand washing, wrinkling is reduced anyhow when clothes are dried on a clothesline by the wind. Once dry, fold them straight away so they are ready for wearing.

Reduce the Amount of Clothing You Own

If you’re going to do a lot of hand washing, reduce the amount of clothes you own. It’s convenient to have a lot of clothes now, but when disaster strikes, you will be limited in what you can carry and store in your camp or BOL.

If you hand wash clothes about every other day, then 3 complete sets of clothing and maybe a couple extra pairs of wool socks, will suffice.

Get Some Exercise

Hand washing your clothes has the added benefit of giving your arms a good workout in the process.

You also will get a bit of exercise stretching to hang clothes and in carrying and dumping water, if you choose to hand wash near your campsite instead of the water’s edge. You’d be surprised at how much strength you build just from regularly hand washing clothes.

Save Money

Although cash won’t have much value in a post-SHTF scenario, hand washing your clothes is a great way to save you money on electricity or gas utility bills.

You only need water from a creek or well and some detergent which you can make yourself. Add your own muscle power to wash and the drying power of the sun and you get clean clothes at very little cost to you.

Hand Washing Essentials

After reading the advantages of hand washing, the process seems more worthwhile now. Most of what you need, you already have on hand or should be able to find easily.


Water is crucial. If you’re lucky enough to still have running water, then this won’t be a problem. But if not, you’re going to have to find a creek, a stream or a well for water.

With a creek or stream the moving water rinses well so just do your washing at the water’s edge. Otherwise, be prepared to carry buckets of water throughout the process.

Laundry Detergent

The choice here is to either stockpile detergent now, make your own, or hope that stores are still operating so you can buy your Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds, or Tide. In most post-SHTF scenarios, you will need to make your own detergents and soaps.


You can use your hands to scrub the clothes but it’s rough work. If you don’t want your hands to do all the dirty work, get or make an agitator to spin your clothes around, much like a washing machine.

You can buy a manual washer from Amazon, or you can improvise using a bucket and plunger with some holes cut into it.


For large families with mountains of laundry to wash, you definitely need something big enough to contain all your dirty clothes or at least half at a time.

If you don’t have a tub or big sink available, using two or three 5 gallon buckets will do the trick. With a 5-gallon bucket, cut a hole in the center of the lid so you can fit your agitator handle through it.

Human Powered "Washing Machine" DIY - The "5 gallon bucket" clothes washer

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If you’re a traveler, camper, hiker and so on, there are portable systems available, like the The Scrubba Wash Bag. It’s essentially a bag where you put water and the clothes you want to wash by rubbing them for a few minutes.

It’s not ideal but, given that it’s portable, it should be more than enough. A good addition to an INCH bag or for people who spend a lot of time in the outdoors.

Rubber Gloves

Repeated exposure to laundry detergent and soaps can be caustic to your skin. Washing clothes by hand is also grueling work for your hands. You may think you’re too tough for rubber gloves but wearing them will protect your skin from blisters and other damage.

Distilled White Vinegar

A little known fact is that distilled white vinegar can be used as a pretty good substitute for fabric softener. Add the vinegar during the final rinsing of your clothes. If the water is clean and no soap bubbles are present, clothes are washed. If not, repeat the rinsing process.

Clothes Line​ and Clothespins

After washing, hang your clothes up to dry. It’s best to set up your clothes line outside of the house and let the sunlight do all the drying. Not only does the sun dry clothes faster than if you hung them inside, it also works to kill any bacteria that might be on your clothes.

Wringer (optional)

Once clothes are washed and thoroughly rinsed, they will dry faster if you can wring most of the water out of them before hanging. Wringing the water and the soap out is very important for cleaner and softer clothes.

You can use your hands but this is tough work. An actual wringer is recommended. You can purchase one to have on hand or make one yourself.

Washboard​ (Optional)

We’ve probably all seen the old washboards, flat rectangular pieces with ridges. A washboard is particularly useful for stubborn stains that a good old hand scrub can’t remove.

It will also make washing easier and quicker especially on bulky or heavy materials such as sheets and jeans or dungarees. Buy one to have on hand or make one yourself.

Foot Stool (Optional)

One of the reasons handwashing can be so laborious, is that you have to bend and squat for long periods of time.

