We don’t often tell people about the fact that we live in a van because they usually jump to the conclusion that we are homeless or down on our luck. But when we do bring it up, the number one question we get asked is
“How Do You Shower When You Live in a Van?“.
Well, the answer is easy! There are tons of ways!
Since we live in a city, we like to keep memberships to 24-hour fitness. We have access to showers, steam rooms, saunas, bathrooms, and if we’re feeling sassy, workout equipment.
If you’re considering van life, have already read my article Stealth Camping 101, and don’t feel like you want to be dirty all the time, I’ve compiled a list of the tops ways to get clean when you live on the road.
1. Campsite Facilities/KOAs– This is a really easy option for a quick, full-fledged shower. We don’t park at campsites very often due to the cost, but there are sometimes when you just need to do it for a couple of reasons.
First of all, is charging your rig. While you could go to a campsite and pay for a tent site which would be the cheapest option, consider splurging on a site marked for RVs. They usually come with 30 amp hookups and a source of potable water.
In our experience, the prices are about 7-10 dollars a night higher for a full hookup site over a tent site and you get so much more included. From there you are free to shower, run your electric heater if you have one, and grill up some dogs on the open fire.
2. Truck Stops- It’s funny how much living on the road changes things. I used to go to truck stops when filling up my gas tank on the way to work and not pay much attention, or even worse, decide that they were creepy. Once I started living in a vehicle, however, I noticed they usually have EVERYTHING a traveler could need, including those elusive showers.
For the going rate of about 12 bucks, you can get access to some of the nicest shower facilities on the road…
….and clean towels are included.
While you’re there, feel free to pop in a load of laundry, head over to get your hair cut, or play a couple of rounds of pinball. Yes, truck stops can offer you ALL of these amenities.
You can also sleep there overnight, but I usually don’t recommend it just for the sake of noise. Diesel trucks plowing through parking lots tend to be loud, and while it can be some of the safest overnight parking out there, I’ll avoid it unless I’m doing cross-country travel.
If you do decide you want to park there, always make sure you talk to the people inside and stay out-of-the-way of the trucks.
3. Solar Shower- Solar showers are one of the best options for people who drive around back country camping a lot in the summer. The premise is simple: you usually have some sort of reflective 5-gallon bag that you place in the sun for a few hours. After that you generally hang it off of a tree branch, open the spout and enjoy. There are tons of tutorials online for making these yourself, but I just went ahead and purchased this model.
Not only can it be used as a shower, but it can also be used for doing dishes and other assorted van cleaning projects. This particular model also comes with a thermometer so you know exactly how warm your shower is going to be. Nothing is more disappointing than taking all your clothes off and hosing down in 60-degree water because the bag felt warm to the touch.
4. Rivers, Streams, and Hot Springs- This is an easy option, again, for those who do dispersed camping in the summer. You’ll want to invest in a good environmentally friendly soap like Dr. Bronner’s.
For those of you needing that super hot water experience, try and find a hot spring in your area. We live in the Pacific Northwest where we have an abundance of them. They can be especially lovely in the dead of winter when that cold has seeped into your bones and you need to get warm.
5. McMenamins- While we are on the subject of the Pacific Northwest, let’s discuss McMenamins for a moment. McMenamins is a chain of Pubs, Breweries, and Hotels in the Oregon and Washington area. They are a great place to pop in to for a pint or a bit to eat, but a few of them also offer the option of “soaking pools”.
For $5 you can go in and soak in a warm pool for an hour and it is AMAZING…when you catch it the first hour they are open before a million children pour in. Not only that, but you can go ahead and bring your pint in with you while you soak. Now, if you’re really strapped for cash and that 5 bucks is not in your budget, a super secret tip is that they have showers outside the soaking pools!
It’s usually in the bathroom closest to the pool entrance. Just go in with your backpack like you’re just going to use the bathroom, and voila! There is a nice shower stall there waiting for you. I’m not going to lie, this is one of my favorite options for when I need a burger and don’t especially feel like pretending to work out.
6. Couchsurfing- Personally, I haven’t tried this one, but my boyfriend has in the past and swears by it. All you need to do is join the Couchsurfing website and you will instantly be connected to millions of people all over the world that are willing to lend their couches (and showers) to strangers in need.
If you need to get out of the van for a night or so and are looking to make some new friends, I highly recommend this option. Like I said, I have not used it for a shower, but I HAVE used it to make new friends when I first moved to Portland. There is an option to meet up with people for a coffee or beer and it’s a fantastic way to meet people while traveling.
7. Reddit/ Craigslist- This is one I only recommend for the not faint of heart. Reddit and Craigslist can be great for building communities around certain subjects and locations, but I would be wary of someone using it for shower purposes. The only reason I mention it here is because I just saw someone on Reddit the other day posting about needing a shower in Portland so I suppose some people do use this method.
The thing about Reddit and Craigslist versus a place like Couchsurfing is that Couchsurfing is a bit more secure. You know EXACTLY who you are meeting up with on Couchsurfing and you can rate people, whereas Reddit and Craigslist could put you in touch with serial killers.
Bottom line is, just listen to your gut and take pepper spray everywhere. I like to believe the world is full of nice, well-intentioned people, but that’s not always the case. Just be careful out there!
8. Don’t Shower as Much- This one is easier said than done by most people. Did you know that the oil on your skin that appears after a day or two of not showering is actually there to protect you?!
Everyone knows by now, thanks to Jamie Lee Curtis yogurt commercials, that your gut carries around good bacteria to help your body ward off disease. Well, your skin does it too! Each of us is covered in a network of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that help protect us against things like excessive yeast growth, allergies, and acne.
Every time we hop into a hot shower and lather up with those harsh soaps, we are scraping away this layer that our bodies have created to protect us.
All that really starts to stink is your crotch and armpits anyways, so why not just rinse those areas off and leave the rest of your skin to do what it does best?
9. Dry Shampoo- Oh that’s just great Sparky, but how do I wash my long hair?! I’m going to give you the same answer as I did above. That oil on your scalp after a day of not washing is good for you. Each time you soap up with your fancy shampoo, you are washing away all those oils that are there to protect you. What’s even worse is that the conditioner you generally slather on after is a chemical version of those same oils you just worked hard to wash away!
But your scalp knows whats up and starts to produce that oil in excess as soon as it can, which is why you feel greasy without a shampoo. Your scalp is trying to fix all the damage you have just done!
Instead of daily hair washing, try something like dry shampoo if the oil is uncomfortable. Personally, I find that dry shampoo is too expensive and can smell funky, so I just use straight baby powder. Just a little sprinkle, rub it in, then brush your hair as usual. It’ll soak up any oils and make your scalp smell super fresh.
Of course, if you wanted to get really hardcore, you could join the NO POO movement. No Pooers are people who never wash their hair. Ever. They claim that it takes about 3 months for your scalp to stop overproducing, but I just don’t think I could do it. I work in a kitchen all day, and I feel like that 3 month adjustment period would just be too much.
10. Hot Water and Dr. Bronner’s– As a chef, I come home at the end of every shift smelling like some sort of food substance. It is imperative for me to have, if not a daily shower, at least a daily rise off. My go to is a bowl of warm water and a couple of drops of Dr. Bronners. I have mentioned this soap a couple of times now and for a very good reason. It helps clean you off and makes you smell fresh, without destroying your skin.
A drop or two into a bowl of warm water and a facecloth helps remove that fried food smell after a long day. Not only that, but I have discovered it is AMAZING for the skin on my face. It is so incredibly gentle that I don’t feel like I am stripping my skin at all. I am a 37-year-old woman, so maintaining a layer of moisture on my face is paramount if I plan on looking young forever!
11. Baby Wipes- It might not be the most environmentally friendly option, but baby wipes are a must have for how to shower in a van.
Seriously, I use them EVERY SINGLE DAY. Not only are they great for your nether regions but they also work for anything else you can possibly think of.
We go camping a lot on the weekends and it’s usually to remote locations without water. Baby wipes keep my hands clean while cooking, clean off dirty surfaces, and remove the caked on layer of campfire smoke and ash from my face before sleeping. I can’t recommend them enough. I think that even if you have a house or apartment, you should keep these around just in case, that’s how much I like them.
Just try to get the compostable ones and remember to NEVER flush them down the toilet. I know some brands make the claim they can be flushed, but I still wouldn’t do it. I have heard too many horror stories of people’s septic systems getting backed up to ever trust it.
12. Gym Memberships- Last but not least is our go-to method. We have 24 Hour Fitness in our area and for $29 a month, we are able to go in anytime and have a hot shower. As with any gym, you need to supply your own towels, and soap, but it really can’t be beaten.
If you’re not in an area with 24 Hour Fitness locations, the YMCA is another great option. Rates are $38 a month for adults between 21 and 65 years old. They are nationwide and offer financial assistance to those requiring it. In addition to showers and fitness, they offer childcare, wifi, and church-type services for those that are religious.
I just looked into the local YMCA down the road from me, and they also offer free breakfast Fridays, so that’s something if you need a little extra incentive.
Van life is easy, and the ways to shower and stay clean while van dwelling is endless. Some of them are a little radical and maybe better suited to those young and adventurous van life Instagram types, but for us, gym memberships work just fine.
For me, sometimes showers are more psychological and I just need to be by myself and relax in hot water at the end of the day. There is no shame in that! I know tons of van lifers who prefer to just wipe down when needed, but that’s not me, and if it’s not you either, then this list of how to shower in a van should give you a good start.
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