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All-Purpose Cleaner

My all-purpose cleaner consists of:

I use this to clean my dishes, my shower, every surface in my apartment, and every part of my bike except the chain. About the only things I can think of that don’t get cleaned with this mixture are my body and my electronics. Previously I used a mixture of Bronner’s castile soap and water for all of these things, but Sal Suds is better at cutting grease. This makes it preferable for kitchen (and bike) duty. I saw no reason to keep two cleaners around, so I phased out the castile soap mix.

I mix this in a recycled 0.5 L glass bottle with a neck that has standard 28-400 threading, allowing me to add a sprayer. The half liter bottle lasts me roughly two weeks. A single batch costs me in the neighborhood of $0.25, meaning I spend somewhere around $6.50 per year to clean my things.

I go back and forth on the vinegar – sometimes I skip it and use 0.5 L of water instead. I don’t notice a difference in the cleaning performance, but I tend to use more of it when I skip the vinegar. Vinegar is an effective bactericide and, unlike with castile soap, there’s no harm in mixing it with the Sal Suds detergent, so I generally opt to put it in.

To measure the detergent I use an OXO Mini Angled Measuring Cup, which has proved a useful thing to keep around.

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I soak produce in a solution of baking soda.

A study from the University of Massachusetts found that a baking soda wash can be effective at removing pesticides from the surface:

Surface pesticide residues were most effectively removed by sodium bicarbonate (baking soda, NaHCO3) solution when compared to either tap water or Clorox bleach. Using a 10 mg/mL NaHCO3 washing solution, it took 12 and 15 min to completely remove thiabendazole or phosmet surface residues, respectively, following a 24 h exposure to these pesticides… This study gives us the information that the standard postharvest washing method using Clorox bleach solution for 2 min is not an effective means to completely remove pesticide residues on the surface of apples. The NaHCO3 method is more effective in removing surface pesticide residues on apples. In the presence of NaHCO3, thiabendazole and phosmet can degrade, which assists the physical removal force of washing. However, the NaHCO3 method was not completely effective in removing residues that have penetrated into the apple peel. The overall effectiveness of the method to remove all pesticide residues diminished as pesticides penetrated deeper into the fruit. In practical application, washing apples with NaHCO3 solution can reduce pesticides mostly from the surface.

I use a dish washing basin with a drain filled with 6 liters of water (I’ve previously placed pieces of tape on the side of the basin to indicate water levels for 2, 4, 6, and 8 liters). The study’s 10 mg/mL NaHCO3 washing solution translates to 60,000 mg of baking soda for this amount of water, or about 4 tablespoons, which I dump in and swirl around a bit. Then in goes the produce. After 15 minutes I can just pull the drain, blast everything with some pressure from the faucet, and let it sit in the basin (with drain open) to dry until I get around to putting everything away. It is most important to perform this process on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen, but the procedure requires such a low amount of effort that I soak any produce which is lacking a thick peel (like oranges) as soon as I get back from the market, regardless of its providence.

Bacteria is a different matter.

Toothpaste Capsule

When travelling, I store toothpaste in a 10 gram round pill container. I bought mine from The Container Store. Depending on the thickness of the toothpaste, I find that I can get 14-20 servings out of this volume of container. I brush my teeth twice per day, so this translates to 7-10 days of travel.

These containers probably wouldn’t be leak-proof if they were used to store a liquid, but they are up to the challenge of securing a higher viscosity substance like toothpaste.

Toothpaste Capsule

After using these for a while I bought a set of 15 gram containers, thinking that this would allow me to carry a two week supply. They accomplish that, but the containers aren’t as nice. They have fewer threads, which make me think it is possible for them to pop open in my bag (though I haven’t experienced this), and their slightly greater height makes them a bit less convenient to pack. I stick with the smaller containers, which are an adequate volume for most of my travel.

I think these toothpaste capsules are superior to travel-sized toothpaste tubes. I can fill my container with whatever toothpaste I prefer, instead of being limited only to those toothpastes for which I can find the elusive travel-sized tube. When I run out, I can refill the container with whatever toothpaste is around, instead of wastefully disposing of a used tube and beginning the hunt for another travel-sized tube. The capsule is easy to fill, unlike other options for repackaging. And they don’t take the time and forethought (and low-humidity environment) that is required for Mike Clelland’s toothpaste dots.

