How to Hand Wash Clothes, Rags, and Linens With a Few Simple Tools?

It can be easy to take for granted the various small things that electricity does for us each day, including getting our clothes clean. While an emergency situation might not dictate a perfectly pressed, spotless wardrobe, washing clothing and bed lines is essential for basic hygiene and the durability of the cloth. But without power, your usual method of putting clothes in a washer won’t be available to you. Therefore, you’re going to need to learn how to wash clothes like great grandma did!

What You’ll Need to Start?

To wash any kind of clothing, from mildly used all the way to “caked in mud, filth, and heaven-knows-what-else”, here’s a solid list of tools and ingredients you’ll need.

Some manner of washing tubs. Double washtubs with valves to let the water drain out the bottom are the ideal, but are much more expensive than a pair of 5 gallon buckets. You’ll want at least two tubs as you need one to wash with soap and another to rinse the soap out. A bathtub or sink can also work, depending on their size, but I’d sooner go with a few cheap buckets since they can be moved.

Lots of good clean water! It doesn’t need to be of drinkable quality, but it does need to be sufficiently clean to wash with. If you use a clean river or other source with sticks and particles in it, you can still use that water for washing provided you filter it with a sheet to catch larger pieces.

Soap. You won’t be using as much of it as you do in a washing machine, even for the same size loads, but some manner of clothes washing soap is needed for deep stains. I would recommend going with a cheaper variety that doesn’t use much scent: you’ll be drying it outdoors anyway so some chemical “wind scented” detergent isn’t going to be needed. Fortunately, most soaps tend to store for a long period of time so they’re easy to put into your prepping stockpile.


Bleach. Great for whites, and also a good cleanser for clothing or bedding contaminated by sickness.

A stout pole for agitating clothes as they soak. You get to simulate all the tossing and turning that a washer does for you, and a stick or pole lets you leverage your strength.

A washboard made for laundry use. One made for making music or decoration will break rapidly under the stress, so get one that is specifically designed to stand up to the rigors of washing. Although there are many great, cheap antique metal washboards, I strongly recommend using one with glass panels instead. The glass is less abrasive on clothing, generally easier to use, and has no chance of rusting. Furthermore, it’s normally not that much more expensive either.

A means of heating water. Technically optional, but a definite help for both comfort and ease of removing stains. Strongly recommended especially for loads dealing with contaminants like poo or blood.

A glass washboard is generally superior to a metal one.

How to Get Those Clothes Clean?

Regardless of how dirty your clothes are, put them in a tub of mildly warm water to soak. If you have any white clothing or any color of cloth diapers and family cloths that are contaminated, add a few drops of bleach in a separate tub of hot water. Regardless, there is no need to add soap at this point.

white clothes

Depending on how soiled and stained they are, you should just let the clothing soak for awhile to loosen up dirt. Truly mucky clothing may need up to a days soaking, while mildly sweaty stuff might only need an hour or two. Loosening the stains this way greatly reduces abrasion damage and makes it easier on your arms since you won’t have to scrub as hard.

Agitating Clothes

A clean plunger can be particularly useful when agitating your clothing.

Agitate the clothing with your pole. Swirl it around, rub it against the sides of the tub, and generally move it around vigorously. If you have a good deal of caked on mud, you might want to empty and refill the tub several times to get the muck to a manageable level.

All mildly soiled clothing is pretty much done at this point: just wring it out thoroughly and hang it out to dry.

For the really nasty stuff and stubborn stains, pull out the washboard and the soap and fill a clean tub with lukewarm water. Position the washboard so that the “legs” are at the bottom of the tub, and that they are leaning away from you.

Lather up the washboard with the soap. You only need a very few drops, if that, to accomplish the job. Do not just fill to the lines used for a washing machine and dump it all in! If using liquid soap rather than old-fashioned bar soap or flakes, you may find it convenient to put a little in the tub as well to get the lather started there too.

Begin scrubbing individual items of clothing against the board. Obviously be fairly gentle if the stains are loose, but anything stubborn may need some serious elbow grease. Scrub the clothing against the washboard as if you were trying to clean the panels of a particularly stubborn stain. Long strokes, short strokes, up and down or down and up all vary depending on the item of clothing in question and are mainly a matter of personal preference. If the lather ever goes away while scrubbing, you can either apply more soap to the board or dunk it in the lather at the bottom of the tub as needed.


Once an item is completely clean, throw it in a tub of clean, non-soapy water. Temperature matters little here except for your own comfort, so if you want to just dump some cold water in this is the best spot for it.

Once your whole load is in the non-soapy tub, agitate the clothes again to get all the soap out. Large or bulky loads may need multiple dumpings and refillings with fresh water to get every nook and although you can wring clothes by hand, a wringer makes the job much easier.

Wring each piece of clothing to get all the water and any last soap residues out. Wringing out your clothes helps them dry better and reduces their weight on your line. If you decide to purchase an old fashioned wringer, this job is extremely quick and easy.

Hang to dry, preferably in a dry place with a good breeze. Not only does the breeze help dry the clothing, but it will make them smell absolutely wonderful.

You’ve Completed a Load of Laundry!

And now you know why we switched to washers…

After your first heavy load of blankets and sheets, your arms will be burning and you’ll have spent several hours to do what your washer did in one. In former times many people had only a few changes of clothing and bedding, even when they became affordable enough to have multiple sets. Why? Because washing a week’s worth of different clothing was rather tiresome work. Your habits regarding clothing will probably change in a hurry after starting to use one of these!

However, there are several advantages to this system even setting aside the obvious prepping aspect:

  • You will use less water, electricity, and soap if you wash this way today. This can save you a goodly deal of money even if you elect to keep a washer around for major loads.
  • Your clothes will be cleaner. It is well known that a washer simply can’t get each item of clothing as well as your own hands can, and you’ll be able to personally scrub each and every stain out of your clothing.
  • Whoever is in charge of the washing will be able to lift a small car. Ok, so maybe it won’t be that extreme, but it certainly does a world of good for your arm muscles.
  • It will give you time for peace and contemplation. Stress is a killer today and it will definitely be so during a crisis. The ability to sit, work with your hands and perform a valuable task is a great help for your mind and is a way to clear your head. It also gives you a chance to think of ideas and ponder difficult problems besetting your retreat without too much stress clouding your judgement.

Washing clothes by hand is definitely not a time saver, and it requires a lot of effort. But it has advantages for you today, and will be the best way to stay clean in almost any survival situation.

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