The VanLife Guide to Staying Clean On the Road
Just the other day, someone posted in one of the Facebook groups we follow:
“I’m 90% of the way sold on moving into a van, but I just can’t get over not having a shower. How do you do it?”
This is one of the top questions (and concerns) we’ve heard from people wanting to dip their toes in the water of van life (but are worried about missing dipping their toes in their luxurious showers!). How you’ll stay clean will depend on where you’re traveling and staying, your budget, and your cleanliness needs.
I’ve outlined the most popular van life shower solutions (and what we do) below:
1. Reframe your mindset around showering
This is almost mandatory if you’re considering a mobile lifestyle. Change your standards around how often you “need” to shower.
Matt and I got a head-start on this since we traveled around South America for 4 months together before we moved into our van. While there, we spent a lot of time hiking (3-8 days on the trail at a time), without showering. This taught us that we could go for more than a day or two without showering.
Now, we only shower 1-2 times a week, maximum. We also spend a lot of time outdoors and do mostly freelance work, so this works for us career wise. However, if you’re still working a standard office job this may not work for you.
2. Pay for showers in towns or cities at hostels, pools, etc.
If you’re staying in urban areas, this will likely be your method of choice. You can almost always find a place to pay for a shower, whether it’s a gym, hotel or hostel, or even a laundromat.
Make it easy for yourself, and put together a shower “kit.” The first time Matt and I paid for a shower in Bishop, CA at the laundromat we both forgot towels and had to dry off with our old clothes *facepalm*. Don’t be like us.
Your kit should include:
- A towel: full-sized, or pack towel or camping towel
- Small bottles of shampoo, body wash, and conditioner (and biodegradable if you’re using it outdoors!)
- Hairbrush or comb
- Waterproof flip flops (maybe not 100% necessary but really nice to have)
As far as finding a place to shower, this will be very location-dependent but you can try:
- Local swimming pool: You may be able to pay for a pass to the local swimming pool (which will have showers). You can also swim beforehand!
- Hostel or Hotel: We’ve found options to pay for a shower (and not a full night) at hostels and hotels especially in areas that cater to the more adventurous crowd. For example, many towns along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on the west coast offer paid showers (prices we saw ranged from $5-7 in 2017).
- Laundromat: I think this is a bit less common, but we paid for an awesome $5 shower at one of the laundromats in Bishop, CA.
- Recharge app (in cities): If you find yourself in San Francisco or New York, you might have luck trying out new startup recharge.co. You can pay for 4 and 5 star hotels by the minute, so depending on their minimum stay requirements and how fast you shower, you might be able to get a very nice shower for a reasonable price.
3. Join a local or national gym
One popular way for vandwellers to guarantee they have showers available more or less whenever they want is to join a gym. If you’re sticking in one place for a while, you can choose a local gym (a YMCA, climbing gym, etc.), but if you’re planning to travel you’ll want to choose a nationwide, chain gym in your country of choice.
Depending on the deal the gym is running at the time and the level of service they offer (as far as amenities, etc.), you’re looking at paying anywhere from $10-$50 a month. It’s also a good idea to double-check the map against your tentative travel plans to make sure you choose a gym with good coverage.
For US-based vandwellers, the most popular nationwide gyms are:
- Planet Fitness: You’ll pay $10 per month for membership at a single gym, and $20 for access to all gyms nationwide. Planet Fitness is more concentrated on the east coast.
- 24 Hour Fitness: You can get deals through Costco on one or two-year memberships. So if you’re planning on traveling for more than a few months and 24 Hour has good coverage in the places you’ll be, look into buying through Costco.
- Anytime Fitness: Around $40 per month.
- LA Fitness: Not quite as popular as the three above, but depending on where you’ll be this could be an option.
4. Visit a truck stop shower
These generally cost $12-$15. We haven’t tried this yet, but all the photos of truck stop showers online look quite fancy, complete with towels. They remind me a bit of airport lounge showers.
For what it’s worth, people on reddit seem to think Love’s and Petro offer the cleanest showers.
5. Find a campground with a shower
If you’re staying in campgrounds anyway, you can pay a bit extra to find a campground with a shower.
6. Purchase or build a shower
If you have space and are staying outside of urban areas, this could be a great option for you. Right now this is the most common way we shower since it’s the summer (and hot) where we are, and we stay in campsites or BLM 90% of the time. You can either opt for a solar shower or a hot water heater-style shower (usually propane-powered).
Solar shower: Many vandwellers or even car campers purchase or build solar showers, which use the natural heater in the sky to heat water. One caveat is that you’ll need a place to shower off, so these are really only a solution outside of cities. I’ve heard of these getting too hot if you leave them in the sun too long.