After finding that these toothpaste capsules worked well for me, I began using an identical pill container to carry sunblock. Sunblock can be repackaged more easily than toothpaste into mini dropper bottles, but it’s impossible to clean those bottles out after use. The pill containers are simple to empty and clean, and applying sunblock from them is just as easy as it is out of a dropper or squeeze bottle. Unfortunately the toothpaste capsule and sunblock capsule look identical in my bag. So now I have the habit of sniffing my toothpaste and sunblock before I use it to make sure that I don’t brush my teeth with sunblock or rub toothpaste into my skin. I should probably label them.

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Residual Oil Remover

Late last year I ran out of lens cleaner. In the past I’ve never made an informed purchase of lens cleaner, opting instead for the free bottles given out at optometry offices or whatever generic bottles were presented on the counter of the closest drug store. This time around I thought I’d look to see if there was any specific product worth purchasing. I assumed that there were probably picky photographers who had performed a survey of cleaners for their camera lenses, and that their conclusions would apply to other optical surfaces.

Surprisingly, I found only one useful review: a 2013 post on on the Digital Photography Review Forum, which outlined a testing method for cleaning solutions and concluded:

Three branded cleaners out of about a dozen, after 5 test repetitions, walked away with the honors. They are: Zeiss Lens Cleaning Solution, Nikon Lens Cleaning solution and ROR Lens Cleaning Solution. At the bottom of the list was surprisingly, Purosol, that tied with straight distilled water for having absolutely zero emulsifying properties for removing skin oil in all 5 of our test repetitions. When I spoke with the Purosol folks, and asked “How does NASA use your product and for what cleaning purposes”, I was politely told, “That information is classified, and, we unfortunately don’t know!”

Between the 3 top reviewed products, I flipped a coin and ended up purchasing ROR, or Residual Oil Remover.

ROR certainly works. I use it on my Rudy lenses, my laptop screen and external monitors, as well as the screen of my phone. But because I made the purchase after I was out of my previous cleaner, I wasn’t able to compare it to anything else for a couple months. Later on I found a partially used bottle of generic lens cleaner from my optometrist and was able to do a comparison. ROR cleans better with less rubbing.

I don’t know what the contents were of that last bottle of generic cleaner, or how it compares to the other cheap, generic cleaners that I’ve used in the past. But I am happy enough with ROR that I will continue to use and recommend it. I have three bottles stashed around my frequented areas at home and work, and appreciate its ability to keep the clarity of my optical devices at a maximum.

On Scouring

Back in 2013 Brian Green published a review of the Lunatec Trekr washcloth. My showers haven’t been the same since.

The Trekr is a simple nylon scouring cloth, measuring 11” x 11”, with an elastic loop for hanging. It’s the same material as a synthetic loofah, but being a flat cloth it doesn’t hold moisture. At the time Brian posted the review I was on a campaign to eliminate sponges and sponge-like things from my life. Any cleaning tool in the bathroom or kitchen that holds water becomes a Petri dish for bacteria, in humid areas especially so. I bought the Trekr to try at home, and it immediately earned a spot in my daily ablutions.

Lunatec’s marketing campaign for the Trekr revolves heavily around the cloth being “self-cleaning”, which just means that the material doesn’t absorb anything, dries quickly, and every time you use it you are cleaning it with soap and water. I think this claim is accurate, though I still throw them into the laundry every couple weeks, more as impetus to rotate the cloths than out of the need to clean them.

Shortly after acquiring the Trekr I learned that it was just a smaller take on the Salux cloth. Hailing from Nippon, the Salux is exactly the same material as the Trekr, but measures in at a longer 33” x 11”. The larger size makes it easy to scour your back, as demonstrated by the naked lady on their packaging.

I now own about half a dozen of the Salux cloths for use at home, and the same number of Trekr cloths. I throw a Trekr cloth in my bag whenever I’m showering away from home – travel, backpacking, at the gym, or after the axolotl tanks.

To use either the Trekr or Salux, I wet the cloth, give it a few gentle swipes across a bar of soap (it also works fine with liquid soap), and then start scrubbing from head to toes. The cloth lathers, cleanses, and exfoliates dead skin – which, as we learned from Gattaca is key to leading a successful life in our future eugenic utopia.

