How We Shower While Living in a Van

How We Shower While Living Full Time in a Van

The two questions we are asked most frequently are: “How do you shower?” and “How do you go to the bathroom?” We’ll leave the bathroom question up to your imagination, or you can consult these Leave No Trace Principles, or click here to purchase or high-tech, “number 1” only waste collection system. As for showering, we are happy to give lots of details—and it’s a bit different than what most vanlifers suggest. We are able to get 90 percent of our showers for free!

The main answer is that we don’t! Okay, not exactly, but most Americans shower way more than is necessary. A daily shower is completely unnecessary in order to stay healthy. (If you get dry skin or eczema, try showering every three days, and you will probably see a marked improvement.) We probably take a real shower about every two weeks, and we’ve often gone longer.

The water in the  Smith River in California  was so cold and clear that we felt really refreshed after swimming here, even though we hadn’t showered in a while.

The water in the Smith River in California was so cold and clear that we felt really refreshed after swimming here, even though we hadn’t showered in a while.

Ian enjoys a waterfall on a hot day in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. We don’t use sap when rinsing off in natural water sources.

Ian enjoys a waterfall on a hot day in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. We don’t use sap when rinsing off in natural water sources.

Bird Baths

This is not to say we don’t wash up between showers. We live a very active lifestyle, and we are outside most of the time. It seems like we are always either muddy, sweaty, sandy, or dusty! Usually after hiking or a run, we will wash up with a basin of water and a washrag. Wet wipes are also a good option that we use a lot, but they can leave you feeling a bit sticky. (If you have sensitive skin, try these wet wipes from Burt’s Bees! The smell amazing, and they are gentle. And if you’re a vanlife bro, you can protect a sensitive ego with these “Dude Wipes.”) If you want to read more about washing without running water, check out this interesting piece by a man who lives in a remote cabin in Alaska who washes with just 7 cups of water.

Write your names on your individual wash rags so that you can use them multiple times without mixing them up.

Write your names on your individual wash rags so that you can use them multiple times without mixing them up.

Wet wipes are a good options for a quick clean up after a workout or a hike.

Wet wipes are a good options for a quick clean up after a workout or a hike.

Hair Washing

If it’s been a long time between showers, we will also wash our hair in our van. It’s easy to wash your body between showers, but if you have long hair like mine, it’s a lot more difficult to wash your hair. After a while though your hair/scalp does become accustomed to less washing, and it will kind of self-regulate and not be so greasy. At first it feels like it will never happen, but it will! To wash our hair in the van, we heat up water in our big enamel pot. Then we wash our hair by pouring water over our hair while leaning over the sink. (For more on this method, and other “van-hair care” tips, read our blog post “How to Wash Your Hair in a Camper Van.”)

Washing your hair  in your van can really extend the time you can last between real showers.

Washing your hair in your van can really extend the time you can last between real showers.

I can wash my hair in our van using only about a half gallon of water.

I can wash my hair in our van using only about a half gallon of water.

Besides “bird baths” between showers, we have a lot of strategies for getting access to real showers.

Swimming and Hot Springs

Swimming is a great way to wash the dust and dirt off your body and to feel refreshed. If the water is clear and cold, you will come out feeling a lot less grungy. We really discourage you from using soaps, even biodegradable ones, while swimming. It’s bad for our fish friends. Likewise, hot springs, especially if they are non-sulfurous can leave you feeling a lot cleaner although it’s definitely not a substitute for a shower. However, if it’s a developed hot springs, they will likely even have a shower, so it’s kind of a two for one.

If you go to a developed hot springs, such as  Mystic Hot Springs  in Utah, there is usually a shower that you can use afterward.

If you go to a developed hot springs, such as Mystic Hot Springs in Utah, there is usually a shower that you can use afterward.

Swimming can make you feel refreshed, but please don’t treat swimming holes like a bathtub. Don’t use soaps or shampoos.

Swimming can make you feel refreshed, but please don’t treat swimming holes like a bathtub. Don’t use soaps or shampoos.

Campgrounds

If you’re visiting a developed state park or busy national park, chances are they have  a campground with showers. This is an easy way to get a free shower. We usually just park in the day use area, and then walk into the campground shower house. Just act like you’re supposed to be there and nobody will care or notice that you are there. Sometimes these showers take quarters, but if you are quick about it, it doesn’t end up costing too much. We’ve never had any one say anything to us while showering at a public campground, but if they do, just say you’re “staying with your grandparents in that big motorhome.” Make sure you have your own towel and soaps, of course. A quick dry towel is perfect for vanlife, because it will dry a lot faster in the van.

