How To Shower When You Live In a Van

how do you shower when you live in a van

Almost without fail, the first question I get when I tell someone that I live in a bus is “Where do you shower?” The truth is that most vanlifers and bus dwellers just don’t shower all that frequently, and we aren’t bothered by it.

However, there are several ways to stay clean on the road. From my experience of living in a bus for a year and a half and the experiences of other nomads that I’ve talked to, here’s your best bets for showering and staying clean on the road…

10 ways to shower when you live in a van:

1. Build a Shower in Your Vehicle

My friends Zac and Tiffany built in a super cute shower. Via @rolling_vistas.

Pros:

  • Privacy guaranteed
  • Cleanliness of shower stall guaranteed
  • Shower whenever and wherever you want

Cons:

  • Takes up a lot of space
  • Requires a lot of fresh and gray water storage
  • Will be a short shower stall unless you have a high-roof Sprinter or raised roof
  • Potential for leaks which can cause mold and rust

This is the most foolproof way to ensure that you can shower whenever you want. With an indoor shower, you guarantee yourself privacy as well as the comfort of knowing you aren’t sharing a shower with a bunch of strangers.

However, it requires some know-how to install a shower properly inside a vehicle, since you have to seal everything correctly to avoid leaks and successfully plumb the shower from your water tank through your water heater to the showerhead and then to a gray water tank. 

Additionally, unless you are quite short, chances are the showerhead will not actually be mounted above your head, as high roof Sprinter vans have an interior height of about 6’7” and buses are generally 6’ tall, not accounting for any floor or ceiling insulation, the shower pan, etc. Many people who install showers in their vehicles choose to use a showerhead on a flexible hose to get around this problem.

You will also need to have a propane tank somewhere in your van to power the water heater, which, along with not having an indoor shower, is of utmost concern to most of the commenters on a YouTube tour video of my bus. Between the propane tank, the water heater, and the shower stall itself, the installation of a shower inside a van can eat up a lot of valuable square footage. However, if you can’t live without frequent showers, this is one of your better options.

Finally, having a shower onboard means you will need a lot of water and gray water storage space. For a previous article about skoolie bathrooms, I spoke with Aaron (@broccolibus6) who lives with his wife and four children on a full-size converted bus. He said that even their 100-gallon fresh and gray water tanks are not quite sufficient, wishing that he had opted for 200-gallon tanks instead.

Of course, unless you plan to cram six people into a van, your water needs won’t be quite as extreme, but an on board shower increases the need to fill up fresh water and dump gray water frequently.

I also spoke with Tiffany and Zac (@rolling_vistas) who just sold their skoolie and are planning to downsize to a van instead. They had a shower on board, but they only used it about 10 times in the year that they lived in the bus.

As is nearly always the case with vehicular showers, they were most limited by the size of their water tanks, and as a result, took very short showers, frequently opting to just shower at paid campgrounds and RV parks instead. 

They cleverly built their shower with a flexible shower head in a horse trough surrounded by a shower curtain so they did not have to install a shower pan, tiling, and so forth. At this point, they are still undecided as to whether they will build a shower into their van.

I should mention as well that I know at least one skoolie couple who doesn’t use their shower at all because of the water usage and the hassle of showering in such a small space, and use it for a storage closet instead.

Another couple that I met on the road still uses their shower but they have frequent problems with their water heater’s pilot flame going out and then releasing propane fumes straight into their shower. 

All of this to say, it’s certainly possible to build in an amazing and functional shower in a bus or van, but it takes some forethought and a certain level of handiness.

2. Build an Outdoor Van Shower

Our kitchen faucet just turns out the window and has a sprayer mode so it easily becomes a shower. This way we only had to plumb one thing!

Pros:

  • Saves space inside the vehicle
  • Does not require plumbing to gray water tank
  • Convenient in hot weather, on beaches, etc.

Cons:

  • Not very private, so not feasible while stealth camping, staying in parking lots, etc.
  • Not practical in cold weather
  • Requires a lot of freshwater storage

The second option is to still plumb a heated shower, but have the showerhead outside the van so that the water drains straight to the ground rather than into a gray water tank. This greatly reduces the potential for leaks and mold developing inside your vehicle, but there are definitely some tradeoffs.

This is the option that my boyfriend and I went with in our bus, and here’s what we have found out over the last year and a half.

We opted to have our kitchen sink faucet swivel out the open window to become an outdoor shower along the driver’s side of our bus. We initially thought to have some kind of curtain rod that we could set up around the shower, but it turns out that we only really use the shower in quite isolated spots, so we just wear a swimsuit or go au naturel

Even though we have a propane-powered on-demand water heater, it’s really only comfortable to use the outdoor shower in warm temperatures (70 plus) and when it’s not too windy.