I have also tried the Lunatec Scrubr dishcloth, which is made of a thicker and more abrasive nylon. It is less exciting. I’ll occasionally use it to scrub a surface clean at home, but for backcountry dish cleaning the spatula reigns supreme.

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The Laundry Alternative

The Laundry Alternative Wonder Wash is a portable, hand-crank washing machine. It is basically a bucket with a sealed lid, mounted on a base via an axle with a handle that allows the bucket to be spun. The bucket is filled with warm water. When the lid is sealed and the machine is spun, the pressure increases, which causes the soapy water to be pushed through the fibers of the fabric being washed. As such, the Wonder Wash results in cleaner garments, and accomplishes this in a shorter period of time, than a traditional electric washing machine that relies on simply agitating the material. It achieves this in a package that is compact, portable, and off-grid compatible.

I purchased a Wonder Wash nine years ago. It has been my primary washing machine for the past five years. It’s a great solution for things like gym clothes that you want to wash frequently and not leave sitting around, getting funky, until you build up a large enough load to justify the use of a typically sized electric washing machine. The small size of the machine makes it easy to store when not in use, which is important for apartment dwelling, as well as the RV market that The Laundry Alternative seems to target. While I doubt the volume of the machine is practical for the laundry generated by a family of four, I find it works great for me. It encourages me to do laundry more frequently than I otherwise would – I typically do 2-3 loads per week – which in turn allows me to own less clothing (and towels, and bedding, etc). I don’t have to consider the it-will-be-AWOL-in-a-laundry-pile-on-the-floor-for-2-weeks factor when determining how many pairs of underwear I need in my life. The gentleness of the Wonder Wash allows me to keep what clothing (and towels, and bedding, etc) I do choose to own in service for longer than I otherwise would if I were regularly treating them to the abuse of a traditional washer and dryer.

I also find the smaller capacity of the Wonder Wash to be useful when washing waterproof garments with a technical wash like Nikwax Tech Wash. I usually only have one or two waterproof garments to wash at a time. With a traditional electric washing machine, I need to use more water and thus more of the expensive soap than is really warranted. With the Wonder Wash I can easily scale down the water and soap to what is appropriate for the load.

My apartment has an electric washer and dryer in the building, but not in my unit. I use it maybe once every 3 months, when I’ve neglected laundry and have enough dirty things that I would need 3+ loads of the Wonder Wash to clean it. If I had an electric washer and dryer in the unit I think I would still favor the Wonder Wash.

Laundry Alternative Wonder Wash

Use

The process of using the Wonder Wash is pretty simple.

  1. Add warm water, soap and clothing to the machine.
  2. Seal the bucket and spin, about one rotation per second, for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Dump the soapy water and fill with cold water to rinse.
  4. Seal the bucket and spin, about one rotation per second, for about 1 minute.
  5. Dump the water and remove clothing to dry.

The washing and rinsing part of the process take at most 4 minutes. The most time consuming part is filling the machine with water.

Laundry Alternative Wonder Wash

Soap

When I first began using the Wonder Wash I tried it with Seventh Generation Free & Clear Liquid Detergent. This is the soap I have always used in electric washing machines. This detergent is very sudsy, and I found it challenging to use enough soap to clean, but little enough to not require multiple rinse cycles. I quickly gave up on this and moved to Eucalan. I keep this around for occasionally lanolizing wool. Eucalan is a no-rinse soap, which works well in the Wonder Wash. I still performed a single, quick rinse cycle, but if I accidentally used too much soap I didn’t have to worry about ending with excessive suds that would require multiple rinses. Unfortunately Eucalan isn’t the cheapest soap out there.

I used Eucalan in the Wonder Wash for a couple years before realizing that I could probably just use the same soap I used for everything else in my life: Dr. Bronner’s. I shower, shave, wash hands, wash fruit, and clean surfaces with Bronner’s products. It is always effective, tends to be readily available and affordable, and is most likely not giving me cancer. So why not laundry? As it turns out, it works great with the Wonder Wash. I use one tablespoon of the Baby Unscented Castile Liquid Soap for a full load. It’s especially nice for attacking dust mites in bedding.

For the rinse cycle I’ll add about two tablespoons of distilled white vinegar, which helps to remove residue left over from the soap as well as soften the load. This softening is important for heavy cotton things, like towels, which otherwise become quite stiff when air dried.