You have two options for solar showers. You can install a permanent roof-top solar shower, or use a camping-style solar shower.
Permanent rooftop showers
- Buy a pre-fabricated rooftop solar shower:
If you’re looking for a pre-built pressurized hot shower that you can basically just mount on your rig, check out kickstarter-funded Road Shower. You can pressurize it by filling it with a hose or using a separate pump like a bike pump. (Note that the Road Shower is available for pre-order now and will be delivered starting in October).
- Build your own rooftop solar shower:
- If you’re willing to put in a few hours of work, you can build a permanently installed solution. There are lots of tutorials out there for you to pick from, but here’s a great YouTube instructional video.
Popular camping-style solar showers for vandwellers:
- Coleman 5 Gallon Solar Shower: Inexpensive, and highly reviewed, you can’t go wrong with this $10-$20 option.
- Advanced Elements 3 Gallon Solar Shower: This shower gets very good reviews as far as quality of the build (thicker construction). Many people also find that 5 gallons is a bit unwieldy (remember that water weighs 8 pounds a gallon!) so prefer the 3-gallon size.
- Nemo Helio Pressure Shower: This is definitely more expensive than either of the options above, but that’s because it offers a pressurized spray versus a gravity drip. Some people on amazon reported issues, but Nemo has great customer service and seems to be quick to replace defective units.
Hot-water heater (propane-powered) options:
- Our RV came with an Eccotemp portable, tankless, propane-powered hot water heater. Camplux sells a similar setup. We use propane to heat water (for showers, and dishes) and to cook. You can find hose-style attachments for the heater, or use your kitchen sink sprayer (if you have one), like we do. The main downsize of using the sprayer is that you’ll need two people to pull this off. One person adjusts the water (temperature and turns it on and of) while the other showers.
7. Find a local shower through WarmShowers.org
Warmshowers was technically built for cyclists, but you might have luck finding a shower through the warmshowers community. If you have success let us know!
8. Use a refillable gallon jug of water
Pretty simple, but it’ll work. I’ve seen and heard of a few people who “shower” with a gallon jug of water. Dump some of the water over your head, rinse off whatever you need to rinse, dump more over your head. Refilling should be easy as well (campgrounds, parks, gas stations, etc).
9. Take a dip in a stream, river, or lake
If you’re near a stream, river, or lake, and weather permits, you can bathe au natural. At the very least, this is a nice way to feel fresh in between “real” showers.
It’s not a good idea to use shampoos or soaps (even biodegradable ones!) in streams, rivers, or lakes. In fact, biodegradable soaps like campsuds, Dr. Bronner’s castille soap (we like peppermint but they also have unscented, and tea tree, lavender, and others), or Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash (also in citronella) urge you to wash at least 200 feet away from water sources.
If you really need to wipe down your bits with soap, you should plan to use water in a separate receptacle and do your washing at least 200 feet from your water source! The leave no trace (LNT) best practice is to bury your soapy water as well. (This sectionhiker.com article has some great details about LNT and why and how to preserve the backcountry when using biodegradable soaps). Also, these soaps tend to be very concentrated so *use sparingly!*
10. Hobo shower: aka baby wipes, face wipes, dry shampoo
Baby wipes are a vanlife must. The main downside of these is that they do generate waste, but we find them to be a necessity for us right now at least in the hot summers.
We use unscented baby wipes (made for babies, like pampers, or earth harvest baby wipes) but we’ve read rave reviews for No Rinse Wipes and action wipes, and a bunch of our instagram followers recommended Kirkland Best (Costco brand) wipes (also available through amazon).
We also like to buy face wipes and use those in between real showers. There are lots of different brands, but we like Burts Bees and these Neutrogena ones. We’ve also used stridex pads when we’re getting a bit greasy.
Amanda has fine hair that will get greasy, so she uses dry shampoo in between washing her hair to keep it looking good. You can go with a spray option like this Eva NYC one, or a powder like this Drop Dead Gorgeous Shampoo Powder. Make sure you choose the right “shade” for your hair! You can also use baby powder (especially for lighter-haired folks), just make sure you brush it in so it doesn’t look powdery white.
11. Mist off with essential oil
This isn’t a shower, but it can help you feel fresh in between showers. I like to carry around a small spray bottle filled with water and two or three drops of essential oil (try peppermint, tea tree, rose, lavender, orange). Throughout the day, I mist myself down. It may not offer much in the way of actual hygiene, but it sure makes me feel a bit fresher.
If you’re still looking for more ways to shower when you live in a van, you may want to check out these articles on keeping clean from other vandwellers: