How to Wash and Clean Your Hands Without Running Water

When flooding hit Alabama, the sewer system couldn’t handle the water. As a result, sewage started overflowing in the streets. State health officials were forced to issue a warning advising residents to take care and wash their hands.

This isn’t a lone incident. In the aftermath of every natural disaster, we see a huge hygiene crisis unfold. In addition to sewage overflowing, there are issues like human waste because toilets aren’t working, rotting garbage, infectious diseases, and pollutants.

With disgusting waste running through the streets, hand washing is even more critical during disasters!

Problems with Hand Washing during Disasters

water usage when washing hands

The average person uses approximately 0.39 to 0.46 gallons of water each time they wash their hands. Consider that you’ll need to wash your hands about 4-8 times per day (before meals, after going to the bathroom, and when emptying your emergency toilet…). That adds up to a lot of water!

Don’t forget that you also need water for drinking, cooking, and other hygiene uses. That could quickly add up to over 5 gallons of water per day. I shouldn’t have to tell you that storing this amount of water can be problematic (read: How much water to stockpile for emergencies).

The solution? Wash your hands using less water.

You can use several methods to reduce water use when washing hands. Here’s an overview of them, including instructions for making emergency sinks that use less water.

Method 1: Hand Sanitizer

When you have no running water, hand sanitizer is a good solution for cleaning your hands. The CDC cites research that shows hand sanitizer can effectively kill bacteria, viruses, and other germs on your hands.

However, you must choose an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least a 60% concentration of alcohol. Hand sanitizer without alcohol or with lower amounts of alcohol will not effectively kill germs.

Washing your hands with soap and water is still better than hand sanitizer. Why?

  • Hand sanitizer won’t kill all types of germs, including some parasites like Giardia.
  • It doesn’t work well when your hands are visibly dirty.
  • Many people don’t apply enough hand sanitizer to be effective or use it incorrectly.
  • The sanitizer is only effective against germs. It won’t remove chemicals, heavy metals, or other dangerous substances which may get on your hands.

To use hand sanitizer correctly, you need to put a fairly large amount of it on one palm. Then you rub the sanitizer over both hands and coat all areas, such as between your fingers. Keep rubbing until the hand sanitizer has dried.

Which hand sanitizer is best?

It doesn’t matter which brand of hand sanitizer you get so long as it has at least 60% alcohol. You do not want to get any “natural” hand sanitizers that do not contain alcohol. The higher the alcohol content, the more effective it is.

I wouldn’t recommend dousing your hands in pure alcohol, though. This will dry out your hands, which could make them so chapped that they crack and bleed.

If you have open wounds on your hands (no matter how small), there is a higher likelihood that pathogens could enter your body. So, stick to products in the 60-80% range of alcohol content – like this one on Amazon.

It is also possible to make homemade hand sanitizer which is equally as effective.

(Sources: 2)

Method 2: Adapt the Cap of a Plastic Bottle

I use this method to wash my hands when camping: take a standard plastic water bottle. Slightly unscrew the cap, so a small trickle of water comes out when you turn it over. Have one person hold the bottle while the other person washes her hands underneath.

This method is also great for spilling out small amounts of water, such as wetting your toothbrush before brushing.

Alternatively, you can poke a small hole in the bottle’s cap to let the water trickle out. However, that method only works if you stay in one spot for a while. Otherwise, water will spill out of the bottle while you hike.

hand washing station
If you attach the bottle to a pole, you won’t need someone to hold it while you wash.

Method 3: Tippy Tap

A tippy tap is similar to the method above but is engineered to operate independently and even (to some extent) control the water flow.

Here’s how it works.

  1. You poke a hole in the cap of a plastic bottle.
  2. The bottle is hung over a horizontal pole or branch.
  3. When you want to wash your hands, you pull the bottle downwards so the water starts coming out. Some versions have foot pedals attached to the bottle, which allow you to control water flow without touching the container.
  4. A bucket below the bottle catches the gray water. This prevents a puddle from forming and allows you to reuse the gray water for flushing toilets.
  5. Read our full guide to making a tippy tap.

Method 4: Two-Bucket Sink

If you have a lot of people staying in one location, you’ll want to construct a larger hand-washing station like this one.

It is made from two buckets and a valve which releases the water. The top bucket contains clean water for washing hands. The lower bucket collects the gray water so it can be reused for purposes like flushing toilets or watering crops.

