How to Hand Wash Clothes When You Travel

By Nick Hilden
Laundry by the sink.

The trick to packing light on longer trips is to do laundry. For a two-week trip, would you rather bring two weeks’ worth of clothes or pack half as much stuff and do laundry once? What if you’re traveling for a month or longer? Learning how to hand wash clothes can cut down on the amount of stuff you need to pack.

By doing laundry, you can pack light but still look and smell good. In this article, we’ll cover how to hand wash your clothes (the easiest option) and a few other ways to do your laundry on the road. With the occasional hand wash or visit to the wash and fold, you can pack a fraction of the clothing in your travel backpack.

How to Hand Wash Clothes in a Sink

The simplest option is to hand wash your clothes. On shorter trips, you can hand wash your socks, underwear, and other small items to avoid having to pack too many.

Before getting started, have your supplies ready. What you need:

  • Dirty clothes
  • Sink or tub
  • Mild detergent or dishwashing liquid

We’ll cover some additional, optional tools later in this article. Hand washing is ideal for a few items per “load.” The more clothes you wash, the more drying space you have to find.

Step 1: Separate Colors

As with any load of laundry, you should separate white clothes from colored clothes to prevent colors from bleeding.

To avoid having to do two loads of laundry, I don’t pack anything white. No white undershirts, no tighty whities, and no white athletic socks.

Step 2: Fill the Sink with Warm, Soapy Water

Fill the sink or tub with warm water. Steve Boorstein, host of the national radio show The Clothing Doctor suggests, “85 degrees, just warm to the touch.” Using water that is too hot could burn your hands or make colors bleed. 

While filling the sink with water, add a few drops of a mild detergent or dishwashing liquid. You can use a sink stopper to plug the sink, but I don’t bother packing one. If I stay in an Airbnb apartment, the owner often has a sink stopper. Otherwise, I just use whatever is lying around. 

For soap, I recommend the liquid version of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap. The soap is concentrated, so a few drops will be enough to hand wash your clothes. Dr. Bronner’s is all-natural and can replace most of the liquids you might carry, including body wash, shampoo, and shaving cream.

Step 3: Do a Spin Cycle

Add your clothes to the soapy water and gently swirl them around the sink. Scrub dirtier clothes by rubbing the fabric against itself. Apply more detergent directly to the dirtiest spots and give them an extra scrub.

Step 4: Soak Your Clothes

After scrubbing, allow the clothes to soak. If the water looks dirty already, you can drain it and refill the sink with clean, soapy water.

Five minutes of soaking should be enough for most clothes. For dirtier “loads,” let clothes soak for up to thirty minutes.

Step 5: Rinse Out the Soap

Drain the soapy water from the sink. Rinse clothes directly under the running tap to remove any remaining detergent. Once the water runs clear instead of cloudy, without any soapy bubbles, you know that the item has been rinsed thoroughly.

How to Dry Hand Washed Clothes

After you’ve rinsed your clothes, you can do some quick prep work to help them dry faster.

Wring as much water out of each item as possible. But don’t leave your clothes in twists and knots. Re-shape your clothes so that they dry faster, keep their shape, and don’t wrinkle as badly. Exposing more of your clothes’ surface area to the air will help them dry faster.

For slower-drying fabrics like cotton or wool, you can further expedite the drying process:

  • Lay the item out flat on a towel (full-sized or travel towels will work).
  • Tightly roll up the towel to wring even more water from your clothes.
  • Unroll the towel and re-shape the clothing item as described earlier. 

Hang your clothes to dry. The more air circulating near them, the better. Hanging clothes outdoors or near a fan or window will help them dry faster. The worst environment for drying is stagnant, humid air.

Most quick-dry performance fabrics will dry in a few hours. Wool items should dry overnight. Cotton takes the longest to dry. Some travelers recommend packing a clothing line to hang clothes to dry. I don’t do much laundry in each load, so I just find a few open spots in my room to hang them. You can hang clothes from hangers (if provided), over the back over chairs, or from doorknobs.