Drying

Without an additional tool, any time saved by using the Wonder Wash instead of an electric washing machine will be lost after all the wringing required. Laundry removed from the Wonder Wash and placed directly on a drying rack will take days to dry. If electricity is available, the best solution to this is an electric spin dryer. Mine is a discontinued model made by the Laundry Alternative, but they have other models available. These dryers are simply steel drums that spin the clothes really fast to remove the water. It’s similar to the final cycle of an electric washing machine, except they spin much faster (around 1800 RPM). No heat is involved, so they do not shorten the service life of your clothing like a normal heat dryer.

Laundry Alternative Electric Spin Dryer

I run the spin dryer until water stops coming out the drain spout, which tends to be around 90-120 seconds. After this cycle, clothing is still damp, but it is impossible to wring any moisture out of it. Something light and quick drying like a Merino wool t-shirt could be worn immediately and dried out with body heat in maybe half an hour, but I move everything from the spin dryer to a drying rack. Anything I wash will dry on the rack within a couple hours. I usually end up doing laundry at night and leaving it on the rack overnight.

Durability

The Wonder Wash is all plastic, except for the axle the machine spins on. I’d like to see a version with more durable metal components, but given the low price of the current design and the availability of replacement parts, this is barely worth mentioning.

Over the nine years I had the original Wonder Wash I cracked the base and snapped off the end of the handle. The machine was still functional with this damage. More recently, the lid began to leak when I spun the machine, which I assume was caused by the degradation of the rubber seal over time. This was enough for me to finally want to replace all three parts. The handle and base were readily available, but The Laundry Alternative released a new version of the Wonder Wash a few years ago, with the primary change being a snap attachment for the lid instead of a nob. I contacted them and they confirmed that they had no more stock of the old lid and that the new lid would not fit on the old bucket. So instead of purchasing replacement parts, I bought the new version of the machine. Given the price of the machine, I’m fine replacing it once every decade or so.

The new snap lid works just as good as the old knob lid worked when it was new. I don’t think there is a practical difference between the two. If for some reason you really want the old lid, the Avalon Bay EcoWash appears to be a direct knock-off of the original Wonder Wash.

The spin dryer is still going strong, in about the same condition it was in when I bought it nine years ago.

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Lanolizing Wool

Lanolin is a kind of wax that sheep and other wool-bearing animals produce to protect their coats. It is, in fact, a waterproofing agent. Any lanolin that remains in the wool after shearing is generally stripped out during the process of turning the hair into clothing, thus reducing the wool’s ability to shed water.

Commercially, lanolin is often used as a skin treatment product for humans. Lansinoh, in particular, makes a pure-lanolin nipple cream for breast-feeding mothers.

I first learned about lanolin from a comment on my review of West German wool pants. Jenne, the commenter, recommended washing wool products using something called Eucalan. Eucalan is a natural wash that deposits lanolin in the wool. Rinsing isn’t necessary with Eucalan, so much of the hassle (and danger of felting) that is usually associated with washing wool can be avoided.

For an extra treatment, Jenne recommended dissolving a small amount of Lansinoh’s pure lanolin in hot water before adding the Eucalan.

Lanolizing Wool

I was intrigued by this method. The no-rinse aspect made it simpler than carefully washing wool with Dr. Bronner’s, which was my previous choice. And increasing the health and functionality of my wool by restoring the natural oils made good sense – the same thing must be done to leather. I bought both the Eucalan and the nipple cream.

Eucalan comes in a few different scents. I first bought the unscented version, which seemed most appropriate for outdoor wear. Later I bought a jug of the Eucalyptus version. Eucalyptus oil is a deterrent to moths and fleas, so Eucalan recommends using this version before storing wool garments for a while. (The eucalyptus scent is very subtle after the wool has been dried – you’re not going to go around smelling like flowers.)

I’ve since washed my West German wool pants, West German wool knickers, Italian wool knickers, and two Pendleton wool shirts – the majority of my non-merino wool clothing – in Eucalan with added Lansinoh and have been pleased with the results. I recommend giving it a shot if you wear wool in wilderness settings.