These instructions come from A Sewer Catastrophe Companion

You will need the following:

  • Two plastic buckets of 5 or 6 gallons in size, one with a handle
  • Lid for at least one of the buckets
  • Rope
  • Rubber glove
  • 1″ PVC threaded adapter
  • 1″ threaded PVC end cap
  • Rubber gasket with 1″ inner diameter
  • A 1″ bouncy ball
  • ¼” x 6″ brass toilet float rod
  • ¼” vinyl rod cap
  • Drill, bits (1 inch, ¼ inch, and 1/16 inch), scissors


  1. Drill a 1-inch hole in bottom center of one bucket. Go slowly, so the bucket doesn’t crack.
  2. Carefully drill 8 small holes around the outer ring of the PVC endcap using the 1/16″ bit.
  3. Now drill a hole in the center of the PVC endcap using the ¼” bit.
  4. Drill a ¼” hole through the center of the bouncy ball.
  5. Screw the toilet float rod into the bouncy ball.
  6. Wrap Teflon tape around the 1″ PVC adapter.
  7. Stick rubber gasket around the PVC threaded adapter.
  8. Screw the adapter through the hole in the bucket.
  9. Screw the end cap onto the part of the adapter coming out of the bucket. Make sure it is tight.
  10. Cut the finger off of a disposable glove.
  11. Put this part of the glove over the top of the PVC threaded adapter. Leave an opening around the rod.
  12. Put the bouncy ball with the float valve attached through the PVC threaded adapter.
  13. Attach the vinyl rod cap to the end of the toilet float rod.
  14. When you push up on the float rod, it will cause the bouncy ball to lift off the hole, so water comes through.

You can now fill the bucket with clean water and hang it.

A 5-gallon bucket weighs about 45lbs when full, so make sure it is hung somewhere that can support its weight. The other bucket goes below it to catch the gray water.

Method 5: Portable Camping Sinks

There are several models of portable camping sinks – like this one on Amazon – which could be used for emergency preparedness.

They all work on the same principle:

  • A tank holds clean water. The tank is usually kept on the ground.
  • You step on a pump to bring the clean water to the faucet.
  • Dirty water exits through a drain hose. It can be collected in a separate container.

The great thing about these sinks is that they are straightforward to use. However, you are not able to control the water flow with them.

With most models, a single pump will bring about 0.5-1 cup of water. That’s a lot of water coming out at once! There are faucet handles on the sinks, but these only work if the sink is connected to a garden hose.

Because of how much water these use, I wouldn’t recommend them for disaster preparedness unless you have ample clean water (such as from rainwater harvesting) and only need a way of utilizing the water easily.

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  1. I live off grid in an RV. For many of my water needs such as hand washing, dishes, cleaning & even showering, I purchased a 2 gallon hand pump agriculture sprayer. I fill it with clean drinking water only, disinfect w/bleach weekly and am able to get by on 2-3 gallons daily. The sprayer cost $12.00. The is a latch on handle for continuous hands free spray. Nozzle tip adjust flow volume as well as mist or stream. Works great.

  2. FYI, appreciate the webpage. Design #4 is similar to a design I was looking for, as I had seen a similar device in use in rural Russia, where there was no running water. At some point, I ran across an ad for such a device for sale in the US – in 1890! 😀 Since pretty much everybody has running water over here, we don’t see it so much these days! But I needed some design instruction for a possible project, and so here I am! Thanks! BTW, though, the link to the Sewer Catastrophe Companion is bad as of this writing.

    • I’ve also learned a LOT by traveling to rural, undeveloped areas. 🙂 Thanks for letting me know about the link. I’ve updated it.

  3. I’ve put together a hand-washing station that I found on Pinterest and it works quite well. Take a washed out detergent jug with valve dispenser, fill it with water, bungee cord a paper towel holder to the top, and zip-tie a pump bottle of antiseptic hand soap to the front and voila, a generously sized handwashing station anyone can operate. Put a bowl or bucket underneath to catch the grey water, and avoid making a mud hole, and you’re good to go. Picture here:

    • Hey TX – Like it, simple, effective and could be hacked together by most people in an emergency. Might be a little heavy on the water usage though.

    • tap should not be running when hands are being washed!! hands should be just wetted and soaped and then scrubbed well. Running water on hands at that stage simply washes away the soap and stops proper cleaning. Water is used at the end to rinse the soap of the hands.Nearly a gallon of water can be wasted in letting tap run while SCRUBBING hands.

      • I hear you! It drives me crazy when I see people lathering their hands under running water. It’s not just wasteful but it is a bad habit to have in times when you really need to conserve water. My local science museum has a water meter on their sink taps so people can see how much water they use. It’s crazy to see how fast the water meter goes!


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