How to Wash Your Hair in a Camper Van

How Can You Wash Your Hair in a Camper Van or RV

We opted not to put a shower into our van build. While convenient, showers in vans take up a lot of space, are costly, and can cause moisture problems. Since we don’t have a shower, we either find showers along the road or we wash up using the sink in our van. (Read our blog post about how we shower while on the road.) One of the things we’ve had to get most creative about is washing our hair. After a year of van dwelling, we’ve tried many do showerless hair washing methods. Ian’s hair is short, but I have long hair, so this has been a particular challenge for me. These suggestions might not work for all hair types, but they are what works for us. 

Even if you live in a van you can still have healthy and clean hair.

Even if you live in a van you can still have healthy and clean hair.

Don’t Wash

First and foremost, you do not need to wash your hair as frequently as most people do. In fact, washing your hair too much can make your hair more oily! When you wash your hair everyday with hot water and harsh shampoos, the natural oils are stripped from your hair. This in turn tells your scalp to overproduce oil to counteract the dryness. Whether or not you have regular access to a shower, you might benefit from washing your hair less often. By washing your hair less frequently, you can train your scalp to produce just the right amount of oil to give your hair a natural luster without getting that greasy heavy look. Plus you’ll save loads of time. 

When you first stop washing your hair all the time, your head will probably feel as greasy as the kitchen of a poorly managed McDonalds. But you’re already living in a van... so does this really matter? In no time though, you’ll start to notice more balance being restored to your hair

Over time I’ve been able to train my hair to get less greasy by washing it less frequently.

Over time I’ve been able to train my hair to get less greasy by washing it less frequently.

Washing your hair less saves water, and it saves a lot of time too!

Washing your hair less saves water, and it saves a lot of time too!

After a few months of washing your hair less, you’ll probably notice fewer split ends and more shine to your hair. I used to have a lot of problems with sun damaged hair from spending so much time outside. One time I was getting my hair cut and the stylist asked me “Who did your balayage?” And I was like “...the sun?” Since living in the van and washing my hair once a week or less (typically less), my hair has had way fewer splits ends and has held up better in the sun even though I’m now spending way more time outdoors. 

Use a brush to distribute the oils throughout your hair to go longer between washes.

Use a brush to distribute the oils throughout your hair to go longer between washes.

A bike helmet is always a classic choice for hiding unwashed hair.

A bike helmet is always a classic choice for hiding unwashed hair.

When your hair is greasy, try brushing out your hair to disperse the oil to the ends of the strands. This pulls the oils away from your roots and scalp to help relieve some of the grossness you might feel. These same oils will also moisturize the ends of your hair, and keep them soft and split-free.

When it’s been a while between washes, I try to do my hair in styles that kind of hide the fact that it’s greasy. I definitely don’t leave it down—that’s not practical for outdoor activities anyway. French braids or messy buns work well. And I fully embrace my trusty Buff headband, or if it’s cold a cute wool beanie is amazing for obscuring the fact that you haven’t washed your hair in a few weeks. Ian almost alway wears a ball cap. You might feel self-conscious, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that people are paying way less attention than you think. 

French braids are a good way to hide dirty hair. A small headband like this one made by Buff is another really good option.

French braids are a good way to hide dirty hair. A small headband like this one made by Buff is another really good option.

Or wear a hat and completely cover up those dirty locks!

Or wear a hat and completely cover up those dirty locks!

Dry Shampoo

Dry shampoo is something we’ve tried to use, but honestly it’s something we really only use under the most desperate circumstances. The thing about dry shampoo is that it really only makes your hair look more clean. In reality, you are adding a powder to your hair. This is fine if you are going to shower in the next day or two, but if you’re not going to wash it out for another week, that’s not a sustainable solution. If you use dry shampoo more than once, it kind of gives your hair a powdery gray look and a stiff texture. Still despite all its flaws, we like to keep some of this dry shampoo on hand. If we are spending a day in town or going to a nicer restaurant, it’s nice to at least make your hair look less gross. 

Dry shampoo is a good stop gap measure to just make your hair look better.

Dry shampoo is a good stop gap measure to just make your hair look better.

Dry shampoo seems to be a lot more effective in Ian’s short hair, but this hat is basically a part of Ian’s head so he doesn’t need it.

Dry shampoo seems to be a lot more effective in Ian’s short hair, but this hat is basically a part of Ian’s head so he doesn’t need it.

Washing Your Hair in a Pot

If we are unable to get a shower for a while, we wash our hair in our van. Most people have washed their hair in the sink when in a pinch, but this can get really messy when you live in a van and have a limited quantity of water which is expelled in bursts via a foot-powered sailboat galley pump. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, check out our van’s water system.) Instead of using our faucet to wash our hair, we have developed a method of using our large Lodge Enamel Pot for hair washing. (We LOVE this pot, and use it for everything! Also it comes in tons of awesome colors.)

