How to Do Laundry on a Road Trip Like John Steinbeck

One of the best pieces of advice he gave was how to do laundry on a road trip. His solution is surprisingly advanced for the time, and offers an important reminder that good planning can help with any problem. Find out what his method is and why it works so well!.

John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” is a story about how he and his wife traveled across America in their car. They washed clothes by hand, and they had to do laundry on the road. Read more in detail here: washing clothes by hand.

Charley Steinbeck sitting on sideway in village illustration.

Note from the editor: This is a guest post by Jeff More.

You’re getting ready for a road trip and need to figure out how much clothes to carry. You could change your clothing every day, but it rapidly consumes a lot of room, particularly if you travel with numerous friends. You’d rather travel light, but that means either finding a laundry and spending a stack of quarters and a few hours in town, or hand washing your clothing at camp when you might be relaxing and enjoying a nice lunch.

You may also simply put up with it, refuse to change, and reek a bit. But, because you’re vehicle camping rather than hiking, why would you do that? What is a guy to do in such a situation?

Here’s a tip I learned from John Steinbeck’s 1962 travelogue Travels with Charley (sadly absent from the Art of Manliness’ 100 Best Reads, but no one’s perfect), which chronicles his road trip around the Lower 48 with his French poodle, Charley, and how the American landscape had changed over his lifetime. The book is famed for its heartbreaking stories, but it also contains a useful tip on how to have a fresh change of clothing on hand at all times when on the road.

You’ll need the following items:

  • a bucket with a 5-gallon capacity and a top (I use an orange Home Depot bucket)
  • a clean jug of water (Select a jug with a screw-on lid rather than a snap-on lid.) A nice one may be found at Trader Joe’s.)
  • Detergent for laundry
  • Some makeshift clothesline or utility rope
  • Binder clips or clothespins (the duct tape of office supplies)

This is how it goes.

During the day

“I stuffed it with two shirts, underwear, and socks, added hot water and detergent, and hanged it from the laundry pole by its rubber rope, where it jigged and danced erratically all day.” -Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck

Toss your filthy clothing into your five gallon bucket when it’s time to break camp. Put some detergent in your bucket and fill it with enough water to cover your filthy clothing. I normally use a half load or less of powdered detergent pre-measured at home and put separately in baggies (alternatively, you could grab a squeeze bottle for a $1 at REI for liquid detergent) so it doesn’t become excessively soapy.

Place the bucket someplace in your car where it won’t tip over and secure the lid. In his trailer, Steinbeck hanged his bucket from the laundry pole. I have a vehicle that seats five people and I put the bucket behind the passenger seat.

Every curve and bump on the road agitates the cargo, causing the contents to swirl about and serve as a wash cycle. As you would expect, the strategy described in this article works better on winding roads than on the interstate’s high-speed straightaways.


At Lunch

“That night, I washed the garments in a creek, and you’ve never seen such clean clothing.”

Steinbeck washed his clothing in a creek at camp, but depending on where you’re camping, you may or might not have access to one (the Sierra Nevada in May has plenty of flowing water, while the Mojave Desert in November doesn’t), so don’t worry.

Pour out the filthy gray water, add a little fresh water from your jug, then massage your clothing a few times to get most of the waste water out when you stop for lunch. Fill the bucket with enough fresh water to cover your garments one final time, and refill your clean water jug somewhere—campgrounds and petrol stations are excellent options—remembering to maintain enough of water in your vehicle in case of need.

This serves as the rinse cycle as you go down the road.

At Camp

“Inside Rocinante, I hung the garments to dry on a nylon line near the window. My clothes were cleaned on one day of travel and dried on the next from then on.”

If you choose to bypass the rinse procedure above in favor of rinsing your clothing in a stream at camp like Steinbeck, keep in mind that you’ll be in a crowded area. Even if the soap you’re using is biodegradable, it’s preferable not to send sudsy water downstream to your neighbors, since they may be drinking and cooking with the same water. Make the best decision you can.

Pour away the water and carefully wring out the garments when you arrive at camp. If you’ve been wearing contemporary synthetic outdoor apparel, you may speed up the process by letting your clothes air dry the following day. Clothing made of thick, heavy cotton takes the longest to dry, but light synthetics like Patagonia Silkweight Capilene or Ex Officio travel underwear dry quickly. Wool socks are in the center, but unlike cotton, they will keep their warmth and loft even if they become wet.

Using a combination of your car’s oh-crap handles and/or infant seat connection points, or any other secure points your vehicle has to offer, improvise a clothesline with some utility cable. You might also rig up the line between some trees if you’re sure there won’t be any rain tonight. I don’t bother with huge trees since the ecology of most of the areas I camp in the arid parts of California and the Southwestern states doesn’t lend itself well to them, but if it’s a possibility, a wind will help speed things along. Clothespins or binder clips may be used to keep your garments in place.

Your clothing may or may not be fully dry in the morning, depending on ambient humidity levels, but if they aren’t, no worries; leave them hanging in your car and let them dry out on the following day’s drive, just as Steinbeck did.

Congratulations, you have a pleasant odor. If you have any laundry recommendations for a road trip, please share them in the comments below.


Keep the excitement going!

Keep the excitement going!

Mudslides, earthquakes, riots, and wildfires are the four seasons of Los Angeles, where Jeff More works and lives. He is an ardent shooter of both weapons and cameras, and he plays the 5-string banjo to honor his American roots. Visit to learn more about him.