How To Do Laundry on a Road Trip Like John Steinbeck

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You’re packing for a road trip and you’re down to deciding how much clothing to bring. You could have a fresh change of clothes every day, but that adds up to a lot of space quickly, especially if you have multiple companions. You really would prefer to travel light, but that means either finding a laundromat and spending a stack of quarters and a few hours in town, or hand washing your clothes at camp when you could be kicking back and enjoying a foil meal instead.

Or you could just suck it up, not change, and reek a little. But really, you’re car camping, not backpacking, so why do that? What’s a man to do?

Here’s a tip I got from Travels with Charley (sadly missing from the Art of Manliness’ 100 best reads, but no one’s perfect), John Steinbeck’s 1962 travelogue documenting his road trip circumnavigating the Lower 48 with his French poodle, Charley, and how the American landscape had changed over his lifetime. The book is known for its series of poignant tales, but buried inside is a handy nugget on how to effortlessly have a fresh change of clothes on hand daily while on the road.

What You’ll Need:

  • 5-gallon bucket with lid (I use an orange Home Depot bucket)
  • Jug of clean water (Get a jug with a screw-on top, not a snap top. Trader Joe’s has a good one.) Laundry detergent
  • Some utility cord or other improvised clothesline
  • Clothespins or binder clips (the duct tape of office supplies)

Here’s how it works.

In the Morning

“[I] put in two shirts, underwear, and socks, added hot water and detergent, and hung it by its rubber rope to the clothes pole, where it jigged and danced crazily all day.” ~ John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

When you’re breaking camp, throw your dirty clothes into your five gallon bucket. Fill up your bucket with enough water to cover your dirty laundry and put some detergent in there. I usually use a half load or less of powdered detergent pre-measured at home and stored individually in baggies (alternatively, you could get a squeeze bottle at REI for a dollar for liquid detergent) so it doesn’t get overly soapy, as you’re only doing a small load relative to what you regularly would do at home.

Secure the lid and place the bucket somewhere in your vehicle where it won’t tip over. Steinbeck hung his bucket from the clothes pole in his trailer. I have a wagon with a seating capacity of five and place the bucket behind the passenger seat.

As you drive along, every curve and bump in the road agitates the load, acting as the wash cycle as the contents slosh around. As you can imagine, the technique outlined in this article works better on winding roads than cruising on the high speed straightaways of the interstate.

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