The Process

  1. Dissolve a small amount (about one inch) of Lansinoh HPA Lanolin in hot water
  2. Add enough room-temperature water to cover the garment to be washed
  3. Add about two cap-fulls of Eucalan and mix it in
  4. Add the wool to be washed
  5. Let soak for 15 – 30 minutes
  6. Pull out the wool, hold it up, and let the water drip out for a minute or two
  7. Lay the wool out on a dry towel
  8. Roll up the towel, gently squeezing out the water
  9. Lay flat to dry for 24 – 48 hours

Lanolizing Wool

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The Vagabond's Spatula

Cleaning my pot in the wilderness has always proved a challenge. I’m not hugely concerned with completely sanitizing it – that would not be realistic – but I do like to get all the food remnants out of the pot after every meal. A few extra ants in my ramen? No problem. Fungi and bacteria in the oatmeal? I’d rather avoid that.

Getting every last bit of food out of the pot with a spork doesn’t work. If I’m in a desert or on the beach, sand can be used to scrub the pot. The Equisetum family (Horsetails) are also good scrapers, due to their high silica content. But neither sand nor Horsetails are available frequently enough on my trips to make them realistic solutions. As well, cleaning the pot with those means that I’m dumping food remnants onto the ground, rather than into my belly. If I’ve humped it, I’d rather eat it.

I used to carry a piece of a green scouring pad. Those work great when the sun is available to dry them out after use. Here in Cascadia that means they work about 3 months of the year. The other 9 months – especially in winter – it proves a challenge and a hassle to dry them fully. I don’t like storing the pad with any moisture in it. Doing so would create the perfect incubator for bacteria.

Enter Crow. She had the excellent idea of using a spatula head to clean the pot. It’s a simple system:

  1. Eat dinner out of pot
  2. Clean pot with spatula, licking food remnants off of spatula as you go
  3. Boil water in pot
  4. Pour heated water from pot into bottle for tea

The pot is cleaned with the spatula. Afterward, boiling water in the pot helps to kill any nasties that might be hanging about.

I discovered this idea on Crow’s blog about a year ago. At first I took a small kitchen spatula and cut the handle off. It worked, but there was about 2” of the plastic handle inside of the head that couldn’t be removed, which translated to dead weight. Later I discovered that people actually sell spatulas with removable heads (to make them dishwasher safe, I think). I bought one of those online, but when it arrived the head was a little too small for my tastes. (In the wilderness I always treat my hands as dirty. If I’m licking the spatula, I want it to be big enough where I can hold it with my fingers near the top and lick near the bottom. I do not want to lick where my fingers are.)

About a month after I had started to use the sawed-off spatula, I discovered that GSI made exactly what I wanted: a compact scraper.

GSI Compact Scraper

At 16 grams (0.5 oz), it’s not the lightest possible solution. But it’s lighter than my first attempt, and the perfect size for my needs. The blue part is a soft rubber, like a normal spatula head. The white bit is hard plastic, meant for scraping burnt foods. (Burning your meal, I think, is a mistake you only make once. So far I’ve not actually used the white part to scrape the pot. It’s where I keep my fingers.)

My method of using the scraper differs slightly from Crow’s. I eat the meal with my spork, attempting to get as much of the food as possible. Afterward, there will still be plenty left in the pot.

Pot After Oatmeal

When the spork is of no more use, I pour some water into the pot, swish it around, and drink. (A habit I picked up in southern Idaho’s desert. Water was scarce, so if you used it to clean your pot, you still had to drink it afterward. The taste is not always entirely pleasant, but you get used to it, and are wasting no resource.) This takes care of some of the left over food, but with meals like oatmeal, there’s still gunk left over.

Pot After Water

After this precursory cleaning, I go to work with the scraper: scraping the pot clean, licking clean the spatula as I go (leave no calorie behind, I say). The pot will then be visibly clean.

Pot After Scraping

At this point, I may or may not boil water in the pot. If I have brought enough fuel for an after-meal drink, I’ll boil the water in the pot to finish cleaning it, then dump the water into an old Vitamin Water bottle for a drink. Most of the time I don’t plan on warm drinks. Either way, at the end of the process the pot will still have a little moisture in it. If I’ve just had dinner, the cleaning is complete: I’ll leave the pot till breakfast. On the other hand, if I’m moving again after the meal, I don’t like to pack my pot away wet, so I’ll wipe it down with a small piece of an absorbent camp towel.

The GSI Compact Scraper is now a permanent part of my kitchen. Since I started using it at the end of last year, it’s also the piece of gear that people request to borrow the most! (It goes in my mouth. I never lend it.) I’d recommend any wilderness traveler pick up some sort of cheap spatula or scraper.

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