To save your back and knees, get yourself a foot stool to sit on or find a way to elevate your wash tub so it is at the correct height, about waist high, if you are standing up.

How to Hand Wash Clothes Step-by-Step

1. Sort them

Before you get started, sort your laundry. Separate your whites from the light colored clothes such as pastels, yellows, tan, beige, etc. and make another pile for dark clothes, like blue, black, and red.

It’s best to wash delicate fabrics separately as well as any clothes that are really filthy, like those with mud or oil on them.

2. Pre-soak

Once you’ve separated your clothes, soak them first in mildly warm water. Letting your clothes soak for a while loosens up dirt, reducing abrasion damage, and reduces the amount of scrubbing that you need to do.

Leave them in water for 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the amount of clothes and how dirty they are.

3. Put in the detergent

After pre-soaking, it’s best to rinse clothes, using fresh water. If you are using a tub, four tablespoons of laundry detergent or ½ cup of Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds should be enough.

For buckets, use ½ tbsp. laundry detergent or 2 tbsp. of Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds. You should have one bucket for washing and a separate one for rinsing.

4. Agitate your clothes

Using a Rapid Washer or an improvised agitator, swirl your clothes around and rub them against the sides of your tub or bucket.

Agitate for about two minutes, equivalent to 100 strokes. If you want a more thorough cleaning or when washing delicate clothes, let your hands do the scrubbing.

5. Use a washboard

For those stains that just won’t go away, don’t give up just yet. Get your washboard and position it in such a way that the “legs’ are at the bottom of the tub, leaning away from you.

Scrub your clothes against the board and scrub them in whatever way that works for you. If the stain still doesn’t come off, try soaking it for a few more minutes and continue scrubbing.


Once you are satisfied your clothes are clean, rinse in clean water. When using a tub, empty the soapy water and wring clothes out. Fill the tub with cold water, put clothes back in to soak for five minutes.

Agitate for two minutes. Repeat this process, but this time, add four cups of white distilled vinegar. Rinse until the water is clean and no bubbles are present.

For buckets, transfer your wrung out clothes to your rinsing bucket. Let the clothes soak in the rinsing bucket for two minutes then agitate for one minute and wring them again.

In the second rinsing, add one cup of distilled white vinegar and repeat rinse until the water is clean and no bubbles are present.

Hang Them to Dry

Once you’re through rinsing, hang your clothes on the line to dry. If you live in a humid area, your clothes, mildew is more likely, so be sure to wring them out well. For those in a dry climate, drying will be faster.

Be warned though. They may not come out as soft as they do in the dryer. To minimize wrinkles, “snap” your clothes before hanging them.


There you have it. Hand washing may take a bit of work but it’s very doable. Remember, in many countries currently without electricity, hand washing clothes is a part of their daily routine. If they can do it, so can you.

There doesn’t have to be a SHTF scenario for you to make the change. If you want to get off grid or simply save some money, hand washing clothes can be a part of your lifestyle change.

Do you have any tips or hacks in hand washing clothes you’d like to share with us? Comment in the section below.

3 thoughts on “How to Hand Wash Clothes”

  1. Lehman’s catalog has a very good assortment of hand laundry supplies, including a “breathable mobile washer” aka Rapid Washer, from washtubs to soaps to clotheslines, etc. If using buckets for laundry, have one with holes in the bottom and lower sides. To squeeze out water, put clothes in the holey bucket, put the solid bucket in on top of the clothes, and press down. The Rapid Washer works better with a long handle, like a broom handle: better leverage and easier on the back.

  2. The holey bucket idea is great.
    I bet many people won’t wash their clothes every other day with the grid down. Stink/dirt won’t be as big of an issue and you will want to stretch your resources for as long as possible. I’m guessing once every week or two once people get acclimated to dirt, longer if they are in desperate straights, or country folk. Gardening, foraging (not starving) and cutting firewood (not freezing and also for cooking dog/cat) will probably get more of your energy than washing clothes.
    You will quickly run out of vinegar at 4 cups a load. I put one cup of V in my electric washer at the start of the wash to sanitize the clothes. I never use fabric softener. As long as I don’t leave the wash on the line too long they are soft enough.

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