This is due to the fact that since we only have 20 gallons of freshwater, we take military-style showers in which you quickly get your body wet, then turn off the water while you soap and shampoo yourself, and then turn the water back on as briefly as possible to rinse all the suds away.

When the warm water is turned off and you are already wet, even the smallest amount of wind can make you feel freezing immediately.

It’s also not practical to use this type of shower when we are camping in or near cities, on streets, in parking lots, etc. We basically only use it when we are out in the middle of nowhere, but at those times, it’s amazing to be able to rinse off after a day at the beach or a hot and sweaty day of climbing.

There are other ways to plumb an outdoor shower, of course. I have seen some clever setups where people with vans that have two rear doors have installed a shower head in the back, and then string up a curtain between the two open doors, creating a much more enclosed shower area, still without having to use precious interior space.

A final concern for using this type of outdoor shower is that you need to follow Leave No Trace principles and be responsible with what kind of soap and shampoo you are using since your gray water is going directly into the ground.

Biodegradable soap is a must to avoid contaminating groundwater, and if you are near a natural water source, make sure to be at least 200 feet away to prevent your soap from entering the body of water.

3. Solar Shower Bags and Pipes

 

Pros:

  • No propane needed
  • Saves space inside the vehicle
  • Uses separate water source from drinking/cooking water
  • Simple to set up and use

Cons:

  • Not very private, so not feasible while stealth camping, staying in parking lots, etc.
  • Not practical in cold weather
  • Limited amount of water
  • If it’s not sunny, your water won’t be warm

This is one of the simplest ways to have your own shower because you do not have to plumb anything, install a water heater, or use propane. Whether you go with the black-PVC-pipe-on-the-roof method or the bag method, you will simply fill the container with water, ensure the sun is hitting your receptacle, wait a few hours for it to heat up, and then enjoy a warm outdoor shower. 

This type of shower faces many of the same issues as a plumbed outdoor shower, like weather dependence, lack of privacy, and the necessity of using biodegradable soap. But, if you only plan to shower very occasionally or will be living on a warm beach in your van, this is one of the cheapest and simplest options to still be able to rinse off.        

4. Gyms and Recreation Centers

Pros:

  • Not weather dependent
  • Convenient
  • You can also get a workout in

Cons:

  • Shower cleanliness varies
  • Prices can be high

Aaron and I shower at gyms and rec centers quite a lot. In many places, if we are just passing through, we’ll look for gyms that offer free trials (Anytime Fitness locations usually will give you 7 days for free).

If nothing comes up, we’ll look at rec centers with cheap day passes, or if we feel like splurging we’ll find a climbing gym that looks fun, climb for hours until we can’t move to get every ounce of fun possible for our money, and then take luxurious showers.

A popular option among vanlifers is to get a membership at Planet Fitness. We have considered this ourselves, but so far haven’t taken the plunge because we’ve gotten by on other free or cheaper shower methods. However, they do offer a pretty good deal.

They have a classic membership level which is $10 per month plus various taxes and fees which is dirt cheap but it only gets you into one club location, which isn’t much use to nomads. 

The much more appealing option is their Black Card membership level, which gets you into any Planet Fitness location in the world (1,800+ locations in all 50 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Panama).

The fees vary based on location and time of year that you sign up, but at the time of this writing, the nearest Planet Fitness to me here in Tucson is offering this membership for $22.99 plus tax per month with no startup fee and no commitment. There is also an annual membership fee of $39.

The main benefit of this membership is that you can basically finagle it into a membership for two, since you get unlimited guest privileges.

This seemed too good to be true, so I called the gym and asked very specific questions, but the representative assured me that if I were to purchase the Black Card membership, I would then be allowed to bring my boyfriend to the gym with me as many times as I like, although I can only bring one guest at a time.

He would be allowed to use the gym and shower facilities, but not the other benefits of the Black Card membership like tanning, massage chairs, discounts, etc. 

In short, you can basically use this as a couple’s membership, bringing the cost per person per month to about $11.50, which isn’t bad at all.

Planet Fitness gyms have day-use-only lockers but you must bring your own lock or buy one from the front desk. They do not provide towels but some branches have towels for purchase at the front desk as well. However, for the sake of cleanliness, I always bring my own towel anyways, as well as shower flip flops.

5. Truck Stop Showers

Pros:

  • Easy to find and convenient
  • Not weather dependent
  • Generally very clean and luxurious

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • May have to wait

When I first started researching showers when we committed to converting a bus, I heard about truck stop showers as an option, but seeing as how most truck drivers that I’ve come into contact with don’t necessarily evoke phrases like “fresh as a daisy,” my interest stopped there.

However, I have since been proven wrong, and have heard several accounts like this one, where people simply rave over the cleanliness and relative luxury of truck stop showers.

At $12 or so per shower, this is quite an expensive option so it wouldn’t be practical for even weekly showers in my opinion. But, if you are willing to drop that much on a shower, truck stops are excellent options. 

