How to shower when you live in a van

The prospect of showering gave Chris and I a lot of anxiety before we hit the road. After a guy’s tale of using a spray bottle of sudsy water in a gas station bathroom and advice to bum shower tokens from truckers, it felt impossibly awkward.

But nearly a year later, we haven’t done either of those things. And it inspired us to create…

 

How to Shower When You Live in a Van

 

Essentials to Include in Your Shower Kit

With these five items, you’re prepared to shower anywhere:

  1. Towel: Use a microfiber camp towel; they’re small, absorbent and quick-drying
  2. Foot Protection: A cheap pair of flip-flops will do
  3. Travel-Sized Shampoo/Conditioner: Buy refillable bottles and keep the large bottles stored in the van
  4. Soap and Soap Container: The container keeps your stuff from getting soapy and prevents melting
  5. Quarters: Have a couple bucks worth for coin-operated showers

We find it’s best to have a gallon-sized Ziploc bag with all of our toiletries. That way, you just grab your bag and go. Here’s what we keep in ours:

 

Tamara Toiletries

Tamara’s bag: Hair brush, toothbrush, toothpaste, lotion, shampoo, soap, deodorant, lip balm, tweezers, razor, cotton swabs, hair ties and head band, dry shampoo

 

Chris Toiletries

Chris’ bag: Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, cotton swabs, comb, deodorant, floss, shampoo, nail clippers, beard trimmer

How to Find Showers

  • Public and Private Campgrounds: If you’re parking at campgrounds — especially state parks and KOAs — there’s a good chance you’ll find a shower. (The AllStays app mentions whether a campground has showers.) Also, many state parks and private campgrounds allow non-campers to buy a shower for anywhere from $2-5/person. We stayed at a primitive U.S. Forest Service campground that told campers to drive 10 minutes to another Forest Service campground for a shower. Some campgrounds have a list of nearby services like groceries, laundry and…showers! This is our #1 option and works 99 percent of the time.
  • Gyms and Community Pools/Aquatic Centers: We haven’t tried this because campground showers typically do the trick for us. Many gyms offer the ability to buy a day pass to use their facility, so you can get a workout plus a shower. The same goes for community pools with shower facilities.
  • Google: You’d be surprised what you can find by searching “where to shower in [city/town].” Moab, Utah, for example, is known for adventures like hiking, mountain biking and more, so their local tourism site has a list of places to shower for outdoorsy folks with occasional indoorsy needs. Bike shops, rec centers, hostels and campgrounds were among the shower options listed.

We’ve read about other options like truck stops (e.g. Flying J or Pilot) or asking people who are checking out of their motel, but those never felt right to us. Truck stop showers are for truckers and not just anyone can waltz in. And we’d feel rude asking a stranger to use their recently vacated motel room.

 

USFS Shower

A coin-operated public campground shower near Sedona, Arizona

 

What to Expect in a Public Shower

Most public showers we encounter have hot water, are well-maintained and are very clean. Even the worst ones we’ve ever been in — in a state park in Tennessee — are mostly guilty of being run down, not dirty. High-traffic public showers get a good scrubbing at least daily.

That being said, it’s no fun seeing a spider or someone else’s hair covering the drain. (Yet another reason why you always carry flip flops.) Honestly, you learn to live with it. If you’re really squeamish, you can cough up the money to stay at KOAs where, for all their flaws, the bathrooms are usually very clean.

Types of Showers You’ll Come Across

  • Bath House: Several shower stalls in one large space
  • Private Shower: Like a half-bathroom, but with a shower only
  • Full Private Bath: Like a full bathroom, with a toilet, sink and shower

Limits You’ll Come Across

  • No Limit: Turn on the faucet and water runs until you turn it off
  • Timed: An electronic timer shuts off the water (e.g. 7-minute shower, followed by mandatory 3-minute break before it will start again), or a button you press that only lets so much water out until you press the button again
  • Coin-Operated: Inserting quarters or paid tokens buys you a certain number of minutes
  • Solar: Water tanks are heated by the sun, so maybe wait until later in the day to shower unless you’re looking for a refreshing burst of cold water

 

1282011-Noccalula-Falls-Mens-Showers

An average bath house; image credit: SkiAnything.com

 

Tips to Shower Like a Pro

  • Shower in the afternoon or evening to avoid the morning rush. That’s also when showers are the cleanest, since cleaning usually happens mid-day.
  • Bring a bag or backpack to carry your clothes and shower kit in case there’s only one hook and/or no bench or shelf.
  • Wear your flip flops to and from the shower so you don’t have to carry an extra pair of shoes with you.
  • Strip down as much as possible (remove layers, socks, glasses) first and leave those items in your van so you aren’t worried about space or losing things.
  • Embrace the Navy shower: turn off the water while you lather.
  • If you’re traveling with someone you don’t mind being naked in front of, consider splitting a shower. For example, we took turns in a shower that was $4 for 8 minutes because neither of us needs that long.
  • If you’re worried about running out of time because there’s no visual countdown, set a timer on your cell phone.

 

Lake of the Woods

When all else fails…

 

When You Can’t Find a Shower

The honest truth: sometimes, you won’t find a shower. And that’s OK.

Unless you decided to run a mud obstacle course, you’re probably not very dirty. Sometimes we’ll go for a sweaty 5- to 7-mile hike and not get to shower until the next day and nobody knows. You can and should still mind your hygiene, and here’s how.

  • Baby Wipes: We always keep a canister of antibacterial Wet Ones in the van. Use as many as you need to freshen up. Heck, you could even wrap some in foil and heat them over your camp stove if you wanted.
  • Dry Shampoo: I used to never go a day without washing my hair because it felt so oily, but that’s because I was washing it too much. It’ll take you a couple weeks, but eventually your scalp gets used to it. And let me tell you: your hair will be so much healthier. Get a good dry shampoo like Batiste or Not Your Mother’s (both less than $10/bottle) and you’ll be in business. If you have longer hair, make sure you spend a couple minutes brushing it before bed to distribute the natural oils throughout the length of your hair.
  • Change Clothes: This tip needs little explanation and is best used in combination with the above two tips.
  • Get Creative: Remember, the great thing about van living is how much time you get to spend outdoors. Once, Chris and I were in need of a shower in the middle of nowhere and decided to just jump in a lake in our bathing suits. Were we the cleanest we’d ever been? No, but it got the job done, we felt refreshed, and we had a blast.

We hope you found this guide helpful. Did we miss anything? Let us know if you have other tips or ideas in the comments. Happy showering!

  27 comments for “How to shower when you live in a van

  1. 2015-10-28 at 5:24 pm

    THANKS for the detailed post. Bathroom options and keeping clean on the road are the biggest drawback for most of us. Amazing what a little creativity can solve:)

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-10-28 at 6:42 pm

      Thanks for the feedback! 🙂 Hooray for staying clean.

  2. 2015-10-29 at 8:48 am

    Great tips. This might be the part of van travel we’re least looking forward to when we take off next year, but it sounds like you’ve made it work pretty well.

    I can’t say I’ve ever thought of asking departing hotel guests to use their bathroom. If someone asked that of me, I would be creeped out!

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-10-29 at 9:50 am

      Thanks, Matt — glad you found the tips useful. And I agree about asking departing hotel guests. It’s not cool. The thing I didn’t write about is using a solar camp shower, which would totally be doable if you’re parking someplace remote. I feel like there are actually more options in the middle of nowhere; it’s harder in a major metropolitan area!

  3. michael
    2015-11-01 at 7:58 am

    You might reconsider the truck stops, the ones you mentioned have frequent buyer programs for the general public as well as truckers. Most if not all have dedicated pumps for autos and their prices for fuel are often better than other chain gas stations. Here’s another tip, look in their trucker section of the store for items handy to those of us on the road. For instance I recently purchased an oven which plugs into the cigarette lighter. When I’m driving I plug it in and bake whatever I want for lunch or dinner. I’ve even made fresh baked cookies. It was on sale, down to $25 from $30 when I purchased. I enjoy your blog, thanks Michael

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-11-05 at 6:40 am

      You had us at “oven” and “cookies.” Totally going to look for that. I didn’t realize there were public programs for showers at truck stops. Is there one you’ve used? Would love any more details. Thanks!

      • Michael
        2015-11-13 at 1:54 pm

        What I was referring to was, get their customer card, it’s available for the general public as well as truckers. One of the perks is sometime free showers with the card. I think all the chains, Pilot, Loves, etc. have them.

    • 2016-02-08 at 5:13 pm

      What is this magical oven called, we would love to have something like this for our van dwelling

  4. Mike
    2016-05-13 at 3:33 am

    The showers at truck stop/gas stations (flying J and pilot types) are not just for truckers. My wife and I used them when traveling cross country in our van. They are usually very nice and clean.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2016-05-13 at 1:16 pm

      Thanks for the tip, Mike! That’s really good to know. Anything important to know / any tips on accessing the showers?

  5. Laurens
    2016-05-23 at 6:41 pm

    Necessity is the mother of infection . . . I mean invention! On a cross country bicycle trip I learned to shower in my swim suit with (2) one gallon plastic water bottles (or 1 filled twice) and a bar of soap. Standing in flip flops in grass or on a hard surface (dirt splatters), i wet down with one bottle, lathered, and rise with the other. Getting comfy with this technique allows me to have a shower almost anywhere, and it is often less gross than available showers. That’s really good since I’m obsessive about showering before bed.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2016-05-23 at 7:07 pm

      Creative! 🙂

  6. Sean Go
    2016-06-17 at 3:03 pm

    Hello- fellow professional vanner here, $20 Home Depot weed sprayer is pure magic! Clean water in it only, you can set it in the sun or boil 1/2 a gallon and add it to th cold water. 2 gal sprayer lasts for 6+ showers and it’s amazingly hands free with the wand….I need some videos haha

    • Tamara & Chris
      2016-06-17 at 4:33 pm

      What a creative idea!!!! Love it

    • Bob G
      2016-08-17 at 7:59 pm

      That’s a great idea, thanks.

  7. Carole293
    2016-08-06 at 2:43 pm

    A lot of the beaches in florida have out door showers i use them all the time. I shampoo and shave etc. I just dont do ot at the vusy times of day. Use a biodegradable soap/shampoo.

  8. Mike & Pat
    2017-01-26 at 6:33 pm

    Tamara, excellent coverage of the showering topic. Love the idea of sharing the shower. I read someone’s post that couples do that at the truckstops and only have to pay for one shower. I’m not certain but I believe they mentioned Pilot Truckstops having the rewards card and for every 14 gallons of gas they bought they got a half credit towards a shower. Not sure if that is still the case. He even had a video showing how easy it is to ask for a shower and also included a video of the inside of the shower. There is also a lady trucker who has videoed the inside of over a dozen showers at truckstops. Those videos can be found on Youtube by search truck stop showers or something similar. Thanks again.

    Mike

  9. 2017-02-09 at 4:10 pm

    What a great roundup of shower options! We are trying to plan some summer roadtrip adventures and showering is definitely a question on our minds. Thanks for putting us at ease 🙂

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-02-09 at 5:05 pm

      Thanks, Katie! Glad to soothe the worries. It’ll be fine!

  10. Tim
    2017-03-20 at 12:31 pm

    Planet Fitness black card membership is only $20/month. You can use any PF anytime with that membership. Workout and shower daily. They seem to be pretty widespread.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-03-20 at 3:17 pm

      Great idea, Tim, especially for someone traveling in metropolitan areas. They’re harder to find if you’re staying away from cities, but they do have a lot of locations. Thanks for the tip!

  11. 2017-03-21 at 1:05 pm

    Hi guys, the truck stops are really not bad options and they don’t care. A buck is a buck is their attitude. Also, some do allow “buddy” showers we’ve done it.
    Enjoy the life! Maybe see you guys out there somewhere.
    http://www.dancordray.com
    Facebook.com/stepintothesunlight

  12. cori
    2017-06-04 at 9:08 pm

    Hello Tamara and Chris – I just discovered your story tonight and love it! I’m a single woman who travels most summers in my Grand Caravan. I am a total believer in baby wipes so that I go to bed every night refreshed and smelling great. I carry a lawn sprayer for hair washing (even in a WalMart parking lot) and isolated showers if I’m in a private location. I’m going to look into the truck stop idea though.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-06-06 at 5:41 am

      Thanks for reading, Cori! Yes, baby wipes are a van-dweller essential 🙂 Happy travels!

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-06-06 at 5:42 am

      PS: Tell us more about the lawn sprayer! I’m trying to picture what you mean

      • NJ
        2017-10-01 at 7:10 am

        Hey Tamara and Chris, I’m currently living out of my car in Salt Lake City for a job offer ( I have a home in Vegas I have to pay for) so I have to live in my car here, it’s a real good job and the big paychecks don’t pick up until a month from now, I was wondering about truck stop showers if you ever tried them and if you can give me any advice.

        • Tamara & Chris
          2017-10-01 at 8:21 am

          Hey there NJ: We wish you the best of luck with the job! We haven’t tried truck stop showers, but scroll up in the comments to read from other folks who have. We always just used campground showers. Take care

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