Public campgrounds  can be a good way to get a free shower.

Public campgrounds can be a good way to get a free shower.

Having a  quick dry towel  in your van is exactly what you need for showering while living on the road.

Having a quick dry towel in your van is exactly what you need for showering while living on the road.

Couch Surfing

One of our favorite apps for vanlife is couch surfing. Basically people open up their homes for travelers to stay with them for free. We’ve met lots of kind and interesting people this way, and it’s a good way to get a free shower. If you need to receive some packages, couch surfing is also a great way to do that. Since we are in our van, it’s often a lot easier to find couch surfing hosts since we will sleep in our van, rather than in their house. It takes a little pressure off the host.

Through couch surfing we’ve experienced an eclectic range of bathrooms and showers.

Through couch surfing we’ve experienced an eclectic range of bathrooms and showers.

Couch surfing or meeting up with friends of friends is a great way to meet new people while traveling.

Couch surfing or meeting up with friends of friends is a great way to meet new people while traveling.

Couch surfing is a good way to visit big cities where it can sometimes be hard to find parking for a big van.

Couch surfing is a good way to visit big cities where it can sometimes be hard to find parking for a big van.

Friends

This is our favorite way to get a shower, because we get to visit and hang out with our friends who have moved all across the country over the years. We’ve reconnected with friends from high school, college, and old jobs, and it’s not just limited to friends. We’ve showered at the houses of friends of friends or friends of our parents. People are surprisingly friendly and willing to host you when you live in a van. We’ve ended up showering in some pretty unique places through connections with friends, including the Mirage in Las Vegas, a fancy hotel in Aspen, Outward Bound bases in Alaska and Colorado, and a tech start up in South Lake Tahoe.

A friend of Ian’s hooked us up with a free night in the  Mirage in Vegas . It’s probably the fanciest shower we’ve taken.

A friend of Ian’s hooked us up with a free night in the Mirage in Vegas. It’s probably the fanciest shower we’ve taken.

We love getting to meet up with all our old friends while traveling. Usually they will let you shower at their houses too!

We love getting to meet up with all our old friends while traveling. Usually they will let you shower at their houses too!

Solar Shower

We’ve honestly only used our solar shower once to shower. Unless you are in one place for a while and you can leave it out all afternoon, it doesn’t get hot enough to be comfortable. Since we rarely stay in a single place more than one night, so the solar shower isn’t a good option for us. Plus, you have to be in a pretty private place to use it comfortably. And again, using soap with these is ecologically questionable at best. If you do buy a solar shower, try to get a PVC-free shower, because you are heating the water in this bag, and then pouring it on your body.

Using our solar shower while camping in the Wallowas in Oregon. We rarely have used our solar shower.

Using our solar shower while camping in the Wallowas in Oregon. We rarely have used our solar shower.

If you are showering outdoor, use a biodegradable camp soap since it will be going on the ground.

If you are showering outdoor, use a biodegradable camp soap since it will be going on the ground.

Other Options

A lot of RV parks, private campgrounds, outfitters, and even truck stops allow you to purchase a shower. We avoid truck stops, because they are expensive, and let’s be honest, they can be a bit creepy especially for women. We’ve usually found the prices at private campgrounds to be a bit steep for our liking, but it’s always a good back up if we suddenly need to be presentable.

Solar showers take a lot of water, so that’s part of the reason we like to just do bird baths in the van instead.

Solar showers take a lot of water, so that’s part of the reason we like to just do bird baths in the van instead.

Outdoor seating areas are great for when you’re feeling a bit stinky, but still want to go out in public.

Outdoor seating areas are great for when you’re feeling a bit stinky, but still want to go out in public.

Many vanlifers also get gym memberships to places like Planet Fitness in order to shower regularly. We spend most of our time in pretty rural or remote regions without gyms, so we found out that this wouldn’t be a good use of our money, especially since we’ve found other ways to shower for free.

As you can see, showering while traveling full time, at least the way we travel isn’t something to be phased by. You learn to be more comfortable in your own skin, and also to be a bit uncomfortable at times. And when in doubt about your aroma, just remember that you’ll likely never see these people again!

We spend a lot of our time in pretty remote areas where there aren’t any chain gyms nearby.

We spend a lot of our time in pretty remote areas where there aren’t any chain gyms nearby.

Overall we have managed to go over a year living full time in our van without a gym membership and mostly showering for free.

Overall we have managed to go over a year living full time in our van without a gym membership and mostly showering for free.