One of the main contributing factors to the price is that these showers are cleaned and dried between each use, supplied with freshly laundered towels, and stocked with soap. This also means that you may have to wait around for your turn since there is time lost to the turnover of each shower room.

There are usually lounge areas in which you can wait and entertain yourself though. While there are certainly lots of different truck stops out there, Pilot and Flying J are owned by the same company and have been the names that I repeatedly hear in positive shower reviews.

6. Campground Showers

Pros:

  • Usually fairly clean
  • Not weather dependent

Cons:

  • Coin-op showers are tedious
  • Expensive

Campground showers are nice in theory, but in practice, you have to pay $20 to $80 per night just to have access to the showers, and then many of them are still coin-operated if you happen to desire to shower with heated water. I’ve stayed in hotel rooms for cheaper than $80 per night, so I absolutely can’t fathom (or afford) paying this much for a piece of concrete on which to park my bus for a night. 

However, I have used campground showers before on trips with my family, and while in most cases I wouldn’t want to spend more time than necessary in the showers, they do the job. Many KOA and state and national park campground showers are actually quite nice. In some cases, you can even pay just to use the shower without paying an exorbitant nightly fee to stay there.

As I mentioned earlier, my friends Zac and Tiffany would sometimes treat themselves to one or two nights per month at an RV park or campground, but they would time their visits carefully so they could take full advantage of every service offered – they could dump their gray water tanks, fill the freshwater tank, take showers, use the wifi, etc.

If you are already planning to stay at a campground because it’s in some spectacular location, or you choose to pay for a few strategic nights per month, this can be a good shower option, but if you are looking for frequent showers, this is not a particularly budget-friendly plan.

7. Nature Showers and Baths

The ultimate outdoor bath: hot springs right on a river bank!

Pros:

  • Free
  • Don’t require any building, plumbing, or preparation
  • Usually scenic and beautiful

Cons:

  • Not usually private
  • Usually cold (hot springs excepted)
  • Can’t use soap (or must haul water 200 feet from source)
  • Care must be taken not to contaminate water with lotions, hair products, sunscreen, makeup, etc. that’s already on your body
  • Potential for rash if you have sensitive skin

I love nothing more than plunging into a cold river or lake on a hot day and rinsing away the sweaty, sluggish feeling that I so often get in very warm climates. Particularly after hiking or climbing, it’s an amazing way to refresh yourself and wash away sweat and dust. 

However, utmost care must be taken to not contaminate or pollute our precious natural water sources. I once saw a picture on Instagram of a vanlife couple somewhere in South America with their shampoo and body wash bottles lined up on the side of a natural swimming hole. “Leave No Trace!!!” I spluttered to myself while facepalming and mentally thumbs-downing this image.

But, even though that’s a blatant example of What Not To Do, there are other poor outdoor bathing habits that we might not even realize we are engaging in. For example, if you’ve been slathering yourself every day with layers and layers of chemical-based sunscreen or keeping your hair presentable with dry shampoo, these substances can then wash off into the water and be potentially harmful.

I’m certainly not the Mother Teresa of natural water sources, but I do advocate for using common sense and following the basics of Leave No Trace. Grab a bucket and rinse off 200 feet away from the water before entering if you have a lot of lotions or scents on your person. Do not use any soap, even biodegradable types, in or within 200 feet of water sources. 

Hot springs are another excellent option for “taking a nature bath” but be aware that you will probably come out smelling like sulfur, which, depending on your taste, may be more unpleasant than what you smelled like before. Hot springs feel amazing and do wonders for sore muscles, but I wouldn’t say that you come out feeling or smelling necessarily clean.

One final note on natural bathing: if you have very sensitive skin and are prone to getting rashes, this may not be the best option for you.

One of my acquaintances dabbled briefly in vanlife, planning to only bathe in natural water sources, but it turned out that every time she did, she wound up with a mildly irritating skin rash — something she had not encountered before due to rinsing off in a real shower after entering bodies of water for her whole life up to that point.

8. Sponge Baths

Pros:

  • Cheap and easy
  • Private
  • Requires very little water
  • Not weather dependent

Cons:

  • Can’t be used to wash hair
  • Not as satisfying or thorough as a real shower

This past summer, I worked as a lifeguard in Boulder, CO and biked 7 miles to and from work every day. I would usually shower or at least rinse off at the country club when I arrived, then sweat all day on the lifeguard stand and while biking home, so when I got back to the bus in the evening, I would have a little sponge bath to cool down and rinse away some sweat. 

I just wet a washcloth (or paper towel in a pinch) and wiped down my whole body starting with my face and neck, re-wetting the washcloth as necessary. I never used soap in my sponge baths in the interest of not totally drying out my skin because I had already probably soaped my body once that day and exposed it to chlorine as well, but I know many people who do use soap when sponge baths are their primary method of cleaning themselves. It just takes a bit of time to fully remove the soap after scrubbing.

