The Dirtless Dirtbag: A Vanlife Guide to Showering on the Road
The first question any vanlifer gets asked by regular folks, is of course, “Where do you park it?”
The second is, “How do you shower?” I always have to surpress a small urge to just say, “We don’t.” But then I’m confirming stereotypes for the whole community.
While that answer may be somewhat true for us and our minimal shower routine, it’s not true for all vanlifers. We’ve gotten in a groove of showering every 6-7 days and that works really well for us. We promise, it’s not as gross as it sounds, as our bodies actually produce less grease and bacteria after having gotten used to us not scrubbing them away.
Learning to shower less and not feel dirty as easily is a carefully cultivated skill we are incredibly thankful we put some time into developing during our vanlife preparation.
You could say we’ve embraced our dirtbag-ness. But even the dirtiest dirtbags need a good scrub down once in a while.
That’s why we’re here to shed some light on the illusive notion of vanlife showers. Whether you’re a prospective vanlifer, a temporary road tripper, or a happy homebody curious about this crazy vanlife lifestyle, we’re here to shed some lather on the subject of where to shower on the road.
Read on for a bunch of van life shower ideas.
Navigation for Camper Van Shower Ideas
1. Install a static shower in your camper van.
The ideal camper van shower solution would be a shower actually IN your camper van, however ghetto or fancy it is. There’s a lot of logistics involved in this option. How are you going to store enough water to use it? How are you going to heat it? Where are you going to store it all?
For those reasons, installing a camper van shower was not a priority for us. We just needed to get it livable before we were homeless! However, a portable van shower is on the shortlist of improvements we hope to make in the near future.
If a nice hot shower is one of life’s little luxuries you just won’t give up, more power to you! Here are some different ways you can install a permanent shower in your camper van.
Solar Roof Rack Shower
If you have a roof rack or a set of crossbars on your van, you can easily mount a solar shower system right on the roof of your van. Then, just as your solar panels are continually harvesting energy, the water is heating up so you have nice hot shower awaiting you at the end your adventures.
This system, of course, has its weather-based and time-of-day limitations, so consider where (and when) you plan on using it.
The Road Shower 4 ($440 on Amazon)
Pretty much the only company making these, the Road Shower holds 6 gallons of water and must be pressurized externally (by something as simple as bike pump or even a rechargeable shower pump nozzle- see below).
See this video for how it all works and to see the Road Shower 4 in action.
Budget Vanlife Hack: For a van build on a budget, make a gravity-fed DIY roof rack solar shower using black PVC pipe. Check out Kombi Life’s tutorial video for how to build one yourself.
Vehicle Engine Heat Exchanger Shower
This next concept is super cool: utilizing heat exchange technology to turn your van’s engine into a camper van hot water heater. Talk about vanlife efficiency! Unfortunately, there’s not many companies tapping this market. In fact, there’s only one: the R&M vehicle mounted hot water shower. Basically, the heat exchanger permanently mounts to the engine compartment and water gets routed right through it.
Internal Shower Stall
Very rare to see one of these in the vanlife circles we find ourselves within. These are more common to see in professionally converted vans driven by middle aged couples (no offense intended). They involve much larger water and waste tanks as well as a tankless water heater.
2. Carry a portable camp shower.
Another camper van shower option that allows you to take your shower with you anywhere you go, but is a little expensive and hard to install, is a portable camp shower. There are a few different kinds of portable, stow-away travel showers:
Solar Heated Camper Van Showers
Solar heated shower bags are essentially a big bag you fill with water, hang outside (either on a tree or directly in your van), allow the sun to heat, then let gravity do the work. This Front Runner Rack Mounted Shower Arm is a super easy way to hang them right off your van’s roof rack!
Or attach a pressure pump and hose to the bag (see a little further down for these). Solar camp showers are simple, minimalist, and inexpensive.
RISEPRO 5 Gallon Solar Shower Bag ($10 on Amazon)
This durable bag is made of an extra heat absorbing PVC that heats water optimally to 113ºF in 3 hours of direct sunlight. It’s durable, leak-proof, and even has a water temperature indicator integrated into the bag.
They also have a 10 gallon version for only $5 more if you like extra long showers.
Advanced Elements 2.5 gallon Solar Shower ($20 on Amazon)
A bit smaller in capacity for the price, but with tons of great reviews. The fast-heating material also rolls down super small. The extra large fill cap makes the prep process less of a hassle, too.
Alternatively, if you ‘ain’t got no time’ to let the sun warm your water (or alternatively, ain’t got no sun), consider a minimalist camp shower bag. These will heat water up slightly in the sun, but they’re thin enough material that they don’t trap heat as efficiently.
Sea to Summit Pocket Shower ($32 on Amazon)
An ultralight gravity powered shower bag that holds 10L of water to give you a 7 minute shower. Great versatility for backpacking and more ultralight camping endeavors outside vanlife.
Simple Shower Handheld Camp Shower ($13 on Amazon)
The ultimate in van life shower simplicity, this is essential just a water bottle with a shower head nozzle. Fill, squeeze, and scrub!
Propane Heated Camper Van Showers
A step up on the budget scale, propane water heater kits are nicer because they provide faster hot water and do not rely on a sunny day. If you already run propane to cook in your van, you’re already half way to having this van shower. Note that the first two options on this list double as battery operated hot water heaters just in case you run out of propane!
Hike Crew Portable Propane Water Heater and Shower Pump ($250 on Amazon)
Top tier camper van shower luxury. Just drop the draw hose in a bucket of water and enjoy! It runs off EITHER a disposable propane canister, a full propane tank (with adaptor hose), AC/DC outlet, or the 12V cigarette lighter in your van. With so many heating options, you’ll never be without hot water. It also heats to a whopping 125ºF and features an auto safety shut down setting beyond that temperature.
We are looking into getting this in the very near future as the coming winter will eliminate our desire to shower in cold water!
Mr. Heater BOSS-XB13 Basecamp Shower System (from $160 on Amazon)
Like the Hike Crew, this runs off either propane or 4 d-cell battery (providing 40 minutes fo run time). It provides a flow rate of 0.6 gallons per minute. Choose from 12,000, 17,000, or 18,000 BTU heat outputs for propane power.
Coleman ‘Hot Water on Demand’ H2Oasis Portable Water Heater ($260 on Amazon)
Includes 5-gallon collapsible water tank bag and submersible draw hose. Can heat water to 125ºF in just 30 seconds. Runs off either disposable propane canisters or (with adaptor hose) a full tank.
ZODI Outback Portable Shower Kit ($180 on Amazon)
Able to attached to either a disposable propane canister or a full tank (with adaptor hose), this 6-volt pump features a push button ignition, 8-foot hose, and 4-gallon water tank (for a 10-minute shower) that doubles as its own storage case. Temperature goes up to 100ºF and it stores at only 15”x10”x10”. Accompany this with the ZODI tripod for hands-free use.
Camplux 5L 1.58 GPM Portable Tankless Water Heater ($130 on Amazon)
While these types of tankless water heaters are good for static shower installs, they can also function as portable water heaters. This one comes with a 5’ gas regulator hose for attaching directly to a 20 lbs propane tank includes. Provides pressure up to 3 psi!
Rechargeable Handheld Outdoor Shower aka “The Bucket Shower”
One of the most accessible van life shower options because it doesn’t require any install even rely on the ability to hang something, but still provides a pressurized stream of water. Just fill a bucket of water (we use the Sea to Summit 20L camp sink), stick the hose in, turn on, and use the shower head nozzle to rinse off. These work with either hot or cold water.
Some good handheld shower pumps are:
Ivation Portable Handheld Shower ($35 on Amazon)
A compact, battery-powered pump that’s rechargeable via USB DC circuit. A full charge runs it for 60 minutes!
RisePro Portable Camp Shower ($30 on Amazon)
Same specs as above and lots of great reviews. Can also run right off your running vehicle from dead if you forget to recharge.
8MileLake Portable Pressure Washer ($16 on Amazon)
Not rechargeable but rather runs directly off a DC circuit, so it can run directly off the running vehicle.
Electrapick Portable Camping Shower ($13 on Amazon)
Great for being clean on a budget. USB rechargeable but at 2200mAH, it won’t provide as powerful of flow rate as others on this list.
Camplux Portable Shower Tripod ($43 on Amazon)
Take the work out fo holding the shower head. This stand features an adjustable height nozzle and connects directly to any old hose for water supply.
Manual Pump Portable Outdoor Shower
Prefer manual to automatic? Us, too! That’s why we have a foot pump operated sink. Instead of a rechargeable portable shower, go for a hand or foot pump operated one. Foot pumps are especially great because you can use both hands to scrub (and sneak in leg day while you scrub!)
Nemo Helio Portable Pressure Shower with Foot Pump ($99 on Amazon)
Nemo specialized in revolutionary ultralight camp and backpacking gear. This portable shower is no exception. It packs down to the size of a Nalgene water bottle, holds nearly 3L of water, and has a dark, heat absorbing tank so you can more efficiently solar heat your water before your shower.
Dr. Prepare Foot Pump Camp Shower ($45 on Amazon)
All-in-one kit that includes the 4-gallon water storage tank, foot pump, hose, and nozzle. Good for a 10-minute shower on high pressure or more if you’re easy on the pump.
OnTrackGear Portable Hand Pump Shower ($40 on Amazon)
More keen to get in an arm workout instead? Get this easy to operate hand pump shower canister. Prime the pressure with a few good pumps then spray down. This one is easy to set-up and painless to store away. Especially great for small shower jobs where you don’t want to set up the full shebang, like washing down your doggo or your muddy feet.
What about privacy?
If you’re a little shy about exposing yourself while shower, invest in one of many different pop up tent shower shelters available online. These portable privacy shelters can be sued as shower tents, outhouses, changing rooms, and more, and they don’t take up much space when collapsed.
NEMO Heliopolis Portable Tent Shower ($150 on Amazon)
At the high end of the luxury spectrum, Nemo’s full shower tent provides everything you need to comfortably shower at camp in privacy. It includes the tent, water tank, hoses, high pressure pump, locking door, full drained floor, and even a toilet paper dispenser for use as a pop up outhouse! Next level van life luxury!
Wolf Wise Pop-Up Tent Shower ($40 on Amazon)
A spacious shower privacy tent alone so give you some shelter while you get soapy. Compatible with either hanging solar showers or a bucket shower.
King Camp Oversize Shower Shelter ($90 on Amazon)
For family van life or even couples that like to conserve water and shower together (wink wink), this double-sized tent provides a spacious shower shelter.
Texsport Hanging Shower Shelter ($35 on Amazon)
No level ground to pitch a pop-up shelter. No trouble. This guy hangs on a tree, rock, or even between the open rear doors of your van.
For the truly budget minded, rig up a standard shower curtain using the the outside of your van or some nearby trees.
3. Use gyms to shower on the road.
This is probably the most common vanlife shower solution (at least in North America). Several gym chains are darn near invasive across the U.S., Planet Fitness being the most notable. With over 1,800 locations across the U.S. and Canada, they’re easy to find and cheap enough that it doesn’t sting too much if you go a month without being near a Planet Fitness.
Their Black Card membership costs $22 a month (plus a variable startup fee and annual maintenance fee). It gives you 24/7 gym access to any Planet Fitness facility, free fitness classes, showers (which are genuinely very nice and clean), lockers, access to tanning and hydro massage beds, AND a free guest pass anytime you go. So for van couples, that $22 essentially gets you both a gym membership and shower access. Even if fitness isn’t your thing, that price is well worth the “shower, shit, and shave” services (though not necessarily in that order).
For those wondering, we have a Planet Fitness membership and it’s been pretty convenient on the whole, as long as you don’t depend 100% on it. Though we only use its showers on occasion, as we pass through places, we still feel it’s worth it.
4. Pay for showers individually.
If you spend a lot of time outside urban Planet Fitness prolific areas, you’ll need to either supplement gym-provided showers to just opt out of a gym membership altogether. We still pay for individual road showers from time to time.
This method can be a bit hit or miss, as well as expensive depending on how often you shower and the nearby options. Since we only fully shower once a week, it’s not too bad.
Some places will charge you a flat rate for a shower if unlimited time (typically around $5 per person).
Others you pay for a certain amount of time. These are the ones that vary wildly. We’ve come across some that are as good as $2 / 10 minutes and some as bad as $3 / 5 minutes. Those are the ones where you get efficient.
Here are some common places that offer drop-in showers for road travelers:
HOSTELS: Even though U.S. hostels aren’t much cheaper than budget hotels, they are still uniquely helpful for road travelers because most offer drop-in paid showers. The Hostel California in Bishop, CA (see our full destination guide here) for instance is THE place to shower if you’re climbing in the Buttermilks.
GAS STATIONS: Okay so we know that gas station bathrooms are notoriously bordering on biohazard- status. The thought of showering in one isn’t too appealing. However, every so often we’ve come across a small gas station that has showers tucked away that don’t make us want to immediately shower again.
PUBLIC POOLS / REC CENTERS: These are some of our favorite options and are surprisingly reliable, especially in Canada. Some charge a drop-in shower only rate and other just charge for full facility use. For example, in Squamish, BC, the Brennan Park Rec Center charges $5 CAD for entry into the pool, hot tub, and sauna, which also includes shower access. Not a bad deal, especially if you want a nice soak to loosen up your muscles first. Note that these tend to be high school locker room-style showers so don’t hope for much privacy. If you’re a bit body conscious, these aren’t the best option.
LAUNDROMATS: Like gas stations, these can be a little less than sanitary looking, but some are rather nice. Plus it’s super convenient if you’re doing laundry. Kill two dirtbags with one soap!
CAMPGROUNDS / RV PARKS: If you’re staying in a full facility campground or RV park, take advantage of the showers provided! What most people don’t know, however, is that even if you aren’t staying on site, many will charge a fee for showers only. They’re typically short timed with less-than-reliable hot water, but they’re an easy to find fallback option.
ROCK GYMS: As we travel, we love to check out various rock climbing gyms around the country. Typically we just buy a day pass, climb, do some training, and cap it all off with a nice hot shower. All in all, a pretty good deal for $15-20 each. Note that not all rock gyms have full locker rooms so double check if you’re buying a day pass under the expectation that it includes a shower.
GEAR SHOPS / RENTAL FACILITIES: Another weird one we’ve seen here and there (especially around Zion National Park area and a few other national parks). These are typically minimal, half outdoor timed showers and leave a bit to be desired in terms of heat and pressure. But there do if you’re in a particularly scuzzy pinch!
How do you find these road showers when traveling?
Google is a pretty good bet. Just type “paid showers [insert location here]”.
If you’re a climber, another site we’ve found useful in finding showers on the road is climber.org. It’s hit and miss and but some areas, like the Eastern Sierras, have pretty extensive paid shower maps.
Anytime you’re using public showers, make sure to bring not only all your soap, but a towel (we like packable microfiber camp towels) and shower shoes!
5. Freshen up with friends and family.
This one puts new meaning to “spongeing” as it relates to showers. Friends and family, however, are a great (read as: FREE and CLEAN) way to shower on the road. Friends don’t let friends get smelly (well, not TOO smelly anyway).
As you travel, you’ll build up an every growing network of contacts. That’s honestly one fit he best things about travel in any form!
Take advantage of those contacts. We’re not saying you should hit someone up out do the blue with, “Hey we’re in the area! Can we use your shower?” Maybe start by inviting them out for a beer.
Non-vanlife friends (or former vanlifers) are pretty great about offering up showers for those of us who do dwell on the dirty side of life. The van community is pretty awesome like that, and maybe one day you’ll be in the position to return the favor.
6. Bathe in the great outdoors!
A last resort for many but a first for us! We love taking a dip in an ice cold stream after a long day of climbing. Great for muscular recovery and to get the sweat and dirt off.
If cold water isn’t your thing, become a hot spring hound. Particularly on the eastern side of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, we love taking a hot and refreshing soak in one of earth’s many natural bathtubs.
However, don’t use soap when doing this, even biodegradable soap! Biodegradable soap map be eco-safe but water ecosystems are incredibly fragile and the creatures there can be seriously harmed by any sudsy inclusion. Fear not, suds aren’t everything. A little water and some hand scrubbing go a long way.
If you’re reeeeeeaaallly jonesing for a soap scrub, fill up a portable wash basin in the river (we like the Sea to Summit 20L portable camp sink) and have a soap down in that 200 ft away from the water.
Vanlife Hygiene Hack: Keep a supply of flushable wipes on hand. If a day of adventuring leaves you particularly sweaty or you’re just feeling a little scuzzy, wipe down. A good wet wipe bath can actually really help keep you smelling fresh and feeling at least tolerant of the grime.
For those who don’t live in a van, we hope we’ve been able to clear away the grime about how vanlifers shower. For future or present vanlifers, we hope we’ve given you some tips to help you stay (somewhat) clean on the road.
Fellow vanlifers: What are your vanlife shower secrets? What’s the funniest way you’ve answered when someone asks where you shower? What’s your favorite hot spring? We’d love to know! Hit us up in the comments or our inbox.
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