How to do Laundry on the Road

Where there are backpackers, there are laundry services. Across Southeast Asia, these are inexpensive- usually 50 cents to one dollar per kilogram- and quick, promising your clean, folded clothing back in your grubby hands within a day. Bob and I have used these services only once since we’ve been traveling. Although they’re convenient, a dollar a kilo adds up quickly (and it’s more expensive in other parts of the world, especially in industrialized countries.) For the same price, we can go down to just about any convenience store and buy a package of laundry powder, which can wash about 25 loads of clothes. For example: we bought a bag of laundry powder the day after we arrived in Indonesia- that’d be January 14th- and I just used the last of it today. The small savings are the ones that really count. Plus- and I know I am in the minority here- I like washing my clothes by hand. I can make sure the really dirty spots get clean, and the clothes don’t wear out as quickly.

On average, we do laundry every two to three days; that’s mostly because I’m carrying only three pairs of underwear. However, I try not to do laundry the night before leaving a city (the clothes may not have time to dry) so it varies. There’s another complication: nowadays, quite a few hostels and guesthouses forbid guests to do laundry in the sink. I understand where they’re coming from- hanging wet clothes in your room doesn’t look nice, doesn’t smell nice, and makes the room damp. And it means you’re not using their overpriced laundry service! However, if you wash your clothes properly, these problems can be avoided. They don’t forbid you from hanging towels, do they? A few extra items won’t make a difference.

Gather your supplies: a universal sink stopper, a drying line, washing powder, a towel, really strong forearms, and if you wish, inflatable hangers. Those things are really nifty- they help your clothes dry more quickly by allowing air to circulate and I’ve even heard of people using them as backrests on the airplane. If you’re brave enough, you could also use latex balloons, popping them afterward.

Sidenote: I accidentally left our sink stopper at the house of my friend Dave’s brother, so when I took these photos, we were without one. Luckily, in Indonesia and Malaysia, buckets are commonly found in bathrooms, filled with water for… wiping and flushing. They’re also perfect for a load of clothes. Don’t worry, I washed this one out before using.

 

 

 

1.  Fill the sink/bucket with water and add the washing powder. Don’t use too much; extra detergent doesn’t actually make your clothes cleaner.

 

 

 

2.  Add the clothes. I sort of pretend to be a washing machine and agitate the clothes in the water. I just make sure that all of them are soaking wet and then I squeeze them a lot. Then I leave them to soak for awhile, usually 15-20 minutes.

 

 

 

 

3.  Now that they’re done soaking it’s much easier to scrub the dirt off. I concentrate on the problem areas, especially the collars and underarms of shirts, and scrub by rubbing the fabric against itself. After scrubbing all of them, I rinse them in clean water, making sure all of the soap is out. If there’s still some soap left on the clothes, it will feel a little slippery.

 

 

 

 

 

4. Next step is wringing. This should be fairly self-explanatory. Bonus if you have a helper with extra-strong forearms.

 

 

 

5.  Take the wrung-out clothes and one by one, roll them up in a dry towel like a burrito. Then stomp on them. This gets some more moisture out (by transferring it to the towel. Hopefully you have a good place to hang this.) Finally, hang them to dry. Towel racks work, outdoor drying lines work, but most budget hotels and guesthouses don’t have those. So we carry our own drying line along with a carabiner, and exercise our creativity by finding a place to rig it up. Door frames, handles, bedposts, random nails sticking out of walls… they all work. Our line is braided,  so to hang the clothes, all we have to do is wedge a bit of fabric between the braids. DON’T get the kind with dinky little suction cups at the ends… do you think that’ll really stay up?

The kind with loops is much better.

Hopefully this takes a bit of the mystery out of our travel lifestyle. Go forth and do your own laundry!

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