Laundromat washing machines

Travel Laundry Tips

Use a Wash and Fold

One of my favorite travel hacks is getting my laundry done at the wash and fold. A wash and fold is anywhere you drop off dirty laundry and pick up clean, neatly folded laundry a day or two later.

In many cases, you can get clean laundry the next day for the price of a coffee.

Unlike a laundromat, you don’t have to find quarters or detergent or stand around waiting for your laundry. You’re traveling, you don’t want to waste hours watching your clothes spin around.

Instead, drop your clothes off at the wash and fold.

I’ve used the wash and fold a bunch of times on longer trips in Asia and have never regretted it.

Woman packing a travel backpack, packing cubes, and packable daypack

Separate Clean and Dirty Clothes

As you travel, keep your clean clothes separated from your dirty clothes. Separating your clothes will keep the clean ones clean and ensure you remember which ones are clean and which are dirty.

An organized travel bag like the Tortuga Outbreaker Backpack is one way to separate your clothes. Unlike a duffel bag or other single-compartment bag, the Outbreaker has interior pockets for separation and organization.

If you want to go even further, get a set of packing cubes for additional organization. Get a set with a mesh top panel so that you can see what’s inside and if it’s clean and ready to wear.

The Best Fabrics for Travel

Pack travel clothes made of materials that either dry quickly or that don’t require regular washing.

Merino wool shirts, underwear, and the right pair of quick-drying, stain-resistant travel pants can mean traveling for days with a remarkably small amount of clothing.

Here are some of the best fabrics for staying clean and fresh while traveling:

Merino Wool

Merino wool is a travel all-star because it looks good, packs well, and fights odors naturally. Hand washing, as described above, works well for merino which can go a few wears between washes but is also delicate.

Denim

Yes, denim jeans are a surprisingly good travel option. Why? Because you never have to wash jeans.

Levi’s Jeans CEO, Chip Bergh, argues that machine-washing jeans is completely unnecessary. Most denim experts agree that a pair of jeans only need to be washed every two to six months or “when they smell,” depending on the kind of abuse you put them through.

Wear your jeans every day of your trip if you want. Then wash them when you get home. The CEO of Levis said it’s okay.

Antimicrobial Underwear

Oftentimes, your underwear is the only piece of clothing that you have to wash after every use. You’ll want to have plenty of clean underwear to feel your best every day.

Most people try to solve this problem by packing more bras and moew underwear, but that’s not the carry-on-friendly solution. Instead of packing by the dozen, invest in just 3-4 pairs of travel underwear and wash all of them whenever you’re running low.

When looking for good travel underwear, keep your eyes peeled for these four features:

  • Antimicrobial fabric
  • Moisture wicking
  • Quick drying
  • Comfortable fit

The antimicrobial fabric keeps your underwear smelling fresh while the wicking keeps you dry. You’ll want a pair that dries quickly so you can wash and dry your laundry overnight.

Dark or Patterned Fabrics

Patterned fabrics and dark colors are great because they tend to hide stains. If you’re going to get a travel shirt or pair of pants, get low-maintenance, dark clothing that can handle the inevitable slips, spills, and stumbles that happen all the time when you’re on the go.

How to Remove Stains

The easiest way to remove stains is by using the right tools. Tide to Go Instant Stain Remover Pens are excellent for removing stains on the go and are cheap, light, and TSA compliant.

If you don’t have a stain remover pen, use warm water and normal soap. Be gentle. You’re trying to tease the stain out of the fabric, not push it deeper. Make short, quick motions as if you’re tugging the offending stain out. This is no time for elbow grease. 

Conclusion

You can cut the amount of clothes you pack in half by doing a bit of laundry on your trip. For starters, try hand washing socks and underwear in the sink. Do a small load every few days at night. Everything should be clean and dry by the morning.

For longer trips or larger clothing items, visit the wash and fold. They’ll do all the work and deliver you washed, dryer, and folded clothes in just one day.