We use our big enamelware pot to wash our hair while living in our van.

We use our big enamelware pot to wash our hair while living in our van.

We put a pot of warm water next to the sink and then pour the water over our hair with a small cup.

We put a pot of warm water next to the sink and then pour the water over our hair with a small cup.

We begin by heating up about 1/2 of a gallon of water on our stove. Once it’s comfortably warm—not boiling—we place the pot on a dish towel next to our sink. Then I lean my head over the sink and use our measuring cup to pour water over my hair to wet it. Once my hair is thoroughly wet, I lather up my hair with shampoo. I use a biodegradable shampoo if a toilet or sink are not available, because we may disperse our grey water using LNT principles. To be even more sustainable, we’ve also used baking soda. Baking soda does get the oil out, but it kind of leaves your hair a bit stiff. (You might also want to opt for a cosmetic-grade baking soda.)

If we have access to a sink or toilet for disposable, I use a natural fragrance-free shampoo.

If we have access to a sink or toilet for disposable, I use a natural fragrance-free shampoo.

If you’ll be dispersing your water outside, be sure to use a biodegradable soap or shampoo for washing your hair.

If you’ll be dispersing your water outside, be sure to use a biodegradable soap or shampoo for washing your hair.

If you really want to go a natural route, you can wash your hair with baking soda, but it does make your hair kind of stiff.

If you really want to go a natural route, you can wash your hair with baking soda, but it does make your hair kind of stiff.

Do not go overboard with the shampoo, because you don’t want to have to use a gallon of water to rinse it out. Once my hair has been lathered and scrubbed, I use the cup to pour water over my hair to rinse the shampoo or baking soda out. You can used your fingers to scrub and release the soap and oils from your scalp. The rinsing can get messy and sometimes Ian helps pour water over my head. Having someone wash your hair sounds like one of the most tender moments you can imagine, but it’s usually more like “Ian, you’re getting it in my eyes. MY EYES! Ahhh, it’s in my mouth now.” 

Washing your hair in this way doesn’t use too much water.

Washing your hair in this way doesn’t use too much water.

Once your hair is wet, lather it up, but don’t use too much shampoo because it’s more difficult to rinse than in a shower.

Once your hair is wet, lather it up, but don’t use too much shampoo because it’s more difficult to rinse than in a shower.

You’re definitely going to want to have a towel nearby, because usually when we do this there are small rivulets of water running off the edge of the counter. Once your hair is thoroughly rinsed you can dry it and start detangling it from the George Washington-esque hairdo you have just created by washing it upside down. 

Make sure to keep a towel nearby so that you clean up any water that doesn’t make it to the sink. We like these camp towels for Vanlife, because they dry really quickly.

Make sure to keep a towel nearby so that you clean up any water that doesn’t make it to the sink. We like these camp towels for Vanlife, because they dry really quickly.

You’re basically washing your hair upside down, so you end up with this insane little up do when you’re done.

You’re basically washing your hair upside down, so you end up with this insane little up do when you’re done.

I don’t like to use a traditional conditioner, because it requires one to hold my head awkwardly upside down for even longer and you have to use more water—a precious commodity when living in a van. Instead I like to use Love Beauty and Planet leave-in conditioner. It helps me detangle my post-wash hair helmet, and it leaves your hair smelling really good for a long time. Remember not to put it near the roots though, or your hair will look greasy.

Washing your hair in a camper van without using much water can leave your hair pretty tangled.

Washing your hair in a camper van without using much water can leave your hair pretty tangled.

I like to use this leave-in hair conditioner to detangle my hair. It smells so good!

I like to use this leave-in hair conditioner to detangle my hair. It smells so good!

When you’re done washing your hair, you’ll feel way less grungy, and you can really extend the time between showers. Don’t underestimate how fresh and clean you will feel after simply washing your hair after you’ve been on the road for a while. 

This  small hairbrush  is designed to detangle hair without tearing or breaking it.

This small hairbrush is designed to detangle hair without tearing or breaking it.

Even if you haven’t been able to shower in a while, washing your hair while living in a van can make you feel really refreshed.

Even if you haven’t been able to shower in a while, washing your hair while living in a van can make you feel really refreshed.

FrUgal Travel, Hair, Hair washing, Minimal Living, Saving Water, Travel, Van ConversiOn, Vanlife, Vanlife Essentials, Vanlife HaCks, vanlife ShowErs, Vanlife Tips, Water

Do you live in a van? How do you care for your hair while traveling? Add some tips in the comments below.