Sponge baths are a great way to stay fresh if you are boondocking deep in the wilderness where you don’t have access to a shower and need to conserve water. By cleansing your whole body and paying attention to particularly stink-prone areas (armpits, groin, feet) with mild soap and a washcloth, you can definitely stay satisfactorily clean.

9. Wash Your Hair in Your Sink

A faucet with a sprayer and extendable nozzle is super helpful for this.

Pros:

  • Easy and quick
  • Not as weather dependent
  • Doesn’t use too much water
  • Is refreshing and helps extend feeling of cleanliness between showers

Cons:

  • Difficult with long hair
  • A bit painful on the neck

I have very fine hair, so even after “training” it to not need washing every day, my hair will still become visibly oily after about three days. If I’m out hiking or climbing, I’ll just throw it in a bun or a braid or wear a hat and not worry about it, but if we are in cities and I have to interact with people regularly, I prefer to wash my hair in the sink in between showers so I still look presentable. Plus, freshly washed hair feels so good.

This can also be used in combination with a sponge bath, and in that case you have essentially taken a full shower!

Some people (mostly YouTube commenters, predictably) were appalled to hear this, saying how disgusting I was for washing my hair where I wash my dishes, but obviously I wash any dishes that are in the sink, put them away, and then quickly scrub and rinse out the sink before I wash my hair. It’s not as if I’m washing my hair directly in a bowl of last night’s spaghetti sauce. Honestly…

10. Wet Wipes

Pros:

  • Easy and quick
  • Private
  • Not weather dependent
  • Uses no water

Cons:

  • Single-use wipes aren’t great for the environment
  • Can’t be used to wash hair
  • Not as satisfying or thorough as a real shower

Wet wipes are excellent in some scenarios. If you’ve gotten especially muddy or dirty, you can wipe away the majority of the mess easily without using any water at all. They serve essentially the same function as a sponge bath, but are more portable since you can just toss a packet of wet wipes into your bag and use them on the go.

We have used the fancy shower wipes from REI but they function just the same as cheap Walmart-brand wipes in my experience.

Also, for us ladies, there are special soap-free pH-balanced wet wipes like these from Summer’s Eve, which cleanse your lady bits and remove any odor-causing or potentially infection-causing bacteria. These are excellent for use after strenuous activity when you don’t have access to a shower right away, or just as a daily cleansing wipe in between shower days.

Of course, by nature, wet wipes are one-time use so they generate a lot of trash, which is not ideal for the environment. However, without getting too graphic, there are certain situations where single-use is the best option in my opinion.

A Note on the Superfluousness of Showering Daily

When a non-vehicle-dweller inevitably asks me about showering, depending on how much time I have I’ll either give the short answer (at gyms or with our outdoor shower) and let them infer what they like about how frequently this actually takes place, or the long answer in which I attempt to explain, usually much to the person’s horror, that we really don’t shower all that often. 

I then back this up with science, which finds no apparent health benefits whatsoever to showering daily, and in fact points out that it can be a detriment to your health, as Dr. Robert Shmerling of Harvard Health Publishing outlines in this article. I will go on to explain that the less you shower, the less gross you actually become, because your body’s natural balance is restored and your body self-cleanses to a degree. 

I should point out here that I do of course still wash my hands numerous times per day, use deodorant, and clean certain, ahem, key areas daily. However, I and most vanlifers and bus dwellers that I have spoken with about this issue agree that showering once per week on average is the usual goal which allows us to maintain an acceptable level of comfort and cleanliness. 

And, unless you catch us at the tail end of a climbing day or long hike, we really don’t smell or look that gross. I have asked people point-blank if we smell weird and they all assure me that we do not, but if these people have all been lying to me, well, it’s their problem because I can’t smell it!

Finally, not to sound holier-than-thou, but water conservation is important. Even a 10-minute shower can use between 20 and 50 gallons of water. When my boyfriend and I lived in a normal on-grid house before we moved into the bus, we knew that we should work on our water conservation but it was easy to let these concerns fall by the wayside because it’s not as if we could run out of water.

Now, we can go up to a week with the 20 gallons of freshwater that we have on board. Even filling up a water bottle, it feels like the water is on for a painfully long time even though the water isn’t being wasted. 

Long story long, it’s not that difficult to stay clean while living in a vehicle. Using a combination of several techniques that I’ve outlined above can keep you fresh and clean enough to interact with the general public without drawing attention to yourself.

 

Up Next In Vanlife:

11 VanLife Documentaries That’ll Make You Want To Hit The Road Now

How Much Does a Sprinter Van Conversion Cost?

Van Life As a Solo Female Traveler

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